The Reason to Be

26 october 2013

France in NATO, and the Alliance’s New Life in the 21st Century

Timofey Bordachev - Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, and Director of the Eurasian Program at the Valdai Club Foundation. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: An ability to quickly mobilize one’s allies (not only in the military sense) and to deliver a most resolute and prompt strike at one’s enemies or even undesirable countries is becoming an increasingly important requirement for a state’s survival and competitiveness. This is why NATO, the last peacetime military alliance, has very promising prospects.

One day in 2009, when France, headed by Nicolas Sarkozy, was completing formalities for rejoining the integrated military command of NATO, the newspaper Liberation published a cartoon depicting the ghost of General de Gaulle, who during his rule had seriously reduced the country’s participation in the Alliance. The ghost was hanging over the Sarkozy-Bruni couple, hunched in a corner of their bed, and commanded: “And now, my son, conquer Algeria back!” The joke proved to be prophetic, considering NATO’s military operation against Libya in 2011, in the organization of which the Elysee Palace took the most active part of all the allies.

Soviet propaganda described NATO solely as an “aggressive bloc.” Like most of maxims which the Soviet information machine fed to the population, this description was not true. On the contrary, the main objective of the Alliance, established in 1949, was to protect Europe from a Soviet ground invasion, which was viewed as quite possible in those years. France’s rejoining NATO in 2009 is the most glaring evidence that NATO has finally ceased to be a tool for protecting the free world from external threats.

Seventeen years after the end of the Cold War, NATO has turned into an organization aimed to provide armed protection for U.S. and European interests around the world and to ensure relative legitimacy for any politically and economically expedient military operation. Conceptually, it has become an offensive alliance responsible for security not only inside but also around the Euro-Atlantic region. This was finally confirmed in the Lisbon Strategic Concept adopted in December 2010: “The citizens of our countries rely on NATO […] to deploy robust military forces where and when required for our security.” Thirty-three years after the great General pointedly distanced himself from his partners in Europe and overseas, the Fifth Republic, founded by him, has returned to a basically different NATO:

  • an international organization which is a unique example of a peacetime military alliance, whose analogs can be found only in ancient times, when the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League confronted each other;
  • a military bloc which, after the disappearance in 1991 of its “legitimate” enemy – the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, was faced with a new challenge: to find a new identity and the right to exist;
  • a political alliance of countries that are the closest in terms of polity and that meet this challenge successfully, at least for themselves and other member countries.

Generally, the question as to whether there is a place for military alliances in the contemporary world depends on the clarification of at least two issues: the future of international institutions as such and the future role of military force.


First of all, it is necessary to understand whether formalized cooperation of countries in the fields of defense and security has any prospects. The United States doubted the need for institutions for efficient combat interaction in the first half of the last decade. The “Coalition of the Willing” slogan, which it proclaimed then, suggested that joint military actions did not need standing alliances. Nevertheless, in the case of Afghanistan, Washington did agree to conduct operations under the NATO flag. And after Barack Obama came to the White House, the need to involve the Alliance was no longer questioned – either during the campaign against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 or in a possible intervention in Syria.

But the depth of the problem is more complex than tactical aspects of a U.S. administration’s relationships with European allies. It is not accidental that all other attempts to create a military alliance in peacetime failed, including the short-lived and most prominent of them – an attempt to introduce a common European identity in defense and security.

NATO is a unique product of a unique era: an era of harsh ideological confrontation and simple solutions. The Cold War was rather an exception and an anomaly amid these developments. This exclusiveness and anomality of this kind of relationships between competing great powers is due to, at least, three factors: the lethal nature of mutual hostility; the parties’ desire for symmetry of forces; and, finally, the limited number of threats and challenges to security. The fast-changing international environment of the 21st century is much closer to the entire former history of mankind in terms of the nature of interstate relations than to the brief, by historical standards, period between 1945-1991 when the present major international institutions emerged.In no other period in history prior to that had dominating states had to act in such simple circumstances. Never before had the elites been faced with such a limited number of analytical and practical problems. The system of international security (deterrence) during the Cold War was extremely simple, compared with previous and future ones, as was the theoretical and methodological toolkit it produced. In the sphere of political thought and science, the Cold War produced a set of schematic decisions and reactions that were applicable only in that unprecedentedly plain situation. Today, the Cold War-style thinking should be abandoned, and more stable political, international-legal and institutional solutions should be worked out.

No one will argue that hostility has always been the basis of international relations – for example, between the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and the Hittites, between Rome and Parthia, and then (after a period of personified power in the Middle Ages) between England, France and Spain in the 16th century, parties to the Thirty Years’ War, the main signatories to the Westphalian treaties, European powers of the 17th century, and finally, countries that maintained balance in the 19th century. At the same time, in none of the systems that existed before the 20th century did potential enemies, who always sought to maintain a balance of forces, ever set the task of physically destroying each other. Hostility did not transform into an existential threat to the enemy’s existence but, as a rule, served as the basis for mutual recognition. It was a negative yet main factor, around which political dialogue and compromises were built.

The most significant examples of such compromises are the Peace of Westphalia treaties of 1648, and the Concert of Europe of 1815 which later transformed into an informal system of European balance at the end of the 19th century. It is not accidental that the period without major wars in Europe in the first case continued for 108 years (1648-1756), and in the other, for 99 years (1815-1914). All conflicts that took place during those “peaceful” periods were regional and were aimed at correcting local power imbalances, rather than revising the international system as a whole.

The reason why the Cold War confrontation could end in mutual destruction was not that the confronting parties had weapons with maximum killing power. The reason was ideological confrontation. The “religions” professed by the Soviet Union and the United States denied each other’s right to exist – if not physically, although strategists in Moscow and Washington did allow for the possibility of destroying large masses of people, then as sovereign states that could independently choose their own social and political systems; or, generally speaking in Westphalian terms, “have the free Exercise of their Religion.” This readiness of the Soviet Union and the United States to destroy the enemy or deprive it of its sovereign rights makes unique the hostility of the ideological 20th century and its culmination in the Cold War.

Likewise, none of the international security systems known before the Cold War was based on the symmetry of major opposing forces. Hardly anyone would argue that the forces of the Roman Empire (an army of 350,000 soldiers) and those of the Parthian Empire (an army of 60,000 soldiers) were at least relatively equal. Similarly, there was no equality between the capabilities and weapons of, for example, the Delian League, which relied on its navy, and the Peloponnesian League, whose major force was a land army.

The same can be said of Europe of the 18th century, where Prussia, with a population of 2.5 million, successfully withstood France, which had a population of over 24 million. In such circumstances, it was simply impossible to speak of a possibility of mutual deterrence resting on a relative equality of the parties’ military capabilities.

Realizing this, none of European monarchs tried to achieve full parity with their main enemies. Relations between Britain and France are an interesting example in this respect. Britain traditionally assigned the main role in wars to its navy, which was to reduce the possibility of a ground invasion of the isles at long range. In case of need for Britain’s participation in operations on the Continent, it used its small ground forces in limited areas. France, on the contrary, relied heavily on its large land army which could conduct large-scale offensive operations, while the French navy was always small and much less efficient. Naturally, there was no speaking of symmetry between the two countries’ forces. Similarly, we can find no desire for symmetry in other classical examples of competitive relationships, as well.

The diversity of security threats and the general unpredictability of the international environment, which we are witnessing now, were present in all historical eras prior to the Cold War, too. But they never saw such a limited number of potential enemies faced by great powers as between 1945 and 1991. The Middle Kingdom of Egypt was threatened not only by the Hittites but also Libyan nomads. Rome could not fully concentrate on its confrontation with Parthia as it had to deploy legions of soldiers on the Rhine to defend itself from Teutones. Parthians, too, had to be prepared not only for invasion from Roman-controlled Syria but also repel active attacks of tribes from the east and north. France under the reign of Louis XIV anticipated attacks from the south, east and north-west.

Relative clarity in the issue of the main enemy appeared only in the middle of the 19th century. But even then, as evidenced by the sad experience of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, military challenges were highly diverse geographically. In the Cold War era there was no large-scale maritime piracy, although it had always been and will always be. The Soviet Union and the United States did not face challenges of international terrorism and internal separatism. All these phenomena were characteristic of the international environment for thousands of years and in the late 20th-early 21st century, after “big ideologies” left the international political stage. Now they have returned as factors shaping political circumstances of decision-making by major powers.

The world is thus gradually “unfreezing” and returning to its normal state of chaos. In these conditions, the future of international institutions, one of the main creations of the 20th century, remains undecided. For the time being, the preservation of NATO shows that, if “investors” have the same or very close political and economic interests, the benefits of an organized form of struggle for their rights (in the case of the Alliance, this is retaining power) certainly exceed the costs of maintaining the bureaucratic apparatus or even minimal formal coordination of actions.

Moreover, under certain circumstances, especially if the present growth of non-Western centers of power continues, the Alliance may become a combat force of the “free world.” NATO, therefore, remains a unique peacetime military alliance and an effective political mechanism for joint decision-making by countries that are the closest to each other politically. France’s return to NATO only confirms the latter’s prospects as an offensive organization.WHY FORCE?

However, to answer the question as to where NATO is heading, we should turn to another subject which occupies a central place in the theory and practice of international relations. This is power or, rather, its military dimension – means (including readiness to use them) to impose one’s will on partners on the international stage.

Over the past two decades, the view has spread that the importance of military power as the main regulator of international relations has somewhat decreased. At the global level, it was due to nuclear weapons which substantially limited the possibility of full-scale armed conflict, the classical means of determining the balance of power between countries. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the role of military power in addressing international political issues decreased along with the growth of economic interdependence in the world and the decline of ideological confrontation. In the 21st century, international terrorism and cross-border crime have been added to the list of threats faced by the world.

Most of major challenges of our time, including those that may call into question the ability of states to fulfill their basic responsibilities to citizens, cannot be solved by military power. These include environmental problems, food and water shortages, and global economic imbalances.

However, even though most of the “new” security challenges are supranational or global, the international community has so far failed to work out supranational measures to counter them. Therefore, nation-states have to find solutions to these challenges on their own, regardless of what their neighbors may think of their “optimal” measures. As a result, interstate relations may become aggravated to a point where the threat or use of force is only a few steps away.

The issue of the use of force becomes especially crucial when it comes to threats posed by international terrorist or criminal networks. As confirmed by recent experience, the most reliable response is to destroy the enemy in its lair. Given that the enemy is not based in a vacuum but in sovereign states (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, etc.), the capabilities of special services are obviously not enough. Combating these threats requires involvement of traditional armed forces and their de-facto invasion of foreign territory, even if only by using precision weapons or drones.

Simultaneously, the world is witnessing a growing number of general political challenges, very complex and diverse. The most important of them is the confusion of states and their leaders in the face of objective limitations on their ability to control the world market and its impact on national economies. Organized violence remains one of the last spheres where states still have a monopoly. Improving means for using force domestically and, above all, abroad becomes a natural reaction of countries to the reduction of their sovereignty in other areas. The more complex and incomprehensible a threat is, the greater the temptation for states to respond “simply and efficiently.”

The crisis of international governability, which was achieved in understandable conditions of the Cold War, also causes countries to rely on weapons as a source of power. The failure of states to find common solutions to the most pressing global problems requires increased capability at the national level, including the right to use force to protect one’s unilateral decisions “where possible and when necessary,” as NATO’s Lisbon Strategic Concept says.

The rapid democratization of international politics and the rise of new non-Western centers of power, which demand redistribution of power resources and economic benefits, provokes status-quo powers to defend their “historically established” rights harder, while revisionist countries have to respond to this aggression by building up their military capabilities. This results in a competition, which in the case of China and America may develop into an arms race.

The development of defense technologies, especially in the field of conventional weapons, may create a feeling of impunity among some countries. Traditionally, it was possible damage from a retaliatory strike that deterred an outbreak of war. Now, after the United States has acquired the capability to destroy targets from a distance of hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers, the temptation to use military force and, therefore, its value in most types of modern conflicts have increased dramatically.

In fact, now it is only strategic relations between Russia and the U.S., which have equal nuclear arsenals, that are safeguarded from sliding into a military confrontation. Plus, for the time being, relations between these two countries and China, which has a smaller nuclear capability, yet sufficient enough for deterrence. Meanwhile, this factor somehow prompts many observers in Russia and the United States to conclude that military force cannot be used in principle.

Concluding the discussion of the reasons for NATO’s existence in the 21st century, I should say that the contemporary world is no longer limited to Russia and America, involved in endless disputes in the shade of the nuclear umbrella. The guarantee of impossibility of war between the superpowers is not a guarantee of global peace. The developments of recent years have shown that an ability to quickly mobilize one’s allies (not only in the military but also in the political, economic and ideological sense) and to deliver a most resolute and prompt strike at one’s enemies or even undesirable countries is becoming an increasingly important requirement for a state’s survival and competitiveness. This is why the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the last peacetime military alliance, has very promising prospects.

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