Transforming NATO

Global Role of NATO

NATO Response Force

NATO Enlargement

NATO and the UN

NATO Enhanced Funding

NATO and Terrorism

NATO Lisbon Summit

The History of the North Atlantic Assembly

What is NATO?

For those who saw in NATO an alliance crafted solely to counter the rise of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War should have entailed the demise of the transatlantic military alliance as well. Yet not only did NATO survive the collapse of its erstwhile enemy, but it also expanded and took on new responsibilities. A complex and ever-evolving alliance, NATO's ongoing activities defy schematic explanations and lend themselves to various attempts to re-conceptualize its nature and purpose.

The first and probably most common interpretation scheme takes as its point of departure a historically limited definition of NATO that can be named NATO-in-itself. According to the proposal, NATO is simply the military organization created back in 1949, aiming to offset the Soviet Union 's increasing influence in Europe in the aftermath of WWII. However, the simplified empiricism which guides this common-sense view runs into trouble once questions regarding the continuing existence of NATO are pressed. A military alliance such as NATO-in-itself could be conceptualized in one of the following two ways.

On the one hand, it can be defined by singling out the external enemy whose strategic growth NATO tries to restrain or roll back. Yet both the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, NATO's manifest enemies during the Cold War, are long gone.

On the other hand, NATO can be defined by identifying the alliance it was designed to protect and in which it is rooted. But pointing in the direction of the Atlantic Alliance is not enough to make everything clear. Is the Atlantic Alliance born in 1949, as NATO? Or in 1941, when the U.S. was drawn into the WWII after the attack on Pearl Harbor ? Or is it born in 1917, when the U.S. declared war against the Central Powers? Or should we place its beginnings around 1898 with the Anglo-American rapprochement?

The second interpretation, NATO-in-historical-context, attempts to dissolve this apparent contradiction by portraying the wider context in which NATO-in-itself developed and by explaining NATO-in-itself as the present-day embodiment of a long-term effort to secure Atlantic unity. Framing the question of NATO's role and nature within the long durée history would push the timeline back as early as 1607, when English colonists set up the first colony in Jamestown, Virginia and when the Dutch fleet wiped out the entire Spanish fleet in the Battle of Gibraltar, an event which marks the decline of the Spanish ascendancy on the seas and the rise of Great Britain as imperial power. From this perspective, the Cold War is but a recent episode in the struggle to manage Atlantic unity, a drive which ended up at each turn in the 20th century with growing interdependence, development of political similarities and bringing past enemies into the fold of the Atlantic Alliance.

The third interpretation, NATO-in-systemic-context, deploys resources specific to international organization and systems theory. It places NATO within the Atlantic system, along with EAPC, PfP, G-8, and OECD. NATO is, thus, defined structurally on the basis of the relations it bears directly or by proxy to other international organizations. NATO is an integrative subsystem which lies in-between the European System to the Bretton-Woods system.

The last elucidation, NATO in the context of the Atlanticist idealism, points to the historical influence of both geopolitical and idealistic Atlanticisms. The former depicts Atlantic societies as global security providers; the latter is based on inclusive political values, emphasizing representative government, federalism, and evolution of federative unity among Atlantic countries.