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When NATO's defense ministers meet in Brussels beginning Thursday, they will talk about the endgames in Afghanistan and Mali, and defence spending. Canada should use the occasion to press for an honest discussion on NATO resourcing and encourage the alliance to focus on the emerging challenge of cyber-security.

Most of the allies, including Canada, have served notice that they will be gone sooner than later from both Afghanistan and Mali, leaving only a residual force in both places. For now, there is no enthusiasm within the alliance for out-of-area operations and, with reduced spending, there is even less capacity to act.

In 2006, the allies committed to defence spending of a minimum 2 per cent of gross domestic product. In 2012, only four of the 28 member nations met the target.

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In addition to the division it creates between member countries, the effect of these disparities is threefold writes Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen: First, an ever greater military reliance on the United States; second, growing asymmetries in capability among European Allies; and, third, a defence gap that will compromise the alliance's ability in international crisis.

The U.S. has carried the load in the alliance and sequester and cuts will further reduce American capacity. It expects more from the partner nations, with former defense secretary Robert Gates warning that future U.S. leadership, "for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me - may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost."

This warning deserves a frank discussion. As a start, NATO should probably revise its commitment figure to reflect fiscal realities – probably closer to the 1.5 per cent of GDP that Canada and most other members currently spend on defence. Then look hard at how the money is spent.

One-fifth of alliance defence spending is supposed to go towards new equipment, crucial for NATO modernization efforts. This makes sense yet - only five allies meet the target.

NATO needs to look at procurement and discuss best practices so we can spend our money with effect. Nobody, except perhaps the French, do it well.

Part of the problem, as we witness in Canada over the F-35 debacle, is the inability to accurately predict costs or meet a schedule.

Business leader Tom Jenkins recently presented a series of recommendations that should feed into discussion of an industrial defence strategy that also includes concepts like buying off-the-shelf and performance incentives (and penalties).

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In a look at the wider world, another report, Strategic Outlook for Canada: 2013, authored by Ferry De Kerckhove and George Petrolekas, enumerates a baker's dozen threats, including nuclear proliferation from North Korea and Iran, turmoil in Syria and the Middle East, al-Qaeda and China's disputes with its neighbours. There are also threats closer to home: The continental drug trade, Haiti "the perennial rock of Sisyphus" and "a new, very cold war, in cyberspace."

The cyber-threat deserves immediate attention.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano observed last week that not a day goes by without intrusions on the US defense and financial establishment. This likely holds true for us as well. Most of it originates from three countries: China, Russia and Iran.

In one of the first actions of his second term, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order directing U.S. government agencies to prepare cybersecurity standards for the nation's rail, road, air and energy grids.

The order should stimulate Canadian cyber-preparedness. Our continental grid system is so integrated and vital to our economic well-being that we should act in tandem with the US.

NATO also has an economic mandate – inspired by Canada - so let's make cyber-standards an Alliance initiative.

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Canada was present and actively participated in the creation of NATO. Times and circumstances have changed, but the rationale for collective security in an alliance of like-minded democracies remains the same.

Strategic Outlook predicts that Canadian policy makers will increasingly favour pragmatism over principle, containment over involvement, reflection over engagement. These attitudes are likely shared across the alliance. Leaders should bear them in mind as they envisage the future NATO.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior adviser to Mckenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.

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