This weekend, NATO will hold its 25th summit meeting in Chicago. Separated by a formidable security cordon from protesters, the heads of government attending -- including President Barack Obama back in his home town -- will attempt to tackle an agenda that includes the future of the military campaign in Afghanistan, implementing a missile defense plan for Europe, improving military cooperation inside the alliance, and addressing how the alliance should engage with outside partners.
Even as it struggles with its future, few would deny that NATO has been one of the most successful military alliances in history. In 1949, Lord Ismay, NATO's first secretary general, declared the goal of the alliance was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." After achieving at least the first two during the long Cold War, the alliance has hung together for another two decades, although not without questions about its future relevance.
Are there lessons here for other would-be alliance builders? On May 13, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted his own summit meeting of the Sunni Persian Gulf kingdoms (including Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman) with the hope of building a future economic and security union. At a preparatory meeting in December, Abdullah pointed to Iran's encroachments and the uprisings swirling in the region and said, "You all know that we are targeted in our safety and security." He then warned that those who failed to cooperate with his proposal "will find himself at the back of the back of the caravan trail, and be lost." Abdullah was hoping to inject some life into the moribund Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group the six kingdoms formed in 1981 and has achieved little since.
From Riyadh's perspective, Bahrain is an obvious place to start building the stronger alliance. For over a year, Bahrain's Sunni royal family, with substantial Saudi assistance, has struggled to suppress an uprising by the country's Shiite majority, a rebellion the leaders in both countries believe Tehran has catalyzed. Deeper cooperation leading to success against the revolt would both highlight the perceived threat and show the advantages deeper security and economic cooperation could bring to all six kingdoms.
Abdullah's bid this week failed. The Gulf royals, undoubtedly wary of ceding any of their authority to an already dominant Saudi Arabia, left Riyadh on May 14 wanting, according to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, "details, and the details of the details" regarding the Saudi proposal for a deeper alliance. Although the leaders undoubtedly fear revolution and Iran, for the moment they fear the House of Saud even more.
Can Abdullah learn anything from NATO's history? There seem to be some parallels to the challenges he perceives. In 1949, Western European and U.S. leaders saw an expansionist Soviet Union that maintained a menacing army and was simultaneously instigating internal subversion in Greece, central Europe, Italy, and elsewhere. Abdullah and his fellow Sunni royals worry about Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its support for proxy forces in Lebanon and Syria and provocateurs in Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The solution for Western leaders in 1949 was a military alliance based on the principle of collective security. Abdullah apparently wants something similar.