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Afghanistan and Libya point NATO to five lessons

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If Europe continues to shed real defense capabilities, there will be no alliance to speak of.

Lesson Three: US can't abandon NATO

Third, the US cannot abdicate NATO leadership. This does not mean acting unilaterally, but neither can the US take a back seat. It is understandable that Americans would be frustrated that Europe does not pull more of the load. But an America that "leads from behind" is not leading at all.

We must lead, and bring others with us. By rejecting this role in Libya, the US is allowing NATO to appear a paper tiger. That serves no one's interests.

Lesson Four: Shore up solidarity

Fourth, we must shore up solidarity within the transatlantic family, which has eroded dramatically in recent years. The EU is fracturing over the euro debt crisis. In Afghanistan, every ally agreed to take part, but several placed "caveats" on their forces. In Libya, the US itself has become a caveat country.

This trend away from real solidarity must be reversed.

Lesson Five: NATO needs vision public will support

Finally, NATO needs a role that publics will genuinely support with resources and political will. At its 2010 Lisbon summit, NATO agreed on an ambitious new strategic concept that says NATO should do just about everything. But instead of implementing this vision, allies are slashing defense budgets, withdrawing troops, cutting costs at NATO headquarters, and ignoring civilian contributions.

Where does this leave NATO as it approaches a 2012 summit in Chicago? Ideally, we would all recommit to the fully resourced and robust NATO that meets the security needs of the 21st century. But if that bar proves too high, perhaps the opposite is in order.

A "back to basics" NATO that focuses on the collective defense of the allies may be the most that publics and finance ministries will sustainably support. Which means that for complex, expeditionary, and combat missions, whether on Europe's periphery or beyond, the old "coalition of the willing" concept is looking better and better.

Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO, is managing director, international, for BGR Group and senior fellow and managing director of The Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. A version of this essay originally appeared in Italy's La Stampa newspaper.

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