In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Future of NATO

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

International Relations Future of NATO
Sten Rynning
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0200


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is long beyond its post–Cold War era. For about a decade corresponding to the 1990s it was common to study NATO from the point of view of a Cold War alliance that had surpassed its context of origins. The Cold War can no longer serve as this point of reference, however. NATO is twenty-seven years past the Cold War, counting from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War lasted a mere forty years. Clearly, NATO is sustained by factors beyond an overwhelming threat—the Soviet Union—and its residual post-conflict effect. Scholars debate these factors, variously portraying NATO as a defense community that remains just that, a club for North Atlantic allies, or a collective security tool increasingly integrated into the ecosystem of United Nations global governance. These varying assessments feed into contrasting views of NATO’s future, not to mention the wider politics of the Alliance (see the Oxford Bibliographies entry in Political Science “Politics of NATO”). The focus throughout this article will be on themes that will define NATO’s ability to successfully adapt to future challenges: the essentials of maintaining an Atlantic community; the Alliance’s character in terms of collective defense and collective security; and NATO’s ability to balance deeply rooted but somewhat contradictory trends in its security environment. Addressing NATO’s future is ultimately a matter of choosing contemporary focal points that we reasonably can expect will inform us about the future. By nature, this is an imperfect science, and one should remain cognizant throughout of the ability of events to deliver strategic surprises. With this caveat, the opening section will focus on some of the works that most directly argue for or against a NATO future. Following assessments of NATO’s collective defense and collective security character, as well as of key balancing acts for the Alliance, the conclusion will address related observations on NATO’s own vision of its future.

General Overviews

Compared to broad organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union, NATO appears to be a simple organization to study, as long as one can understand military organization and grand strategy. Yet any serious engagement with NATO will reveal an alliance that has grown in diplomatic sophistication and whose portfolio of policy tasks has become more complex. Critics of NATO, here Maximilian Forte 2012 and Nazemroaya 2012, tend to cut through the complexities to locate a central political and indeed imperial project animating the portfolio. These analyses become Washington-centric and portray NATO and European allies largely as tools in the evolution of US dominance. The tendency in the literature is to go with the complexity, however, and embed NATO in a correspondingly complex globalized world. To some, NATO retains its capacity to influence, but now as part of a globalized system of security management (Alexander and Prosen 2015, Peterson 2011); to others, NATO must more carefully balance regional defense and global security tasks in one shape or the other (Michta and Hilde 2014), in part to ensure that its enduring partnership across the Atlantic remains viable (Sloan 2016). In this context, it is possible to argue that NATO’s future depends on political and institutional agility (Rynning 2005), or that the future in fact is Pacific, because this region is the new center of gravity for the United States (Herd and Kriendler 2013). The Pacific future depicts NATO as a tool largely of US priorities, but in a more positive assessment of NATO’s contribution to global stability.

  • Alexander, Yonah, and Richard Prosen, eds. NATO: From Regional to Global Security Provider. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015.

    NATO’s future lies with its ability to adapt to global challenges, this book argues, presenting a case for NATO that includes but looks beyond the “return” to regional defense after Afghanistan. The chapters are detailed and useful.

  • Forte, Maximilian. Slouching towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa. Montreal: Baraka, 2012.

    In a stark contrast to Alexander and Prosen 2015 and Peterson 2011, this book offers a clear criticism of NATO as an instrument of US military policy in general, and toward Africa in particular. Forte invokes a classical Africa-centric imperialist criticism outside a general consideration of the Alliance.

  • Herd, Graeme P., and John Kriendler, eds. Understanding NATO in the 21st Century: Alliance Strategies, Security, and Global Governance. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    NATO’s future is Pacific, not Atlantic, the editors suggest, outlining two US-China-centric scenarios for the future and assessing NATO’s probable usefulness. A theory-based and thought-provoking approach.

  • Michta, Andrew, and Paal Sigurd Hilde, eds. The Future of NATO: Regional Defense and Global Security. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014.

    NATO does indeed have a future, but it requires a careful balancing of regional and global tasks, the contributors to this volume agree. The chapters collectively describe the challenging balancing act.

  • Nazemroaya, Mahdi Darius. The Globalization of NATO. Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2012.

    Offers a similar imperialist criticism of NATO as Forte 2012, but in a more global and critical lens, moving through NATO’s post–Cold War history and policies. Has a clear ideological bent but an interesting argument, juxtaposing Eurasianism—varierities of which characterize Russian and Turkish politics—and Atlanticism.

  • Peterson, James W. NATO and Terrorism: Organizational Expansion and Mission Transformation. New York: Continuum, 2011.

    Argues, like Alexander and Prosen 2015, that NATO has a future as long as it can adapt to global challenges, and to terrorism in particular. Refreshingly integrates NATO’s enlargement process in an argument for European change as a foundation for global engagement.

  • Rynning, Sten. NATO Renewed: The Power and Purpose of Transatlantic Cooperation. New York: Palgrave, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403978431

    NATO’s future has less to do with geography—regional or global—this book argues, but rather with the ability of the Alliance to anchor expeditionary coalitions in its midst by way of institutional adaptation. NATO’s future balancing act is therefore between institutions and coalitions.

  • Sloan, Stan. Defense of the West: NATO, the European Union and the Transatlantic Bargain. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2016.

    Argues that at the heart of the Alliance is a value foundation that enables an adaptative strategic bargain. Alliance leaders can ensure NATO’s continued relevance if they tend to these shared values and remain mindful of the corrosive effect of political disputes and uncoordinated strategy.

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