The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) came into being at the end of World War II in 1949. The treaty was signed by twelve members in Washington, DC. Although not explicit in the treaty, the alliance was a direct response to the perceived threat of the ideology and military power of the Soviet Union. The treaty was designed, in the words of NATO’s first Secretary General Lord Ismay “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down” (Eden 2000, p.2). The main provision of the treaty was in its Article 5 which stated;
“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence” (NATO 1949).
Since the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the threat that it posed to Western security, there has been much debate as to the explanations for the continued existence and expansion of the alliance. This essay will firstly give an overview of the area of alliances and their characteristics before providing some information about the case of NATO and its continued expansion since its formation. Moving on, the essay will then discuss four different explanations for NATO’s expansion since the end of the Cold War before concluding that the organisational and institutional practices of NATO have had a socialising effect on its staff and the political and military elites of member states who have come to see it as a community of values that needs to live on with a new purpose that is far removed from what the organisation was originally designed for. A purpose of Western imperialist hegemony.
In the area of international relations, alliances have long existed as one of the foremost tools of statecraft. They have been so common that between 1815 and 2003 there have been 648 recorded alliances (ATOP 2005). A useful definition of an alliance comes from Walt who describes one as “a formal or informal relationship of security between two or more sovereign states” (1987:1, cited in Duffield 2008, p.292). The reasons for a state joining an alliance can be explained by both international and domestic determinants (Duffield 2008, p.295).
Perhaps the most prominent school of thought on alliances is that of realism which suggests that states get involved in alliances to aggregate their military power against a perceived common threat or enemy. Within this line of thought, Waltz’s balance of power theory, where it is suggested that states form alliances to balance the power of another powerful state, has been very influential. However, Walt has suggested that a balance of threat, where states align to balance a common threat and not solely power may explain the situation better. Domestic determinants may also be a factor in the formation of alliances. Again Walt (1987) has suggested that states will form alliances with other states that have similar political systems to themselves, such as the liberal democratic states contained in NATO, or the communist states in the now defunct Warsaw Pact.
The case of NATO’s expansion:
Whilst all of these examples try to explain why alliances form, they can also signify why alliances also disband. For example, in line with balance of power / threat theories, when the power or threat of another state wains, it seems logical that the need for the alliance that was formed to balance against it would naturally disappear. However, the case of NATO’s continued existence and expansion after the end of the Cold War has challenged this idea. Since the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949 NATO has undergone six rounds of enlargement. The first three rounds of enlargement brought in Greece and Turkey in 1952, West Germany in 1955 and Spain in 1982, with each taking place during the Cold War. However, since the end of the Cold War a further three rounds of enlargement have occurred. In 1999 the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, joined the Alliance. In 2004 Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia increased the number of former communist states in the alliance and in April 2009 Albania and Croatia boosted the alliance further to twenty-eight independent states (NATO). This continued expansion seems to go against the norm of alliance theories which suggest that the organisation has outlived its purpose. So, what does explain the continued expansion of NATO?
The threat of Russia:
One possible explanation for NATO’s longevity could be explained by the threat posed by the still powerful and nuclear capable Russia. Although the military threat that the Soviet Union posed to NATO members during the Cold War was substantial, that threat diminished greatly after the break-up of the Soviet bloc. However, Russia still remains a nuclear superpower and even its former satellite state Ukraine still has a nuclear arsenal greater than those of France and the UK (Duffield 1994, P.768). Although Russia has in recent time pursued friendly relations, there are no guarantees that this will remain the case. A strong nationalist sentiment that has characterised Russian parliamentary elections in recent times has shown that there are always possibilities for a return to an expansionist foreign policy. The Russian excursion into prospective NATO member Georgia’s territory in 2008 illustrated that ‘the Russian bear’ can still roar. Also, the fact that Russia borders and has forces near a number of NATO members may go in some way to explaining the reluctance of members to disband the organisation. To some degree the balance of threat theory is still relevant in this case, although the balancing weight of NATO far exceeds that of Russia at this time.
With the end of the Cold War, the raison d'etre of NATO seemed to have passed. Early into the 1990s and the break-up of Yugoslavia presented a challenge to the stability of Central Europe. NATO forces played a pivotal role in in the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995, including launching its first ever combat operation in 1994 with the shooting down of four Serb jets (NATO). As Hallams has suggested, the NATO involvement in Bosnia was a key event, showing the relevance of the organisation following the Cold War (Hallams 2009). We still live in a world of threats as illustrated by the attacks on The Twin Towers of The World Trade Centre and other targets inside the United States on September 11th 2001. In fact, the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda spurred on the first activation of the mutual defence clause in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, leading to the war in Afghanistan in 2001. With the threat of a terrorist attack from organisations like al-Qaeda ever present, the continued existence of NATO to deal with the threat through cooperation seems logical.
As well as the threats of terrorism, the rise of China may also pose a challenge to the hegemony of the United States. Although the threat of China has perhaps historically been seen as not explicit, the economic growth that it has experienced as well as the corresponding financial crisis that the West is currently experiencing may be a factor for future NATO planning. It has been argued that NATO serves as a tool of American hegemony (Waltz 2000) that can be used to balance against new emerging powers, of which China is one. The same may also apply to both India and Pakistan. Although not seen as a direct threat to NATO members at this time, India is one of the world’s nuclear powers, and instability in that region could pose a threat to NATO member’s interests. More likely to pose a direct threat is Pakistan, another regional nuclear power and a country beset by instability and Islamic terrorist attacks. NATO has already had many problems with militants from Afghanistan using the Pakistani border region as a base, with a Pakistani government seemingly reluctant to deal with the problem. Of course, the recent NATO killing of twenty-eight Pakistani troops by NATO has not helped matters (Reuters).
Organisational, Institutionalist and Socialisation theory:
The perception of old and new threats may help explain the continued expansion of NATO; however there are other somewhat convincing explanations. Since its beginnings, NATO has built up a huge organisational structure and bureaucracy around itself. Its headquarters in Brussels employs nearly four thousand people, all of whom have an interest in preserving their jobs. In line with organisational theory, members will behave in ways that are resistant to change, affirmative of the organisation’s necessity and will adapt to change to preserve a purpose (McCalla 1996, p. 457). This would suggest that NATO officials have denied the need for change and tried to protect the status quo. As well as this it suggests that they have affirmed the value of the alliance through engaging in actions to garner support from domestic audiences. Finally, it suggests that NATO would modify roles and missions as well as creating new ones. According to McCalla (1996, pp.458-461), each of these criteria have been met by NATO. This statement seems correct as recent events have shown that NATO has engaged in ‘humanitarian’ missions to garner support, as well as to create a new purpose for itself. It may also explain the continued growth of the organisation as it seeks new members to give itself a new purpose.
Institutional theory may also build upon organisational explanations. This view suggests that an institution may acquire capabilities that are beyond what they were originally designed for. Thus, as NATO’s original purpose has been outlived, it has moved to use its vast resources into addressing new threats and security concerns. According to McCalla (McCalla 1996, p.464), an institutionalist approach suggests that NATO has used existing procedures to deal with new problems, modified its structures as necessary and used those structures to build ties in pursuit of its member’s goals. So, while the security environment has changed drastically since the end of the Cold War, NATO has used its institutional capacities to adapt to new security concerns. Wallander (2000) has backed this claim as well as suggesting that NATO has grown its institutional assets in the form of its Partnership for Peace (PfP), the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) and Euro Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), therefore conforming to the institutionalist theory of self-perpetuation.
The idea of socialisation may add to the two perspectives above. This perspective suggests that alliances can persist through a process whereby member states, and in particular the political elites of those states become socialised into alliance related interactions (Duffield 2008, p.299). The same can also apply to the military elites who have experienced enhanced cooperation with other member state’s military commanders. Through these interactions at the political and military level, common bonds are formed that promote a sense of community. This sense of political community may contribute to alliance longevity (Walt, 1997: 168, cited in Duffield 2008, p.299). The idea of a community of values has been reinforced recently by NATO through its ‘strategic concept’ document, adopted in Lisbon in 2010 which stated “NATO member states form a unique community of values, committed to the principles of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law” (NATO 2010). This, along with the membership criteria that NATO expects from new members supports a theory of a socialisation of its members, and this perpetuating the alliance.
While the explanations provided above go a long way to providing answers to the continued existence and expansion of NATO since the end of the Cold War, they all fail to critically examine the role of NATO in today’s world. Since the end of the Cold War, far from being an organisation that has lacked a purpose and a presence on the world stage, NATO has been at the forefront of a number of major conflicts. Since 1992, NATO has engaged in seven military missions, three of which have had ‘humanitarian’ justifications and all of which could be described as imperialistic. These are Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia in 1995, Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999 and Operation Unified Protector in Libya in 2011. These missions are part of what Chomsky has called ‘humanitarian imperialism’ (2008). Reluctant to believe that NATO had moral concerns when initiating a bombing campaign, Chomsky has suggested that if a new moral compass was now guiding NATO, it would also have seen calls for an intervention in East Timor at the same time when a massacre of East Timorese was occurring. Indonesia was of course an ally of the United States (Ibid). However, this intervention never occurred.
It could be argued that an analysis of the missions that NATO has been involved in recently could all be classed as imperialist. So, by cloaking its missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya in ‘humanitarian’ and moral justifications, NATO is in essence a wolf in sheep’s clothing and a tool of Western imperial interests. If this is not the case, the question must be asked, if morals now guide NATO policy, then why has no intervention occurred in the many African conflicts that have led to huge loss of life? In line with this argument, the continued existence and expansion of NATO since the Cold War is therefore best explained as its use as a convenient cloak with which Western powers can shield their true imperialist intentions with a degree of moralistic and ‘humanitarian’ justification.
Summary and conclusion:
Each of the above explanations for NATO’s continued expansion since the end of the Cold War are convincing in their own right. The idea of a residual threat from Russia does hold some credence when the fact that Russia still holds a nuclear arsenal and borders a number of NATO members is taken into account. However, the threat that Russia once posed is not now a reality, and the NATO members who border it are minor players unlikely to hold much influence in a grouping of major Western powers. The explanation that new threats now form the basis of NATO’s expansion holds sway also. However, the threat of a non-state actor like al-Qaeda cannot in reality be used as a justification for an organisation with the size and scope of NATO’s bureaucracy. More compelling an explanation is the idea that NATO is expanding to balance against an emerging power like China, India or Pakistan. It is true that one of these states may pose a threat to Western interests at some stage in the future, although the idea that NATO exists and is expanding at this time to counter this possible future threat may be a little far-fetched.
Organisational, institutional and socialisation theories provide interesting and compelling explanations as to why NATO continues to expand. In line with organisational theory as McCalla has suggested, NATO’s staff and member states have behaved in ways that are resistant to change, they have been affirmative of the organisation’s necessity and have adapted to change to preserve a purpose for the organisation. Institutional theory builds upon this to suggest that NATO has used existing procedures to deal with new problems, modified its structures as necessary and used those structures to build and develop new ones, in the process growing its institutional assets in the form of its PfP, the NACC and the EAPC, therefore conforming to the institutionalist theory of self-perpetuation. On top of this, the theory of socialisation demonstrates how political and military elites become socialised into alliance related interactions and form common bonds based on a community of values. This it is suggested has led to the elites of NATO member states perpetuating the alliance to maintain common bonds. All three examples are quite convincing and it is arguable that they form the basis for the continued expansions of NATO. However, the purpose that NATO serves for its powerful members must also be taken into account.
An analysis of the missions that NATO has engaged in since the end of the Cold War shows that each of those missions could be described as Western imperialist. Its missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya, although justified on ‘humanitarian’ grounds, all in some way or another served the national interests of the powerful NATO member states. NATO no longer serves the purpose it was designed for. Organisational, institutional and socialisation theories provide a convincing argument as to why the organisation has perpetuated itself, however it is Chomsky’s view of humanitarian imperialism that best describes NATO’s current purpose. Rather than existing and expanding to deal with old or new threats, NATO has continued to expand in the post-Cold War period due to organisational, institutional and socialised perpetuation that has turned the organisation into a tool of Western imperialist interests.
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