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Two hits and a miss ( © NATO)

Understanding NATO

Michael Rhle reviews some of the best and the worst recent literature on the Alliance.

Monographs on the post-Cold War Atlantic Alliance are a challenging task. They attempt to pin down a moving target. However, compared to edited volumes, which often are just hastily assembled conference papers of uneven length and quality, monographs should at least offer consistency and clarity of argument. With only one author in charge, the problem of too many cooks should not arise.


But what if the cook has no recipe? Such is the case with the monograph by Peter Duignan, a scholar at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California. His NATO: Its Past, Present, and Future (Hoover Institution Press, 2000) brings to mind the immortal words of Ambrose Bierce: "The covers of this book are too far apart." Indeed, the covers of Duignan's 150-page book are too far apart by about 150 pages. Already as early as page 9, we learn that NATO's famous Lisbon force goals of 1952 were apparently agreed in Boston. We learn that: "The NATO powers agreed on enlargement in 1998" (page 61), apparently one year after the 1997 Madrid Summit. The 1945 "Yalta sell-out" has been moved to 1946 (page 71). A map on page 78 dates NATO's creation three years ahead of its time, to 1946, and we also learn that Slovenia, Romania and Austria are likely to be the next members in an alleged "2003 tranche" (pages 115 and 118).

In discussing NATO's post-Cold War adaptation Duignan displays appallingly poor knowledge. For example, based on sources from 1990 (!) he opines that the WEU will have an expanded role to play in European security — blissfully unaware that the WEU has, to all intents and purposes, been dismantled. He also seems to believe that ESDI is an institution rather than a policy. And so he offers some sweeping policy advice: "The WEU, therefore, should be encouraged to take on more of NATO's responsibilities and to work with the ESDI for a Europe-wide defense system backed up by NATO. Let the WEU, the Anglo-French "Euro force", OSCE, and ESDI handle most of the peacekeeping and conflict resolution functions of NATO in Europe. Activities outside Europe should also be shared if the EU wants to participate" (page 119).

This travesty continues across the entire spectrum of NATO's activities. Perhaps the author may be forgiven for not knowing exactly what NATO's Combined Joint Task Forces Concept (CJTF) is. Yet, to mistake CJTF for the (worldwide) US Military Assistance Program requires a special effort in getting things wrong. The same holds true for turning the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council into the "NATO Russia Forum", or for his claim that the Soviets were hiding SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles in East Germany. His discussion of NATO's Balkan engagement does not fare better: Ibrahim Rugova, a symbol of Kosovo's peaceful road to independence if ever there was one, would surely be surprised to learn that he was in favour of Kosovo's autonomy within Yugoslavia.

In getting all his facts wrong, Duignan shows at least some consistency. In his political judgements, however, not even a modicum of consistency remains. While Duignan takes NATO enlargement critics to task and argues that enlargement was the right thing to do, he changes his mind later in the book, warning the reader that "diluting" NATO with more members might jeopardise its decisionmaking process (page 115). In a similar vein, he argues that Lord Ismay's famous characterisation of NATO as an instrument to "keep the Germans down" was still applicable today, yet as the book proceeds, he again changes his mind, arguing that "leadership of NATO ... should pass from the Americans to the Europeans early in the twentyfirst century" and that "Germany is a logical choice to take over from the United States" (page 119).

This intellectual rollercoaster is further aggravated by the absence of a structure (for example, the Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society is discussed under the heading of NATO enlargement). Instead, the narrative flip-flops between the past and the present, between facts cobbled together from the NATO Handbook and personal musings, all of it carrying the ring of someone who doesn't really know what he wants to say. Indeed, "say" is the appropriate word here, because much of the book reads like it was spoken straight into a dictaphone.

Bad books are legion, and yet there is a sense of tragedy here. After all, Duignan is a pro-NATO Atlanticist. Apparently, he wanted to write a defence of the US engagement in Europe. That he failed so spectacularly in crusading for such a laudable cause is saddening.


That the case for NATO's undiminished relevance can indeed be cogently argued is demonstrated by David Yost's NATO Transformed (United States Institute of Peace Press, 1998). Although published nearly three years ago, i.e. before the Kosovo air campaign, it still ranks among the finest monographs on the subject. Painstakingly researched, Yost's book takes the reader through NATO's Cold War history before examining NATO's post-Cold War adaptation — an adaptation marked by a shift from collective defence only towards a mix of collective defence and collective security.

Yost leaves no doubt as to where he sees trouble brewing. He is concerned that NATO's venturing into collective security might risk undermining both the capabilities as well as the cohesion needed to provide for its core function of collective defence. Hence, his rather elaborate treatment of the idea of collective security and its pitfalls. Indeed, given the difficulties of sustaining NATO's current military engagement in the Balkans, Yost's warnings are to be taken seriously.

The well-known difficulties of NATO's Kosovo campaign may even add more credibility to Yost's warnings about NATO embarking on the slippery slope towards over-extension. Still, is it really so important to achieve conceptual clarity as to what NATO "is"? Should we not be more concerned with what NATO "does" — and does right? Collective defence may be a less challenging concept than collective security, but can NATO really afford to fiddle while the Balkans are burning? Indeed, Yost himself acknowledges that the Allies have little choice but to follow a dual strategy of pursuing collective security aspirations to the extent that this is feasible and prudent, while maintaining their collective defence posture and orientation. Thus, one cannot help but suspect that his lengthy treatment of collective security may be something of a straw man. However, Yost employs it in such an effective and enlightening manner that it is highly worthwhile. Those not deterred by the book's hefty 430 pages will learn more about the NATO of today than from any other book on the subject.


One of the victims of NATO's Kosovo campaign was the Alliance's 50th anniversary. The Balkan tragedy that unfolded in spring 1999 did not leave much time for reflection on NATO's first half-century. That the Alliance ultimately prevailed in Kosovo was certainly worth the cancellation of this or that commemorative event. For those who are nevertheless interested in NATO's history, Lawrence S. Kaplan's The Long Entanglement: NATO's First Fifty Years (Praeger, 1999), will be a treasure chest. (Bookcover) It is not a monograph, but a collection of 12 essays written over almost two decades. Yet it remains highly consistent, and the few inevitable overlaps and repetitions do not matter much.

Kaplan is a historian. The reader should therefore not expect too much on NATO's present or future. Indeed, whenever Kaplan tackles current issues he becomes vague and evasive. Moreover, as the title implies, Kaplan's focus is very much on US foreign policy. But none of this diminishes the value of this collection. Indeed, his focus on the past is a healthy antidote to those "experts" who believe that the world began with the end of the Cold War in 1989. Kaplan also proves wrong those who believe that history must always be boring. For example, his essay NATO: A Counterfactual History offers a thought-provoking speculation about the path Europe might have taken had NATO never been created. Even if the reader may not always agree with Kaplan's extrapolations of "what would have happened if ...", this chapter alone is worth the price of the entire book.

Yost and Kaplan offer good, solid writing on NATO and transatlantic relations. But these are books for the NATO aficionado, not for the average reader. The NATO "primer" has yet to be written. The student of international relations who is looking for a readable monograph of modest length still has to wait.

Read more: history of NATO
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