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Whither NATO? “The Nations of NATO – Shaping the Alliance’s Relevance and Cohesion,(ed) Thierry Tardy, Oxford University Press (2022)”. Book Review

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How relevant is NATO in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how cohesive are the member states’ national policies within the organization? The book The Nations of NATO – Shaping the Alliance’s Relevance and Cohesion edited by Thierry Tardy and published by Oxford University Press explores these two important concepts by looking at the different approaches that the NATO states have taken within the Alliance, and how these positions overlap or diverge.

The book is particularly timely considering the statements made by Jens Stoltenberg, that a war between NATO and Russia as a result of the war in Ukraine escalating may be possible. Its main contribution is providing a conceptual framework as to the relevance and cohesion of the Alliance. It answers questions regarding strategic culture, threat perceptions and institutional preferences, the perceived merits of NATO, US and NATO dependency, debates regarding interests and values, domestic issues, the level of commitment to a particular policy as well as future challenges for the Alliance.

As the book stresses, “Relevance is understood as the congruence or alignment of NATO with its security environment” and “draws on rationalist thinking by which international organizations are established by states to further a number of identified goals that can vary over time”. Furthermore “relevance results from the ability of the organization to deliver on these goals and to adapt to changing needs”. Thus, the book conceptualizes NATO’s relevance based on a variety of factors, such as each country’s Russia or non-Russia centered agenda, the different defence spending undertaken by the Allies, as well as NATO’ specific activities, that range from hard military operations to softer crisis management.

Cohesion, the second concept that this book proposes, is understood through two dimensions: (1) the extent of agreement and convergence between the allies’ positions with regards to core political principles, such as democracy, the rule of law, respect for individual freedoms, as well as civilian control of the military and (2) the way in which domestic debates and member states’ public support for NATO’s values and policies affect the cohesion of the Alliance. These underlying themes are explored in three different sections, each focusing on a different category of countries. The first section refers to non-NATO aligned countries with a broad security agenda, including the USA, France and Turkey. The second section is concerned with NATO-aligned countries with a non-Russian centric security agenda and deals with the policies of the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Canada. Finally, the third section of the book analyses the Russian-centric security agendas of Poland, the Baltic States and Romania.

Each individual contribution made by the authors is relevant for understanding the difference in national policies towards NATO. What is particularly striking about this book is the conceptual distinction made with regard to which countries of NATO have a Russian-focused NATO policy and which of them don’t. Read in the context of the war in Ukraine, this particular editorial choice goes to the very heart of the book’s themes. Can NATO be relevant and can it maintain its cohesion considering Russia’s threat? These very questions are answered in the chapters dedicated to the analysis of individual NATO member states.

Thus, in the first case study, Heidi Hardt analyses the United States’ re-alignment with NATO on multiple aspects, such as “upholding democratic values, supporting the liberal world order, and following through on shared interests”. At the same time, the US increasingly views China as a “strategic competitor”, which is likely to have a significant impact on NATO’s relevance in the future. This contribution is particularly interesting considering that ,in the most recent NATO Strategic Concept, China’s role has been identified as one of the future concerns of the Alliance.

In a separate chapter of this section, Alice Pannier then analyses France’s policy towards NATO and argues that “on most security challenges, including terrorism, instability in the Middle East and North Africa, hybrid and ‘soft’ security threats, or China’s military build-up, France factors in a role for NATO, but one that is limited and complementing European and national efforts”. This view certainly appears to hold when judging France’s broader European-centred foreign policy that has most recently been observed in its response to the war in Ukraine, that has valued multilateral diplomacy.

Finally, this section deals with Turkey, where Can Kasapoglu suggests that its cooperation with NATO “outweighs contemporary political drifts between the Turkish administration and some Western nations.” Turkey’s role in NATO has, in the context of the Ukraine crisis, been significant for a number of reasons: Firstly, Turkey’s adherence to NATO has prompted a special role for the country between Russia and the West. Such a role has also been valuable in the negotiation of the Initiative on the Safe Transportation of Grain and Foodstuffs from Ukrainian Ports in partnership with the United Nations, showing Turkey’s geo-strategic importance in the region.

In the second section, Mark Webber analyses the significant strategic importance that NATO plays for the UK’s defence policy. He argues that “The United Kingdom has thus viewed NATO as both a value and an interest based organization.” With regards to the UK’s position in NATO, he stresses that the UK is one of the strongest allies and the relationship between Britain and NATO has helped reinforce the strategic partnership between the US and the UK. In the context of Brexit, this particular relationship between the UK and NATO has nevertheless also become important in filling the void in the cooperation with European Allies. As the war in Ukraine has shown, the unified position of the West facing Russian aggression has benefited from the UK’s strong position in NATO.

In Chapter 6 of the book, Sophia Besch argues that, for Germany, “multilateral fora like NATO are, first, a central source of domestic legitimacy for foreign policy engagement and military deployments”. Just like in the case of the UK, this helps create a partnership between Europe and the United States. Furthermore, with regards to the German defence policy, the relevance of the Alliance is identified as protecting against Russian aggression, with Russia being viewed as a threat to the peaceful European order. Especially as Germany is now undergoing changes in its foreign policy with regard to both cooperation with Russia and its traditional policies on arms export, NATO will become paramount for Germany’s position in the European security architecture.

The analysis provided by Alessandro Marrone regarding Italy’s perception of NATO suggests that it “combines normative and more rationalist cost–benefit elements”, with Rome viewing the Alliance as a pillar of the multilateral rules-based order that can offer better opportunities for cooperation and the pursuit of national interest than bilateral relations with global powers such as the United States and Russia. Spain is also included as a case study of NATO policy. Felix Arteaga argues that “Previous neutrality and international isolation help to explain Spain’s attachment to multilateralism as well as its peculiar strategic culture and restraint regarding the use of force, combat operations, and defence spending. However, the membership in the Atlantic Alliance enjoys significant political and social support in Spain.” Such views help to explain the way in which various member states perceive NATO’s relevance depending on their own threat perceptions. In the South, NATO is certainly facing different threats than in the East, and in order to maintain its cohesion, the forging of multilateral ties that can deal with collective threats has to remain a priority.

The policies of Denmark and the Netherlands are analysed by Sten Rynning and Peter van Ham, who argue that “both countries have a long-standing Atlanticist tradition and have actively supported NATO’s political transformation and operational engagements past the Cold War, and both harbour scepticism towards European Union (EU)-based defence ambitions that might undermine NATO’s centrality”. This, like in the case of the UK’s post-Brexit role, can nevertheless provide an opportunity for NATO to define its role better and increase its relevance, as more and more countries in the EU turn to Euroscepticism and nationalism as a response to global insecurity.

Finally, this section concludes with a comparative analysis of Norwegian and Canadian policies in the Alliance. In Chapter 10, Stéfanie von Hlatky and Mats Berdal suggest that “though both Canada and Norway share an Atlanticist orientation, the nature of their ‘special relationship’ with the United States is quite different”. One of the defining features in the comparison provided by the authors refers to the importance of the two countries’ geographical positions. On the one hand, in forging its security policy, Canada is bound by its ties with the United States.By comparison, “Norway must also consider Nordic regional dynamics as well as the pull of pivotal European powers, even if ultimately preferring strong US and UK alignment in foreign and defence policy.” Especially in the context of Russian aggression in Ukraine, such differences in the threat perception of various member states will mater greatly in terms of the cohesion of the Alliance.

The final section of the book looks at the Eastern flank of NATO. Justyna Gotkowska argues that membership in NATO has been the main pillar of the Polish security policy, benefiting from strong cross-party support alongside a concern by successive Polish governments to consolidate the bilateral relationship with the United States. This is also the case presented by Dumitru Minzarari, that focuses on Romania’s policy within NATO, and argues that, as a medium-sized country, “Romania has been both persistent and largely successful in elevating the importance of the Eastern European flank as well as the Black Sea region on the Alliance’s agenda.” In turn, Kristi Raik and Margarita Šešelgyte argue in this last part of the book that, for the Baltic States, the “main priority in NATO, especially since 2014, has been to ensure collective defence and deterrence vis-à-vis Russia. At the same time, it has been politically important for the Baltic States to participate in NATO operations and missions and thus to be seen as security providers.” All the case studies in this last part show the importance attached to NATO by member states from Central-Eastern Europe and the Baltics that share a history of threat perceptions regarding Russia, be it at different times in the post-WWII order. It also shows the importance of NATO in shaping the post-Cold War security policies of these countries and the importance that NATO integration and domestic support for the Alliance has had within national politics. This book thus makes an important contribution to the Security Studies literature, marking an important moment in the history of NATO’s relations with Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine that increases both its relevance and threatens its cohesion.

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