Post-modern NATO

NATO has expanded beyond its initial notion of an Atlantic community. No longer is it delineated by the Iron Curtain, and the Alliance has resisted calls to define itself against Islamic fundamentalism. NATO still needs a new self-understanding, key to which will be a clearer sense of its relationship with Russia.

By Christopher Coker for

The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges once remarked that we are all confronted by the ‘modesty of history’. In plying their trade historians and political scientists try to identify historic turning points and to date them precisely, but history is more modest. Its essential dates remain secret for a long time.

I cite Borges because one of the decisive dates he chose, and one which moved him profoundly (or so he tells us), was the liberation of Paris in August 1944. For what he saw at the time was the conception of something new – a western community or coalition that having triumphed over fascism would stand firm against communism as well. Had Borges been alive today what dates would he have chosen for the transformation of that community in its institutional form, the Atlantic Alliance?

Since the end of the Cold War NATO has changed profoundly. If we seek to date that change perhaps we should look to the Partnership for Peace initiative of 1994; or the NATO-Russia Founding Act signed three years later which placed the relationship between the West and its old protagonist on a contractual footing; or the invitation at Madrid in 1999 to three East European countries to begin the process of enlargement. One could choose all or any of these as keystones in NATO’s path to becoming a post-modern alliance.

Post western alliance

To claim that NATO has become a post-western alliance may strike one as at best ironic, at worst plainly perverse. At the Washington Conference in 1949 one of the participants Paul Henri Spaak called it ‘an act of faith in the destiny of western civilisation’. It is worth remembering, in fact, that the alliance was meant to be more than a military alliance. Its founding fathers hoped to forge an Atlantic Community as Christian Herter, John Foster Dulles’ successor at the State Department called it. At the end of the 1950s, in fact, the United States fought to give the alliance a federal framework – a permanent council elected by the NATO Council of Ministers; a political general staff or steering committee, or Atlantic Commission. In the end, an Atlantic Community was not forged. Instead, the United States and Europe began drifting apart. As Walter Hallstein, the President of the European Commission remarked in 1961, the Europeans were no longer interested in the Alliance as a ‘collective political personality’; they were interested only in a loose association based on two separate pillars – Europe and the United States.

Yet until the very end of the Cold War, the Alliance’s ‘Western’ credentials were constantly reaffirmed: in the Atlantic Declaration of 1974 and most recently the Transatlantic Declaration of 1990. Even after the collapse of communism and long before 9/11 there was still a hope that NATO would remain a western club, by defining itself against another universal enemy: Islam. In the attack by Islamic fundamentalists on western culture many observers seemed to be confirmed in their conviction that the worlds of secularism and Islam were as fundamentally incompatible as those of capitalism and communism. In Islamic fundamentalism many commentators saw another existential threat to western civilisation. In the event, the attempt in February 1995 by the NATO Secretary-General, Willie Claes, to reaffirm the alliance on that basis met with little or no support.

History has now moved on. Willie Claes’ ‘Huntingdonian’ predilection for seeing it in cultural terms was not wrong in itself, but the clash of civilisations thesis is based on a very modern definition of civilisation. The idea of civilisation which the West fought so hard to impose on its enemies can no longer be sustained. It now refers to a distinctive mode of existence in the global age, not an ideal order of human society. It is no longer possible to insist that the peoples of the world are living through a stage in a unitary scale of progress whose apex is western civilisation.

Indeed, long before the Cold War had run its course this had been conceded by no less a figure than Raymond Aron. Aron shared none of his own countrymen’s fears of American hegemony or their aversion to Anglo-Saxon universalism. He would be among the first to applaud his country’s return to NATO’s integrated military command. But he recognised that if civilisation itself was to be defended in the future against fundamentalist forces that challenged everything that made life ‘civil’ the West would have to be less exclusive in its definition. ‘The present phase of civilisation is coming to an end’, he wrote in the 1960’s, ‘and for good or ill humanity is embarking on a new phase,’ that of forging a single world civilisation for the first time, one truly universal in its appeal.

What Aron recognised was that every culture - to take one critical example, human rights - must realise values in its own way. He recognised that the whole debate on human rights had been bedevilled for far too long by western ideas. There is no global consensus on what constitutes those rights but NATO is trying to demarcate what President Bush called ‘the non-negotiable demands of human freedom’.

In 1996 in a speech in Aachen Vaclav Havel defined what the term ‘civilisation’ meant in the post-modern era. Like Aron he talked of a new West, a wider one, though still distinguished by ‘a metaphysically anchored sense of responsibility’. The West’s task, he argued, should be to rededicate itself to a different project – to admit that there are values which transcend the West itself; to find what it has in common with other cultures; ‘to join forces with them in search for the common moral minimum necessary to guide us’.

Let me highlight two key phrases from that speech. Nato must have a normative purpose in the twenty-first century, or what Havel calls ‘a metaphysically anchored sense of responsibility’. But in a post-modern age it cannot have a maximalist one: the desire to impose a western definition of civilised norms. The ‘moral minimum’ is what it must aim for. This is not a minimalist objective, however, for it requires the alliance to intervene for the first time on behalf of those who are not even members. It did this in Kosovo in 1999, the alliance’s first war. It is attempting to do this in Afghanistan today, in its second military venture.

Post Atlantic Alliance

To call NATO a post-Atlantic Alliance may appear equally perverse given its decision to forge a Euro-Atlantic Partnership and a Euro-Atlantic Council but both of these were conjured into existence for a reason. i.e. ‘Atlanticism’ as it was traditionally understood is no longer sustainable.

For most of its history, of course, NATO was an Atlanticist institution whose founding document was not the Washington Treaty of 1949 but the Atlantic Charter of 1941 to which the United States put its name four months before it entered the Second World War. The Charter was not only a statement of principle signed by Britain and the United States. The British signed it on behalf of all but one of the European governments in exile in London. The exception, France, only signed in December 1944 – three months after its liberation (so Borges, perhaps, was right after all, to date the conception of the Atlantic Alliance – as opposed to its birth – to the liberation of Paris).

In the words of André Malraux, the Old and New Worlds had been divided by the Atlantic, an ocean which had provided a passage for those fleeing political and economic oppression in Europe. In the 1940s the immigration largely stopped. The Atlantic became a bridge, not a barrier. In that sense, the Old World was conjoined with the New. The Atlantic Alliance was lauded precisely for that reason. It offered, wrote the contemporary historian Hans Kohn, a vehicle through which ‘the nations on the two shores of the Atlantic’ had begun to realise their communality for the first time. Although they had not shared a common past they would, at least, share a common destiny.

Atlanticism grew naturally out of the politics and sympathies forged in two World Wars. It was consistent with the very ‘modern’ belief that countries were not states so much as contracts with history. What was the United States, asked the poet William Carlos Williams, but ‘the inspired invention of European thought’. In the political sphere Atlanticism was a also a corner stone of Britain’s supposed ‘special relationship’ with the United States. But it was also vitally important in helping the United States understand itself. For the American elite’s idea of national consensus at the time was also in step with the popular response to assimilation. Indeed the East and Central Europeans who began arriving after 1910 only to find themselves discriminated against as ‘non-whites’ were the first to benefit from Atlanticism. For at its core was the belief in the force of equality. That ideology, in turn, became a mainstay of the government’s own effort of mobilisation. It facilitated its attempt to unite the nation behind the rhetoric of the Cold War. It marked the historic moment when the ‘ghetto-whites’: the Slovaks, Poles and Ruthenians felt fully accepted as Americans.

It was all the more ironic, therefore, that the Atlanticism which helped end social divisiveness within the US and unite the United States should have divided western and eastern Europe. In closing the gap between the old and new worlds, Atlanticism widened the gap between the two in the western imagination. The decision forty years later to enlarge NATO was important for that reason. It spelt the end of what the historian Norman Davies calls ‘the Allied version of history’ – the belief in a unique, secular brand of western civilisation in which the Atlantic Alliance was presented as the pinnacle of human progress with the Atlantic Charter as its key. The Allied version of history was pernicious precisely because it drew an imaginary line behind which the West deemed itself to be more progressive, advanced and civilised. The Hungarian writer Istvan Bibo was probably right to suspect in 1946 - even before the Iron Curtain was drawn across the continent - that many westerners were not unhappy to see Eastern Europe policed by a great power, in part because they suspected its people of ‘an innate barbarism’.

It is now clear, of course, that many fault lines have shaped the history of Europe. Some run north/south and divide the members of ‘old Europe’. The lukewarm support for the Kosovo war in the south, and 85 per cent support ratings in the Nordic world highlighted the differences. It is symbolically fitting that NATO should have become the instrument by which Eastern and Western Europe (and the United States, with its large and politically important East European minorities) have rediscovered each other. It is morally important that the Czech Republic has embraced what Havel once described as “the poetic charm” of NATO membership. The phrase reminds me of a passage in the novel Life is Elsewhere by his fellow countryman, Milan Kundera. Referring to the coup of 1948 which his generation welcomed as a new dawn, Kundera reflects that ‘the wall behind which people were imprisoned was made of verse’. The new poetics of history is no longer communism but European integration, and instead of imprisoning people behind a conceptual wall, it offers them a wider horizon. Is the process of NATO expansion complete? Should the Alliance admit Georgia and Ukraine? Historically and culturally neither have been ‘European’ – they have always been on the margins (if that) of the western imagination. The same cannot be said of Russia.

Alliance without borders

Throughout the Cold War NATO and the Warsaw Pact found themselves locked into a position of strategic inertia. History in the twentieth century, wrote the philosopher Walter Benjamin, was a permanent state of emergency. And like all such states it demanded a suspension of action, (though not, of course, belief). The very concept of movement, Benjamin added, had become associated with the notion of catastrophe – ‘the fact that things move on is the catastrophe’ he warned.

History since then has become the permanent revision of what has been achieved, and this is no less true in the security field than every other. In today’s Europe ‘the structure of peace’ is no longer based on two opposing military blocs deterring each other from breaking the peace. Today’s Europe is characterised by change: the transformation of the security environment is the principal theme of politics and security studies.

The old system was built on the principle of power restraining power. Great emphasis was based on drawing lines in the sand. Today the emphasis is on inter-penetration and transparency. The British diplomat Robert Cooper describes its chief characteristics :

  • the break down the distinction between domestic and foreign affairs
  • the growth of mutual interference in traditional domestic affairs and mutual surveillance. Intrusive verification which is at the heart of the news arms control regime is a key element of a global order in which state sovereignty is no longer considered to be absolute.
  • the rejection of force for resolving disputes, and the codification of rules of behaviour
  • the growing irrelevance of borders
  • the extent to which security is based on transparency, mutual openness, interdependence and mutual vulnerability

One of NATO’s twenty-first century missions is to help construct a community in which common identities are constituted by normative practices other than national sovereignty; and in which people find themselves involved in the life of the region as well as their own country. NATO shares that task with other institutions, especially the OSCE which is also trying to forge a common security perspective or ‘single cognitive space’.

Peace in Europe is now maintained by the institutional synergy of several security organisations of which NATO is one. The OSCE is another. If anything, the Russians take the OSCE more seriously than most western countries, or, at least, claim to. Some time ago Vladimir Lukin, the chairman of the Duma International Affairs Committee, suggested that the second phase of NATO enlargement should include all the participating members of the OSCE (including Russia), and that thereafter, the organisation should dissolve itself and become the OSCE’s military arm. This is unlikely to happen but the West needs to find some more permanent basis for its relationship with Russia.

For synergy is a process not a product. Each institution increases the effectiveness of the other; it is the relationship between them which enhances each. Since 1991 we have seen the emergence of the Russia-NATO Council. There was also talk of a joint NATO-Russia brigade. The alliance has put much of its history behind it; it has embraced globalisation with some real success; it has fought one war and finds itself involved in another. But for good or ill, the relationship with Russia is still crucial to the new alliance NATO is in the process of becoming. Until it is resolved we will not know what the alliance will finally become.

Christopher Coker is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The views expressed above are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI.


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