GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Twelve countries joined to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, 63 years ago. The purpose: to keep Soviet expansion in check. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first supreme commander.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL BROADCAST)
PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: We are engaged in a war of great ideologies. This is not just a casual argument between slightly different philosophies. This is light against dark, freedom against slavery. It is godliness against atheism.
RAZ: But since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, NATO's purpose has come under intense scrutiny. Many have been asking whether it still has an important role today. That's our cover story.
And we begin in Chicago where leaders from NATO member states have been gathering to discuss plans for what will happen in Afghanistan after 2014 when most troops begin to withdraw. President Obama spoke about that earlier today.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Just as we've sacrificed together for our common security, we will stand together united in our determination to complete this mission.
RAZ: Our coverage of the NATO summit begins with NPR's Jackie Northam in Chicago.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The summit kicked off with a meeting between the two key players determining Afghanistan's future: President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The two met on the sidelines for more than an hour to discuss Afghanistan after 2014 when the bulk of Western combat troops are due to depart.
They also discussed Afghanistan's upcoming presidential election and the nascent peace negotiations with the Taliban. President Karzai said the transition means Afghanistan would no longer be a burden on the rest of the world.
PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: Mr. President, I'm bringing to you and to the people of the United States the gratitude of Afghan people for the support that your taxpayers' money has provided for Afghanistan over the past decade and for the difference that it has made to the well-being of the Afghan people.
NORTHAM: But, in fact, the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan will continue until at least 2024, and much of this summit will be spent gathering similar long-term commitments from other countries involved in the Afghan conflict over the past decade, primarily to help build up Afghanistan's security forces. But even before the summit began, a split developed among the allies with France's new president, Francois Hollande, saying he would stick with a campaign promise to pull French troops out of Afghanistan by December, two years ahead of schedule.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary general, said France's decision would not create a domino affect.
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: There will be no rush for the exits. We will stay committed to our operation in Afghanistan and see it through to a successful end. Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged.
NORTHAM: Discussions among NATO allies will continue well into the evening during lavish dinners at some of Chicago's most famous landmarks. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Chicago.
RAZ: The NATO summit has also attracted protesters, thousands of them. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley with more.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Mama, can't you see...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) ...what the NATO's done to me?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) What the NATO's done to me?
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: About three dozen Iraq and Afghanistan War vets dressed in their uniforms began this protest, chanting as they marched down the street. The medals pinned to their chest would be gone soon, symbolically tossed in protest to the U.S. presence there. Graham Clumpner served two tours in Afghanistan.
GRAHAM CLUMPNER: For every house that we entered, if there weren't terrorists there before, there are now. And we veterans and our civilian allies are here to say enough. We are done.
CORLEY: The U.S. has agreed to pull out combat troops in 2014 but will stay in the country to provide an advisory role. Protesters here don't want them there at all.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: NATO war crimes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Bombing hospitals.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: NATO war crimes.
CORLEY: Organizers had predicted a massive crowd, but that was before President Obama announced the economic summit of the world's top eight industrialized countries would be held elsewhere. The G8 summit was originally scheduled to precede the NATO summit here in Chicago, but the change didn't bother those who showed up, like 13-year-old Lawrence Widen from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
LAWRENCE WIDEN: And I'm here because I don't believe it's right to spend trillions of dollars on war when you have poverty in your own country.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No NATO, no war.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: No NATO, no war.
CORLEY: Protesters began a two-and-a-half-mile trek to Chicago's McCormick Place where the NATO delegates continue their work behind a huge security wall. Aaron Hughes, who organized the veterans protest, says he knows some might be critical of their decision to give their medals back in protest, but he has this message for them.
AARON HUGHES: I only hope that they are as critical of their brothers and sisters in arms as they are of the generals that are sending them to these wars.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
CORLEY: As this rally came to a close, about two dozen buses lined up, engines running, just a few blocks away at Chicago's Navy Pier. The occupants were Chicago police officers. They'll be patrolling the streets tonight as the NATO summit and likely protests continue. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
RAZ: Spending is an ongoing source of tension between Washington and its NATO allies. The U.S. is one of the only NATO member states spending more than 2 percent of its GDP on defense. That's supposed to be the NATO target for each member state. Now, critics of NATO say it means the U.S. ends up shouldering most of the burden, including in Afghanistan and last year in Libya. Earlier, I spoke with Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO.
IVO DAALDER: To some extent, the record is mixed. On the one hand, as we saw in the campaign against Libya and indeed as we see today when 40,000 European troops are still deployed in Afghanistan, there is still significant military capability by the allies that is usable and being used, but the ability to sustain those operations and looking into the future when the resources may no longer be available to sustain those operations is a question that we face in the alliance. It's one of the questions we will address at our summit meeting in Chicago this weekend.
RAZ: So where do you see the alliance in five or 10 years from now? I mean, many critics of NATO say it's simply a cover for U.S. military action, and it enables the United States to carry out military action under the rubric of NATO with that sort of support. But in reality, it is a U.S. organization and operation.
DAALDER: Of course, the U.S. is a major player. In fact, it's the major player in NATO. Just take the Libya operation. It is true that the U.S. has particular capabilities - intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, aerial refueling, precision targeting. But that said, 75 percent of all the sorties by aircraft that were flown in the operation were flown by European and Canadian airplanes.
Ninety percent of the bombs that were dropped on Libya in order to protect the civilians against the brutal dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi were dropped by European airplanes. That is a major change from what we saw even 10 years ago in the Kosovo war when the percentages were exactly reversed. So we see a Europe that is capable, that when it does step up to the plate, it is able to deliver real military capability. And the challenge is to make sure that that's not only true today, but it's true tomorrow and the day after.
RAZ: That Ivo Daalder. He is the U.S. ambassador to NATO. Vijay Prashad, who teaches international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, wrote an article this past week, arguing that it's time for NATO to be retired.
VIJAY PRASHAD: After 1990 and 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved, the raison d'etre for NATO was largely gone, and NATO spent 10 years trying to refashion itself for a post-Soviet world. And I'm afraid I don't believe that NATO has succeeded in refashioning itself for the better.
RAZ: Well, what would you propose?
PRASHAD: For instance, you know, you have to imagine that from 1949 to 1991, NATO was largely a defensive pact. For the first 10 years after the Soviet Union had dissolved, NATO went through an internal debate so that in 1999, the council decided to allow NATO to be used for so-called offensive operations, not just as a defensive pact.
And shortly thereafter, NATO went into operation in Bosnia. But the danger here is, I think, along three axes. The first is NATO has demonstrated kind of a, you know, very peculiar strategy of encircling Russia and China. You know, they've begun a very interesting policy called Partners Across the Globe where from Mongolia to Iraq - in other words, the countries that rim the Asian continent. You know, the Russians and Chinese see this as a threat to their security.
And rather than produce a new kind of world order not dominated by threats and by, you know, escalation of military spending, this is a superb opportunity to reach out a hand to the Chinese, to the Russians and see if there can be a de-escalation of militarism on the world stage. And NATO is contributing, actually, to the very opposite of that.
RAZ: But we are talking about the most enduring military lines in history. One could argue that if you look at where we are in historical context, this is the most stable time in world history. And many argue that NATO is a big reason why.
PRASHAD: Well, it's hard to see that. This policy of NATO of creating this so-called partnerships, it's a very destabilizing policy for social development in Asia in particular. The other thing that I think has been troubling a number of people is since the Libyan war, there have been many attempts, particularly by the United Nations, and in the United Nations by Russia, India, China, you know, largely the Asian powers have been asking for what they call an evaluation of NATO's role in executing a United Nations Security Council mandate on Libya.
So they said let's evaluate the way NATO prosecuted the war in Libya. And from August right till this last week, NATO has refused to cooperate with any attempt to independently evaluate how the war was fought. The reason this is important is NATO is a military alliance. But, you know, we live in a world where we want to promote civilian oversight over military institutions. And that NATO has refused to allow civilian oversight, particularly since it utilized a UN mandate to enter the war in Libya. That is very chilling for me.
RAZ: That's Vijay Prashad. He's a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford.
Coming up on the program, how a mysterious disease from Japan could explain how human pathogens are spread. That's in a few minutes on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.