Willing or Waning? NATO’s Role in an Age of Coalitions

Twenty years after the great debate over NATO’s future at the end of the Cold War, we appear to have come full circle—“back to the future,” in John Mearsheimer’s words. Its instrumental role in pacifying the Balkans, its major commitment in Afghanistan, and its recent operation in Libya notwithstanding, the role and relevance of the alliance appear no more certain today than they were when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. International relations specialists are certainly wondering. Rajan Menon has recently pondered “the end of alliances,” and Stanley Sloan speculated about whether NATO might no longer be a “permanent alliance.” In April 2011, James Joyner joyfully declared that the Libyan operation was helping “NATO get its groove back,” but only four months later, toward the end of an exhausting half-year battle with Muammar el-Qaddafi’s third-rate force, he was much less optimistic, penning a commentary for the National Interest titled “NATO fails in Libya.”

At the same time, so-called coalitions of the willing seem to be emerging as an increasingly serious competitor to the Atlantic alliance and its traditional role as the primary conduit for Western security policy. Particularly in post-9/11 Washington, such informal and flexible arrangements are enjoying considerable popularity as a means for projecting power and stability out of area. At least since the French push for employing a similar model in the fight against Qaddafi, this preference for ad hoc coalitions over permanent alliances is no longer unique to the superpower.

It is therefore high time to stop and ponder what role and relevance a Cold War alliance can still aspire to in (what appears to be) an age of coalition warfare: that is, to inquire into the post–Cold War trends that explain NATO’s troubles of the past two decades, to examine how their (superior) ability to cope with these trends can account for the rise of coalitions over the same period, and to delineate from this a potential future role for the alliance based not on competition, but on cooperation with the coalitions.


To a significant extent, the persistent uncertainty about NATO’s role and relevance in the post–Cold War world is the result of a development that was set off by the collapse of the bipolar Cold War superstructure more than two decades ago: the gradual demise of security policy’s systemic dimension. Three aspects of this broader trend in particular have profound implications for the global relevance, operational effectiveness, and political cohesion of a standing formal alliance like NATO: the increasingly situational nature of threats and challenges, capabilities and commitments, and interests and alignments.

During the Cold War, any conflict or crisis, occurring anywhere, could have implications for the security of almost everyone in either of the East-West camps. This began to change once the global ideological antagonism subsided. As the threat—real or imagined—that a local or regional conflict halfway around the world might evolve into a global nuclear holocaust faded into history, security became an increasingly situational affair, shaped by—and properly understood only against the background of—the particularities of specific political, geographical, and historical contexts.

Events in Somalia and Rwanda, for instance, no longer necessarily affected the interests and security of the entire Western camp and its dominant alliance the way that similar occurances had in the past, however indirectly. European allies had always sought shelter under the US umbrella, but now they had much less reason than before to concern themselves with the global responsibilities of the sole surviving superpower. No longer having to fear that local conflicts elsewhere might spark a catastrophic confrontation on the Old Continent, much of Europe happily retired from any global role or aspiration, comfortably settling into what Robert Cooper calls a “post-modern world” of regional peace and prosperity.

The flip side of this was, of course, that events in Europe no longer had immediate implications for global security (or US interests) either. Yugoslavia, for example, which had prominently figured in many Cold War–era war games as the fuse that might set a continent—and eventually the world—ablaze, now took years to attract any serious attention in Washington when it actually exploded in the early 1990s. The primary battlefield—and prize—of the Cold War, the Old Continent, had now lost much of its earlier geopolitical centrality.

The natural consequence of this trend toward a more situational conception of threats and challenges was for the Atlantic alliance to adopt a much more decidedly regional posture, refocusing from containment of the former USSR to trying to stabilize its immediate neighborhood. Even as NATO cautiously initiated a process of enlargement, started to institutionalize its relationships with countries in the post-Soviet sphere, and embarked on its first out-of-area operations in the Balkans, it remained an essentially Eurocentric alliance, in terms of both its membership and operational reach.

This changed only when the geopolitical center of gravity eventually shifted from Europe to the Middle East and Central Asia in the aftermath of 9/11, after which two other trends with profound implications for the alliance started playing out more forcefully: the increasingly situational character of capabilities and commitments as well as interests and alignments.

During the Cold War, when there had been a high likelihood of local crises escalating into a global confrontation, a strong NATO force in Europe could help to deter the Soviet Union from pursuing some of its more objectionable projects even in faraway places like Central Asia. Once the threat of a systemic escalation of regional conflicts decreased after the Cold War, however, power would henceforth have to be actually projected on a global scale for it to have a deterrent effect: Quite naturally, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are much less easily impressed by a strong NATO force in the German lowlands than the Soviets used to be, particularly if the alliance lacks the strategic airlift capabilities to move it to Afghanistan.

Thus, when NATO eventually did accept global responsibilities in the aftermath of 9/11, the support and assistance offered by the alliance collectively, and by European allies individually, under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, had little more than diplomatic significance in American strategic thinking. Much more than French and German battle tanks, what was needed in the unfolding war on terror were basing rights and overflight permissions from countries like Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and particularly Pakistan. The significant leverage these nations possessed with various important players inside Afghanistan would also be more of an asset politically than the procedural legitimacy accorded by various international organizations. As they gradually regained their confidence in the days and weeks after the attacks, some planners in Washington thus came to perceive the invocation of Article 5 by NATO not (primarily) as a genuine expression of allied solidarity, but also as a more or less thinly veiled attempt on the part of the allies to gain some sort of institutional control over the Bush administration’s response to the attacks.

If, at this time of national emergency, American officials felt unable to surrender their policies and purposes to NATO’s often unwieldy processes and procedures, that sentiment was largely grounded in the unhappy experience of having had to fight a “war by committee” over Serbia just two years earlier. The interallied disputes and disputations during the Kosovo campaign had allowed the world to see how difficult it had become for a standing alliance like NATO to preserve its cohesion ten years after the Cold War. As the fundamental antagonism between East and West wound down, national interests of alliance members were less and less predetermined by a priori ideological considerations, but shaped and shaken on a case-by-case basis depending on the distinct characteristics of each situation. Individual states would no longer define their policy on any specific issue primarily according to general geostrategic considerations, but increasingly had to chart their course based on situational concerns such as geographical proximity, historical loyalties, diplomatic relations, economic interdependence, and political expedience. As a consequence, different allies came to perceive threats and challenges differently and would therefore react differently to them. With the ultimate enforcer of alliance cohesion—the possibility of an all-out confrontation between the ideological blocs—removed, alignments of convenience could (and would) emerge and vanish based on situational communities of interest with little regard for the boundaries and borders set by traditional alliance politics.

While the outpouring of allied solidarity after 9/11 helped to mitigate these problems for a while after the sobering experience in the Balkans, the dispute over Iraq brought them fully into the open. At the heart of the matter lay a genuine disagreement among the allies over whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq presented an imminent threat to Euro-Atlantic security and, if so, how it should be confronted. With the United States determined to go to war and with limited independent influence of their own, Germany and France, as Charles Doran relates, used their institutional leverage within NATO “to tie up the United States in procedural disputation . . . that would delay, and if possible prevent, Anglo-US military intervention in Iraq.” As a consequence, Washington deliberately sidelined the alliance and its logjammed procedures in its preparations for war. When the debate thus moved out of established institutional constraints, it also moved quickly out of bounds, sparking what Elizabeth Pond has called an ugly “Franco-German-American war” of words. Americans believed that NATO’s consensus-based procedures had proved unable to uphold what should be the very foundation of any alliance: agreement as to the existence and nature of a common enemy or threat.


Like any standing alliance based on a largely static commitment of capabilities and alignment of interests, NATO thus struggles to effectively tackle threats and challenges that are increasingly in flux. In the process, so-called coalitions of the willing have emerged as a popular institutional and operational alternative. The key to their appeal lies in their flexible, adaptive design—and three factors in particular that enable them to cope much more effectively with the increasingly situational security environment discussed above. First, temporary coalitions offer an issue-specific approach, which allows for the development of custom-tailored responses to individual threats and challenges. Second, they offer a situational opt-in, which allows for a case-by-case commitment of relevant capabilities. Third, they offer a situational opt-out, which allows for a case-by-case alignment of compatible interests.

Rather than maintaining one permanent, comprehensive structure such as NATO, the idea behind the coalition model is to build, in Colin Powell’s words, a highly flexible, modular “coalition of coalitions that are constantly shifting . . . and changing as the needs shift and change.” Thus, a number of highly specialized institutions would be established, each given a task that is clearly circumscribed in terms of goals to be pursued, subject matter, geographical reach, and temporal horizon. For example, just as the original counterterror coalition of Operation Enduring Freedom was purposefully broken down into several distinct components conducted with different objectives and levels of ambition in Afghanistan, at the Horn of Africa, in the central African Sahel and Sahara region, and elsewhere, specific and distinct coalitions were later also used to preempt the deployment of weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to prevent their development by Iran (the P5+1 talks), and to globally inhibit their proliferation (the Proliferation Security Initiative). With the mission thus clearly defined, it becomes possible to respond to the unique characteristics and requirements of each threat or challenge by assembling a custom-tailored group of actors for addressing it based on capabilities that are relevant to the specific task and interests that are aligned on the concrete issue. “The mission,” in Donald Rumsfeld’s memorable words, “determines the coalition.”

Unlike ongoing membership in a security alliance with a long and complicated history (including a history of bitter, if papered over, disagreements), participation in a coalition does not require subscription to or acceptance of a general set of principles and values, but only a pragmatic decision to make a concrete contribution to a clearly defined individual effort. Rather than having to make a broad, open-ended, and often unpredictable commitment, potential partners are thus given the option to just join in the pursuit of a specific common goal on a specific issue, in a specific location, at a specific time. The bar for would-be contributors is therefore significantly lowered—each can cooperate on one issue without having to agree on a variety of others, and no future obligations are implied by present agreements.

Such issue-specific cooperation is what made it possible for the United States and Iran—in a remarkable, albeit short-lived, success story of flexible ad hoc cooperation—to work together in pursuit of their shared interests pertaining to Afghanistan and the Taliban regime immediately after 9/11. The coalition approach enabled Tehran, a longtime and staunch opponent of both the Taliban and the United States, to provide pragmatic and concrete assistance to the American effort at the Hindu Kush without forcing it to first reconcile its possibly irreconcilable differences with Washington on virtually every other issue. Thus, as former US Special Envoy James Dobbins relates, Iran diplomatically facilitated the establishment of an interim government for Afghanistan at the Bonn Conference, pledged financial aid of more than half a billion dollars at the Tokyo donors’ conference, and even cooperated with the coalition’s military effort—initially by supporting the Northern Alliance’s ground campaign and later by offering to build barracks for and train up to twenty thousand Afghan troops as part of the larger effort under American leadership.

In a similar manner, the US was able to secure the cooperation of Pakistan and most other neighbors of Afghanistan by allowing them to restrict their involvement to the most critical aspects of the war on terror rather than making them subscribe to the overall effort or join in an ideological commitment that might threaten the stability of their autocratic regimes. The regional powers thus granted the US and its allies transit and basing rights, overflight permissions, and, in the case of Pakistan, even limited authority for military operations in the porous border regions. At the same time, neither Pakistan nor any of Afghanistan’s other neighbors have ever formally joined NATO’s International Security Assistance Force operation.

The corollary to such situational opt-ins, of course, is the situational opt-out. “We’re going to have different countries and different people in different countries supporting us with respect to these activities and possibly not those,” Donald Rumsfeld said early on in the war on terror. “And that’s perfectly understandable. No one agrees with everybody all of the time on everything.”

Whereas NATO is generally conceived as a values-based community built on common interests and commitments that are expected to hold across space and time, coalitions of the willing are more limited associations of convenience, leaving countries free to pick and choose specific issues, locations, and moments for cooperation based on their individual calculations of the national interest. This has important procedural implications: While a NATO member that chooses not to participate in a specific operation still retains its vote (and veto) in alliance institutions, membership in—and thus a voice in the decisionmaking of—a coalition is conditional on making a tangible contribution to the common effort (and, as the Iraq example illustrates, frequently also on the quantity and quality of that contribution).

While Operation Unified Protector in Libya was formally an effort of the whole alliance, for instance, more than half of NATO’s members initially refused to participate. If Germany and others absolutely wanted to remain on the sidelines as their allies started bombing Tripoli, France and the others had no choice but to accept this decision. But they had no intention of giving Berlin a voice in how to conduct the operation. France in particular was not prepared to submit to a political decisionmaking process dominated by a majority of non-participants and therefore sought to conduct the campaign not under NATO’s roof but under the auspices of an informal coalition of the willing. When that failed, leaders from France, Great Britain, and the United States agreed informally to at least move deliberations on the most critical aspects of the operation outside of alliance structures. Meeting with other partners on the fringes of the G-8 summit in Deauville, they even went so far as to formally exclude the German chancellor from their negotiations. At the same time, they remained flexible enough to allow for Berlin’s inclusion in the Contact Group on Libya, where its political clout and financial leverage were more than welcome.


Coalitions are valuable and viable instruments capable of standing in for formal alliances that have reached dead ends. Particularly in crisis situations—both real and perceived—they can be instrumental in securing commitments of critical capabilities and building a consensus for action around compatible interests. They thereby help preserve at least a modicum of multilateralism in a global political context that increasingly stigmatizes unilateralism.

The more forcefully NATO develops its partnerships with nonmembers and the more willingly it accepts issue-specific abstentions of individual allies, the more it will be able to emulate some of this success. But it must also acknowledge that such success has never lasted very long; that coalitions have never been able to sustain their drive and direction much beyond the short term. As the perceived urgency of a matter fades and other concerns move to the fore, the issue-specific, crisis-induced consensus at the heart of any such arrangement quickly breaks down. In Iraq, the size of the coalition constantly shrank as difficulties grew. (By the time of the US withdrawal, it had officially become what it was long derided as being—a coalition of one.) As the parties dug in for a protracted civil war in Libya, early enthusiasm for coalition warfare also faded; by early August, France and Italy were withdrawing their aircraft carriers from the region and Norway had terminated active participation in the operation altogether.

While coalitions thus may be a useful tool for crisis management, they appear unable to find or facilitate sustainable solutions to the crises they help manage. For such long-term tasks, a structured, inclusive approach building on trust-based relationships, reliable commitments, and assured access to operational capabilities continues to be indispensable; and it is here where NATO’s strengths as an institutionalized alliance really come to bear. Rather than trying to compete with coalitions for the job of the global, rapid-reaction force it was—structurally and institutionally—never meant to be (or capable of being), the Atlantic alliance should thus invest in its capacity to make a sustained, large-scale operational commitment in pursuit of the supreme strategic objectives shared by all its members. When, in 2003, the ad hoc approach reached a dead end in Afghanistan, as no individual coalition member was prepared to assume the lead in the International Security Assistance Force, NATO stood ready to step in and has since upheld a commitment even more significant than those it had previously entered into in Bosnia and Kosovo. It is on challenges and tasks like these that NATO needs to concentrate if it is to reassert its relevance in the post-9/11 world.


The persistent uncertainty about NATO’s role during the past two decades largely stems from the increasingly situational nature of security policy in the post–Cold War era. This has not only devalued the alliance’s permanent and standardized capabilities, but also eroded the community of interests formed by its members around a single common threat and purpose during the postwar period.

As a consequence, the alliance often appears too inertial, unwieldy, and politicized to effectively tackle the diffuse, multidimensional security challenges of this new era. Here the more agile and pragmatic coalitions of the willing have a clear advantage. Their flexible character enables them to step in as first responders and crisis managers when the alliance as a whole is unable or unwilling to act. They are capable of serving as a stopgap when cooperation within NATO is deadlocked, operating as a safety valve that will reduce tensions within the alliance and protect cooperation in some fields by outsourcing contentious issues.

At the same time, the Atlantic alliance retains its own specific strengths, particularly in situations requiring a sustained, large-scale operational commitment. In the short term, the alliance will probably never be able to beat the focus, flexibility, and efficiency of a coalition. In the long term, however, its values-based, resource-backed, and institutionally integrated approach has clear advantages. Rather than regard them as a challenge, NATO should therefore welcome coalitions of the willing as a useful addition to the transatlantic crisis management toolbox. If each focuses on its specific strengths, the allies and the willing can be more than the mere antagonists they are often portrayed to be.

Karsten Jung is a research associate at the department of political science and sociology at the University of Bonn, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. project on the role of informal concert diplomacy in post–Cold War security policy.

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