What a difference half a year makes. In early 2014, NATO was preparing for a not-too-exciting summit in Wales on September 4-5, dutifully filling the agenda with issues such as this year's withdrawal from Afghanistan, partnerships with nonalliance countries, "smart defense," and readiness.
Six months ago, the big overarching question was how NATO could master the transition from an alliance deployed in Afghanistan and elsewhere to a postoperational organization, desperate to cling on to the military skills and lessons it had learned over a decade of operations.
Now, NATO is preparing for the most important summit in recent memory-perhaps not quite historic, but definitely under intense scrutiny and with potentially enormous ramifications for the alliance's future posture.
The unfolding crisis in Ukraine and the West's deteriorating relationship with Russia have contributed to this shift just as much as the devastating success of the Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East. Both issues have raised questions about the very nature of security in Europe. They also neatly mirror the balance NATO needs to strike between reassurance inside the alliance and the organization's role as a provider of security elsewhere in the world.
In both cases, the alliance must embrace deeply uncomfortable truths. In its relationship with Russia, NATO is now in a confrontation with a country it deemed a partner (albeit a difficult one) until only a few months ago. Short-term crisis management passed off smoothly, with a surprising degree of unity among 28 member states that hold very different views on the situation's security relevance. But now, alliance strategy must shift from crisis management to the long game.
NATO needs to achieve three goals. First, it must provide credible reassurance to those allies that feel threatened by Russia. Second, it should keep the door open for a possible improvement in diplomatic relations. Third, it must make clear that the alliance's security guarantee does not apply to Ukrainian territory while supporting the government in Kiev in its daunting security sector reforms.
What's more, once a political compromise is achieved among NATO members, the alliance must keep it alive not just for a few months, but potentially for years. Next week's summit in Wales marks the starting point of this long game, and the way the organization's policies are formulated there will have a great impact on how they will be rolled out over the next few years.