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Is NATO still relevant?

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addresses the media after a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Monday, May 17, 2010. Photo: AP Photo/Yves Logghe

In a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world, what’s the point of an organization foundedĀ  “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down,” in the words of Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary-general?

Not much, says Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Europe is to a large extent whole and free,” he points out in a recent article. “The transatlantic relationship counts for less than at any time since the 1930s.”

Madeleine Albright disagrees.

It’s “an essential source of stability in an uncertain and unpredictable world,” according to a report from a group chaired by Albright and tasked with conceiving a new strategic concept for NATO.

Albright says that NATO has entered a new phase.

“The first phase was as an alliance against the Soviet Union — flat out. Very successful alliance; never had to go to war; was set to deal with a conventional attack; and could see the troops massing, and all the various things.

The second phase was in the ’90s, of trying to figure out how you dealt with the post-Cold War world and how to erase the artificial dividing line that went through the middle of Europe, of trying to create what the first President Bush said was “a Europe whole and free.”

It’s the third phase that’s the point of contention between Albright and Haas.

“U.S.-European ties and NATO were destined to become weaker given the end of the cold war,” Haas says. “Alliances tend to be created and to thrive in eras of predictability and consensus over threats and obligations. The post-cold war, post-9/11 world is much more fluid than this.”

The two discussed the future of NATO at a Council on Foreign Relations’ event last week: