30 November: The US NATO debate book launch

Washington wants to “lead from behind”. On 30 November Magnus Petersson presented the findings in his new book.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Magnus Petersson, professor at IFS and currently visiting scholar at SAIS in Washington, DC, presented his latest book The US NATO Debate: From Libya to Ukraine, a study of the US debate on NATO and the consequences of the debate for European and global security. Focusing on different groups of actors – the administration, congress, the elite media, and the major think tanks - the book covers the US debate during the Libya war in 2011, the Syria conflict and the Chicago summit 2012-13, and the Ukraine crisis that also dominated the Wales summit of 2014. 

As the author pointed out, how America view Europe and to what extent it is willing to engage in the continent's affairs has been and will remain decisive for European allies and directly affect their security policies. According to Petersson, there is a clear tendency that Washington wants to "lead from behind" and to let its European allies – including Norway - take more responsibility for European security. Svein Melby senior researcher at IFS and one of Norway's leading experts on US security policy provided comments that opened a rich Q and A session.

​​​Minimalist, moderate and maximalist views

When talking to US actors while writing the book, Petersson was often met with the question "What NATO debate?" Although NATO is not as central in the US grand strategy debate as in European debate, Petersson argued that there is a US NATO debate and that it can be fruitfully analysed through three questions:

  • What should NATO be, what kind of vision do US policy makers  and shapers have for NATO?
  • What should NATO do, what should be its mission?
  • How (and by whom) should NATO be led?

One can distinguish between three broad understandings in the US. Some have a maximalist understanding of what NATO should be and do, and how much the United States should engage. These groups see NATO as a political and even cultural alliance with a mission to defend and promote wider western interests and values. Others interpret NATO in a more minimalist way, emphasising its core task as a military alliance and its focus on Article 5 and promoting US interests.  Unsurprisingly, US administrations have a relatively moderate understanding of NATO's mission. In recent years, this pragmatism has affected American leadership and willingness to use NATO as the principle framework for the organisation of Western security.


The end​​ of charismatic leadership?

During the cold war and the 1990s, America's leader role in NATO can be described as charismatic, i.e. that there was no doubt that the US was the obvious leader, a "primus inter pares", in the alliance. No one questioned that and every one expected that.

Today, it seems as if Washington puts greater emphasis on "shared leaderhip" willingly letting other allies to step up. According to Petersson, this is both a way to enforce greater burden sharing and a consequence of allied contributions, and the bottom line is, from a US perspective, that Europe must take more responsibility for European security.

Long term t​​rends?

Although American calls for more European engagement and a fairer burden sharing are far from new – it has on the contrary been a permanent "problem" within the alliance since the beginning - Petersson argued that the fact that the US had been less eager to lead NATO in a traditional way in recent years is a long term trend. That argument was questioned by Melby, who argued that the crises covered in Petersson's book all started during the presidency of Barack Obama, and that the less active US NATO policy to a large extent could be explained by his, and his administration's, leadership style. Instead, Melby expressed cautious optimism with regard to the next administration's NATO policies, because NATO is still crucial for both America and Europe.

The main guarantor o​​​f the Western security order

An extended Q&A session, chaired by Professor Tom Kristiansen (IFS) highlighted the topic's timeliness. Among the topics debated were other factor' s that could have caused the decreased US interest in NATO, such as strategic factor's (the rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific), economic constraints, increased cultural differences between America and Europe, and anti-interventionist tendencies in US policy and debate after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Kristiansen also highlighted that the book concluded a successful four year research program, "NATO in a changing world", conducted jointly between IFS and the Department of Political Science at the University of Oslo, and financed by the Norwegian Ministry of Defence. The program had generated five internationally published books, 40 articles and book chapters, 20 master's thesis, 25 public events, and several master's and PhD courses at the Norwegian Defence University College and The University of Oslo.

The seminar left no doubt that continued research on NATO is necessary, as the Alliance, while seeing its position challenged, remains the main guarantor of the Western security order. Petersson's book reminds Europeans that they can trust their American ally but that they cannot always rely on US leadership.

Published 30 November 2015 00:00.. Last updated 03 November 2016 16:04.