Nato must quickly refocus its military muscle so it can “root out and destroy” threats from terrorists or renegade states, the alliance head told defence ministers today at the start of talks to overhaul the 53-year-old organisation.
“Nato played a key role in defeating the threats of the Cold War,” said Secretary-General George Robertson in Warsaw.
“We must now transform our alliance so that it can play an equally pivotal part in the war against terrorism and the dangers of weapons of mass destruction.”
As part of that transformation, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was scheduled to present plans for a new rapid response force of about 20,000 US, European and Canadian troops who should be able to mobilise for combat within a week to 30 days.
The two day Nato meeting was overshadowed by the crisis over Iraq and tensions within the alliance over how to neutralise any threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Many allies are uneasy about a US led attack on Iraq and Germany has expressed outright opposition, prompting an acrimonious exchange between Washington and Berlin.
Rumsfeld said the tone of the election campaign that returned Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to power had the effect of poisoning relations.
Nato is not expected to play a direct role in any military action against Iraq, and US officials stressed it was to early to sound out individual allies for contributions to any coalition force.
German Defence Minister Peter Struck is expected to attempt to repair ties with the Americans at the meeting – although Rumsfeld has threatened to snub him.
One thing that might help is an offer from Germany to take a leading role in the International Security Assistance Force in the Afghan capital Kabul when Turkey’s mandate runs out at the end of the year.
The US is anxious to see European allies take on such roles as part of a greater transatlantic burden sharing in an alliance where America spends 85% more on defence than the other 18 allies combined.
The September 11 attacks on the United States forced Nato to review its military stance, accelerating plans to move away from the traditional Cold War stance of territorial defence by developing faster, more flexible forces able to operate far from their home bases in Europe and North America.
As well as upgrading military hardware, the ministers were discussing streamlining Nato’s command structure to introduce greater speed and flexibility against new dangers.
“Our common aim must be to maintain the will and the capabilities to deter these 21st century threats where possible and to root them out and destroy them where deterrence has broken down,” Mr Robertson said.
However many Nato allies have doubts about switching to an aggressive “first strike” doctrine against potential foes like that outlined by President George Bush last week.