|Seth Johnston’s How NATO adapts
Daily: Pakistan Today
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has adapted itself organisationally and
strategically to the challenges of a new age to become an international organisation. This is
the central idea of Seth A. Johnston’s book, How NATO adapts: Strategy and Organisation
in the Atlantic Alliance since 1950, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2017.
Johnston is a major in the US Army, an Assistant Professor of International Relations, and a
veteran of NATO missions in Europe and Afghanistan. This opinion piece intends to discuss
Johnston’s certain ideas expressed in the book.
Johnston traces the origin of NATO to the Berlin blockade by writing on page 41: “And the
320-day Berlin blockade, among the Cold War’s first major crises, began on June 24, 1948.
The Western system of alliances, which developed in response to these events and
culminated in the North Atlantic Treaty, provided politico-military solidarity in the West and
served as a warning against potential aggression from the East.” Here, Johnston overlooks
the fact that NATO was not a sudden rise of an idea to engender an organisation. Instead,
the seeds of NATO’s origin lay hidden in the Fourteen Points pronounced by US President
Woodrow Wilson in his speech in January 1918 while addressing the US Congress for
peace negotiations to end World War I. Point 14 was, “a general association of nations to
be formed to guarantee to its members political independence and territorial integrity.” This
point gave birth to the League of Nations, which encompassed the globe, a geographical
area broader than Europe. Later on, the League failed to forestall the World War II
emanating primarily from Europe. Both World Wars compelled the US shun its Monroe
doctrine (which was declared in December 1823 by the fifth US President James Monroe
and which enjoined upon the US to watch its interests in Americas only) and got involved in
intra-European conflicts. Taken together, these developments imply three messages. First,
Europe was a continent of conflicts such as democracy vs Nazism or Fascism; second, a
European conflict had the potential of failing an international organisation such as the
League; and third, the involvement of US in any intra-European security apparatus was
imperative to stabilize Europe. Hence, the solution for resolving or containing a European
conflict lied in the formation of a European-based organisation to be the first stakeholder of
European affairs, but with the compulsory participation of the US. In this way, the idea of a
“general association of nations” in Europe made local contributions by bringing about two
developments: first, the Truman doctrine (expounded by US President Henry Truman in
March 1947) which led to the formation of NATO in April 1949; and second, the Marshall
Plan in June 1947 which led to the formation of European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) in
April 1948 and later on evolved into the European Union in November 1993.
In the rest of the book, Johnston tries to establish two points about the nature of NATO.
First, NATO is adaptive in nature; and second, NATO is an international organisation.
Regarding NATO’s being adaptive in nature, from pages 59 to 79, Johnston tells the ways
NATO underwent organisational (i.e. internal; expanding its bureaucratic structure) and
strategic (i.e. external; expanding its goals to achieve) adaptations whenever a challenge
erupted. Johnston uses the word “contingency” and says that NATO has preferred one
consequent course of action to the other. Nevertheless, another way to perceive NATO
could be that adaptation is not a prerogative of NATO but a compulsion. For instance,
during the initial days of NATO’s formation (1951-1954), Europe faced two challenges.
First, the anticipation of expansion of the former Soviet Union (and its communist ideology)
to Western Europe (to challenge the capitalist ideology) in the wake of the beginning of the
Korean war (June 1950 – July 1953); and second, the US demand to rearm West Germany
to counter any military threat coming from East Germany that was under the Soviet
auspices. NATO responded to this contingency by turning down the Soviet offer in March
1954 to join NATO and by including West Germany (and not East Germany) in May 1955 to
its fold as an adaptive response to rearm West Germany within NATO. This contingency
decision might have been different, if NATO had not been under General Dwight
Eisenhower who was not only the first supreme allied commander of NATO but he was also
the commander of US forces in Europe from April 1951 to May 1952. The choice of
excluding East Germany and its Soviet benefactor backfired in the shape of the Warsaw
Pact in May 1955. The origin of NATO itself was a contingency phenomenon for Europe:
whether to develop a supranational European body with or without a non-European
member-cum-leader. What Johnston justifies under contingency is actually a compulsion
imposed on NATO by a non-European power, US. This is valid to date. The lopsided
practice of selection and rejection promoted at NATO’s platform is still jeopardizing peace in
Regarding NATO’s being an international organisation, Johnston writes on page 12: “[A]
lthough the North Atlantic Treaty created an alliance in the traditional sense, NATO is also
an international organisation.” Here, Johnston relies on two points. First, the mere presence
of any non-European members makes NATO an international organisation. Second, the
expansion of NATO strategically makes it qualify for being an international organisation.
However, Johnston himself writes on page 173: “Afghanistan represented the first major
land combat operation that NATO had ever undertaken. It brought new scale to the out-of-
area issue, as central Asia was not only outside the territory of NATO’s member-states but
entirely outside the Euro-Atlantic region. In addition, many non-NATO member-countries
participated in ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] operations under NATO
command. Forty eight countries were participating in the ISAF by 2010 (compared with
twenty-eight members of NATO), with non-NATO countries such as Australia providing
some of the most significant military contributions.” That is, the engagement of NATO in
Afghanistan was in collaboration with other military forces and not independent of them.
The expansion of NATO’s strategic role to Afghanistan does not vouch for its being an
international organisation. In fact, NATO’s strength of having non-European members to
steer its boat is becoming its weakness, as Johnston writes on page 171: “NATO’s
involvement in Afghanistan began with strikingly little discussion of the ends desired on the
ground or of the ways and means applied to achieve them.” Nevertheless, the actual test
ground of NATO’s power is Eastern Europe and not Afghanistan or Iraq.
In short, NATO is an expression of Europe’s inability to resolve its conflicts on its own.
Secondly, NATO is still an organisation meant not only to tackle the problems of Europe but
also to preempt any signs of the World War III emerging from Europe, engulfing the whole
world and undermining the credibility of the United Nations. Thirdly, adaptation is not a
strength but a weakness embodying in an enforced compulsion on NATO. Fourthly, NATO
has yet to prove itself an international organisation by acting strategically beyond Europe
independent of the help of non-European militaries.
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