The US and NATO: An Asymmetric Alliance post-9/11

Updated: Feb 6

Image courtesy per US Embassy/Consulate to UK

The capacity of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in constraining the foreign policy of the United States (US) has significantly declined due to the “war on terror” (WoT). The transition to the post-Cold War era marked an existential dilemma for the NATO alliance, particularly its capacity to constrain US foreign policy. I argue the nuanced and ambiguous understanding of terrorism has undermined NATO’s influence in constraining US foreign policy. This is because of its inability to enjoy an active role in the WoT, enabling the US to circumvent NATO constrains to its foreign policy.

I first refer to Risse-Kappan’s (1995) argument that NATO members can socialise and, thus, influence US foreign policy. I then demonstrate, via constructivist analysis, the critical juncture NATO faced at the end of the Cold War. This will highlight how inefficacious Risse-Kappan’s argument is in the post-Cold War era. Regarding the implications of the WoT, my analysis concludes how NATO's objectives during the Cold War explicitly related to countering unitary state actors including and supporting the USSR/Soviet Union. Hence, the capacity to constrain US foreign policy was achievable. In contrast, the post-Cold War on NATO has proven detrimental to the ability of NATO to constrain US foreign policy and has induced greater US foreign policy autonomy in foregoing NATO commitments in the post-Cold War era.

Operationalisation of the term “constraint” – regarding US foreign policy relations with NATO member states – is the first necessary step in reinforcing this argument. The term constraint is used here to refer specifically to ‘influence’ in the manner utilised by Risse-Kapan (Risse-Kappan, 1995). The term ‘influence’ refers to “the ability to get somebody to do something that he or she would not do otherwise” (Ibid., p. 13). The term can also refer to areas where US foreign policy decision making “represent intra-alliance compromise” (Ibid., pp. 14). Though the preliminary explanations for what is meant by constraint provide clarity, these also mitigate realist assumptions that NATO is subordinate to, and an instrument of, US Foreign Policy objectives. Instead, constructivists have been able to sustain the argument that NATO - as a collection of relatively smaller and medium-sized states - has been able to have a measure of influence on US foreign policy during the Cold War.

The constructivist theory proves complementary to the overarching argument of constraints on US Foreign Policy by NATO since the fall of the USSR. For Constructivism, “identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature” (Wendt, 1999, p. 1). Moreover, it is ideational “rather than material forces” which determine “the structures of human association” (Ibid., p. 1). To account, that “the world is of our making”, Constructivism proves beneficial in challenging dominant theoretical perspectives in IR (Haynes, et al., 2013, p. 213; Onuf, 1989; Flockhart, 2016, p. 81). Unlike the neorealist approach, for instance, constructivism refutes the inevitable nature of state agency and conflict in an anarchic international arena because such analysis foregoes any consideration to the role of culture, ideational and historical processes (Wendt, 1992, pp. 265, 392; Wendt, 1999). In foreign policy scholarship, more specifically, constructivism further demonstrates its viability, particularly regarding European security.

To further justify the reasoning behind applying a constructivist lens to assess US foreign policy constraint by NATO in the post-Cold War era, the following scholarship is necessary to consider. According to Deutsch persistent and increasing border interactions would induce “mutual trust and … consideration” and the inevitable development of a “security community” – known today in Europe as NATO (Karl Deutsch & al., 1957, p. 36). Such a security community would “through institutionalization” encourage “dependable expectations of peaceful change” per “identities, interests, and practices” (Adler & Barnett, 1998, p. 34; Flockhart, 2016, p. 82). Moreover, the work of Schimmelfennig highlighting the enriching and superior utility – unlike neoliberal and neorealist theories of IR – of constructivist analysis for post-Cold War NATO enlargement only furthers not only the viability but benefits of applying a constructivist lens within this particular study (Schimmelfennig, 1998, p. 198). It is, therefore, no surprise that applying such an approach would prove highly viable for Risse-Kappan in asserting the capacity of NATO to constrain US foreign policy, albeit within the confines of the Cold War era.

Risse-Kappan details notable cases where such constraint occurred. Taking into consideration the applied definition of constraint, he also employs, the argument postulated by Risse-Kappan is coherent within the context of the Cold War. He firstly reinforces the utility of constructivist accounts for the formation of NATO regarding the shared democratic ideational norms of NATO members since the majority of its member states were, early on, democratic (Risse-Kappan, 1995). This, in turn, determines the functionality of the institutional alliance because despite its asymmetrical intra-relations amongst member states, specifically regarding US dominance, these shared democratic norms encourage consensual, and collective, decision-making processes (Ibid). Further enhancing the utility of his approach, Riss-Kippen demonstrates how international diplomacy occurs at the inter-state and intra-state level. Hence, Risse-Kappan argues the transnational capacity within NATO member states, rather than solely the state as the unitary actor, have in constraining US Foreign Policy (Ibid). While referring to other cases, which Risse-Kappan insists to an extent reveal NATO capacity for constraint, only one sole case study needs mentioning.

This is because in his other case studies the overall analysis fails to provide a convincing account of NATO’s ability to constrain US Foreign policy. This is because ultimately US foreign policy in, for instance, the Korean War of 1950-1953 and the Suez Canal crisis of 1956-1957 asymmetrically dictated NATO’s direction. Yet in fairness to Risse-Kappan, his case study on the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty does provide a clear instance of the ability for NATO to socialise US Foreign Policy decision making to their benefit. As the Limited Test Ban Treaty eliminated any testing of both hydrogen and nuclear arsenals unless underground, it was not necessarily in the interest of US foreign policy and national security to limit their military capabilities due to the perceived threat of the USSR. Despite US scepticism, however, Risse-Kappan illustrates the intra-state capacity of NATO to constrain, through socialisation, US foreign policy commitments during this tense period in the Cold War with President John F Kennedy signing in August 1963 (Risse-Kappan, 1995, p. 182). This best encapsulates his core argument. Notable limitations need mentioning, however.

This is true concerning Risse-Kappan’s argument on the collective democratic norms and socialisation processes within NATO early into its existence. If NATO allows non-NATO members membership in the alliance so long as they adhere to NATO’s democratic norms and practices, then the constructivist analysis would designate NATO as a socialising agent for democratic norms and ideational forces (Flockhart, 2016). However, the accession of Greece as a full NATO member in 1952 undermines this argument. While true that at the time of joining Greece fit the democratic criteria for NATO membership, it would soon fall into the hands of a military dictatorship between 1967-1974 (Woodhouse, 1998). If the constructivist perspective of NATO were true, its shared democratic norms, ideals and identities would have led to the removal of Greek membership in NATO. This would not occur. Providing a more sufficient account for continuing Greek NATO membership is neorealist theory noting Greece’s geographical proximity to the Black Sea and Communist Eastern Europe, and how by remaining a NATO member, Greece would maintain US foreign policy interests in maintaining the balance-of-power between Western Europe and the Soviet bloc (Waltz, 1979, p. 94). Beyond this discrepancy, however, the overall claim made by Risse-Kappan during the Cold War remains persuasive. Yet it proves problematic following the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War in 1991.

Following the culmination of the Cold War with the demise of the USSR in 1991, NATO faced a critical juncture. Regarding the post-Cold War “security environment” the expectations for NATO’s continual utility, particularly from a US foreign policy perspective, were limited (Flockhart, 2016, p. 90). Theoretical views from rationalist theories, such as realism and liberalism, also supported this view which in turn highlight complimented the constructivist perspective. Constructivist explanations for NATO’s role in the post-Cold War era highlighted note the formation of a new identity; as it “redefined itself as more political alliance … [against] political … uncertainty” (Ibid., 91). Reinforcing this newfound identity was the conflict in Yugoslavia which signalled a shift from a mere “static defence alliance” to a modern expeditionary” force (Flockhart, 2016, p. 91; Shea, 2010). Though it is worth noting that the NATO-led attack on Yugoslavia was a more ‘traditional’ military engagement albeit on a different scale to the threat posed to NATO by the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries Moreover, “internal processes” within NATO would produce newfound interpretations of its role “as protecting members’ security rather than members’ territory” (Flockhart, 2016, p. 91). This reconstitution of NATO’s identity and purpose of existence would impact its ability to constrain US Foreign Policy as it did, per Risse-Kappan’s argument, particularly concerning the WoT.

Following 9/11, the United States re-purposed its foreign policy direction away from its more traditional focus on the threat from the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation) towards a focus on how to combat transnational terrorism conducted by non-state actors. The first major challenge in combatting terrorism was to understand it. The ambiguity of this term poses challenges. It determines enemies as non-state actors due to their transnational capacity to commit attacks at the intra-state level. Moreover, various definitions exist which only further exacerbate uncertainty and cause confusion which in turn makes it challenging to render in framework or paradigm through which a military alliance system can project its influence (Nations, 2004; State, 2002; Shea, 2010). For instance, one definition “excludes” the nature of “state or state-sponsored terrorism” by defining terrorism As “involving citizens and/or the territory of more than one country” (State, 2002; Bebler, 2004, p. 160). The nuanced and ambiguous conceptualisation of terrorism has undermined NATO’s influence in constraining US foreign policy. This is evident regarding the impact of the WoT on NATO’s utility in for US foreign policy.

The obscure understanding of terrorism has had consequences on the NATO-US relationship, particularly regarding the invasion of Iraq in 2003. NATO plays a largely supportive role on the WoT, despite some direct involvement from individual NATO members. NATO member states faced intra-state level “resistance” in dealing with terrorism early into the WoT (Gordon, 2002, p. 38). This was due to the perception, from intra-state level (domestic citizens and policymakers) and inter-state level (European allies) agency, that this would lead to a significant “global … or political role” for the alliance to engage with (Ibid). Further inciting resistance was the controversial nature of the ideational reasoning behind the US decision to invade Iraq – a state the US argued sponsored and supported transnational terrorism (Murray, et al., 2008).

This has led to significant questioning of its role in supporting US foreign policy in the contemporary global landscape, particularly as “a vehicle for waging the US-declared” WoT (Brown, 2006). Moreover, the perception from Washington on NATO military assets is one of “marginal utility” precisely due to the “constraints” posed by NATO’s “commitment to consensus imposes” (Terriff, 2004, p. 438). This refutes the argument convincingly demonstrated by Risse-Kappan in the context of the Cold War era. NATO’s ability to constrain US foreign policy has become unquestionably limited, and in some respects non-existent. Without close cooperation with US Foreign Policy regarding the WoT, it is unable to influence, via socialisation processes, US foreign policy decision making. Constructivism demonstrates the ideational challenges that stem from NATO’s difficulty in discerning how to manage and deal with the threat of terrorism. While its shared norms and identities remain inline, NATO’s capacity to constrain US foreign policy is undermined.

Nevers illustrates further indications of a decline in NATO capacity to constrain US foreign policy in the post-Cold War. Noting how “changes in the international system” particularly the emergence of global “US hegemony”, in the post-Cold War era, Nevers argues this has led to differences into how NATO and the US “perceive security threats” (Nevers, 2007, p. 64). The US-led invasion of Iraq has furthered these conflicting approaches to “responding to perceived threats” and as a result have been transformative in “shifting alignments and attitudes” which “have reduced U.S. willingness to accept alliance constraints” (Ibid). Reiterating the above argument on the tenuous value of NATO as a military partner for the US in the WoT, Nevers further reinforces the central premise for this study (Ibid, p. 66). The US effectively worked around NATO using its alliance partnerships (the UK, Australia and others) as the preferred mechanism for the projection of US power (Ibid, p. 66). The shift in security threat perception between NATO and US foreign agency highlights a constructivist understanding of international relations. Moreover, it notes how the consequences the end of the Cold War has had on US-NATO relations has impeded its ability to constrain US foreign policy. Hence reinforcing why the argument argued by Risse-Kappan is not viable in the post-cold war era.

The lack of NATO commitments to the Iraq war as part of the US embarkation on the WoT demonstrates the effectively absent room for NATO constraint on US foreign policy. This is because despite its nonactive role in the war us foreign policy was unimpeded as it unilaterally carried out the Iraq conflict in the name of national security against terrorism. Risse-Kappan’s argument referring to the socialisation capabilities of NATO in influencing US foreign policy in this regard - greatly indicative of the post-Cold War era - is hence refuted. The constructivist analysis demonstrates the role ideational factors had in obscuring NATOs classifications of terrorism as a threat that encourages full organisational support for the US in its war against Iraq. Specifically, because of its abstruse designation of terrorists as non-state actors. Moreover, NATO challenging the constructed ideational assertions of its US ally in its designation of Iraq as a state terrorist actor reinforces its noncommittal stance. As a result, the ability for NATO to interact with the US in the context of the WoT becomes limited and thus reiterates its inability to constrain US foreign policy.


This analysis considered NATO’s ability to constrain US foreign policy and grand strategy. Moreover, it highlights the utility of constructivist theory as an analytical instrument to assess NATO’s relative impact and effectiveness. It distinguished between the Cold War period and the post-Cold War era regarding Risse-Kappan's argument noting the following. Firstly, during the Cold War period, NATO did have the capacity - through socialisation and consensus-based decision making to constrain US foreign policy and grand strategy. However, the end of the Cold War imposed new constraints on NATO. The collapse of the USSR rendered NATO’s mission statement meaningless unless it could re-shape itself to be relevant and useful to US foreign policy objectives. While the war against Yugoslavia breathed new life into the alliance, the WoT further posed an existential question about NATO’s utility. The implications of nuanced and different understandings of terrorism among NATO members further undermined NATO’s effectiveness and thus its influence in constraining US foreign policy. Constructivism highlighted conflicting understandings of NATO’s ‘opponents’ being unitary state meant a reduction in NATO influence in Washington. Taken together, the WoT, US perspectives on the utility of NATO and the latter’s own inability to articulate its paradigm for the WoT induced greater US foreign policy autonomy and a weakening of NATO’s ability to constrain or otherwise shape US foreign policy.


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