What good is NATO? There are reports of Syrian troops clashing with American troops on the Iraq-Syria border, and Prime Minister Blair recently voiced suspicions that Iran has been helping the terrorists in Iraq. A perfect opportunity, or so it would seem, for our North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies to invoke the NATO Charter's Article Five and offer their support. But Article Five's famous Three Musketeers-sounding "an armed attack against one" is "considered an attack against them all" is limited to an attack "in Europe or North America." So if a rogue state bombs a field in France killing a rabbit it's one for all and all for one; but if American soldiers are killed by Syrians in the Gulf it's every country for itself?
NATO was founded as an alliance against the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact puppets. And it succeeded. But after the Cold War the organization was forced to search for a new role. It partially found that role after the September 11, 2001, attacks - which were on mainland America and so Article Five was invoked - but it still lacks a clear agenda. The preamble to the Treaty states that the allies "are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples." These objectives are still relevant today, but the threat to them now comes from Islamists across the globe and not from communists invading Europe. For NATO to achieve its objectives in today's world and remain relevant the treaty - specifically Article Five - needs amending to reflect the changed geographical location of the menace.
Unanimous agreement is needed to amend the Charter, and the possibilities of this happening, the executive director of the Project For The New American Century, Gary Schmitt, said in an interview, are "thin and none." Most European countries lack the military budgets to be able to afford any possible new commitments, Mr. Schmitt said, and so they "would oppose" changes. As a consequence Mr. Schmitt said he doesn't even "think the U.S. would try." It's true that most European countries don't have a military worth speaking of. Most European countries have never seen the need to create a proper military for themselves - NATO binds America to defend them if ever attacked. The 1999 Kosovo war demonstrated just how reliant Europe is on America: Europe wasn't even able to deal with a third-rate troublemaker in its midst without American help. And even now American troops (nearly 1,500) are still needed as peacekeepers.
This discrepancy in fighting abilities not only means the alliance is largely one-way - it also explains why the trans-Atlantic relationship is in trouble. America does all the work, while, for the Europeans, foreign policy consists largely of trying to maneuver for contracts in countries like Saddam's Iraq or contemporary Iran.
Updating the NATO treaty - giving the Europeans new commitments - would be one way of forcing them to consider global security threats. One possible objection to reforming NATO is that just as it would tie Europeans to come to the aid of America in far-off lands, it would also tie America to come to the aid of Europeans if they were fighting their own battles in far-off lands. Would America want its troops bound to come to the defense of Belgium squabbling about land titles in the Congo? The solution would be to link Article Five to NATO's objectives: If the mission the European or American troops are on is "to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples," as American troops are in Iraq, then Article Five can be invoked. But if the mission the troops are on is a personal mission of national pride then Article Five can't be used. This way American troops would only be sent to defend Europeans on missions that America ideologically supports in the first place.
The other way of forcing Europeans to consider global security threats - if they refuse to reform NATO - would be for America to leave the organization. With no security guarantee from America, the Europeans would need to build up their armed forces and start having a security-based foreign policy. They'll quickly discover that their security interests are largely on par with what America is encouraging them to do now. Monsieur Chirac, for one, will quickly learn that the greatest threat to France isn't that America will force regime change in Iran - that would perhaps be to her economic interests - but that the theocrats in Tehran actually succeed in building a bomb. In the future, realizing they share aims, new alliances could be created - but this time with the Europeans as equal partners.
One objection heard in American foreign policy circles to the creation of a European defense force is that it will be used to oppose American foreign policy goals. In other words, there's some strategic upside for America to having the Europeans as squabbling junior partners rather than as an equal superpower. But the fears of a too-strong European counterweight to America, while understandable, are overblown. How would a European force oppose America? Would it have rushed into Iraq to defend Saddam from coalition troops? Will it preemptively attack America if America announces plans to invade Iran? Highly unlikely. For now the European defense forces would be reduced to peacekeeping operations and military parades, but once the Europeans have a security-based foreign policy their defense forces would no doubt be seen on missions with American troops.
The advantages to America would be significant. The European forces would free up tens of thousands of American troops and save millions in American taxpayer dollars. As important, America would gain allies instead of dependents and helpers instead of obstacles. Just like America is encouraging one-time foe Japan to build up its military and worry about security in its region, which has turned Japan into a closer American ally, the same can be done with Europe.
Today it's mainly American and British troops that are fighting for NATO's ideals across the world - without the support of their NATO allies. Those free-riding allies are secure within in their own borders, protected by the guarantee that America and Britain would swoop to their rescue under Article Five if ever attacked. If NATO wants to remain relevant in the future, reform of the Charter making Europe a proper partner in the relationship, and ending the free ride, is the place to begin.
Mr. Freedman is an editorial page writer of The New York Sun.