The Lisbon summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has ended with some apparent successes. One is a ‘Strategic Concept' document, which in fact was published before the summit; it recognises the challenges to the 28 member states' security in the form of cyber warfare, terrorism, and the continuing existence of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Secondly, a missile shield will be developed to cover all NATO countries. Thirdly, in Afghanistan, the control of security matters will start passing to Afghan bodies in July 2011, with a full handover to be completed by the end of 2104. Russia, for its part, will expand NATO supply routes into and out of Afghanistan, service Afghan helicopters, train Afghan pilots, and join western countries in countering the heroin trade. Most of these commitments had been expected in advance; so had the restatement of collective defence under the Treaty's Article 5, which states that an attack on any NATO country will be taken as an attack on all of them.

The Lisbon outcomes, however, avoid many major issues and conceal others. The first is that of nuclear disarmament. It is not enough for NATO to say that, as long as nuclear weapons exist, it will remain a nuclear alliance. Even the much-vaunted New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between Russia and the United States is already in serious trouble, with the Republican minority in the Senate now very likely to block ratification; Moscow is understandably wary of Washington's intentions. Furthermore, when announced by the Bush administration, the missile shield provoked justifiable Russian anger, as the weapons were to be located in Central Europe. NATO collaboration with Georgia and Ukraine is another source of concern to Russia, where all these issues are likely to feature in the 2012 presidential election. In addition, the several heads of NATO governments who want early and precise estimates of the shield's likely costs may not trust any such, in view of the long record of cost overruns on high-tech weapons programmes. Even if Afghan security is handed over completely to Afghan bodies by the set date, NATO has confirmed an effectively open-ended commitment to that country's security after its own combat operations close. Internally, NATO faces some apparently intractable issues; for example, Greek-Turkish animosity over Cyprus makes collaboration very difficult. The central problem, however, is that although NATO intends to be “fit for purpose”, there is very little by way of a purpose it can coherently state. Its contribution to global security remains highly questionable.

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