How has NATO survived the Cold War

The latter half of the twentieth century has been dominated by the Cold War and the actions and events surrounding it. During this period different alliances and treaties were formed and many of these were institutionalized. One such alliance was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This organization was set up by the Northern Atlantic Western Powers to combat the Eastern Soviet threat. Today however NATO still exists and plays an active role in international relations. The question asked then is why after the Soviet Threat has dispersed an organization that was set up with the sole purpose of defeating the Soviets, is still persisting.

NATO was formed on the 4th of April 1949 with an alliance of twelve independent nations committed to defence and security. Between 1952 and 1982 four more nations joined and three more in March 1999. The original alliance was formed with the purpose of stopping Soviet expansion in Europe, with the United States as the main driving force. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequential end of the Cold War it may be asked why has NATO survived and still plays an active and influential role in European interstate politics.

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NATO has a definite reason for still continuing on in Europe. According to Michael Ruhle (Senior Planning Officer, Policy Planning and Speechwriting Section of NATO’s Political Affairs Division) NATO has changed from a singular-purpose organization to a multi-purpose institution, “working together to create a more benign strategic environment.” Mr. Ruhle argues that NATO is contributing to the “emerging Euro-Atlantic security architecture.” It is not really an institution but an architect. The architecture being a “series of key political processes that shape the strategic environment, the European integration process, the evolution of Russia, the development of transatlantic relations, and the evolution of crisis management in the Euro-Atlantic area.” NATO can be seen to be an institution aiming at peace and security within Europe.

There are other alliances than NATO that have become or are multi-purpose institutions. This can be seen through the EU, with its enlargement operation and its designs for Russia. Also the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in defusing minority obstacles in Europe, overseeing elections in Bosnia and working with an agreement in Kosovo. NATO, according to Mr. Ruhle is however, unique as only it can offer coherency in bringing about these processes.

The NATO website offers an interesting perspective on the reasons for NATO’s existence. “Today following the end of the Cold War and of the division of Europe, the Alliance has been restructured to enable it to participate in the development of cooperative security structures for the whole of Europe. It has also transformed its political and military structures in order to adapt them to peacekeeping and crisis management tasks undertaken in cooperation with countries which are not members of the Alliance and with other international organizations.” Its peace plans and structures includes the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), replaced by the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and the Partnership for Peace (PfP).

However there is a different way of looking at the persistence of on organization such as NATO in contemporary international relations. Stephen Walt argues that alliances that persist are a result of hegemonic leadership, preserving credibility, domestic politics and elite manipulation, the impact of institutionalization and ideological solidarity, shared identities and security communities. A strong driving force behind an alliance will sustain it even after the immediate threat has gone, especially if that force is willing to bear the costs of the alliance and its purposes. The hegemonic power within the alliance must be strongly committed to preserving and even expanding the relationship. They must also be stronger than any in the alliance that may no longer wish to participate or contribute.

To survive the alliance must be a symbol of credibility and resolve. Nations may be unwilling to pull out of an alliance in case an opponent or another ally may see this move as a lack of resolve. Walt argues that US involvement in Bosnia was a result of the fear that no response would create further suspicion on NATO’s role and future, rather than a genuine care for the Bosnian people. Alliances have also been known to survive because of groups within a state are interested in the continuation of a particular alliance. In the case of NATO, there has been active support for NATO enlargement by Polish-Americans.

Walt argues that the higher the level of institutionalization there is the harder it becomes to break up an alliance. Mr. Ruhle calls this bureaucratic inertia. In a highly bureaucratic alliance there is a group of people who obviously don’t want the alliance to break up. NATO is a good example of this as support stems from former NATO officials, defence intellectuals, military officers, journalists and policy analysts. All who have addressed the issues facing Euro-Atlantic cooperation and conflict. Coupled with this is that a highly institutionalized organization may indeed provide the necessary capabilities, that would be useful in the future. Especially in the area of cost. NATO can build on its foundations of cooperation began in the cold war and encourage continued relationships in the Contemporary International System.

When two nations share common political and social values and objectives, an alliance may be easier to persist, even after the original rationale is gone. Karl Deutsch “argued that forming a security community rested on compatible values, expectations of economic gain, a wide range of mutual transactions, broad elite networks and high levels of social communication.”

As a summary, the reasons NATO still exists differ according to perceptions. According to NATO, it is continued because of its ability to contribute to the emerging Euro-Atlantic security architecture. However, it can be argued that NATO persists because of its nature as an organization. Organizations are not easy to break up especially one as large and influential as NATO, plus it does provide a system of communication that can encourage further cooperation and peace within Europe.

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How has NATO survived the Cold War. (2018, Aug 15). Retrieved from