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How NATO Adapts

Strategy and Organization in the Atlantic Alliance since 1950

Today's North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with nearly thirty members and a global reach, differs strikingly from the alliance of twelve created in 1949 to "keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down." These differences are not simply the result of the Cold War's end, 9/11, or recent twenty-first-century developments but represent a more general pattern of adaptability first seen in the incorporation of Germany as a full member of the alliance in the early 1950s. Unlike other enduring post–World War II institutions that continue to reflect the international politics of their founding era, NATO stands out for the boldness and frequency of its transformations over the past seventy years.

In this compelling book, Seth A. Johnston presents readers with a detailed examination of how NATO adapts. Nearly every aspect of NATO—including its missions, functional scope, size, and membership—is profoundly different than at the organization's founding. Using a theoretical framework of "critical junctures" to explain changes in NATO's organization and strategy throughout its history, Johnston argues that the alliance's own bureaucratic actors played important and often overlooked roles in these adaptations.

Touching on renewed confrontation between Russia and the West, which has reignited the debate about NATO's relevance, as well as a quarter century of post–Cold War rapprochement and more than a decade of expeditionary effort in Afghanistan, How NATO Adapts explores how crises from Ukraine to Syria have again made NATO's capacity for adaptation a defining aspect of European and international security. Students, scholars, and policy practitioners will find this a useful resource for understanding NATO, transatlantic relations, and security in Europe and North America, as well as theories about change in international institutions.

About the Author

Seth A. Johnston is a major in the United States Army and recent assistant professor of international relations at West Point. He holds a doctorate from Oxford University and is a veteran of NATO missions in Europe and Afghanistan.


"It is reassuring to know that those who seek reliable information about the Atlantic Alliance will still be able to find it: Seth A. Johnston's "How NATO Adapts" [is] rock solid"—NATO Review

"Johnston (US Army) provides an important and useful contribution...his findings continue to illuminate and compellingly demonstrate how political decisions are made...Highly recommended."—Choice

"One of the "5 Books President Trump Should Read this Summer"—Chicago Review of Books

"Johnston explains the approach thoroughly and his methodology is exceptional...He can clearly outline the adaptations NATO has experienced since its inception, and presents it in a thoroughly facinating manner... I found the read very engaging."—European Security

"This book is paramount for understanding how NATO can respond to future crises...For any military staff officer, Johnston's examples are a source of inspiration...For anyone preparing to work with NATO, this book should be mandatory reading"—Military Review

"Contrasting NATO with other post-war institutions, johnston highlights the many ways in which the Alliance has evolved since its founding in 1949. In particular, he explores the role of the Alliance's bureaucratic actors in facilitating its many transformations at 'critical junctures' through the years, contending that NATO once again finds itself at such a juncture."—Survival

"In his insightful new book, "How NATO Adapts", Seth Johnston suggests that NATO is unique among peer international organizations in its ability to adapt"—Turkish Policy Quarterly

"a rich, interesting primer...makes an uplifting case for the power of people to shape institutions and - by extension - the political landscape itself"—The Royal United Services Institute Journal

"Seth Johnston has written a timely and important study...NATO has weathered rough seas before, in each case surviving by adapting. In the present climate of geopolitical uncertainty, versatility in one of the main pillars of the post-war order is worth celebrating."—H-Diplo

"Seth Johnston's How NATO Adapts untangles the puzzle of one of the most long-standing, well-institutionalized military alliances in the contemporary era. Supporting an institutionalist approach with extensive historical analysis and process tracing, Johnston provides compelling evidence to demonstrate the alliance's ability to adapt, exercise power and autonomy, and define and execute its objectives independent of the member-states comprising it."—Perspectives on Politics

"The book of Seth A. Johnston is both a powerful reminder of the Alliance's complex but successful history and, at the same time, a testimony to its unique institutional resilience and adaptability."—International History Review

"Nothing is more important to NATO than the ability to adapt and adjust its approach— tactically, operationally, and strategically—as circumstances change. How NATO Adapts is an honest and unbiased examination of the successes and challenges of this turbulent twenty-first century for the world's premier security Alliance."—Admiral (ret.) James G. Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, current Dean of The Fletcher School, Tufts University

"How NATO Adapts offers a theoretically innovative and empirically rich account of why this post–World War II military alliance continues to play an important role in today's multipolar world. This well-researched book constitutes an excellent addition to the growing scholarly literature that applies historical-institutional theories to the study of international relations."—Giovanni Capoccia, University of Oxford

"A unique analysis of NATO's evolutionary development, How NATO Adapts effectively employs a useful new prism for examining the alliance. Well-organized and well-written, this book should be of great interest to anyone with an academic or professional interest in NATO's history and institutional dynamics."—Stanley R. Sloan, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, The Atlantic Council, author of Defense of the West: NATO, the European Union and the Transatlantic Bargain

"A meticulously researched and in-depth historical study of the NATO Alliance and its responses to inflection points throughout its history. Johnston knows NATO, and he knows how to write. How NATO Adapts is illuminating and educational."—Jeffrey A. Larsen, NATO Defense College, coeditor of On Limited Nuclear War in the 21st Century

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