How NATO Adapts

How NATO Adapts

Strategy and Organization in the Atlantic Alliance since 1950

Seth A. Johnston

Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2016, 272 pages

Book Review published on: June 16, 2017

In a security environment characterized more by asymmetric threats than mutually assured destruction, can an alliance that was designed to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down” adapt to new challenges? In How NATO Adapts: Strategy and Organization in the Atlantic Alliance since 1990, Maj. Seth A. Johnston, PhD, demonstrates that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is not just a static alliance or relic of the Cold War but rather it is an adaptive security institution that has repeatedly shown the flexibility to withstand and overcome global security crises. The book not only provides an excellent case study in organizational adaptation but it is also a concise history of critical points in NATO’s history. This book is paramount for understanding how NATO can respond to future crises.

Johnston points out that, unlike much of the previous literature on NATO, this book is unique because it examines NATO as an organization rather than just an international alliance. The book is organized into three sections: an introduction, three case studies, and a brief section describing future implications. The majority of the content is an examination of the role of institutional actors during three critical periods in NATO’s history. Using the concept of critical junctures, the author demonstrates how institutional actors used institutional mechanisms of adaptation during critical periods or crisis points to “relax” institutional resistance, which allowed for the adaptation of the organizational and strategic framework of NATO to meet new security challenges.

Throughout this book, the author offers the reader a clear and concise history of some of NATO’s crisis points. These crisis points include the outbreak of the Korean War and the organizational challenge of the European Defense Community, the dual challenges of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Crisis, and the collective institutional crisis that followed the end of the Cold War. Each of these case studies is prefaced with several pages of historical context and then followed with a well-researched and convincing analysis of NATO’s adaptation following each critical juncture.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the discussion of the role of midlevel bureaucratic actors as change agents throughout NATO’s history. The author is careful not to exclude the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and secretary generals, but he also demonstrates how bureaucratic actors in the secretariat, international civilian and military staffs, and the integrated military structure have played defining roles at critical points. For any military staff officer, Johnston’s examples are a source of inspiration.

For his evaluation of NATO’s adaptive characteristics, Johnston relies primarily on two measures of performance: internal processes and the external output of NATO strategy. While it is expressly outside the scope of this study, it would be interesting to see future research focused on the overall effectiveness of organizational adaptation in this context; as the reader is left to wonder as to whether the adaptations are actually effective in furthering NATO’s goals.

How NATO Adapts is an excellent book for anyone interested in organizational change, international organizations, or military history. For anyone preparing to work with NATO, this book should be mandatory reading because it not only provides an organizational history but it also provides a roadmap for the internal processes of the organization. In the end, Johnston even provides the reader with some key insights for how NATO may adapt in the future.

Book Review written by: Capt. Drew Shepler, U.S. Army, Belgrade, Serbia