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NATO's not brain dead, but it really needs a strategy

Editor's Note: (Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs in Washington, D.C. These views are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.)

(CNN) Every decade or so, NATO produces a Strategic Concept that articulates NATO's challenges for a new era. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, NATO has struggled to develop a common threat perception and now at almost 30 members, this challenge is only growing.

Heather A. Conley

Its last concept was approved in 2010, well before Russia's annexation of Crimea and before President Xi Jinping became the new Chinese leader. The development of a Strategic Concept is a laborious process and the end product usually leaves all allies less than satisfied; yet a different approach could provide a small yet diverse group of strategic thinkers under NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's guidance, with an opportunity to help NATO frame this politically and militarily disruptive era.

Some NATO members are reluctant to "reward" French President Emmanuel Macron's less-than-flattering description of NATO as suffering from "brain death" with a commitment to a process that would acknowledge the alliance has some political issues that it needs to address.

But such a process could begin with a prioritization of threats to NATO. Should NATO fight terrorism, fight insurgents in Afghanistan, defend against Russian aggression, deter China's desire for technological superiority -- or all or none of the above?

NATO's dual political and military tracks are in desperate need of a strategic bridge between them. Simply put, it is time for a 21st century version of the report "The Future Tasks of the Alliance." As we watch the conversation unfold among current NATO leaders 70 years after NATO's founding -- and particularly France's disruptive role -- plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!

For decades, NATO leaders' gatherings were mostly the dominion of international security and defense mandarins. Long, multi-paragraph NATO declarations were not headline-grabbing material, but they served as important marching orders for NATO international staff and senior government officials to perform the daily work of the alliance.

More recently, we have entered a new era where political fireworks over NATO and its well-being are front page news. While that reality spotlights the growing split between NATO's political and military roles, it has also overshadowed the historical truth that NATO has been through far worse drama than this before.

In its past, NATO has experienced some true and intense political division, some of it produced by French leaders and their historically strong desire to lead European defense without American involvement.

A French president in 2019 publicly challenging NATO pales in comparison to French President Charles de Gaulle's 1966 decision to remove French forces from NATO's integrated military structures and to remove NATO's headquarters and forces from France.

Although France remained in the Alliance's political discussions at the North Atlantic Council and maintained its commitment to NATO's Article 5 -- "an attack against on is an attack against all" -- this move was a crushing blow to the alliance at the time. But France eventually returned to NATO's integrated military structures in 2009.

In 1966, like now, Paris had grown increasingly frustrated that geopolitical decisions it viewed as essential to French strategic interests were being made by others. President Donald Trump's constant focus on NATO burden-sharing as well as recent, uncoordinated announcements to withdraw US forces twice from Syria (although these forces were shifted in the country but not removed), and Turkey's decision to militarily intervene in Syria three times, appear to have been the catalyst for Macron's "NATO is brain dead" moment.

France is certainly not alone in its political frustration with NATO nor is it singularly disruptive. Turkey is an equally disruptive member of the alliance, as is the US of course. But vigorous and at times acrimonious political debates are what make NATO work -- despite the discomfort it brings to the mandarins -- during internationally transformative moments like the one we are living through at present.

The shocking French announcement in 1966 could have signaled the beginning of NATO's ultimate unraveling but it did not. Just a year later, NATO released the pivotal findings of an experts' group under the leadership of the Belgian foreign minister, Pierre Harmel.

Known as the Harmel Report, or "A Report of the Council on the Future Tasks of the Alliance," this seminal report bridged a growing divide between building greater defenses in Europe to fight the growing Soviet threat or opening a path for greater dialogue with Moscow or detente. The report also importantly reaffirmed that NATO had two tracks: political and military. The Harmel Report provided the strategic framing for the alliance from 1967 until the end of the Cold War in 1991.

Frequently NATO has called for a restoration of its political dimension: "We reaffirm that security and stability do not lie solely in the military dimension, and we intend to enhance the political component of our Alliance as provided for by Article 2 of our Treaty."

That statement was agreed to by the heads of state and government of NATO members in London as part of a Declaration of a Transformed North Atlantic Alliance in 1990, a mere eight months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a moment of great promise and upheaval that fueled uncertainty about NATO's future.

What has always set NATO apart as an alliance has been its political dialogue. Unfortunately, the depth and quality of NATO's political dialogue has also been sacrificed at the altar of preserving NATO unity at all costs.

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