This month the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will hold its next summit in Chicago. Unlike European Union summits, which take place almost monthly, NATO’s are infrequent. This helps to explain the inflated rhetoric that surrounds them: The November 2010 summit in Lisbon, for example, was described as nothing less than “the most important in NATO’s history.” Will the Chicago summit prove to be an exception to this rule?

For a while, that seemed likely, with the meeting initially billed as an “implementation summit,” at which NATO’s political leaders would focus on assessing the progress of the ambitious agreements reached in Lisbon. But four political developments that have modified the international security agenda are likely to transform Chicago into a high-profile summit in its own right:

(1) The revolutions in the Arab world and NATO’s military intervention in Libya have refocused the alliance’s attention on the Middle East and Northern Africa.

(2) The international financial crisis will have an immense impact on NATO members’ defense budgets.

(3) In a speech last June, outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates revived the debate on trans-Atlantic burden-sharing and solidarity within the alliance.

(4) The first NATO summit to be held in the United States in 13 years is taking place not only in an election year, but also in President Barack Obama’s hometown. The Obama administration is therefore particularly interested in summit “deliverables” — outcomes that can be announced as major successes.

The foremost item on the agenda for Chicago will certainly be Afghanistan, from which NATO has decided to withdraw its combat forces by 2014. The alliance needs to train enough Afghan military and police forces to take over full responsibility for stability in the country when it leaves. At the same time, it must convey the message that its long-standing mission there has been a success — in terms of routing al-Qaida, increasing employment opportunities for women and schools for children, and NATO’s ability to maintain unity — despite all of the sacrifices.

Next on the list in Chicago will be the traditionally tense NATO-Russia relationship. Russia has done little to alleviate fears among its neighbors and former allies about its intentions. Furthermore, now that the country’s attempts at modernization are stagnating, it may compensate by becoming increasingly aggressive on the international scene.

These worrisome trends seem to be embodied in what some see as the showcase project of the NATO-Russian relationship — a common missile-defense system. The Russian government has insisted on a common project, in which both sides would jointly decide on whether to intercept an incoming missile. The U.S. is promoting the idea of cooperation with Russia on missile defense, while knowing that Russia cannot be an equal partner either militarily or technologically. There seems little chance that this Gordian knot can be cut in Chicago.

The summit will also address NATO’s internal debate over missile defense. While the U.S. has been pursuing its plans for a national missile-defense system for roughly 30 years, NATO governments declared in Lisbon that missile defense should be an alliance-wide project. But a genuine NATO-wide missile-defense system, in which the U.S. grants its partners a decision-making role, would require the Europeans to do more than simply provide cost-neutral contributions — a problem at a time when all of the NATO countries are cutting their defense budgets sharply.

A related topic also has its roots in the Lisbon summit: the alliance’s attempt to find a new consensus on the role of nuclear weapons. The core of the nuclear question, namely how to deter whom with what, has been papered over for a long time, but the depth of disagreement within NATO can no longer be ignored. NATO is trying to square the circle of defense, deterrence and arms control, but thus far its members’ conflicting positions on the role of nuclear weapons have not been reconciled.

Having addressed the issues raised in Lisbon, the first new topic on the summit agenda will be what NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen calls “smart defense.” Given that there is little hope of increasing defense expenditures, existing budgets, according to Rasmussen, must be spent in smarter ways. Instead of planning and procuring individually, the 28 NATO members should try to pool their efforts and share costly military hardware as much as possible.

The idea is not new, but NATO countries have instead tended to compete among themselves with various types of tank, aircraft, and electronic devices.

Smart defense is a reasonable idea, but it collides with some harsh political realities. The major NATO allies all support pooling and sharing in principle; in practice, they are reluctant to provide their military assets for common operations, as was the case in the recent Libya operation.

Such opting-out not only erodes NATO’s cohesion, but also renders smart defense impracticable, as no NATO country will be willing to forgo certain military equipment without a guarantee that its allies will provide it when necessary.

Amid these challenges for NATO, the one bright spot on the Chicago agenda might be the developments in the Arab world. Although it is not yet possible to predict the outcome of the Arab Spring, the alliance proved its ability to act wisely in Libya, thereby improving its image in North Africa. In Chicago, NATO will agree on a major political declaration offering further support for the region, on the condition that the region’s countries request it.

The participants in Chicago will have major differences over these issues, and the results may not be ideal. But reinventing NATO is a long-term process, and will necessarily occur in small steps. The alliance’s main goal must be to ensure that they are steps forward.

Karl-Heinz Kamp is research director of the NATO Defense College in Rome. The views expressed here are his own. ©2012 Project Syndicate

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