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NATO 101

Stefan Melnik reviews an Alliance primer.

Jennifer Medcalf's forthcoming NATO: A Beginner's Guide (Oneworld, 2005) is a no-frills and balanced presentation of developments and issues within the North Atlantic Alliance. The language is straightforward and clearly written for students of politics and international relations seeking an introduction to the workings and the politics of NATO. In this way, it would also serve the needs of young politicians, officers, diplomats and NGO activists with an interest in the Alliance.

The focus is the right one for such an audience, namely the present and future. Despite the title, the book covers recent developments and current issues and tries to draw some conclusions concerning the viability and future of NATO. As such, it is the latest of a number of publications - including NATO Transformed: The Alliance's New Roles in International Security by David S. Yost (USIP, 1999); NATO, the European Union, and the Atlantic Community: The Transatlantic Bargain Reconsidered by Stanley R. Sloan (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002); Atlanticism for a New Century: The Rise, Triumph, and Decline of NATO by Carl C. Hodge (Prentice Hall, 2004); and NATO Divided, NATO United: The Evolution of an Alliance by Lawrence S. Kaplan (Praeger, 2004) - that try to do the same.

Medcalf, who teaches international relations at Bath University in the United Kingdom, nevertheless, manages to adopt an original approach. With the exception of a brief introductory chapter covering NATO's history, the book is entirely devoted to the period after 1989. It does not engage in academic musing and thereby avoids the trap of trying to argue against the future of the Alliance. Instead, it tries to be descriptive, comprehensive and yet concise.

Chapters cover the new strategic context NATO found itself in after 1989; the redefining of its missions and its "post-Cold War operations"; its new organisational, infrastructure and material needs; the way the Alliance has tackled "new" security threats, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism in particular; the enlargement process into Eastern Europe; and NATO relations with third countries such as Ukraine. Many other subjects of political interest are also covered amply, including, for instance, the long-standing debates over out-of-area operations and burden-sharing. Summaries at the end of each chapter and the concluding chapter, An Alliance revitalised? Future challenges for NATO, enhance the educational value of this book. Anyone reading to the end should have a good grasp of the things that matter, which are presented clearly and competently.

There are, nevertheless, shortcomings that a future edition might try to address. The book fails to treat, even in the form of selected case studies, underlying currents that influence political decision-making. For instance, anti-US and, by association, anti-NATO sentiment among the populations of major Western European countries, as well as the rise of pacifist ideas and ideals among intellectuals in these same countries are factors that make it difficult for politicians to address defence concerns appropriately. Severe fiscal constraints coupled with the priority given to social security in much of Europe have helped create a climate in which decisions on defence spending and procurement are effectively a hard sell. And today's politicians themselves are not making the case for Atlanticism in the way that their predecessors did. It was difficult to find a single political figure in any party in Germany, with the notable exception of the leader of the opposition, willing to support - even morally - the US-led Operation Iraqi Freedom and thereby to endorse a role for NATO in Iraq. Indeed, to this day the Alliance's role in Iraq remains limited. A survey of public attitudes towards NATO would have provided a deeper understanding of the challenges facing the Alliance.

The book presents issues top-down as seen by policy-makers and civil servants. This is not a bad thing, but it is only part, albeit an important part of the total picture. Unfortunately, however, this approach leads Medcalf to steer clear of certain sensitive issues. This is something one might expect from a NATO official - but not from an academic. In this way, although ample room is given to Moscow's concerns at NATO enlargement, Medcalf fails to discuss the new members' central reason for joining the Alliance, namely fear of Russia. The implications this might have for policy-making within NATO deserve comment. The potential for disagreement among Allies is manifest, given the different way Berlin and Paris view relations with Russia. Is this fear of Russia justified? Can the French and German approaches be reconciled with those of the Baltic States, for example? Similarly, there is no discussion of the divide between "old" Europe and "new" Europe, although these terms are still used in political discourse.

The threats that NATO countries face in a globalising world are tangible and obvious. It is only a matter of time before several inherently unstable regimes acquire the means to pose a direct military threat to both Europe and North America. The threat posed by international terrorism is growing. And the problems of interethnic conflict and failed states and their concomitant humanitarian and refugee crises will not go away. Will NATO rise to meet the challenges or fall apart? Medcalf has marshalled facts, treated both centrifugal and centripetal tendencies within the Alliance and given reasons for why the Alliance should continue to exist. But whether or not it will is another question.

When a leading politician "sacrifices" close relations with its most important ally for the sake of winning an election, scepticism is more than justified. The book would have done well to discuss how the estrangement between Allies might be overcome. This is the most important challenge facing NATO and not those mentioned - avoiding overstretch, ensuring that NATO members are equipped to act and overcoming US unilateralism - as important as they are. Indeed, US unilateralism may be seen as a reaction to estrangement. Medcalf provides a cogent survey of the objective interests in favour of preserving a viable NATO - but not of the undercurrents threatening it.

Given the audience it is written for, the book also has a number of technical drawbacks: excessive use of acronyms in the text, a problem that the explanatory list of acronyms does not solve, no illustrations, lack of graphic representation of facts and figures. Despite this, the book has many merits over and above those already mentioned: short basic information on the history and workings of the Alliance at the beginning as well as a simple glossary, a chronology of important events, brief defence profiles of NATO members (population, number of servicemen in the armed forces, defence budget for the past three years) and the text of the North Atlantic Treaty. All in all, it provides a more than useful package for the reader seeking basic information and orientation, for which many students will, no doubt, be grateful.

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