While the official agenda in Budapest concerns Afghanistan and support for Georgia, as NATO Spokesman James Apathurai told journalists earlier this week: any NATO ally or indeed SACEUR if he wishes to can put issues onto the agenda.
And the item that, if not on the agenda, is certainly the most important question to have arisen within NATO since the end of the Cold War is - what do we do about Russia? And, more particularly, do we need to be taking active measures to defend ourselves against Russia?
As we have reported, at the informal Ministerial in London a couple of weeks ago, some NATO nations were seeking to have the NATO Response Force tasked with potential deployment within Alliance territory in the event of a threat from Russia. Also, there was a discussion about whether the military staff at SHAPE should be planning for contingencies involving potential Russian threats to the Baltic States.
This is absolutely fundamental to the future of NATO. If the Alliance is unable to provide the security that the Baltic States thought they were getting when they joined, if the Article V guarantee is no guarantee at all - what is NATO about? All the discussion about NATO as a 'global security provider' that its advocates have been passionately advocating for the past couple of years becomes meaningless if the Alliance cannot do collective defence of its own members.
At least, that is how the Baltic States, Poland and their supporters (principally the US and the UK) see things. Others have a rather different take. France and Germany (and note by the way how quickly the divisions that emerged within the Alliance over the invasion of Iraq have reasserted themselves) say that while the Alliance is, of course, about collective defence, the Baltic States are exaggerating current threats. There is no danger of war with Russia on the northern flank, and to begin active preparations for it is merely to provoke the Russians in an unnecessary fashion.
NATO's SACEUR, the top military commander, wants to begin contingency planning for potential conflicts with Russia in the Baltics, or in Poland. American General Craddock is reported to have written a letter to all 26 allies asking for permission to go ahead with defence contingency planning. He has also been discussing the issue with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. They take the position that he has the right ot do this planning, but that the support of the Allies is important.
Of course, seeking permission of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) turns this from something that is purely a matter of military caution to a matter of the highest Alliance politics. This situation has arisen because, when the three Baltic States joined NATO in 2004 the Alliance was working to make Russia a strategic partner and no need for such contingency planning was seen.
But now, if the NAC gives the go-ahead, this will ratchet up the political pressure on the relationship with Russia, making a serious international situation even worse. If the NAC doesn't go ahead then the three Baltic States can argue that NATO is not prepared to defend them as it should. Craddock wants to begin with a risk assessment for Estonia, before moving on to prepare contingency plans. Germany and France argue that this would provoke open confrontation with Russia.
This internal dispute risks making the security situation in Europe worse. It shows the urgent need to sit back down with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council and hammer things out. The alternative, a lurch back to the Cold War would be in no-one's interest. It also shows how NATO has changed over the past decade. The new members have very different perceptions of threats to their security form the old members, and those differences will be very hard to reconcile. Further, in the Cold War or through the 1990s NATO would have had no problem with dealing with this problem. The expeditionary Alliance, bogged down a war even the British commander in Afghanistan thinks is unwinnable, has its hands full with new tasks, the tasks that the Secretary General hopes will become its raison d'être - those that involve a global vision of NATO underpinning security with its military force. And yet, so occupied, it seems unable to agree on the basics of mutual defence at home.
This problem needs to be resolved, and resolved very quickly. If not, the Strategic Concept debate that will begin next Spring at the 2009 Summit will prove very hard indeed.