Enduring, but irrelevant? Britain, NATO and the future of the Atlantic alliance

Abstract

The continued endurance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) following the end of the Cold War has become a major puzzle for scholars of international relations (IR). Neorealist scholars expected NATO to become irrelevant and dissolve. Institutional, organizational and constructivist approaches to IR, however, argued that a number of various factors provided NATO with a firm foundation for the future. NATO did not disappear, but the past 20 years have been anything but easy for the organization. As the end of NATO's Afghanistan mission approaches, the alliance is once again confronted with the question, ‘what next?’ Increasingly miniscule European defence budgets and the 2011 military operation against Libya illustrate that NATO is now almost entirely underwritten by US power. Meanwhile, the United States is focused on the security of the Asia-Pacific region and its untenable budget imbalance, meaning that choices must be made. NATO may continue to endure, but is NATO still relevant? Can one still speak of an alliance, or has NATO evolved into something else? Were neorealist predications made in 1989 on the mark after all?

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Interestingly, Mearsheimer thought that NATO might be preserved as a way to keep Germany in line, but that Germany would resist such a NATO. This prediction did not come to pass and it illustrates one of weakness of grand theory, in that it treats Germany as any other actor in the system when indeed states are peculiar social entities. Thus, Germany's continued embrace of NATO following the end of the Cold War is no surprise to any student of Germany. This is, however, the topic of another paper.

  2. 2.

    This figure was provided by the German staff at RC(N) in Mazar-i-Sharif during the author's visit to Afghanistan in October 2012.

  3. 3.

    This list was first compiled by John Barry in ‘America's Secret Libya War’ 30 August 2011 for The Daily Beast. I subsequently checked it against the public record and discussed his points with a number of contacts in the UK Foreign Office, UK Ministry of Defense and UK Department of Defense who concurred with the validity of this assessment.

  4. 4.

    Success in this case is difficult to determine. Many observers warned of the difficulty of the mission and many admit that NATO got lucky in Libya with the military operation. Furthermore, Libya remains a hotbed of violence and political instability, and thus ‘success’ is perhaps not the best tag for the overall goals to date.

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Acknowledgements

I thank John Mearsheimer, Roland Paris, Kimberly Martin, Stephanie Carvin, Alexandra Gheciu, Mikkel Rasmussen, Mark Webber, David Dunn, Austin Knuppe, Mick Cox and International Politics for their constructive feedback on this article. Any mistakes or omissions are entirely my responsibility.

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Williams, M. Enduring, but irrelevant? Britain, NATO and the future of the Atlantic alliance. Int Polit 50, 360–386 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1057/ip.2013.11

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Keywords

  • NATO
  • neorealism
  • constructivism
  • Afghanistan
  • Libya
  • transatlantic relations