International Relations

Why has NATO endured?

Charlotte MORLIE (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Bsc in International Relations. 

           Many different theories have tried to make sense of the unexpected survival of NATO after the end of the Cold War. Understood as a military alliance purely created to counter the Soviet threat, a realist account would have predicted its disintegration as soon as this commonly perceived threat disappeared. However, constructivists think that NATO survived because it embodied a Western security community. I will take a constructivist stance but instead of focusing on whether NATO truly embodies a security community or not, I will argue that it survived essentially because it was identified by its members as the key representative of a self-defined security community of Western liberal-democratic states. This gave NATO the authority to redefine security and threats and the legitimacy to then carry on initiatives to respond to those new threats. I will first present the traditional view of NATO as the embodiment of collective Western democratic values, than argue that this does not really suit the definition of NATO as a “security community” and that one has to focus more on a common security identity. I will finish by showing that it was NATO’s role in the definition of a new common security identity that explains its persistence but also its expansion.

            Constructivists argue that NATO endured because it was more than a mere security alliance. It embodied a certain Euro-Atlantic community in which members shared particular democratic values, identities and practices.[1] In Risse-Kappen’s words, NATO represents an “institutionalised pluralistic security community of liberal democracies”.[2] The United States and Western European countries shared common norms and values rooted in their democratic tradition: trust, collaboration, consultation, non-use of force, diffusion of power.[3] NATO was a place where Western liberal states could externalise those domestic norms in order to resolve their disputes peacefully. This created a strong sense of collective identity which explains NATO’s persistence but also its adaptation and expansion. The alliance did not only embody an already existing Western liberal security community but also participated in its extension and diffusion, reinforcing its core values and security norms such as transparency, accountability, civilian and democratic control of the military… [4] Enlargement is thus seen as a natural expansion of the security community. Through socialisation processes such as teaching and persuasion, potential members internalised those norms and “correct” security practices.[5] They do so because they understand these new norms and practices as ‘natural’ and ‘right’ and not just because they are motivated by instrumental incentives.[6] For example, the Czech Republic had already been promised membership in NATO before it started launching security reforms and even carried them through after entering the organisation in 1997.[7] This was made possible because NATO, through an extensive informational campaign, participated in the shaping of a new Czech national identity that stressed it’s belonging to the Western world and its values.[8]

            It is however misleading to focus only on common values to define NATO as a security community and explain why it has endured. Some stress the many tensions and divisions within the alliance to argue that NATO is not a real security community anymore.[9] The only recent election of Donald Trump at the US presidency seems to undermine the idea of a close identification between the US and Western European States (even less with new Eastern European members) around liberal values, same goes with Turkey’s increasing authoritarian tendencies. However, these debates miss the point of what a security community is. The concept was founded by Karl Deutsch and defined as “a group of people that had become integrated to the point that there is a ‘real assurance that the members of the community will not fight each other physically but will settle their disputes in some other way’”.[10] Members can have disputes and their interests and points of views can diverge but they will not resort to violence to resolve those disagreements. The key difference with a security alliance is that members of a security community do not see each other as potential threats, it is impossible to imagine a war between them.[11] They develop a common security identity, a common understanding of what security means and what are the main threats to that security. An external threat can be a precipitating condition of the creation of a security community but this common security identity takes on a much deeper sense as the community evolves.[12] Members start closely identifying with each other and link their individual security to that of the community, regardless of the circumstances.[13] The collective becomes an integral part of the self, collective security is thus part of national security. This common perception of security is the basis of their collective identity, not necessarily common values. But what is this common security identity based on since the demise of the Soviet Union and what is the role of NATO in relation to it?

            There are many disagreements around what are the new challenges and threats that should be given priority in the post-Cold War world. Some stress terrorism, the proliferation of WMD and regional instability. Others still see Russia as a primary threat or adopt a way broader understanding of security to include cyber espionage or climate change.[14] A consensus on a common perception of security, crucial to the existence of a security community, does not seem to have been fully reached. However, this does not make NATO irrelevant. Indeed, instead of engaging in the endless debate of whether NATO is or is not a security community, the important fact is that NATO members self-define as being part of a security community and claim that NATO was always its embodiment and is simply operating a return to its ‘true self’ in the post-Cold War era.[15] This rearticulation of NATO’s identity through a reconstruction of NATO’s narrative gives the organisation power, authority and legitimacy in the field of security.[16] It becomes a key actor in the reconceptualisation of security itself. It is the main locus for such debates about definitions of threats and challenges. Security is a social fact and threats are socially constructed: certain issues are not natural security issues, they become such because they are framed as security issues.[17] Security is therefore a “speech act” and NATO becomes a site where security is “spoken”.[18] The authority and social recognition of NATO gives the organisation symbolic power and its expertise, knowledge and skill in the area of security constitute its cultural capital. Adopting a Bourdieusian analysis, Williams argues that NATO endured and is still relevant today because it possesses these two elements, cultural capital and symbolic power, and not only material power, which allows it to be a powerful actor in the field of security.[19]

            NATO then has endured not because it embodied common Western democratic values but because it was a key agent in the reconceptualisation of security as linked to those specific Western democratic values. And, in a new environment where security is redefined in those cultural terms, NATO becomes essential. It is then both a source and a product of the new security environment. The “securitisation” of culture is visible in NATO’s 1991 New Strategic Concept. It defines regional instability in Eastern European Countries as one of the new threats to be addressed by the alliance and links this instability to “serious economic, social, and political difficulties”. [20] Security and culture are thus clearly linked to democracy and threats are perceived to come from the absence of certain political-economic structures. This reconceptualisation of security, by defining the new threat, also points to the obvious solution: enlargement and spread of democratic structures to promote security and prevent fragmentation and instability.[21] This is illustrated by NATO’s subsequent initiatives at expanding its relations with non-member states, such as the Partnership for Peace Programme created in 1994. As Adler puts it, partnerships become a “fundamental security task”.[22] NATO spreads this new understanding of security not just through teaching and persuasion but through the diffusion of cooperative security practices. These practices, defined as “meaningful patterns of socially recognised activities” are a product of the new security environment but also helps reproducing it.[23] By engaging in those practices, new states reinforce the “naturalness” of the link between security and democracy and therefore reinforce NATO’s perception as “the key expression and protector of a certain civilisation circle”. [24] NATO has to endure because it is still perceived as essential in the new security field.

            NATO did not disappear with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Constructivists argue that it endured because it was always more than a temporary military alliance, it was primarily the embodiment of an Euro-Atlantic security community based on a collective identity and common democratic values. However refocusing NATO’s characterisation as “security community” around the concept of a common security identity, rather than common values, points to the real reason why it endured: as a self-defined incarnation of a Western liberal security community, it had the authority to redefine security in cultural terms and the legitimacy to be a key agent in promoting this new type of security.

References 

Adler, Emanuel. “The spread of security communities: communities of practice, self-restraint, and NATO’s Post—Cold War Transformation.” European journal of international relations 14, no. 2 (2008): 195-230.

Adler, Emanuel and Michael Barnett. Security communities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Cox, Michael. “Beyond the West: terrors in Transatlantia.” European Journal of International Relations 11, no. 2 (2005): 203-233.

Gheciu, Alexandra. “Security institutions as agents of socialization? NATO and the ‘new Europe’.” International Organization (2005): 973-1012.

Müller-Härlin, Bernhard. The future of NATO : 140th Bergedorf Round Table, June 13-15, 2008, Berlin. Hamburg: Körber-Stiftung, 2008.

Risse-Kappen, Thomas. “Collective identity in a democratic community: The case of NATO.” In The culture of national security: Norms and identity in world politics (1996): 357-99.

Thies, W.J. (2009) ‘Why NATO Endures’, in Why NATO Endures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 287–308.

Wæver, Ole. “Insecurity, security, and asecurity in the West European non-war community.” In Security communities. Edited by Emmanuel Adler and Michael Barnett, 69-118. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Wæver Ole. “European security identities.” JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 34, no. 1 (1996): 103-132.

Williams, Michael. Culture and security: symbolic power and the politics of international security. London, New York: Routledge, 2007.

Williams, Michael C., and Iver B. Neumann. “From alliance to security community: NATO, Russia, and the power of identity.” Millennium 29, no. 2 (2000): 357-387.

[1] Wallace J. Thies,”Why NATO Endures”, in Why NATO Endures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[2] Thomas Risse-Kappen, “Collective identity in a democratic community: The case of NATO.” in The culture of national security: Norms and identity in world politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 397.

[3] Risse Kappen, 368.

[4] Alexandra Gheciu, “Security institutions as agents of socialization? NATO and the’new Europe’.” International Organization (2005), 974.

[5] Gheciu, 974.

[6] Gheciu, 976.

[7] Gheciu, 978.

[8] Gheciu, 995-996.

[9] Michael Cox, “Beyond the West: terrors in Transatlantia.” European Journal of International Relations 11, no. 2 (2005), 209.

[10]Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett, Security communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 6.

[11] Ole Wæver “Insecurity, security, and asecurity in the West European non-war community.” in Security communities, ed. by Emmanuel Adler and Michael Barnett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998),

[12] Adler and Barnett, 38

[13] Adler and Barnett, 47-48.

[14] Bernhard Müller-Härlin, The future of NATO : 140th Bergedorf Round Table, June 13-15, 2008, Berlin. (Hamburg: Körber-Stiftung, 2008),39-40.

[15]Michael C. Williams and Iver B. Neumann. “From alliance to security community: NATO, Russia, and the power of identity.” Millennium 29, no. 2 (2000), 367.

[16]Williams and Neumann, 362.

[17]Ole Wæver, “European security identities.” JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 34, no. 1 (1996),107-108.

[18]Michael Williams, Culture and security: symbolic power and the politics of international security (London, New York: Routledge, 2007), 66.

[19]Williams, 40-41.

[20]Williams and Neumann, 370.

[21]Williams and Neumann, 372.

[22]Emanuel Adler,”The spread of security communities: communities of practice, self-restraint, and NATO’s Post—Cold War Transformation.” European journal of international relations 14, no. 2 (2008), 211.

[23]Adler, 199 and 217.

[24] Gheciu, 985.

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