Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 73–91 | Cite as

Of ambiguous symbolism and variable geometry: NATO’s relevance to national security in the twenty-first century

  • Hugues CanuelEmail author


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  1. 1.
    This milestone refers to the evening of 9 November 1989 when Germans from both sides of the Iron Curtain peacefully scaled the Berlin Wall and tore down that symbol of division, unopposed by East German authorities.Google Scholar
  2. 1a.
    The circumstances leading to this dramatic event are narrated in Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, At the Highest Levels — The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War (Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co., 1993), 131–8Google Scholar
  3. 1b.
    as well as in David Pryce-Jones, The War That Never Was: The Fall of the Soviet Empire 1985–1991 (London: Phoenix Press, 1995), 233–43.Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    The Warsaw Pact refers to the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance concluded on 14 May 1955 in Warsaw, Poland. This military alliance of the Soviet Union and her Eastern European satellites was envisioned as a counterpart to NATO, precipitated by the re-armament of West Germany and its integration in the Atlantic organisation. The Warsaw Pact was officially dissolved on 1 July 1991.Google Scholar
  5. 2a.
    On the beginning of the alliance, see Vojtech Mastry, ‘The Soviet Union and the Origins of the Warsaw Pact’, in Niels Erik Rosenfoldt, Brent Jensen and Erik Kulovig, ed., Mechanisms of Power in the Soviet Union (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000), 241–66.Google Scholar
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    The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined in 1999. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia followed suit in 2004. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, ‘Issues — Enlargement’,, accessed 4 August 2007.
  8. 4.
    After hostilities erupted in Croatia in 1991–2, fighting focussed in Bosnia-Herzegovina through 1992–5 despite repeated efforts by the European Union and the United Nations to broker a negotiated settlement. Continued fighting and atrocities, conducted despite the presence of a large UN-mandated peacekeeping force, eventually led to NATO providing air support to UN troops but it was not until the United States became actively committed that peace returned to the region. An agreement was concluded in December 1995 in Dayton, Ohio. The Dayton Accords resulted in NATO taking over peacekeeping duties from the UN contingent, deploying the 60,000-strong Imposition Force (IFOR). This body was eventually re-designated as the Stabilisation Force (SFOR).Google Scholar
  9. 4a.
    For a brief summary of the IFOR/SFOR deployment, see Lawrence S. Kaplan, The Long Entanglement — NATO’s First Fifty Years (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999), 205–10.Google Scholar
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    NATO aircraft conducted a 78-day campaign of bombardment in Serbia from March to June 1999, following Belgrade’s refusal to accept the terms of an agreement concluded at Rambouillet, France earlier that year. Unlike the ‘peace enforcement’ action in Bosnia that took place following the Dayton agreements, NATO initiated the hostilities without a UN mandate as it was expected that Russia and China would block such an initiative.Google Scholar
  11. 5a.
    There was no declaration of war but it was clear that NATO undertook offensive military action against a sovereign country in support of an ethnic minority within that same country. For a succinct overview of these events, see Stanley S. Sloan, NATO, the European Union, and the Atlantic Community — The Transatlantic Bargain Reconsidered (New York: Roman & Littlefield, 2003), 101–05.Google Scholar
  12. 6.
    NATO took command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in August 2003. The force was created in December 2001 as a result of the Bonn Conference following the ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Initially numbering 8000 troops from both NATO and non-NATO members, the force was tasked with assisting the Afghan Transitional Authority in establishing a safe and secure environment throughout the city of Kabul, eventually expanding that authority to the rest of the country. As of December 2007, ISAF counted 41,700 troops from 39 countries, including 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, ‘Issues — International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)’,, accessed 8 December 2007.
  13. 7.
    Richard E. Rupp outlined such pessimistic views in ‘NATO Enlargement: All Aboard? Destination Unknown’, East European Quarterly 36 (Fall 2002): 341–64. Carl Cavanagh Hodge presented a more balanced but still doubtful assessment in Atlanticism for a New Century: The Rise, Triumph, and Decline of NATO (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005), 82–97.Google Scholar
  14. 8.
    Richard Holbrooke, chief American negotiator for the Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, repeatedly emphasised in his memoirs the fundamental influence of US military might on the success of the negotiations and the following deployment of NATO troops. Richard Holbrooke, To End a War (New York: Random House, 1998), passim. One European observer proffered a more objective view but nevertheless recognised that the success of the NATO mission was ultimately dependent on American involvement in the Balkans. Catherine Durandin, Les Etats-Unis: grande puissance européenne (Paris: Armand Collin, 2002), 116–22.Google Scholar
  15. 9.
    American General Wesley Clark, who planned and led NATO’s military effort during the war as Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), used his memoirs to launch acerbic attacks on the organisation’s diplomacy and policy-making machine as well as the conduct of the campaign ‘by committee’.Google Scholar
  16. 9a.
    Wesley K. Clark, Waging Modern War — Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat (New York: Public Affairs, 2002), 417–61.Google Scholar
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    More objective but equally critical views were proffered by Tony Mason in ‘Kosovo: The Air Campaign’, in Stephen Badsey and Paul Latawski, ed., Britain, NATO and the Lessons of the Balkan Conflicts 1991–1999 (London: Frank Cass, 2004), 39–63; andGoogle Scholar
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    William M. Arkin in ‘Operation Allied Force: “The Most Precise Application of Air Power in History”’, in Andrew J. Bacevich and Eliot A. Cohen, ed., War Over Kosovo: Politics and Strategy in a Global Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 1–51.Google Scholar
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    Although focused on the deployment of Canadian troops to the Kandahar province, the report Canada in Kandahar: A Case Study of the Military Coalitions in Southern Afghanistan (London: The Senlis Council, 2006), passim, is representative of the views held by those critical of the wider ISAF operation.Google Scholar
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    See for this typical line of argument Asle Toje, ‘The First Casualty in the War against Terror: The Fall of NATO and Europe’s Reluctant Coming of Age’, European Security 12 (Summer 2003): 63–76; andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    E. Wayne Merry, ‘Therapy’s End — Thinking Beyond NATO’, The National Interest (Winter 2003/04): 43–50.Google Scholar
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    The famous ‘Iron Curtain speech’ was made by Churchill on 5 March 1946 at Fulton, Missouri. By then leader of the Opposition in Great Britain, the veteran politician was touring the United States, openly advocating an alliance between the US and the British Commonwealth to face down the threat of an expansionist Soviet Union.Google Scholar
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    The significance of the speech and the nature of the Churchill’s argument are exposed by Henry Kissinger in Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 442–3.Google Scholar
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    Truman proposed in September 1945 to reduce the US Army from its wartime strength of over 8 million to 1,950,000 by June 1946, with proportional cuts for the Navy and the flying services.Google Scholar
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    George F. Kennan was head of the Policy Planning Staff of the US State Department when he wrote this famed article for the periodical Foreign Affairs. The essay was published anonymously under the nom de plume ‘X’ and first introduced the term ‘containment’ to the larger public. The article was based on a classified cable to the State Department sent by Kennan in February 1946 during his service at the American embassy in Moscow. Later known as the ‘Long Telegram’ and the ‘X Article’, these two documents would greatly influence the Truman administration’s view of the Soviet threat. On the genesis of containment and its eventual adoption as the Truman doctrine, see Kissinger, Diplomacy, 446–72.Google Scholar
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    Alliance members endorsed at the Lisbon Conference of February 1952 a force goal of 90 NATO divisions, half of them on active duty, to be implemented by 1954.Google Scholar
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    Weigley, The American Way of War, 397. Admittedly, this target proved so unrealistic that the North Atlantic Council approved a drastic reduction in December of that same year.Google Scholar
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    The Universal Military Training and Service Act passed the US Congress in June 1951. Weigley, The American Way of War, 395.Google Scholar
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    Hans J. Morgenthau’s thought at the time is best exposed in his Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), passim; and In Defense of the National Interest (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951), passim.Google Scholar
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    Wolfers, ‘National Security as an Ambiguous Symbol’, 481. The author specifically identified George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau as leading lights of the realist movement favouring a policy of the national interest. Ibid., 498 (note 15).Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 482. Wolfers’s point is best illustrated when contrasting the focus on economic and social reform of most administrations before 1939 (with the exception of Wilson in the immediate aftermath of the First World War) with that of Truman, primarily preoccupied with military and security issues as underlined in Jordan, Taylor and Korb, American National Security, 46–9.Google Scholar
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    The text of the agreement signed in Washington, DC on 4 April 1949 is available at North Atlantic Organisation Treaty, ‘The North Atlantic Treaty’,, accessed 4 August 2007.
  54. 38.
    A self-destructive process that is nowhere better illustrated than by Barbara W. Tuchman in her dated but still magisterial study The Guns of August (New York: Macmillan, 1962), passim.Google Scholar
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    and the more recent work by Stephen Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1987), passim.Google Scholar
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    Although making a rather overly sweeping argument by denouncing all alliances the United States is currently engaged in, author Rajan Menon does provide a good compendium of the typical arguments against NATO in his chapter titled ‘Whither the Atlantic Alliance?’.Google Scholar
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    See Rajan Menon, The End of Alliances (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 53–101.Google Scholar
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    The expressions ‘demilitarisation of security’ as well as ‘security partners’ and ‘security dependants’ appear in Richard L. Russell, ‘NATO’s European Partners — Partners or Dependants?’, Naval War College Review 1 (Winter 2003): 38.Google Scholar
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    The purely military aspects of France’s withdrawal from the integrated NATO structure is detailed by Philippe Masson in Histoire de l’armée française de 1914 a nos jours (Paris: Librairie academique Perrin, 1999), 458–61.Google Scholar
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    ‘Neoconservatives’ (or neocons) may be characterised as aggressive moralists abroad and social conservatives at home. The term itself is controversial as it is more often used by those who oppose these policies than by those who subscribe to them.Google Scholar
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    Toje, ‘The First Casualty in the War against Terror’, 65. The CESDP is but the most recent of a number of similar European Defence projects, starting with the Communaute europeenne de defense (CED, the European Defense Community) between France, Italy, West Germany and the Benelux countries. This plan, introduced by French socialist Prime Minister Rene Pleven in 1950 sought to ‘harness’ the rearmament of Germany through the integration of a ‘European Army’. The project slowly faded away until 1954 when France failed to ratify the founding treaty of May 1952. This was a result of the campaign led by Charles de Gaulle, who denounced the spectre of a European military organisation dominated by Germany in the absence of a British counterweigh, as London was not a signatory. On the life and death of the CED, see Masson, Histoire de l’armée française, 384–90.Google Scholar
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    Thomas S. Szayna, NATO Enlargement, 2000–2015: Determinants and Implications for Defense Planning and Shaping (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001), 41–8; and ‘The European Union: The Ins and the Outs’, The Economist, 15 May 2007 (online edition),, accessed 10 August 2007.Google Scholar
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    In September 2003, Poland assumed command of the Multinational Division Central South (MNDCS), a formation made up of troops from more than 20 contributing nations operating in an area defined by the provinces of Babil, Karbala, Wasit, Najaf and Quadisiyah. On the genesis of the Polish involvement in Iraq, see Malwina Lys-Dobradin, ‘Poland: Behind a New Curtain’, Columbia Political Review, October 2003 (online edition),, accessed 10 August 2007Google Scholar
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    Scandinavian environmental security concerns are focused on the decrepit state of Russia’s nuclear industry and the possibility of another Chernobyl spreading a nuclear cloud across the region as in 1986. See ‘The Time-Bombs of Tomsk’, Economist, 24 February 2000 (online edition), E1_NRVQJR, accessed 12 August 2007. Norway is also specifically concerned with the threat of nuclear contamination emanating from those decommissioned Russian ships and submarines rusting away in various bases around the Kola Peninsula. See ‘Russia’s Navy — Slow, Inglorious Death’, Economist, 4 September 2003 (online edition),, accessed 12 August 2007.

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© Taylor & Francis 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Canadian NavyCanada

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