The last session of the NATO summit in Chicago in May was devoted to a salute to 13 NATO “partners”, which are nations that don’t belong to NATO but take part in alliance operations. The session didn’t get much attention. It should have.

Ever since the Cold War ended 20 years ago, NATO has been an alliance without a mission, making itself useful in places like Libya and Afghanistan without the overarching challenge that the Soviet Union provided. The search for that new mandate continues, and the emphasis on partners, including Australia, indicates where NATO may be looking. If the Chicago summit is any guide, NATO is becoming more of a global alliance and less of a European bloc.

A peaceful Europe may or may not need NATO’s protection, but it doesn’t think it does. Its members, especially the former Communist countries, like Poland, who are closest to Russia, still value the American connection. But they’re less willing to pay for it: America complains that all of Europe foots barely 25 per cent of NATO’s costs.

At the same time, the American security focus is “pivoting”, as President Obama put it, from Europe to Asia, reflecting American worries, shared by some Asian nations, of China’s growing economic and strategic power.

What this means has been evolving for two decades. With the Cold War over, the United States began urging its European allies to take part in “out of area” missions—that is, combat taking place outside the traditional North Atlantic area. For the most part, these were missions that Washington wanted to do but not on its own. If the Cold War was a joint American-European project, out-of-area projects mostly held more interest for the US than for its European allies.

The attack on Serb forces in Bosnia, followed by the Kosovo War, were the first examples of these missions. Most European allies joined them; they were, after all, on Europe’s southern fringe. Even then, it was a hard sell to some nations, especially Germany.

Afghanistan was the next out-of-area mission, by far the biggest and the most problematic, and the first to involve partners. All 28 NATO nations have taken part, some more enthusiastically than others, but so have troops from 23 non-NATO countries. Four of these countries—Macedonia, Montenegro, Georgia and Bosnia-Herzegovina—are next in line to join NATO; others, like Azerbaijan and Armenia, want to join, so want to be useful to the alliance.

Many of the other partners—including Asian nations such as Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, Mongolia, and Tonga—are not NATO members and aren’t likely to be. But all came to the Chicago summit. Two Mideast nations, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, fought in Afghanistan and, with two others, Morocco and Qatar, played an active role in the NATO intervention in Libya. Like the Asians, all were at the summit. NATO even invited nations like Russia and Pakistan, fitfully useful but not what you’d call pals. In the end, there were 34 partner nations in Chicago, which means they outnumbered the 28 NATO nations.

What’s going on?

First, the US, unlike its European allies, is a global power, with global security interests. But it now faces the same financial pressures as the Europeans, plus public weariness after the ill-fated Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In short, if it’s going to remain a global power, it needs help.

For all its power, the US has always been uncomfortable about going alone into foreign wars: even in Vietnam, it recruited all the allies it could. In the four out-of-area missions in the past 20 years, NATO served this purpose: it is the prime ally and so provided a multinational umbrella under which the US could pursue its goals.

As the world’s most successful military alliance, NATO remains a useful umbrella and will no doubt be called upon to bless American forays far from Europe. But most European allies, facing financial and political pressures of their own, will hesitate to actually send troops into these battles.

This is where the partners come in. The United States will try to get the formal authority of NATO for out-of-area missions, but it will mostly ask the partners to join in the real fighting. Some partners, like Macedonia, will have their own reasons for joining. Others, like Australia, could find these conflicts in their own backyards and will have a strategic reason to take part. Others, like Japan or South Korea, see the US as their best ally against Chinese domination, as the West Europeans once valued the US shield against the Soviet Union.

We’re halfway there already. The Libya mission actively involved 12 nations, but only eight belonged to NATO. Four Arab nations, sensing turmoil in their own neighbourhood, made up the rest. In a sense, Obama is adopting George W. Bush’s reliance on “coalitions of the willing”. But unlike Bush, he includes NATO in these coalitions.

These partnerships are no formal alliance—at least, not yet. NATO grew out of a specific postwar European situation. But NATO always existed, at least in part, as an arm of American policy, most obviously in Afghanistan. The new partners, in Asia and the Middle East, similarly are being recruited to help the US do what it wants or needs to do. As these partnerships grow, the partners will play a bigger role in NATO training and logistics: they’ll be part of NATO’s military structure but, as non-members, won’t have a voice in the alliance’s political deliberations in Brussels.

Theoretically, this partnership knows no limits. Ivo Daalder, the US permanent representative (ambassador) to NATO, has written that NATO is uniquely ready to respond to “international crises”. But such crises can take place anywhere. Daalder stresses that NATO can act only if its members give approval. There’s no reason to think these European members won’t give this approval—so long as they don’t actually have to fight.

This is why Obama went out of his way in Chicago to salute these new global partners—all 34 of them. To Obama and the United States, the Europeans are the past: still friends but not reliable allies. The partners are the future.