Journal article

Burgess, J. Peter (2003) Commentary, Security Dialogue 34 (1): 5–6.

AS THIS ISSUE OF SECURITY DIALOGUE goes to press, NATO has just completed a historic summit in Prague. Even more than the challenges and opportunities it faced after the political revolution of the 1990s, transformations in the political culture both in North America and in Europe mark a watershed for the Alliance.

In terms of North Atlantic security, the post-Cold War era was chimed in by NATO’s expansion in 1999, encompassing Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. With this, the Western part of the Warsaw Pact was definitively dissolved and absorbed into the NATO alliance. The expansion was unprecedented and would have been unimaginable only a decade earlier.

The current NATO expansion, which will only be finalized in May 2004, will embrace Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria. This expansion is different from the previous in two important ways. First, the new NATO leaves far behind the logic of a post-Cold War reunification of Europe under the banners of the military preservation of democracy and market liberalism, and re-anoints the Alliance within a logic of global terrorism and the ubiquitous global enemy. Second, it builds upon a more systematic catalogue of political and military conditions for membership in the organization (the so-called Membership Action Plan).

The first novelty (which has consequences for the second) is the continued dominance of the discourse of global terrorism in the formation of foreign and public policy, judicial opinions, and fiscal prioritization in the USA. US President George W. Bush arrived in Prague well before the start of the official proceedings of the recent summit in order both to mark out the NATO terrain of the war on terrorism and to invite the potential new Alliance members to be new warriors against the global enemy.

The second novelty in the retooling of NATO – the attempt at streamlining membership qualifications – has, like any streamlining, the double effect of bringing to the fore both common values and irreducible differences. Through a standardization and codification of the political and military goals of NATO, a more distinct identity and purpose is likely to emerge in the course of the new expansion. Greater clarity concerning military and political aims will thus be made possible. However, the flip side of the standardization procedure is the emergence and articulation of growing internal differences – predominantly, but not exclusively, transatlantic – in the value systems that are supposed to form the basis of the ‘alliance’.

In other words, more than ever before in the history of NATO, Europe’s number is up. Both in the USA and in Europe, there is a well-cultivated traditional perception of the inferiority of European participation in NATO. ‘Cappuccino’ European military engagement – all metaphysics and no sting – is seen as aloof or indifferent, plagued by vanity and cerebral capriciousness. The reproach is only partly fair. There are real differences between Europeans and Americans in terms of political and social values, above all in those that structure the relationship between power and law. But the transatlantic differences underscored by today’s NATO are also marked by objective measures of a new European inferiority: technological and economic. First, the military technology available to US forces in the field far exceeds that available to any other of the world’s armed forces. Second, the level of military expenditures made by the USA casts a long shadow indeed across the European continent. The increase in US military spending in 2003 alone surpasses the national budgets of each of the individual European states. Clearly, the technological advantage is partially explained by the fiscal prioritization.

Consequently, the most breathtaking result of the NATO meeting is that European leaders have committed to broader participation, both through assurances of fiscal involvement and – more controversially – by committing to engaging NATO forces wherever they may be ‘relevant’ in the world. The heated ‘out of area’ debate first raised during the Kosovo conflict is long over: in the new NATO, no area is out of area.

A manifest lack of consensus over the question of what constitutes the most pressing menace in the world today also marked the NATO summit. There is no self-evident understanding of what fundamental danger is, and thus what NATO’s primary task should be. This is, however, nothing if not promising for world peace. For NATO is a consensus-based organization. Lack of consensus must not be confused with lack of integrity or resolve. On the contrary, it is far more the sign of a healthy plurality of positions, the very condition of consensus.

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