NATO's incremental transformationLONDON Those who delved beyond the tales of bureaucratic inertia and political recriminations which dominated European coverage of Hurricane Katrina might have stumbled across reports of a small but significant contribution to the relief effort by NATO.
Following an American request for assistance, the much-maligned alliance quickly and quietly deployed naval and air units from its new high-readiness NATO Response Force (NRF) to deliver aid to the disaster zone.
It was the first time the NRF had been called upon for a crisis-response operation. In military terms, it was a very small affair, amounting to the mobilization of a few transport planes and ships to complement broader European aid efforts. But this foray into disaster relief represents the latest in a series of small, incremental but cumulatively significant expansions of NATO's operational parameters.
Since NATO assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in the summer of 2003, it has been clear that expeditionary operations would form an important part of its post-cold-war job description. ISAF represented NATO's second large-scale operation outside its own borders, following the intervention in Kosovo in 1999.
It is against the background of these two operations that successive NATO secretaries-general have been able to build and maintain a consensus behind a NATO transformation based on the development of expeditionary, as opposed to defensive, military capabilities.
As this military transformation has approached fruition in the shape of the NRF, however, there have been calls to adapt it for a range of purposes for which it was not originally designed. Prior to the Hurricane Katrina operation, the NRF's only deployments had been to provide security assistance at the Athens Olympic Games and the Afghan presidential elections.
The broad fault lines of debate on these issues are well known. One group of nations, led by the British and U.S. governments, favors a broad interpretation of NATO's strategic role and the uses to which new military capabilities can be put. A second group, led by France, prefers NATO to remain focused on its traditional (and largely redundant) role of territorial defense, allowing other organizations - principally the European Union - to coordinate multilateral efforts in such areas as European homeland defense, counter-terrorism and humanitarian intervention.
Rather than allowing NATO to become bogged down in strategic infighting, those who support an expanded role for the alliance have focused instead on developing new military capabilities and demonstrating the usefulness of these capabilities at every opportunity.
It is in this context that NATO's modest deployment in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is politically highly significant, constituting the latest incremental reinterpretation of the alliance's contemporary role.
A similar strategy of incrementalism has been pursued in Afghanistan, where the alliance has progressed since August 2003 from commanding a small peacekeeping force restricted to the city of Kabul, to building a network of "Provincial Reconstruction Teams" across the north and west of the country.
This expansion has in large part been made possible by broader political currents. For example, certain allies who desire to mend relations with the United States, but are precluded by domestic politics from sending troops to Iraq, have significantly increased the numbers of troops made available to ISAF.
By exploiting these developments, NATO has steadily developed its mission to a level that would have been politically untenable in the summer of 2003. The expansion of ISAF has brought it closer to areas in the south and east of the country patrolled by the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).
The Bush administration has lobbied for several months for a merger of the two missions under a NATO command. Several major European allies have staunchly opposed such a merger on the grounds that it would take NATO troops into counter-terrorist operations, for which they are not trained and for which they have no political mandate.
As ISAF and OEF begin to overlap geographically, however, the case for merging them operationally will become more compelling. By sheer force of operational momentum, and in spite of internal political misgivings, European forces under a NATO flag may soon find themselves operating at the sharp end of the American "war on terrorism."
(Mark Joyce is head of the Transatlantic Program at the Royal United Services Institute in London)