London, UK - As Chicago prepares for the first North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) leaders' summit ever to be held on US soil, many will reflect on the organisation's strength, durability, and the way in which it has adapted to a changing world.
Indeed, few international institutions have undergone such an extreme makeover as NATO. From its ostensible origins as a defensive alliance facing off against the Soviet Union in 1949, it has seamlessly morphed into an openly aggressive, globe-straddling operation, whipping recalcitrant states into line in its self-appointed capacity as the righter of international wrongs. Vigilante-style, it can ride roughshod over the qualms of the United Nations - and often the restrictions of international law - to assert or impose its own view of peace and freedom. Occasionally it presents a softer face, protecting aid or pursuing humanitarian goals, yet no one is in any real doubt that NATO is all about hard power.
But how long can it go on like this? While NATO may seem unstoppable and at the peak of its powers, this month's summit will showcase differences of opinion as well as increased inside and outside opposition. This is not in the least surprising because although major global jamborees like to present a successful business-as-usual image, the reality is that the core NATO states are facing some pretty serious problems that will undoubtedly affect the agenda.
The United States and Europe are experiencing massive economic crises, and the US has been fundamentally weakened by its poor economic performance and lack of internal investment over decades. As dynamic economic rivals have emerged, it is clear that the US cannot maintain its status as the single global superpower in an increasingly multi-polar world, nor is it desirable that it should do so. The fact is that while the US has declined in many respects, it has increasingly used NATO to support and advance its global power projection. But one big question is whether NATO states will continue to foot the bill.
A cursory glance at NATO's recent history shows that whatever its changing rationale, or the nature of its supposed enemies in the post-Cold War period, its core function has remained to advance US global interests and foreign policy goals. This became apparent at the end of the Cold War, when the Warsaw Pact was dissolved but NATO wasn't. Rather than scaling back its military presence, the US moved to fill the positions vacated by its previous rival. As the countries of eastern Europe embraced free-market economics and multiparty democracy, the US moved rapidly to integrate them into its sphere of influence via NATO expansion - faster than western Europe embraced eastern Europe via the European Union.
This was an effective strategy - indicated by the "new Europe" issue at the time of the war on Iraq - with Poland vigorously backing the US, against the "old Europe" of Germany and France. At NATO's 50th anniversary in Washington in April 1999, a new "Strategic Concept" was adopted. This moved beyond NATO's previous defensive role to include "out of area" - in other words, offensive - operations. The geographical area for action was now defined as the entire Eurasian landmass and the war on Afghanistan started soon after.
NATO's last leaders' summit in Portugal in November 2010 took the NATO vision beyond Eurasia, releasing a new Strategic Concept entitled "Active Engagement, Modern Defence". It recommitted to an expansive and interventionist military agenda with a projected global reach. This included an expansion of its area of work to "counter-terrorism, cyber-security, and the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons" and, in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron, "securing failed states on the other side of the world".
It's an open question whether Cameron was referring to Afghanistan or whether he had a vision of new interventions, but it is certainly the case that the US will face problems over the Afghanistan intervention at this summit. This has been a NATO-led war since 2003, when it assumed control of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) established in 2002. Currently, there are almost 130,000 troops from 50 countries in Afghanistan under the auspices of ISAF, with NATO members providing most of the force. Most of these - about 99,000 - are US troops, 22,000 of which are due to return home this year. Clearly there is a strong drive within Washington itself to get the whole thing wound up. Earlier this year US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said that the administration wanted to wind up combat operations before the withdrawal deadline.
But US allies are already opting out. Last month Australia announced that it would be withdrawing most of its force of about 1,550 troops before Australia's 2013 elections, which is earlier than originally planned. Germany, which has 4,500 troops there, says it wants them home as soon as possible. But the biggest challenge on this front is likely to be newly-elected French President Francois Hollande. France already announced in February of this year that it wanted to bring home 1,000 of its 3,600 soldiers before the end of this year. Now President Hollande says he will bring them all of them home by then. Not surprisingly, the NATO wires are buzzing about how Hollande must be persuaded to reconsider, and one can only imagine the type of pressure he will be under. But the reality is that he will also be under pressure from the French people - and his standing as a new president. Sarkozy took France into an unprecedented level of cooperation with the US and NATO. It is hard to see how this will continue in the context of French political change and a shifting global political and economic balance.
The US is also going to face problems on the nuclear weapons front. It's well-known that NATO is a nuclear-armed alliance, but not that up to 200 US B61 nuclear bombs are stationed in five countries across Europe: Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey. There is increasingly strong opposition to these weapons, including from the governments of some of the "host" nations. This opposition is particularly strong from Germany, where Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has repeatedly called for their removal, which the US has refused.
There is no doubt that this issue will be discussed again and the US will be under increasing pressure to remove them. Of course there may be some desire from the administration to defer such a decision - which could be interpreted as weakness - until after the next US presidential election. But in reality, NATO's nuclear policies conflict with the legal obligations of the signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Articles 1 and 2 of the NPT forbid the transfer of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapon states, and US/NATO nuclear weapons in Europe are located in non-nuclear weapons states. In spite of a recent softening of language on nuclear issues, and gestures towards a nuclear-free vision - particularly from Obama - NATO continues to assert its need to retain nuclear weapons. As the new Strategic Concept states: "The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces." It rejects a policy of "no first use" of nuclear weapons. In other words, NATO would be prepared to use nuclear weapons in a first strike.
This position is not lost on the Russians, relations with whom will also doubtless be discussed at the summit. While the "hostile camp" tension that existed with the Soviet Union has vanished, at least in theory, Russia remains the chief military counter-weight and rival to the US and NATO on a global scale. The decision at the 2010 NATO summit to integrate the US missile defence system with a European theatre missile defence programme under the auspices of NATO has caused major problems in relations with Russia. Concerns remain that missile defence will enable the US to attack another country without fear of retaliation and US adherence to missile defence continues to threaten the survival of the new START Treaty on bilateral US/Russia nuclear reductions.
So the participants face some interesting and no doubt tough debates during their Chicago deliberations. They will also face noisy and significant protest from outside. NATO summits have been an increasing focus for anti-war and anti-nuclear protestors over the past few years - the demonstrations at the NATO summit in Strasbourg in 2009 were the largest in 30 years. Reports suggest that the tide of public opinion in the US is turning against NATO and particularly the war in Afghanistan. There is the cost issue of course, but also an increasing sentiment that war, with the death, mutilation and trauma it brings to those who actually fight it - let alone civilian victims - is just not the answer. This year, peace activists in the US will be joined not only by their European counterparts but also by US trade unionists and supporters of the Occupy movement which has made such an impact on US society over the past year.
The mood is clearly changing at many different levels. It's time for the NATO leadership to face the new realities.
Dr Kate Hudson was chair of the UK-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from 2003 to September 2010, when she became general secretary. She is a leading anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigner nationally and internationally.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.