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)


How Many Wars at the Same Time ?

Should the United States be Ready to Fight Two Wars at the Same Time ?

Previously published in the Morningside Post

A lot depends on how one defines “fight”, “two wars”, and “at the same time”.
During its early history, the United States, according to many definitions of these terms, did not fight as many as two wars at the same time. During the 20th century, according to other definitions, the United States did not fight as few as two wars at the same time. I doubt that it was ever historically necessary for the United States to be able to fight exactly as many or as few as two wars at the same time. Based on past performance, this metric does not appear to be particularly useful as a guide to present or future policy over changing conditions.
A more useful maxim, derived from classical international relations theory, is that the United States should have the capabilities to defend its vital national interests. One of its vital national interests, as President Eisenhower emphasized, is to maintain a healthy economy. While national security is important, so also is the security of national citizens.
American military capabilities should change, as American interests and the nature of international threats and violence also change. It always has been and always will be necessary for the United States to be able to fight as many or as few wars as may be crucial to American vital national interests.
There is no magic number.

Francis Beer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he has been President of the International Studies Association/West.

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

Flying Bombs

On September 11, 2001, two hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers in New York; another slammed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. A fourth aircraft crashed and burned in Pennsylvania. An estimated 3,000 people died.

The flying bombs of that day had other longer lasting effects. Obviously, the lives of the victims’ families, friends, and neighbors changed permanently. The attacks led directly to President George W. Bush’s declaration of the Global War on Terror, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, drone attacks on targets in Pakistan, and much heightened domestic security. An Office of the Director of National Intelligence and a Department of Homeland Security were created. The Patriot Act authorized enhanced surveillance and intrusions into previously protected civil liberties.

Many thousands of Americans and people of other nationalities died or were wounded in the ensuing wars. It didn’t take long for the counterattack casualties to surpass the 3,000 dead of 9/11. Trillions of dollars that could have been used for other purposes were spent on military activities. Scientific research grants that might have been directed elsewhere went into research on terrorism. There were also cultural effects. Media coverage followed the maxim, if it bleeds it leads. Images of people hurling themselves from skyscrapers, Abu Ghraib, major combat operations, special forces raids, targeted assassinations, explosive demolition, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, and waterboarding contributed to popular fear, insecurity, and callousness. Monuments, memorials, ceremonies, and commemorations, including the current 10-year anniversary, keep the flames of traumatic memory bright and hot.

The effects of the planes that flew and crashed that day in the United States have obviously been enormous. These have occurred not just in the United States but on a global scale, as America has reached abroad to find and destroy its enemies. Subsequent American military attacks outside the U.S. have had massive impacts. If the four original flying bombs had complex, long lasting consequences that we have described on American life, what have been the parallel results of many more American flying bombs that have fallen over many more days on many more people in other countries? In addition to killing thousands of individuals not associated with 9/11, they have left deep scars on the political, military, economic, scientific, cultural lives of foreign individuals and their societies. We are rightly concerned about those who suffered though 9/11. What about those abroad, who live and die under the volcano of American firepower? The flying bombs, many years later, have gone forth and multiplied, taking on a life of their own as they continue to circumnavigate the globe.

See also Daily Camera 09/11/2011

War and Peace Trends

When one reads current literature about the obsolescence of large scale war, it recalls what people were writing a hundred years ago, just before the outbreak of World War I. After the general European peace established by the Congress of Vienna that ended the Napoleonic wars, many people believed that the progress of civilization had moved well beyond the barbaric practice of large-scale warfare. They had a century of European quasi-peace as evidence. Boy, were they surprised.

It is true that there has been a hiatus in war of the largest scale since the end of World War II. At the same time, my own research suggests that this contemporary trend nests within a larger trend of peace diffusion, war concentration and war aggravation.

Translated into plain English, this means that, over the long run, periods of general peace have become longer and more widespread. When major wars do occur, they are shorter. But in such large-scale wars, casualties have become higher both in terms of absolute numbers and relative to population.

Short-term trends involving fewer large-scale wars are welcome. As they say in the stock market, however, past results do not necessarily predict future behavior. War may appear to be going out of style right now, but over the longer run, styles can and do change.

See also New York Times December 31, 2011

US Prepare to Fight Two Wars at the Same Time? No Magic Number

Should the United States be ready to fight two wars at the same time?

A lot depends on how one defines “fight”, “two wars”, and “at the same time”.

During its early history, the United States, according to many definitions of these terms, did not fight as many as two wars at the same time. During the 20th century, according to other definitions, the United States did not fight as few as two wars at the same time. I doubt that it was ever historically necessary for the United States to be able to fight exactly as many or as few as two wars at the same time. Based on past performance, this metric does not appear to be particularly useful as a guide to present or future policy over changing conditions.

A more useful maxim, derived from classical international relations theory, is that the United States should have the capabilities to defend its vital national interests. One of its vital national interests, as President Eisenhower emphasized, is to maintain a healthy economy. While national security is important, so also is the security of national citizens.
American military capabilities should change, as American interests and the nature of international threats and violence also change. It always has been and always will be necessary for the United States to be able to fight as many or as few wars as may be crucial to American vital national interests.

There is no magic number.

See also The Morningside Post November 2, 2012


War and Peace Research

The paragraphs below summarize research findings by Francis A. Beer and his collaborators. More detailed references can be found at his website

Historical Statistics of War and Peace—Periods of major peace have tended to become longer over time. Wars have generally become shorter, but more serious in terms of their destructive power. These are general tendencies. Trends are less clear for smaller, individual samples, for example the war and peace experience of the United States.

Peace Against War–Global actors join through multiple political, economic, social, communication, cultural, technological links that have tendencies toward both peace and war. Actors create clusters of cooperation, some of which are universal, like the United Nations system. Some of these are partial, like the European Community. These universal and partial communities may come into conflict and often contain a military dimension. Actors link themselves through agreed laws of war and peace; they form international alliances; they provide military assistance; they trade in weapons; they develop shared military symbols and events; they share media reports of international violence. The networks thus constitute communities with tendencies toward both fighting between communities and peace within them.

Alliances as Latent War Communities—- Actors joined in political-military alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization NATO, for example, create partial international communities that have both integrative and disintegrative effects. They help maintain peace internally among members, but are prepared to wage war against external actors. Alliance institutions provide a structure through which state members contribute various kinds of resources and receive both collective and private goods. Such a complex, cross-cutting political economy is essential in constructing and maintaining these alliances. Alliance leaders act as political entrepreneurs, deploying consensual ideology to mobilize supporting coalitions and weaken opposing ones, particularly during periods of crisis.

Political Economy of War and Peace—-Partial international groupings disintegrate over time as more powerful, central states drift away from the former colonial associates. Diverse energy production and needs enhanced conflict and worked against shared cooperative interests in a common global environment.

Rhetoric of War and Peace: Post-Realism—-The standard discourse of international relations is realism, which focuses on states in conflict as the core or world politics. Post-realism emphasizes that there are multiple actors, not just states, in the global network. Though such actors are concerned with power, as realism suggests, they have a much wider range of motivations and activities. One such set of resources is talk, and post-realism focuses particularly on discourse in the conduct and study of international relations. For post-realism, realism in international relations is a form of social scientific and political rhetoric. It opens rather than closes a debate about what is real and what is realistic in international relations. (with Robert Hariman).

Semantics of War and Peace–Major concepts like war and peace are not semantically stable and fixed. Instead they constantly shift their meanings in different contexts. Further, central scientific terms like reason, validity, truth, and reality vary in a similar way. Political debate over war and peace swims in this sea of semantic fluidity, which makes critical thinking about war and peace particularly difficult. Political leaders skillfully maintain ambiguity or shift meanings in semantic strategems to persuade audiences. They thus generate support for findings and policies about war and peace that followers might otherwise resist.

Metaphors of War and Peace–Metaphors are also an important part of the rhetorical universe of war and peace. For example, the international system has been framed as a network, international communities as houses, states as people, and nations as families. War has been seen as a disease, peace as health, and war/peace research as an extension of medical epidemiology. Alternatively, war is often conceived as a competitive game, for example poker or football. Metaphorical framing has important policy implications. (with Christ’l De Landtsheer).

Myths of War and Peace–Metaphors also entail myths. These are widely believed narratives; stories to go with the images. When the stories become dominant in societies, they are called myths. These myths may be true or false to a varying extent, but, more importantly, they are widely believed to be true stories of the way that the world is. They not only describe, explain, and predict war and peace. They also include scripts about appropriate actions. One of the more important such stories is international realism.

Media Networks of War and Peace-— Globalizing media networks, like  BBC World News, CNN World News, and Al Jazeera, are emerging actors in the domain of war/peace. They are building a new platform for diffusing news. As they tell stories, they themselves become part of those stories, which are an element in a wider globalizing system and culture of war and peace. (with G. R. Boynton).

Psychology of War and Peace–The psychology of war and peace includes the evolution of global consciousness and bonding, as well as patterns of loyalty and alienation to different levels of political community.

On another dimension,  a series of psychological laboratory experiments showed that individual responses to simulated media reports of military and terrorist attacks are dynamic and complex. They change over time and are influenced by a number of factors. Responses are partly related to the identity and behavior of the attacker–for example, whether the attacker is a conventional military force or a terrorist actor, the number and scale of attacks, target characteristics (military, economic, cultural), and prior behavior of the attacker. Such prior behavior might include whether the attacker is a democratic state or has signed a peace treaty. Responses are also influenced by individual background attributes like gender, personality, and prior knowledge. One of the most disturbing findings is that there appears to be no psychological nuclear firebreak when responding to conventional attacks. Respondents seem to see high level conventional and nuclear weapons in the same linear continuum of force, with no threshold between them. (with Alice F. Healy and Lyle E. Bourne, Jr.).