Leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) just wrapped up a summit in Chicago, where withdrawal from Afghanistan, the implications of the Arab Spring, and responses to the financial crisis were high on the agenda—a far cry from the superpower arms races of the past. Well depicting that global strategic shift, German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung confronted its readers with several short articles on what the editors called “the next crisis scenarios”—a host of developments that could go wrong over the course of 2012. Not one of these scenarios dealt with traditional military threats. Instead, they dealt with monetary challenges, separatism, territorial disputes, failing states, the Arab Spring, energy shortages, and climate change.

For NATO, the message could hardly be clearer. In the years ahead, the security of the transatlantic community will be affected much less by military conflict than by the effects of climate change, nuclear proliferation, or the disruption of energy supplies. And future attacks are more likely to come from terrorists or through cyberspace than from hostile armies.

NATO has started to adjust to this new reality. Before Chicago, the Alliance’s 2010 Strategic Concept gave emerging security challenges a far more prominent place than any previous NATO document. Reflecting that shift in strategy, NATO stood up the Emerging Security Challenges Division as a focal point within the organization’s bureaucracy.

But this is only the beginning of a long process. If NATO wants to be an effective security provider in the face of nontraditional security challenges, if it wants to continue to do what it has done best since its inception—defend allies’ territories and populations—much more needs to be done. One and a half years into the new division, the goal of moving emerging security challenges from the periphery to the center of NATO’s agenda remains distant. If NATO wants to play a substantial role in meeting emerging challenges, it will have to tackle a number of interrelated problems.

First and foremost, the allies must rediscover NATO as a forum for political debate about key security concerns and long-term security developments even if no operational role is sought for the Alliance. NATO is a unique transatlantic political platform that allies ignore at their peril. Yet, at present, many member states approach discussions on such security issues only hesitantly, worrying that NATO’s image as a solely military, operations-driven alliance may create the impression among partner countries or the wider public that any such debate was only the precursor to military engagement.

Such misperceptions are no doubt difficult to overcome, but allies must nevertheless resist making themselves hostages to them. If one were to accept the argument that any issue NATO puts on its agenda will inevitably be perceived as the topic’s “militarization,” only a very few real-life issues would be left for the Alliance to discuss. Indeed, the true risk for NATO lies in the opposite: if the allies refuse to look ahead, they will condemn themselves to an entirely reactive approach rather than a proactive one that puts a greater emphasis on prevention. They will simply miss the opportunity to address issues in time.

Deciding to create such a forum is just the first step. If NATO wants to become a more effective platform for forward-looking political debate, it also needs to bolster its own analytical capabilities. Improving NATO’s intelligence-sharing mechanisms is key, but it will be equally important to produce analyses that dig deeper into how certain developments affect NATO and what the Alliance can do to prevent or at least mitigate such developments or their adverse effects.

NATO has taken several bold steps in this direction, including by establishing a unique civil-military team that performs such complex strategic assessments. Ultimately, however, this analytical effort will only pay off if allies muster the political will to actually use it as a basis for debating future developments. This is the way to enhance the strategic awareness that is so vital for the Alliance.

In addition to developing its analytical skills, the Alliance must work to break down bureaucratic stovepipes that stand in the way of consistent action. By now it is common wisdom that emerging security challenges, such as terrorism or cyber attacks, defy the traditional compartmentalization into “domestic” or “foreign,” “military” or “civilian.” Consequently, they cannot be dealt with by just one single responder, be it an international organization or a national ministry. However, bridging that gap by building ties between NATO and, for example, interior ministries often proves difficult. As long as nations hesitate to grant NATO a more visible role beyond its traditional remit, dogma will prevail over pragmatism, and the opportunities for developing coherent approaches to new challenges cannot be systematically exploited.

Addressing those challenges effectively also requires NATO to build strong partnerships with a wide range of countries. Over the past two decades, NATO has built a unique network with dozens of countries, ranging from Europe to Central Asia and from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. With new security challenges affecting those partners and allies alike, the interest of these partner countries to cooperate with NATO is strong. It is evident that translating this interest into concrete projects and policies will not only require sustained political attention but also resources that a cash-strapped Alliance may find hard to cough up.

Yet, states are not the only security stakeholders of the international community. The nature of today’s security challenges makes NATO’s success increasingly dependent on how well it cooperates with others, whether the issue is cyber defense, nonproliferation, counterterrorism, or energy security. Accordingly, NATO needs to further enhance its ties not only with international actors, above all the European Union, but also with the academic and scientific communities and the private sector.

Building and sustaining these relationships will remain challenging, as NATO will have to accept that it can no longer go it alone and that it must join efforts with others that may sometimes be better placed to provide certain solutions. For example, an effective cyber defense without the expertise of major IT companies will remain as elusive as reducing energy vulnerabilities without the advice of the private sector. To put it bluntly: when it comes to meeting emerging security challenges, NATO will have to be a team player or it will be no player at all.

It is true that new security challenges affect allies differently. Countries that suffer a terrorist attack or an energy cutoff will be more alarmed than their more fortunate neighbors, who may think that these problems are not really theirs. However, if the transatlantic community fails to understand that new security challenges are collective concerns that must be tackled together, the very notion of alliance would quickly fade away. NATO would not survive a compartmentalization of solidarity.

Moreover, as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2007 cyber attack on Estonia demonstrated, what may initially look like a challenge for only one ally could just be the harbinger of a much-broader set of problems that will ultimately affect the Alliance as a whole. If, for example, a major energy supply route is blocked, the implications would far exceed the regional focus of most current energy security concerns.

NATO too must adapt its way of thinking about collective defense and mutual assistance. The ambitious strategy that member states developed in Lisbon in 2010 places new security challenges in the context of collective defense, implying that NATO should be able to assist allies if their security is seriously threatened by nontraditional means. Consequently, it also implies that a major national vulnerability represents a NATO vulnerability too, and that it is in NATO’s interest to assist in enhancing the resilience and protection of critical national infrastructure. This could be done, first and foremost, through sharing best practices but also, if applicable, through developing common minimum requirements. As such a role is largely uncharted territory for NATO, it will have to be developed with great care.

The picture that has emerged thus far is inevitably a mixed one. The Emerging Security Challenges Division has been instrumental in developing a new NATO cyber-defense policy as well as new political guidelines on counterterrorism. The division is involved in the ongoing review of NATO’s deterrence and defense posture, has produced numerous strategic analyses for NATO’s leadership, and has fostered the integration of energy security considerations in NATO’s policies and operations.

Still, it is clear that the goal of moving emerging security challenges closer to the center of NATO’s agenda will require a cultural change that is only just beginning. The road ahead will be long, but it remains a road worth traveling.

Gábor Iklódy is NATO’s assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges.