Colbourn on Burton, 'NATO's Durability in a Post-Cold War World'

Joe Burton
Susan Colbourn

Joe Burton. NATO's Durability in a Post-Cold War World. New York: SUNY Press, 2018. 294 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-6873-0.

Reviewed by Susan Colbourn (Yale University) Published on H-War (January, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version:

Nearly thirty years after the Cold War’s end, the continued importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been the subject of much debate in recent months and years. In NATO’s Durability in a Post–Cold War World, Joe Burton explores how and why the Western alliance has endured in the decades since the Cold War’s end. Each of the chapters focuses on a major issue (or set of issues) in the alliance’s history since 1991, covering NATO expansion through the ongoing difficulties in NATO’s relations with Russia following the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine.

Burton’s analysis centers around the concept of narratives in explaining NATO’s continued existence and institutional durability, focusing on two particular narratives. The first—a “liberal narrative”—underscored the importance of democratic values and of NATO as a values-based community. Such shared values, as Burton argues, helped to preserve allied support for the mission in Afghanistan. Alongside this liberal framing, Burton also highlights a “realist narrative” rooted in the ongoing security threats facing NATO’s members and the realities of power politics. Throughout, Burton’s work points to the way these two narratives worked in tandem with one another to justify the alliance’s policies and shore up support for it as an institution.

Considering these two narrative traditions in conjunction, Burton points to the complex sources of NATO’s durability. The Western allies appealed, both implicitly and explicitly, to a range of justifications. Burton rightly challenges the notion that either explanation alone is sufficient to account for NATO’s post–Cold War continuation, arguing that the two are not contradictory, but rather, complementary. This “historical convergence,” as Burton demonstrates, can be found in many of NATO’s decisions since the Cold War came to an end. The decision to expand the alliance’s membership eastward, to give one example, reflected both geostrategic interests and the appeal of “democratic enlargement” (p. 41).

Yet, in framing this analysis, Burton at times repackages NATO’s own mythology for the reader’s consumption. In the conclusion, for instance, Burton asserts that “NATO has always been an alliance of democracies and one committed to democratic values” (p. 170). But NATO’s first decades tell a very different story. During Jimmy Carter’s time as president, nearly three decades after NATO’s founding, his foreign policy team rejoiced that for the first time in the alliance’s history, each and every one of NATO’s members could be considered a full-fledged democracy. (Even then, it didn’t last for the entire Carter presidency: a military coup took place in Turkey in 1980.) A more nuanced treatment of NATO’s complicated relationship with democracy would not have undermined Burton’s arguments regarding the “liberal narrative”; instead, by interrogating the disconnects between reality and allied mythology, Burton might have made an even more compelling case for why the “liberal narrative” persists and contributes to the Western alliance’s staying power. Doing so is all the more important given Burton’s concluding recommendation that “NATO needs to communicate its values more clearly, both internally and externally, and hold members accountable for undemocratic practices” (p. 175).

Throughout, Burton returns to the role of history. NATO’s enlargement at the end of the Cold War, he concludes in chapter 1, was in part the result of the past. The Western alliance had “historical inertia”—it proved difficult to upend and remake after the successes of the Cold War years (p. 42). In thinking about the challenges that have faced the Western allies in recent decades, much of the past, however, is curiously absent. When discussing the 2011 intervention in Libya, Burton describes NATO’s anxieties about an “arc of instability” from Mali to Afghanistan (p. 153). The parallels to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “arc of crisis” seem obvious. Drawing on contentious debates from the alliance’s Cold War years, such as those in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, would have helped to illuminate what has changed—and, crucially, what has not—over the decades.

NATO’s Durability in a Post–Cold War World traces a wide array of issues in the alliance’s recent history, exploring how both liberal and realist narratives have been used to explain policies from intervening in the former Yugoslavia to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. Joe Burton raises fascinating questions about how NATO has—and continues to—justify its existence, though the limitations of these arguments (both liberal and realist) are left largely untouched. As NATO’s value comes under intense scrutiny, including from the current occupant of the Oval Office, one can’t help but wonder if the convergence of narratives around the NATO alliance have actually made it more difficult to make a compelling case for its continuation.


Citation: Susan Colbourn. Review of Burton, Joe, NATO's Durability in a Post-Cold War World. H-War, H-Net Reviews. January, 2019. URL:

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