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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Data Sources
  • Journals
  • NATO After the Cold War
  • Transformation
  • Relations with the European Union
  • Enlargement
  • Allies
  • Relations with Russia
  • Nuclear Issues
  • Theory

Political Science Politics of NATO
Mark Webber
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0039


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949 and so straddles the Cold War and the post-Cold War eras. Despite an important political dimension, during the first of these two periods it was NATO’s standing as a military alliance (indeed, the Alliance) dedicated to the common defense that defined its purpose and activities. For forty years NATO was positioned to deter (and, if necessary, to fight) the conventional and nuclear forces gathered under the umbrella of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. The dissolution of the latter, followed in short order by the collapse of the Soviet Union, removed this preoccupation and pushed NATO toward a more uncertain trajectory of development. It has subsequently been involved in activities that were never foreseen in its founding treaty and for which it has often been ill prepared. The Alliance consequently has been characterized by a constant process of reform, strategic reorientation, and internal debate. Literature on the Alliance tends to reflect this historic break. Indeed, the step-change after 1991 has been so profound that much writing on the Alliance regards, for analytical purposes, the twenty years since then as entirely separate.

General Overviews

The longevity and complexity of NATO mean that few works achieve comprehensiveness. The most complete tend to be long compendiums. Two notable works stand out. The first is the three-volume set Schmidt 2001, which brings together considerable expertise on NATO’s first fifty years. The second is the collection Hahnhimäki, et al. 2010, which, while not concerned squarely with NATO, keeps the Alliance at center stage in its treatment of transatlantic security, both during and after the Cold War. Other works of note include the recent output of NATO’s foremost historian, Lawrence Kaplan, who has written the best short history of the Alliance (Kaplan 2004); and the work of David Yost, whose knowledge of the political and operational intricacies of NATO is unsurpassed (see Yost 1998), and Stanley Sloan, who has produced a thematically organized treatment of both the Alliance as such and the of the transatlantic relationship more generally (Sloan 2010). As NATO studies tend to be marginalized in academia, very few teaching texts exist. (Here, there is a marked contrast with the profusion of works dedicated to the study of the European Union.) Although not designed as textbooks as such, Lindley-French 2007 and Medcalf 2005 are useful. The former is better on historical context and is written by someone close to policy (this brings with it a strong air of advocacy), whereas the latter is the more accessible and contains features such as maps, diagrams, and a chronology. The lengthy introduction in Rimanelli 2009 provides the student with a valuable chapter-length survey of NATO’s history with a focus on recent developments. Finally, one should note NATO’s own output. The official NATO Handbook is a laudable effort at thematic description but has not been updated since 2001.

  • Hahnhimäki, Jussi, Georges-Henri Soutou, and Basil Germond, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Transatlantic Security. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

    Divided chronologically into the Cold War and post–Cold War periods. Deals with how NATO collectively and the Allies individually have promoted common security. A good balance between treatments of the United States and European states (France and Germany, but not the UK), as well as NATO relations with the EU and Russia.

  • Kaplan, Lawrence S. NATO Divided, NATO United: The Evolution of an Alliance. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

    Compact survey of NATO’s history, concentrating on the various internal divisions that have bedeviled the Alliance, ranging from the framing of the North Atlantic Treaty up to the US intervention in Iraq.

  • Lindley-French, Julian. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization: The Enduring Alliance. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.

    At times idiosyncratic treatment of NATO’s contemporary challenges. Sympathetic to its subject, but incisive in its critique of Alliance failings.

  • Medcalf, Jennifer. NATO: A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford: Oneworld, 2005.

    Textbook that provides basic information supplemented by thematic chapters on strategic context and threats, operations, capabilities, enlargement of membership and partnerships. Basic but comprehensive.

  • NATO Office of Information and Press. NATO Handbook. Brussels: NATO, Office of Information and Press, 2001.

    An invaluable source on NATO’s development up to 2001, which has no equal in its detail of NATO’s internal structures and procedures (see Part II, some 350 pages in length). Some, but not all, of this detail has now been superseded. Updates are available at NATO’s website.

  • Rimanelli, Marco. The A to Z of NATO and other International Security Organizations. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2009.

    An extensive dictionary of NATO-relevant entries. Also contains a chronology up to 2007 and a fifty-page introductory chapter.

  • Schmidt, Gustav, ed. A History of NATO: The First Fifty Years. 3 vols. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001.

    Magisterial and unsurpassed overview of NATO’s first half-century. Considers the obvious (nuclear strategy, military planning, out-of-area operations, enlargement), the neglected (relations with the United Nations, NATO as an issue in domestic politics), and the obscure (defense industries and procurement). Useful regional foci (the northern and southern flanks) and treatments of US leadership and attitudes.

  • Sloan, Stanley R. Permanent Alliance? NATO and the Transatlantic Bargain from Truman to Obama. New York and London: Continuum, 2010.

    Divides the history of NATO into Cold War and post–Cold War Alliance. The former is a largely narrative account; the latter is thematically structured, looking at enlargement, relations with Russia, military missions, and more specifically the operation in Afghanistan. Steers to an argument that NATO rests on an enduring bargain between the United States and its allies, one that will ensure a continuing (if troubled) existence for the Alliance.

  • Yost, David. NATO Transformed The Alliance’s New Roles in International Security. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 1998.

    Examines NATO’s transformation following the end of the Cold War. Rich in detail on the initial transformative period of the Alliance. Its lengthy treatment of the Cold War and its conceptual craft (premised on the application of the notion of collective security to NATO) marks this out as a work of lasting importance.

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