NATO Now and Then: Alliance Agents and Structures in Anarchical International Society

Anarchy, Society, and Alliances

Anarchy and society are major themes of current international relations. Like other similar couples – agents and structures, conflict and cooperation, disintegration and integration, war and peace – the two are often opposed in the literature. This article uses NATO as an example to suggest that these theoretical binary pairs are not mutually exclusive, but rather coexist in the real world. They are densely braided in different levels and sectors of the global system, coexisting in parallel, tracking each other through space and time. (See, for example Beer, 1981, 1969; Buchan, 1977; Hall, 2012; Little, 2013; Murray, 2013).

The 20th century was branded as the anarchic century of total war by Raymond Aron. It contained two World Wars separated only by the comma of a generation. Immediately following the end of World War II, the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe signaled the arrival of the Cold War. These sequential hot and cold wars marked the anarchic disintegration and collapse of the international social order that had followed the Napoleonic wars in 1815.

At the same time, the 20th century hosted the continuing growth of international society. The League of Nations followed the First World War and the United Nations was a bookend to the Second. When major international violence occurred, it was socially organized. In both World Wars, the world was neatly divided into opposing camps, with some scattered neutrals. Within these armed camps, particularly among the Allies during World War II, there emerged highly institutionalized forms of cooperation. Military forces remained under national control, but, there was an Allied chain of command on the Western front, at the top of which stood General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).

The Cold War and the political instability following a harsh winter in 1947 motivated Western leaders to build on this organization  and to create other institutions of international society, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization which was established in 1949. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter legitimated individual or collective self-defence against an armed attack. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty made very clear that NATO self defence was to operate within the context of the new United Nations system where the United Nations Security Council was (in principle) the custodian of international peace and security.

NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay succinctly combined the anarchic and social realities when he stated that NATO’s tasks were to keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in.[Move hyperlink from purple to red text]

Alliances are anarchy’s children, but they are also particular forms of international society. They are war communities; born of war, preparing for war, waging war. NATO is, paradoxically, an international community whose reason for being is international conflict.

Alliance Agents and Structures

In the context of mixed international anarchy and society, NATO also blended agents and structures. (See Royo, 2012; Pickworth, 2011; Giddens, 1984). Among the agents present at the creation were American leaders – US President Harry S. Truman; Secretaries of State George Marshall and Dean Acheson; General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

European military and political leaders also played major roles. NATO’s initial political leaders were highly distinguished. Lord Hastings “Pug” Ismay had been Winston Churchill’s chief military aide during World War II and he represented both Britain and the Commonwealth. NATO’s second Secretary General, from 1957-1961, Paul Henri Charles Spaak, had been Belgian Prime Minister in the 1930s and 1940s, the first President of the UN General Assembly and one of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the European Union. These leaders built on the structures that they had helped to create during the preceding war. Allied cooperation during World War II had laid the basis for preserving physical and institutional forms of Allied cooperation.

In Paris, the most fundamental structures were the buildings that NATO occupied. The Palais de Chaillot, had been a German headquarters. After the war, it was converted to Allied use, becoming the site of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary forces (SHAEF) and then of NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe. This headquarters building was succeeded by others at the Porte Dauphine in Paris and then at Mons in Belgium. These structures are architectural. But other structures are organizational. The NATO civilian organizational structureincludes about 50 separate units, and the military structure about 100 administrative units.

If one looks at NATO’s creation and historical evolution, it is hard to say that agents do not matter. NATO institutions were and are full of people, all of whom have contributed to its development and mission. Agents and structures are different magnifications of the same process. Individuals are obviously important actors. At the same time, if one looks at the mind-numbing organization charts, it is also hard to say that structure doesn’t matter. The dense, concrete physical and organizational facticity of NATO on the ground today is overwhelming. Yet, it is also difficult to avoid the impression of bureaucratic drift. One does not know if the founding agents, viewing the results of their handiwork more than half a century later, would be elated or dismayed at what they had wrought.

Alliance Dynamics

Alliance dynamics look both outward and inward. NATO agents and structures, at different levels, participate symmetrically in both anarchic and social elements of the international system.  They prepare to fight, if necessary, in an anarchic international system – the Cold War or the Global War on Terror. At the same time, they create and take advantage of the cooperative elements of international society – the United Nations or the European Union, for example, to achieve that task.

NATO agents and structures also participate asymmetrically in both anarchic and social elements of the international system. During chaotic international time periods, when external anarchy increases- like the Cold War – we see movement toward tighter, stronger internal NATO relations. Other more peaceful time periods – after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before 9/11 – where international anarchy appears to abate and society gains ground, can imply an internal loss of mission; weaker, looser cooperation; and less constraint of the alliance’s national actors. Simmering conflicts—Greece and Turkey—may have more room to grow.

NATO, as an international political-military regional organization, seamlessly moves between international anarchy and international society. The Cold War is over, but relations with Russia and the newly independent central and Eastern European republics need to be managed. New members are admitted to NATO—Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia. Military operations are conducted: Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq, Libya. There are crisis and defense planning and coordination and many other tasks under the umbrella of collective defense.

Agents and structures interact. Individuals, acting the name of sovereign nation states, create international structures; and these structures, in turn, link states together. This evolutionary, path dependent, process can work over time to create historical and emerging alliances. The outcome is heavily contingent, depending on contextual mixes of anarchy and society, agents and structures. Other alliances such as the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization followed different trajectories in a changing global environment, disbanding following the end of the Cold War and Vietnam. However, NATO, now and then, still thrives.


Beer, Francis A. 1981. Peace against War: The Ecology of Interna­tional Violence. (San Francisco: W. H. Free­man).

Beer, Francis A. 1972. The Political Economy of Alliances: Bene­fits, Costs, and Institu­tions in NATO. (Beverly Hills: Sage).

Beer, Francis A. 1970. Alliances: Latent War Communities in the Contem­porary World, edited. (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston).

Beer, Francis A. 1969. Integration and Disintegration in NATO: Pro­cesses of Alliance Cohesion and Prospects for Atlantic Community. (Columbus: Ohio State Uni­versity Press).

Bull, Hedley. 1977. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration, Cambridge UK: Polity Press.

Hall, Ian. 2012. “Taming the Anarchical Society”. e-International Relations.

Little, Richard. 2013. “Reassessing the Expansion of the International Society” e-International Relations.

Murray, Robert W. 2013. System, Society, and the World: Exploring the English School of International Relations. (United Kingdom: e-International Relations).

Pickworth, Elizabeth. 2011. “The Theory of Structure: An Analysis” e-International Relations.

Royo, Joseph. 2012. “Agency and International Relations: An Alternative Lens” e-International Relations.

Francis A. Beer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His blog, Mythic America, is at

This article first appeared in e-International Relations (August 27, 2013)


Maximizing Prudence in International Relations

An article with Robert Hariman, published in the journal e-International Relations, February 12, 2013, explores prudential foreign policy maxims.

How Words Matter: Rhetoric, Politics, and International Relations

Many rhetoricians believe that rhetoric, like art, should be pursued and studied for its own sake.  Speakers and writers concerned with politics, however, have long known that rhetoric is very much of this world.  A pure art and science of rhetoric may be a desirable goal, but rhetoric in this world is not goal-free or context invariant.  Political rhetoricians  from the time of the Sophists through Classical figures like Aristotle, Cicero, Caesar and Quintilian have long known that rhetoric can be the high road to political power.

Cicero.jpg 962 × 600 – Attributed to Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 B.C.-43 B.C.)

The development of language and the development of politics have been tightly bound together.  One of the most striking and central passages in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is where he makes it quite explicit that the central power of the sovereign is the power to stabilize the meanings of words within the commonwealth.  Political rulers during the Middle Ages were anxious to define and determine languages within their sovereign boundaries as a device for communicating their power and authority.  Machiavelli lays particular importance on The Prince’s use of language as a device for inspiring the proper obedience among his subjects.  Language becomes the defining framework for political authority and communication.  It also emerges as a primary means of motivating political actors.  The symbolic subjective dimension helps to determine the disposition of the physical and the material.  The pen, as it is said, becomes at least as mighty as the sword.  It is not enough for Julius Caesar to conquer the Carthaginians and to cross the Rubicon.  He must also write a history of the Gallic Wars.  Images and actions join together in a way that makes the physical and virtual worlds inseparable.

In spite of this connection between language and politics, students of politics have not always been eager to recognize the political importance of language.  Scholars of international relations, in particular, have long been dismissive or ambivalent about the importance of language and rhetoric.  Thucydides, in the Melian debate of The Peloponnesian Wars, dismisses the use of mere words. On the other hand,  it is important to note that Thucydides’ views come to us down through history through the medium of the written text.  And it is also important to note that the work itself, the Peloponnesian Wars, embodies a highly structured dramaturgical design, reminiscent and reflective of the finest works of the Greek Classical dramatists. There is, of course, an important stylistic dimension to the work.  Argumentation forms the central core structure.  The actors are presented in a series of set argumentations or debates and finally there is a literary dimension reminiscent of postmodern perspectives.  In this work, the virtual, the symbolic assume a critical life of their own.

Nevertheless, scholars of international relations have not laid, in general, a heavy emphasis on language and rhetoric.  As Thucydides tells us, “The strong do as they will while the weak do as they must”.  In an outlook reminiscent of Plato’s belief in Forms, more modern scholars such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz set forth a stark, essentialist view of international relations, international realism.  This view is based on their intuitive grasp of the essence of international relations, its geometric structure.  The system of international relations, in this perspective, consists of a minimalist field of forces.  Nations are essentially power robots.  They define their national interests in terms of power and they use whatever means, including war, to maximize that power.  Words are decidedly weaker, lighter, inferior to military force in this drive for power.  Nations that do not follow the structural laws of the system are quickly eliminated.  The system evolves to favor the survival of the powerful.  International relations, in this view, are the domain of specialists in coercion, not of specialists in persuasion.  The system of international relations consists, In Lasswell’s term,  of garrison states.  Non-garrison states are either incorporated into the garrison states or cease to exist.  This modernist, deep structural, essentialist, minimalist view is appealing because of its simplicity, its parsimony, its linearity – its cleanness.

Unfortunately, this view does not really do justice either to the complexities of the modern world, to international relations, or to politics in general.  A growing body of literature has now begun to recognize that our understanding of the relationship between politics and language must go beyond discussion of “cheap talk” and begin to deal seriously with political rhetoric with the politics and strategy of rhetoric.

Words matter, first of all, because they reflect the minds and thoughts of those who speak or write them, those who hear them or read them.  It is true that political actors very often, perhaps usually, do not say what they really think or mean.  An important part of political action is dissimulation to the extent that political action and political talk are strategic.  It would be naive to take words at their face value.  Nevertheless, the basis of any strategy must be the assumption that words do have an effect and an important one.  The actors may not say what they mean, but their words must, in their minds, carry a meaning that they would wish them to have.  The actors may not express what they think but they must express at least what they think their audience would want to hear or what would move their audience.  Political talk, then, may or may not be an authentic expression of the minds and thoughts of political actors.  Nevertheless, in its strategic form, political language must be importantly related to these minds and thoughts.  If political language is to have a strategic effect, words must matter and matter in an important way.


Political Rally; Nuremberg, Germany, 1934.

Talk may appear to be cheap because the marginal cost of each additional word seems to be close to zero.  Major economic investments are not required for President Obama or President Putin to utter the next word.  At the same time the infrastructure for the transmission of words and messages is far from inconsequential.  The modern media, as well as multibillion dollar state and corporate public relations enterprises exist precisely for the transmission of these messages.  Though a good deal of media content is commercial in form, its substance is always deeply political.  The dominance of world culture by Western media is the best example of this.

Martin Luther King, I Have a Dream, Washington DC Mall, August 28, 1963


Words are, of course, also a form of action and verbal behavior.  Verbal action is equivalent to non-verbal action and operates parallel to it. We can see the importance of words by examining their political role more closely in the field of international relations.  In the first place, the dominant theory of international relations, realism, is expressed verbally.  Words are used to develop, support and maintain this theory as the dominant interpretation.  In the same way words problematize realism and can help to validate other interpretations.

  • Words express the memories and histories of international relations.
  • Words express the narratives and myths of international relations.
  • Words express the perceptions of the observers and actors of international relations.
  • Words are used to convey many of the messages and signals of international relations.
  • Words and combined with each other, and with different forms of non-verbal behavior, into rhetorical strategies of persuasion.
  • Words are used to make peace.
  • Words are used for negotiation and bargaining.
  • Words are used to publicize the positions and views of different international actors.
  • Words are used to bind together international allies.
  • Words are used to command soldiers.
  •  Words are used to differentiate friends from enemy, self from other.
  •  Words are used to construct coalitions and hierarchies.
  •  Words are used to develop strategies, to articulate and discern preferences, utilities and probabilities.
  •  Words are used to describe trends and projections.
  •  Words are used to develop plans and policies.
  • Words are used to order military activities.
  • Words are used to coordinate economic international activities.
  • Words are used in debates and speeches over foreign affairs and reports that deal with foreign affairs.
  • Words are used in diplomacy.
  • Words express logic, cognition and ideas.
  • Words express interests and emotions.
  • Words express both the simplicity and complexity of international relations.
  • Words are both stimuli and responses in international relations.
  • Words construct political power and authority.
  • Words construct the rituals and meanings of politics.
  • Words construct identity and interest, privilege and disadvantage.
  • Words construct domination and subordination, victims and executioners,  resistance, rebellion and death.

We often wish for “magic words” that will quickly and easily bend others to our will. They may exist, but, if so, they are very elusive, hiding from us when we need them most. Yet talk is not just “cheap talk”, or “just rhetoric”.

Words matter for political leaders who talk and write, and for citizens,  journalists, and scholars who talk and write about them.

Toward the Terrorist Anti-World

We watch in horror as terrorist hijackings, suicide bombings. car implosions, and  even missiles intrude into the comfortable world where we and our allies live. These events involve countless individual tragedies, including the victims themselves, their families, friends, and associates. We do not easily recover from the physical and psychological trauma.

We search for answers. Who does these things and why? What should we do about terrorism? One body of opinion suggests that World War III is upon us. According to this view, Western civilization itself is under attack. It is faced with radical evil and needs to use whatever force is required to eradicate it. The many people who die, innocent as well as guilty, civilians as well as soldiers, are the necessary cost of maintaining our way of life. The United States as leader of  the free world, to recall the words of President Kennedy, must pay any price, bear any burden, to make the world safe for democracy. These words still speak to our heroic ambitions.

The vision is clear, but the path is uncertain. United States military forces are deployed for action across the globe, but are such military actions are likely to achieve their aims? Can all of the guilty be so easily located in the distant mountains and deserts of the world? Is bombing completely innocent foreign civilians consistent with our values? While we may  help defend some of  our allies, do we encourage others or repel them? Do we persuade the billions of people in other cultures that they want to be our partners? Do we wish to follow policies that risk escalating existing losses toward the very much higher casualty levels of World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam? Though one could ask the same questions of those who undertake the attacks, we can, for the moment, only try to answer them for ourselves.

Moderation beckons.  Domestically, the United States takes steps to defend itself, while also remaining conscious of what we are defending, particularly in the area of civil liberties. Internationally, our allies continue to work with us. But many of are concerned that the strongest medicine may make the disease worse rather than eradicate or contain it. We continue to take seriously their views, connecting with them both individually and within the global web of international institutions. We remain conscious of the need to align ourselves with the consensus of world opinion.

While the United States continues to use the hard power resources of appropriate force, we try to limit this force to what is consistent with rational objectives. The use of cruise missiles and drones on innocent people in foreign countries has unsurprisingly enhanced the very enmity that underlies terrorism.

Non-military means, diplomatic consultations, economic incentives, and appeals to shared humane values are preferred means of soft power. But we also take seriously the way that our international trade, aid, and debt policies may increase popular frustrations and terrorist recruitment in poor countries.We may ask how legitimate opposition grievances in other countries might be addressed in a more democratic context. As President Reagan reminded us, one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.

We place all these efforts in the frame of a larger strategic question: How will our actions produce a world in which terrorism is less likely to grow, a terrorist anti-world? We, and some of our allies, tend to focus narrowly on immediate military responses to terrorist attacks. We also need to remain true to ourselves and a long-term dream for our own society. How do we work to create a more democratic, just, and peaceful future for ourselves and for all the other people on this planet?

See also Counterpunch 10/29/2001