NATO allies are moving toward approving an anti-missile system that would protect Europe, the alliance's secretary general said Thursday, adding that he hoped Russia would join in creating such a shield.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that, based on Thursday's meeting of the foreign and defense ministers of NATO's 28 members, he was "quite optimistic" the anti-missile shield would be formally adopted at the organization's next summit in Portugal on Nov. 19-20.
"I was very encouraged by the determination of the allies to modernize the alliance for the 21st century," Fogh Rasmussen told journalists. "We are oriented towards a consensus at the summit in Lisbon that NATO should protect the populations against a missile attack."
Fogh Rasmussen is proposing to expand an existing system of tactical battlefield missile defense to cover the territory and populations of all alliance members against attack from nations such as Iran and North Korea. He has also called on Russia to join the project.
"We should offer Russia an opportunity to cooperate with us," he said.
The United States supports the missile defense proposal. But some governments such as France have taken a dim view of the proposed shield, citing high costs and saying the system cannot replace a robust nuclear deterrent.
At an estimated cost of euro200 million ($279 million), it is much cheaper but also less capable than a dedicated anti-missile system proposed by the Bush administration, which caused a deep rift with Russia.
Russia opposed the stationing of powerful radars and anti-missile batteries near its western borders. But it has not opposed the new system, although Russian officials have said it remains to be seen whether the two networks can be integrated.
Fogh Rasmussen said NATO's new mission statement, expected to be adopted at the summit in Portugal, would focus on streamlining and reforming the organization to deal with emerging threats.
The alliance's annual $1.5 billion budget may be reduced significantly if proposals to slash the number of its agencies from 14 to just three _ dealing with logistics, procurement and communications _ are approved. This would mean cutting the number of people working at NATO from 13,000 to just under 9,000.
NATO's previous mission statement was adopted in 1999, soon after the Cold War ended and before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States led the alliance to take on missions such as counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan.
Washington now wants NATO to be equipped to deploy forces to missions outside its traditional theater of operations in Europe, such as Afghanistan or the anti-piracy naval patrols in the Indian Ocean. But many European governments remain wary and argue that the alliance should not be transformed into a global policeman at a time of austerity and spending cuts.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said NATO could no longer base its security on "strategies of the past."
"NATO began as a regional alliance, but the threats it now faces are global, and its perspective must be global as well," she said.
Clinton also called for closer cooperation with Russia, saying that sharing more information regarding military doctrines, strategies and force development would help build trust.
She said she hoped Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would accept an invitation to attend the upcoming NATO summit. "However, even if the Russians choose to decline that invitation, we must continue to build our partnership and we should find another time soon to sit down with Moscow to work on strengthening our cooperation," Clinton said.
Although Russia hasn't sent troops to join the NATO force in Afghanistan, it has provided an alternative overland supply route for allied forces, to complement the ambush-prone logistics link through Pakistan. Russia has also trained Afghan counter-narcotics agents and is in talks with NATO to provide helicopters to the nascent Afghan air force.
Although Afghanistan was not on the agenda of the ministerial meeting, it will figure prominently at the summit in November.
Fogh Rasmussen said the military alliance was helping Taliban representatives meet with the Afghan government, adding that when there are practical ways that the NATO alliance can help the process of reconciliation, it will.
He did not give details, but a senior alliance official has said NATO is giving safe passage for Taliban figures to travel to Kabul for talks.
The Afghan government has acknowledged that it has been involved in reconciliation talks with the Taliban, but discussions between the two sides have been described as mostly informal and indirect message exchanges relying on mediators.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said reconciliation efforts may not bear fruit anytime soon, but he says the effort is worth making.
Associated Press reporters Matt Lee and Anne Christnovich in Brussels contributed to this report.