NATO as a Global Actor?

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) prolongs to exist in the Euro-Atlantic security framework to employ three core tasks: collective defence, cooperative security, and crisis management in the 21st century. It is by name a regional organization; however, in a recent Yale Journal Op-Ed, Seth Johnston argues that NATO is a “global organization”.[1] This paper is a critique of Johnston’s argument, putting forward the question, what is a global actor, and whether NATO is a global actor, as Johnston claims?

In an interconnected world with transnational threats, it is extremely hard for international or regional organizations to stick within their organization’s geographical limits. This, however, does not that make an organization a global actor. In this paper, I identify the parameters for being a global actor and assess NATO within each parameter. The aim in here is to take Johnston’s argument and ask “would global activities or activities outside the transatlantic region be sufficient to describe NATO as a global actor? I argue that it is not enough. NATO is an international actor that makes engagements with member and non-member states through bilateral links. It has the power to intervene outside its region with United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR), but this intervention is not to pursue a global interest to expand NATO’s core values or to assert power; rather it is to secure its region by stabilizing neighboring regions.

What is a Global Actor?

An actor needs to be sovereign and autonomous in decision making as well as having the monopoly to use violence (legitimate use of force) when necessary.  In traditional sense, only states fit into the latter criteria. By being an actor both in its region and outside its region as well as the power to transform the system, the United States is a global actor. Again, the ability to assert power in different regions, establishes a fundamental step for this global outreach.

Today, international and regional organizations are also capable of asserting power. However, being an actor, an international actor, or a global actor does not rest only in the name.  It needs tenets as well as presence in different regions. What is the criterion to be a global actor, then? Below, I determined initial criteria from examined literature review and I applied NATO’s role to each criteria to get a sense of its global ‘actor-ness’ as Johnston claims. I argue that NATO is not a global actor and does not even claim to be a global actor; rather it is an international actor.

a- Capabilities

A global actor needs both tangible and non-tangible capabilities. The tangible capabilities for a state are the population, wealth, military capability, resources; and intangible capabilities are the normative power, such as rule of law, democracy projection, and promoting ideas. Suffice to say, a global actor has both “power of ideas” and “power of military capability.”

When NATO is in concern, the tangible capabilities come mainly from the military spending of the member states. NATO countries have over “half of the global defence spending” says Rasmussen in the Annual Report of 2012.[2] However, he is skeptical for the future role of NATO, as he says:

“…defence spending among the Allies is increasingly uneven, not just between North America and Europe, but also among European Allies. Moreover, total defence spending by the Allies in recent years has been going down, while the defence spending of new and emerging powers has been going up. If these spending trends continue, we could find ourselves facing three serious gaps that would place NATO’s military capacity and political credibility at risk in the years to come.”[3]

The defence cuts directly affects the political influence of NATO.[4] NATO has clear defence expenditure guideline for the member states, which is to spend at least 2% of GDP. Based on the 2011 defence report, only Greece, United Kingdom, and North America spend above 2%. Turkey and France are the second closest group by spending 1.9%. When European spending (1.6%) is compared to the American spending (4.5%), this gap is even more visible. Below table shows the defence expenditure per country, from 2007-2011.[5]

[1] Johnston, Seth A. June 11, 2013. “NATO is a Global Organization in All but Name.” Yale Journal of International Affairs.

[2] Rasmussen, Anders Fogh. 2012. The Secretary General’s Annual Report 2012. In NATO.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Press TV. NATO military power, political influence at risk: Rasmussen  Feb 1, 2013. Available from

[5] North AtlanticTreaty Organization Public Diplomacy Division Press Release. 13 April 2012. “Financial and Economic Data Relating the NATO Defence.” North Atlantic Treaty Organization Press & Media no. COMMUNIQUE PR/CP(2012)047-REV1.

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When a comparison from 2007-2012 for defence expenditures (% of GDP) per country is made, below graph shows the spending fall in France and Bulgaria, Germany’s persistency to spend less on defence, and Greek willingness to spend more and more regardless of its economic hardship.[1]

[1] Op.cit. The Secretary General’s Annual Report 2012

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A global actor needs stable defence spending where its needs would match the capabilities. With regards to NATO, unfortunately, this is not the case. The United States tries to push the European partners to spend more on defence, however, countries like Germany, do not perceive an imminent threat. Defence policy of the member states is affected from public will as well. The point is, as national security conceptualization differs from state to state, the defence spending also shifts.

NATO’s intervention in Libya sets a good example. Although France and the United Kingdom (UK) pushed for the intervention, they could not manage to conduct it by their existing military capabilities, and the United States had to step in. For the future, NATO needs to learn tasking member states in terms of Requirements and Capability framework; otherwise future operations will be hard to tackle. The decrease in European defence spending ring the bells within the Alliance as SecGen Rasmussen said during the meeting with European Parliament on Foreign Affairs:[1]

“We Europeans should understand that soft power alone is really no power at all. Without hard powers to back up its diplomacy, Europe will lack credibility and influence. It will risk being a global spectator, rather than the powerful global actor that it can be–and should be.”

It is not only Europe that will eventually diminishes in power but also NATO’s capability will continue to shrink with low defence budget.

NATO tries to ensure both tangible and non-tangible capabilities remain in tact in its operations. In Afghanistan, for instance, the nation-building process has included democracy, rule of law and human rights efforts (for instance woman rights through the UN Resolution 1325.) It is suffice to say that NATO has military spending that is shrinking and the normative power is a task of the European Union. This does not mean that NATO is powerless. On contrary, it is aware of and tries to overcome its capability limits by initiating approaches like Smart Defence or Connected Forces Initiative. Today, says Rasmussen, NATO “changes from a deployed NATO to prepared NATO.”[2]

b- Foreign Policy Developer

A global actor needs to reach other regions to increase its influence and power in that region. An international actor, on the other hand, engages with other strong actors and creates partnerships and alliances through dialogue to secure its parameters. So, the main question is does NATO assert power or does it involve in other regions to secure its parameters?

NATO involves and interacts through partnership programs, such as Meditteranean Dialogue and Istanbul Initiative, and it facilitates international engagements (with UN, OSCE) to secure the neighboring regions and thus protects its own periphery. This rests on pro-active policy development. As of today, NATO partners with twenty-two countries from different regions. It also has a “partners around the globe” program, where NATO engages with eight countries that have different principles: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Japan, Iraq, Australia, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and Mongolia. Yet, the web of relations in “partners around the globe” is not as strong as the former one because engaging with countries like Afghanistan or Pakistan rests on interest rather than building common grounds or trust. NATO aims to follow a flexible partnership approach. This raises questions in the Alliance such as “can every country be a NATO partner? Is there a limit for partnership? Does partnering with other countries increase NATO’s political leverage or not? So far, NATO expands its military and non-military engagements (training, joint exercises, center of excellences) with non-member countries to secure its region rather than politically influencing and trying to change the dynamics in that country.

c- Visibility and Recognition

A global actor needs high level of visibility in its course of actions and activities. This visibility is followed through recognition through concrete engagements, treaties, or activities with other states and organizations. The visibility is also related to the packaging and communication methods of the actor, as the world order demands high level of transparency from the world leaders. SecGen Rasmussen is a high profile leader, who personalizes even the NATO Facebook page by posting messages related to his family, his morning exercises with leaders in a member/partner country for more informal socializing with them. This assists his image as well as augments a level of trust with the partners and members.

In terms of recognition, NATO is the only military body that has the legal stance to implement the UNSCR in practice. This gives the organization an international recognition not only from the member states, but also from others. Yet NATO suffers recognition mainly in the former Soviet countries due to major Russian involvement in this region. It is suffice to say that NATO is visible and recognized to the extent that its power comes from the member states.

d- Clear Shared Identity

A powerful global actor requires a shared history and identity among its member states. From 1949 onwards this shared identity has been created mostly between the European actors. However, this does not mean NATO’s combined structure, rules, and governing body facilitates a transatlantic identity. A parallel process to NATO was the European Steel and Coal Community and it is the real base for creating a shared European identity and history. The problem with the shared European identity in the NATO’s context is that it cannot be distinguished from Western or European identity.

NATO is composed of twenty-eight nations; none of them define their identity by primarily being a NATO member country. Turkey, in this sense, is an exception because it follows an explicit foreign policy discourse of being a NATO member-state from 1952 onwards. The European population defines their identity mainly through nationality first and then by being European. As the ISSPs 2004 poll on national identity shows, 19% of the respondents feel “very close” to being European whereas 45% feel “very close” to their country in Europe.[3]

[1] Rasmussen, Anders Fogh. Remarks by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen  06 May 2013. Available from

[2] U.S. Department of State. May 31, 2013. “Obama, NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen After Their Meeting.” IIP Digital: The White House Office of the Press Secretary.

[3] ISSP. 2004. “National Identity II, 21 European Countries.”

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At NATO Headquarters, the International Military Staff (IMS) wear national badges because the country assigns them to NATO for three years. NATO’s interest is the representation of the twenty-eight nations, and the common denominator is found in the shared projects, programs, and training exercises. This leads us to another criteria to be a global actor: being a single or multi-entity in decision-making? A global actor needs to be unified and should be a single entity.

e- Coherent Decision-Making System: A Single Entity or Multi-Entity

NATO responds to outside incidents in a single voice. But that decision-making is reached by twenty-eight nations’ consent. Is NATO a single voice? Not necessarily. There are always member states that oppose an action. In the Libyan case, decision-making process was very short—both because of organizational learning and rapid UNSC Resolution—compared to the decision to intervene in Kosovo. Even so, Turkey opposed the military involvement in Libya, when Prime Minister Erdogan initially declared; this should not be turned to an intervention for natural resources in Libya. Later, Turkish posture softened and Turkey agreed not to block the decision-making, but ensured its involvement to be limited to humanitarian aid.

Decision-making of the member-states at the NATO structure rests on a bargaining strategy that is a result of national interest dynamics. It is a two-tier bargaining process, where negotiations take place first at the domestic level (between public and the national decision-maker), and then at the Alliance level (national decision-maker and the Alliance).  However, a state cannot constantly block all the decisions at the NAC level because Alliance needs unified political action.

Why NATO is not a Global Actor:

Defined under the NATO 2010 Strategic Concept, NATO’s aim is to protect the Alliance—28 nations—from an outside threat. This fits to the first core task of NATO, which is collective defence.  Collective defence, within the scope of Article V, is defined, as an attack to a member state is an attack to all. When NATO defines an outside threat, it automatically engages and interacts with that threat. Today, NATO does not have a defined threat. It, therefore, interacts with neighboring regions to diminish the possibility of threat in the future. This level of interaction, however, is not new to NATO. Due to the bipolar structure and condensed threat existence from the Soviet Union, NATO had a single mission during the Cold War. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, NATO becomes a force-multiplier in the aim of strengthening and securing its region. It is no longer composed of twenty-eight states but it is twenty-eight plus, where “plus” is the Partnership for Peace (NATO PfP) countries and other institutional links.


The above Robert Mankoff cartoon[1] shows a similar point through impotency, where there is a capability-expectations-abilities gap at NATO. The term capability-expectation gap was originally coined by Hill to explain the ongoing gap in Europe during the Cold War.[2] The term, when applied to NATO, means that the projected and imagined NATO does not match its actual delivery capability, which is the reality of today. But, it’s O.K. It happens.


In this paper, I aimed to explain that NATO is an actor but not a global one, due to its limited power in other regions and its organizational structure. NATO does not rest on a unified decision-making system; rather it sticks to the national sovereign decision-making body, where only the outcome is unified. States struggle to push forward their national interest at the North Atlantic Council. NATO has power and it projects this power only when the member states’ national interest is at stake. Suffice to say, NATO does not need to be a global power or actor. The attributed positive value to being a global actor is misleading. As long as NATO solves its capability-expectations gap, secures its member-states effectively, and responds timely to emergent crisis situations, it will fulfill its strategic vision.

[1] Mankoff, Robert. December 12, 1994. It’s O.K., hon, it happens. It even happened to NATO. New Yorker Cartoon.

[2] Hill, Christopher. September 1993. “The Capability-Expectations Gap, or Conceptualizing Europe’s International Role.” Journal of Common Market Studies no. 31 (3):305-328.


* This criteria is based on the literature including but not limited to, Ernst Haas (1961): “International Integration”; Andrew Moravcsik (1999), “A New Statecraft/ Supranational Entrepreneurs and International Cooperation”; Christopher Hill (1993), The Capability Expectations Gap, or Conceptualizing Europe’s International Role; Roy Ginsburg (2004), Conceptualizing the European Union as an International Actor: Narrowing the Theoretical Capability-Expectations Gap; Michael Smith (2004) Europe’s Foreign and Security Policy: Conceptualizng Actor and Actorness (Ch 1), , and Charlotte Bretherton and John Bogler (2006): The European Union as a Global Actor.