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Leaders of the 26 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are meeting in Riga, Latvia, to agree on a strategy for the future. That strategy will focus on two sets of issues: the problems that the organization will tackle in the years ahead and the countries that will join efforts to combat them. Both promise significant changes for an organization originally formed to counter a Soviet threat to Europe. But change is essential if NATO is to survive in a new security environment.

The collapse of the Soviet Union left NATO members wondering if their organization would long outlive its raison d’etre. The implosion of Yugoslavia made it clear that there were still real dangers within Europe’s borders even if the nature of the threat had been radically transformed. Europe’s inability to handle that crisis on its own reminded those governments that an Atlantic Community was still needed to preserve peace and stability. Moreover, the newly liberated nations in Eastern and Central Europe looked to NATO to ensure that they remained free from Russian influence. Today, the organization has grown to 26 members from the original 12.

When terrorists struck the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, NATO members got another example of the new threats they faced. But 9/11 also established that NATO in its current incarnation was ill-prepared to respond to stateless terrorists operating outside its traditional area of operations. Ironically, the war in Afghanistan marked the first time the organization invoked its charter to respond to an attack on one of its members.

Afghanistan proved two things. First, that the NATO security agenda — or at least that of its members — is now global in nature. The U.S. and its European allies are threatened by actors and actions taken in distant parts of the world. Second, that those threats affect more than NATO members and that those other nations can make equally important contributions to fighting against them. As NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer explained, “In dealing with ‘globalized insecurity,’ it matters less and less where a country sits on the map. What matters more is its mental map — its willingness to engage, together with others, to make a difference.” That is why 11 non-NATO members have dispatched troops to Afghanistan; Japan, Australia and South Korea have been key players in operations there and in Iraq, even though they are not part of NATO. Plainly, new means must be devised for NATO to better coordinate with like-minded nations.

Thus, the NATO governments are expected to consider — and approve — a new strategy and vision for their organization and transform it into a 21st-century security institution. That means tackling such threats as terrorism, cyber-security and resource security. Equally important, the vision will propose partnerships with key nations — Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand.

While the merit of this proposal is evident, there are risks as well. The first concern is voiced by Europeans who fear that opening NATO’s doors to non-Atlantic members will dilute the organization and appear to — if not actually — diminish the U.S. commitment to European security. The second fear is that an alliance of “like-minded nations” will draw a clear line between civilizations and alienate those governments that are not included. That is potentially a long list and could include China or Muslim nations.

Both dangers are real. There are already some 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, and the head of NATO military operations in the country wants 2,500 more to deal with what is, by all accounts, a deteriorating situation. Some worry that the organization is stretched and will not be able to respond to another, more imminent crisis. Moreover, a number of countries are ready — if not eager — to see NATO’s expansion as a U.S.-led attempt to expand its influence and power.

That does not mean that modernizing NATO is a bad idea. In fact, the logic is inescapable. Other nations share NATO’s commitment to democracy, human rights and other values. Just as significant, they have resources, influence and expertise that can be brought to bear on these new challenges. Like-minded nations should be working together to combat the threats they share.

But NATO must be extremely careful about how it modernizes. Partnership for new nations would be a mistake. Creating opportunities for training and planning, participation in meetings, and other habits of cooperation would not. The world is changing. New dangers require new responses. NATO is trying to prepare for them. It will take time, but it is a vital exercise and one in which Japan will be involved in one way or another.

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