The group recently helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and has participated in the Afghanistan War. With those engagements either complete or winding down, NATO is againat a crossroads over what future should be.
Afghans are at a crossroads as well. Many Afghans fear a deterioration in security when NATO troops withdraw from the country.
"If they leave, civil war will start again," Abdul Wasi, a traffic police major in Kabul, said. "We are happy, because people are now living in prosperity and justice. So if they leave, the poor people of Afghanistan will be killed and destroyed. If the United States gives us modern weapons, our forces will be able to fight against their enemies. Otherwise, it is impossible. They can leave when our forces become strong to defend our country.”
Wasi's sentiment is apparently shared by many living in Afghanistan, although others believe the country will be better off without NATO's presence.
The heightened attention on Afghanistan's security comes after Obama met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and agreed to a strategic partnership that sets the terms for the relationship between U.S and Afghan forces after the American's formal withdrawal in 2014. Charles Kupchan, senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations, said that while the agreements were not ideal, they were an overall success for the Obama administration.
"Obama's trip to Kabul wasn't quite the 'mission accomplished' moment, but it was close," Kupchan said. "It was essentially saying, 'The light is at the end of the tunnel.' In many ways Obama was pre-empting the debate that will take place in Chicago by saying that our objectives have largely been attained. It is now time to focus on winding down the conflict, handing over responsibility to the Afghans, and heading for the exits."
Ashraf Ghani, the Chairman of Afghanistan’s Security Transition Commission, believes the partnership will be mutually beneficial.
"The key is common interest. What we have managed to achieve through this agreement is a close partnership with the world’s most powerful country and one of the poorest countries, but with a tradition of dignity, independence and honor. I think that in the annals of the agreements that have been concluded between the United States and others, this agreement is a guarantee that 2014 will be handled through continuity and a deepening of partnership, rather than rupture and sudden departure," Ghani said.
Ghani said ordinary Afghans who are engaged and politically affluent will be paying attention to the conference in Chicago. He said the conference will allow Afghans to plan for the future.
"The Afghan public, I think, knows exactly what is at stake in Chicago," Ghani said. "But more than anything else, the ordinary Afghan woman and man wants to know that we have a medium to long-term strategic relationship with the United States and NATO that is going to involve engagement with Afghanistan because their fear is one of abandonment, so Chicago would be an affirmation to these Afghans. They will be able to plan their lives."
NATO has undergone scrutiny recently for its military actions. Martin Butcher, author of the blog The NATO Monitor, believes the organization acted irresponsibly in overthrowing Gaddafi.
"NATO acted as the air wing of the rebels rather than as a neutral U.N. force," Butcher said. "I don’t think NATO as an alliance went in with a conscious policy of regime change. I do think, although I can’t prove with documentary evidence, the U.K. and France went in wanting to overthrow Gaddafi. They pushed the bounds, and the NATO allies didn’t push back.”
Some feel NATO overstepped its power by proceeding with their plan despite objections from China and Russia. United States ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder disagrees with this notion.
"NATO acted within its mandate. It did so on day one and it did so until the last day, 222 days later, when this operation ended, with civilians protected against a regime that was no longer attacking it. We do not believe we changed or altered or expanded or in any way went over the mandate that the U.N. Security Council in resolution 1973 voted on. We have a fundamental difference with Russia and China over this issue,” Daalder said.
But protesters in Chicago will likely have a different take.
The U.S. Secret Service is already preparing for anti-war protests in Chicago. Andy Thayer is organizing an anti-war march in Chicago on May 20, the summit's opening day. He's against NATO's recent actions.
"The notion that the United States, with a tiny minority of the world's population, has the right to dominate other countries is profoundly authoritarian and profoundly anti-democratic," Thayer said.
Despite the protests, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he thinks the summit will be a great opportunity for Chicago to show its value to the world.
"It’s a huge opportunity for its tourism industry, which we need to move up in the ranks of the country where foreign tourists come to the city," Emanuel said. "And I think this is an opportunity for people to see what I know this city to be: the greatest city in the greatest country, because this is the most American of American cities."
The United States has played a large part in NATO's recent activities. A recent report leaked to the New York Times found that NATO may have overly relied on the U.S. during the air campaign in Libya. Kupchan said he thinks European countries will need to act more independently in the future as the U.S. tries to strengthen partnerships with developing countries like China and Brazil.
"I do think that despite this stickiness and the resilience of the Atlantic partnership, Europe needs to invest more in its capacity. Europe needs to shoulder more burdens because otherwise, as you look over the next decade, Europe could gradually slip off America’s geopolitical radar screen," Kupchan said.
The future of NATO and international relationships may be heavily influenced by the upcoming summit in Chicago.