Reflective of today’s international zeitgeist is a burgeoning – and in some cases, deep-seated – skepticism regarding the success and even continued existence of multilateral institutions. Dr. Julie Garey, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, admits to having been a skeptic of the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) continued persistence herself. But that was before she realized that, in spite of everyone’s skepticism, NATO did persist; and rather successfully at that. Dr. Garey’s skepticism turned into curiosity. Interested in how alliance-relationships affect U.S. foreign policy, coalition warfare, and national security more broadly, she sought to answer the question: Why has NATO persisted in the post-Cold War era?
Her research led her to the conclusion that there wasn’t an overarching answer to the question of NATO’s persistence. In fact, there were hundreds of explanations. And so Dr. Garey honed in on one particular angle, influenced by her research background in U.S. foreign policy – how did the United States figure in the equation of NATO’s persistence? Dr. Garey’s research culminated in her book, published earlier this year with Palgrave Macmillon, The US Role in NATO’s Survival After the Cold War (available for purchase here).
NATO can easily claim the distinction of being the most institutionalized alliance in the global order; no one can deny its central position in global governance, for better or for worse. But at the end of the Cold War, it seemed as if NATO no longer served a specific purpose. As Dr. Garey explains, the United States was the most powerful ally NATO possessed at the end of the Cold War. Certainly, the United States was the most powerful state in a then-unipolar international system. Peace had “broken out.” European allies had begun disassembling their military forces. Many agreed with political scientist Francis Fukuyama: it seemed to be the “end of history.” There would be no more ideological battles between powerful states. The liberal order seemed to be here to stay.
So, given that its objectives were ostensibly accomplished, why didn’t the United States leave NATO?
Even into the 21st century, this has been a pertinent question. That the United States alone contributes 22 percent of overall resources to the alliance was a core foreign policy talking-point for Donald Trump while he was running for the U.S. presidency. But Dr. Garey notes that even while President Trump’s bombastic delivery may have been unique, the overall message – that the United States was being shortchanged by NATO – was not a new one.
Each passing U.S. administration has had its own opinions on the extent of U.S. involvement with NATO. While George H. W. Bush was a huge supporter of NATO, George W. Bush’s administration was split on NATO support; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pushed for an entirely self-sufficient U.S. military, while Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell disagreed. On the other side of the aisle, the Obama administration couldn’t ignore the burden-sharing disparity amongst the NATO allies either. As the United States maintained and even grew its contributions to NATO, its allies in Europe played up caveats and shrank their militaries. Throughout these administrations Congress had been steadfast in its skepticism, reliably pushing for decreasing U.S. involvement in NATO.
Still, there was something about NATO that was valuable enough to keep it around; even Trump reneged on his earlier issues with NATO after meeting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Dr. Garey’s research sheds light on NATO’s value for the United States.
Dr. Garey’s book focuses on four of NATO’s conflict engagements after the Cold War: NATO intervention in the Balkans and Kosovo in the 1990s; the War on Terror in Afghanistan after 9/11; the 2003 Iraq War; and NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 (in addition to intra-conflict periods). Using these four conflict engagements, she sought to find patterns there-between, understand the evolution of NATO’s responses, and ascertain the “why” of continued U.S. involvement in NATO.
Dr. Garey examines the aforementioned conflicts through four additional criteria: the ways in which NATO’s engagement enhanced the legitimacy of U.S. involvement in each conflict; the ways in which NATO’s engagement enhanced perception of U.S. adherence to international norms; the extent to which NATO offered capability enhancement and utility to the effort; and the influence each engagement had on the alliance as a whole. It is easy to fall into an interrogation of efficacy across all these engagements, and so Dr. Garey had a few caveats about her research. She did not seek to ascertain the utility of NATO engagement versus general coalition-engagement; she did not seek to ascertain whether the United States was successful in achieving its goals in the aforementioned conflicts; nor did she seek to understand NATO’s role in the successful accomplishment of the goals of the intervention.
With that in mind, here is how the criteria broke down:
Perceptions of U.S. adherence to international liberal norms in the Kosovo engagement were very high. This is in spite of President Bill Clinton’s initial distaste for getting involved in the Balkans, as well as the absence of United Nations Security Council authorization of NATO’s intervention. In the long-run, the Kosovo intervention led to the establishment and normalization of the Responsibility to Protect principle.
At the turn of the 21st century, the War on Terror in Afghanistan started on shaky ground. The United States lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people, regardless of its attempts to reform the government and improve infrastructure. Even NATO saw the United States’ action as illegitimate; but it still maintained a presence on the ground, and that presence was crucial for the United States. NATO involvement in Afghanistan foiled the image of American heavy-handedness in the wake of 9/11 by filling, according to Admiral James Stavridis, a “legitimacy gap” in addition to providing capabilities.
The 2003 Iraq War was as polarizing among NATO allies as it was in the United States. The French and Germans strongly disagreed with any NATO-involvement in Iraq, and Turkey disapproved of the United States entering Iraq through its borders. Commentators were concerned that this fissure would result in NATO’s dissolution. In lieu of NATO-involvement, the United States assembled a “coalition of the willing” – but, like in Afghanistan, NATO remained present on the ground through its training mission. In the words of U.S. Army Lieutenant-General Michael Barbero, NATO’s presence contributed unique capabilities that brought credibility to the U.S. mission.
Finally, in 2011 after the United States handed over control of the Libyan mission to NATO, NATO carried out 75% of all airstrikes in Libya and assumed full responsibility of maritime operations. 8,000 NATO troops were engaged in Operation Unified Protector. This contributed high capabilities and utility to the U.S. mission, and proved NATO’s competency as a standing organization. U.S. Army General Carter Ham (previously in charge of NATO’s Africa Command) noted that the seamless transition from a U.S.-led to NATO-led effort was indicative of the trust that had been built up between the two parties. The Libya engagement flew in the face of the rhetoric around NATO as an organization on its last legs.
In the intra-conflict periods, too, the United States received military advantages from NATO. A reciprocity was established: NATO continued to confer legitimacy on U.S. actions, and the U.S. further entrenched its influence in the alliance.
It is not surprising that such a salient topic gave rise to a number of considered questions from the audience, from a variety of angles. Three questions were especially relevant.
The very first question centered around why NATO does not actually assume the mantle of a democracy-building organization. This reflects a common perception. Many consider NATO to be an extension of American foreign policy around the world (incidentally, another question concerned just that). Given the United States’ penchant for billing itself as a proponent of democracy around the world, it follows that NATO might be seen as an instrument for spreading democracy around the world. In her response to this question, Dr. Garey brought up two points: first, that there are many multilateral organizations with the raison d’être of building democracy already; and second, that NATO’s engagements have not actually resulted in more democratic processes or governments. Even if the spread of democracy was a part of NATO’s initial goals, it seems to have put less and less stock into that particular goal over the years.
Another especially urgent question was about the influence Brexit would have on NATO. Dr. Garey brought up the longstanding camaraderie between the United States and the United Kingdom, especially on the NATO stage. “When the U.S. was facing an adversarial NATO audience, the U.K. would sometimes step up and say ‘we really agree with the United States,’” Dr. Garey explained. Brexit is likely to affect that dynamic of camaraderie, which will ultimately bleed into the broader alliance dynamic.
Finally, the last question of the evening – about the future of NATO as regards Turkey – has become even more pressing in the weeks since Dr. Garey’s talk. At the time of writing this recap, the United States has pulled its troops from northern Syria, allowing Turkey to launch its long-threatened assault on the multi-sectarian Syrian Democratic Forces (led primarily by Syrian Kurds, whom the Turkish government considers an extension of the Kurdish Workers’ Party or PKK – designated as a terrorist group in Turkey). In the ensuing chaos, hundreds of Islamic State-affiliated captives escaped from their prisons. This has the potential to further destabilize the conflict in Syria, give the Islamic State bandwidth for resurgence in the region, and result in atrocities being committed against the Kurds.
At the book talk, Dr. Garey cautioned that Turkey is the greatest internal threat faced by NATO, both due to Turkey’s relationship with Russia, and due to Turkey’s perception of U.S. actions "not only within its leadership, but also within its population.” Both sides, she said, have to assert their importance and value to the other: “The U.S. and Turkey have to have a serious dialogue [that] I just don’t see happening in the near future.”
Writing from the near future, it seems that Dr. Garey’s concerns were distressingly prescient.