Hillary Clinton: NATO risks sliding into "military irrelevance"

(CNN) -- A NATO alliance where member nations are hamstrung by political and economic difficulties may be a militarily weakened one, former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton warned Wednesday night.

"NATO is turning into a two-tiered alliance with shrinking percentage of members willing - and able - to pay the price and bear the burdens of common defense," Clinton said. "Even in these difficult economic times, we cannot afford to let the greatest alliance in history slide into military irrelevance."

Clinton was speaking at an annual Atlantic Council awards dinner in Washington where both she and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen were honored with Distinguished Leadership awards.

Clinton praised Rasmussen roundly for his work. But she didn't shy away from the idea that NATO nations needed to think ahead about a more evenly-shared responsibility when it comes to security and readiness.

Clinton pointed to NATO's participation in Libya as a success in terms of international partnership, but as an example where only certain member nations had the capacity to aid in intervention.

"We saw that fewer than a third of NATO members participated in strike missions," Clinton said.

She was quick to point out that many nations were willing, but simply lacked the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to play a role.

While Clinton didn't reference Syria directly, Clinton's comments come as NATO member nations like Turkey weigh the costs of stepping up intervention there. Turkey has asked NATO members in recent months for military aid.

Rasmussen, who spoke ahead of Clinton, also focused heavily on NATO, but took a different tack.

He said that NATO is not merely a military alliance and called for increased coordination between Atlantic nations in the business realms as an avenue toward overall strength.

But he echoed Clinton's call for an even lift of the alliance's shared burden and for Europe's to become "the strong partner that America needs."

"We may be divided by geography, but we share the same values," Rasmussen said. "No country and no continent can deal with such challenges alone."

Others receiving honors at the event included Chevron Chairman and CEO John Watson, singer Tony Bennett, and musician and social activist Juanes.

Organizers say the awards aim to honor people who represent what they call the pillars of the transatlantic relationship: political, business, arts, and humanitarian leadership.