BRUSSELS — NATO's secretary general urged member states on Thursday to endorse a proposed anti-missile system that would protect Europe and North America, saying that is the alliance's responsibility.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen said NATO's new mission statement — expected to be adopted at a summit of alliance leaders next month in Portugal — would focus on reforming the organization to deal with emerging threats.
"NATO's core task of defending its 900 million people will never change, but it must be modern defenses against modern threats," he said.
NATO is proposing to expand an existing system of battlefield missile defense to cover the territory of all alliance members against ballistic missiles from nations such as Iran and North Korea. Fogh Rasmussen has proposed that Russia also join the project, thus creating a network that would stretch from Vancouver to Vladivostok."
"The threat is clear, the capability exist and the costs are manageable," Fogh Rasmussen said in his opening remarks.
"Starting today, NATO is in the sprint to the summit," he said. "The decisions we take in the next two weeks will shape the future of the world's most successful alliance."
The United States supports the missile defense proposal. But some governments have taken a dim view of a proposed anti-missile defense plan, citing high costs and saying the system cannot accomplish the role of a robust nuclear deterrent.
"We think missile defense is basically a good idea, but we also believe that matters like arms control should be and will be an important component," German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said.
Fogh Rasmussen's proposed system would integrate battlefield missile defense networks already in use in the U.S. and some other allied nations to provide basic coverage from attack by ballistic missiles.
At an estimated cost of euro200 million ($279 million), it is much cheaper but also less capable than a dedicated anti-missile system proposed by the Bush administration, which caused a deep rift with Russia. Moscow opposed the stationing of powerful radars and anti-missile batteries near its western borders.
NATO's previous mission statement was adopted in 1999, soon after the Cold War ended and before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States led the alliance to take on missions such as counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan.
Washington now wants NATO to be equipped to deploy forces to missions outside its traditional theater of operations in Europe, such as Afghanistan or the anti-piracy naval patrols in the Indian Ocean.
But many European governments remain wary and argue that the alliance should not be transformed into a global policeman at a time of austerity and spending cuts.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who is participating in the meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — said he was worried about what European defense cuts will mean for the United States. Britain, Germany and other close NATO allies are expected to slash or realign their defense budgets soon.
Gates said the more that U.S. allies cut their capabilities the more the U.S. may be asked to pick up the slack, at a time when the U.S. also is facing budget cuts.
He said the reform and streamlining of NATO's massive command structure also would top the summit agenda, along with a plan to combine critical capabilities — such as countering roadside bombs, and aircraft command and control systems.
Critics have noted that the new mission statement will have to reconcile other rifts between NATO nations, including a U.S. proposal to eliminate unanimity voting, which has been a cornerstone of the consensus-based alliance.
Another issue is the proposal to expand the secretary general's powers, allowing him to act in times of crisis. This is opposed by nations skeptical of the top official making decisions independently, especially in light of past American influence.
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