NATO in Afghanistan - The Liberal Disconnect

Sten Rynning
Stanford University Press
Year published
A book review by Nigel Chamberlain
Sten Rynning has produced a philosophical book with practical application. It isn’t easy reading. Its complex and thought provoking – if you can stay with it, and I recommend that you try.
In his acknowledgements the author sets out the background to his thesis – “Allied statements manage power in relation to events, and for about a decade Afghanistan has been the event for the Alliance”. In his introduction, the author right away picks up on why NATO’s Afghan mission has seemed confused to many as “the war is dynamic and defies easy control and conceptualization. The allies have tinkered with various mission headers, such as counterterrorism, stabilization, and security assistance; in the end settling on counterinsurgency”. He suggests that the “Atlantic Alliance must come to grips with wider geopolitical lessons of a campaign that has accelerated a global power shift and revealed a deficit in the Alliance’s collective purpose”.
Sten is very good at showing readers both sides of the theoretical coin without necessarily drawing us into making a choice. In fact, one of the strengths of this book is that he usually proffers a third, more challenging way forward. He does explain the tricky transatlantic balancing act – “between a Europe-centric NATO that the United States must remain involved in and a global centric NATO that Europeans must engage”.
He recognises that the Afghan campaign hasn’t gone well for NATO, despite more recent improvements, due to a ‘deficit in political purpose’, which has been translated into “inadequate strategic thinking about ends, way and means”. He adds that NATO must collectively learn from this experience, confront the deficit and evolve. 
The author acknowledges that NATO has reviewed it internal dynamics and decided to opt for a ‘global security management’ model which will need “multiple organisations to cooperate in the management of new threats”, located the organisation “at the heart of a wider liberal order” – the military wing of the United Nations perhaps. But he is none too comfortable with this model, saying that it is a retreat into liberal wishful thinking as he does not believe that the wider liberal community is ready to act, if only someone will organise it. And here comes the thesis - the liberal ideal has become disconnected from reality with NATO being one of the main culprits. Sten appeals for liberalism, and by implication NATO, to be rooted in geo-political reality.
But there is a warning. Any redefinition of NATO’s role needs to avoid recreating Russia as a regional threat or “to build a firewall around NATO territory”, presumably a reference to unfettered expansion (or enlargement) into eastern Europe and the militarisation of the recent newcomers. Returning to his ‘deficit in political purpose’ theme, Sten says that the adoption of a strategy built on organisational routine, while hoping that global governance would solve its problems, hasn’t worked.
Back to the two sides of the coin explanation, the author outlines the ‘NATO-is-dying school’ and counterposes it with the ‘NATO-should-globalize school’ but then guides us towards a third, more viable option – NATO evolving into a more distinct regional, rather than global, network. Now this may seem more appealing to many, particularly set against the reality of economic reality, but it doesn’t look as if NATO is headed in that direction to this reviewer.
Sten concludes that NATO’s model as a “benevolent Alliance” bringing security assistance to an emerging democracy has failed in Afghanistan due to an unreceptive audience as much as to internal problems. He says that “NATO emerges from an Afghan war that went awry with a reinforced sense of benevolence and a diminished sense of alliance”. Despite his cutting analysis, he does reiterate his belief that the intervention improved with experience, despite the tough conditions it had to operate in. He has explained how adaptable NATO has been and believes it can adapt again, indeed must do to survive. Sten calls for NATO leaders to speak up for the Atlantic community and commit to engage more thoroughly with it in order to shape the future.