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NATO In Afghanistan


The Liberal Disconnect


Sten Rynning


Stanford: University Press, 2012

Paperback. x+273 p. 978-0804782388. $25.95


Reviewed by Jeffrey H. Bloodworth

Gannon University, Erie (Pennsylvania)



Of Hedgehogs, Foxes, & NATO

You can learn a lot from a hedgehog. Isaiah Berlin’s seminal 1953 work, “The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History,” divided humanity between foxes, who knew many things, and hedgehogs, those who knew one big thing. A false dichotomy if there ever was one, Berlin’s metaphor, nevertheless, remains useful. There are, indeed, two types of authors; one kind, the foxes, pen sprawling narratives, while the others, the hedgehogs, write narrowly focused monographs. The former might make for better bedside reading, but the latter offer concentrated insights into the pressing issues of the day.

Though he surely lacks spiny quills and nocturnal feeding habits, Sten Rynning is a hedgehog. The professor of political science at the University of Southern Denmark has emerged as one of Europe’s leading experts on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In his most recent work, NATO In Afghanistan: The Liberal Disconnect he brings this expertise to bear on the alliance’s most pressing issue: Afghanistan. Readers won’t learn much about Afghanistan per se from this book, but they will glean much insight into NATO’s immediate past and future. Hardly a sexy topic, the transatlantic alliance, nonetheless, remains the world’s most crucial multilateral organization. For those devoted to the subject and the institution’s continued viability this is an important book.

For Rynning, NATO’s mission in Afghanistan tells us much about the organization’s recent history and future prospects. As a result, this book is relentlessly focused upon Afghanistan only as it applies to the alliance’s internal workings. This spotlight is the book’s central strength. The author offers a wide-angle lens view of the conflict and NATO’s struggles therein. To Rynning, the small picture focus upon the Taliban, hearts-and-minds, and troop surges all miss the central point: NATO lacked “political purpose”, which in turn bred poor strategy. In other words, had the alliance been rooted in a clearer understanding of its central function and aims then its mission in Afghanistan could have been more successful.

A clear advocate for NATO’s past efficacy and future viability, Rynning faults alliance leaders for deluding themselves about the international system. To him, the organization’s current doctrine, the “Comprehensive Approach,” reveals the alliances’ flawed underpinnings. According to this theory, assorted multilateral and international organizations will collaborate to deal with emerging threats and manage global security. Chiding the alliance for “wishful thinking,” the author rightly claims that a nascent liberal community of nations ready to act to stymie global threats simply does not exist. Terming this assumption the “liberal disconnect,” Rynning calls for NATO to root its liberalism and global security management in geopolitical reality. In other words, NATO should be ready and willing to act alone in establishing and maintaining global security.

Similar to his admonition to alliance’s leaders, NATO In Afghanistan is firmly grounded in the here and now. Eschewing the academic dichotomy between liberalism and realism, the author realizes that reality inevitably intrudes upon idealism and a wholly realist foreign policy could never inspire action. As a result, every utopian inevitably compromises to the real while all realists must rely upon the ideal to motivate action. In this way, the academic liberal-realist divide is just that a dichotomy that does not exist in reality.

Penned by a Danish academic, the work hardly fits the stereotypical European view of NATO. In the aftermath of George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, the continent’s intellectuals had seemingly quit on the transatlantic alliance. Through this work, Rynning has done anything but. Inspired to write this book by the Bush administration’s neoconservative swing, Rynning rejects the “NATO-is-dying” and the “NATO-should-globalize” schools. Instead, the author wants alliance leaders to re-embrace its essential Western character, reject global governance, and follow the American lead.

NATO In Afghanistan is an important book because of what it is not: journalism masquerading as history. Because the war remains an unfolding story, journalists still possess access to information and sources. Thus, their books, many of which expertly depict the realities on the ground, lack perspective. To balance these myopic works, Rynning offers context. To him, NATO’s floundering effort in Afghanistan finds its roots in the 1990s.

During the early post-Cold War era, NATO, according to the author, reinvented itself into a “benevolent alliance.” Intent on spreading liberal ideals, as opposed to pursuing national interests, members targeted “rouge states” that contravened liberal values as the enemies of a progressive world order. This novel raison d’être crashed and burned in the steep mountains and craggy valleys of Afghanistan. There, NATO learned that a “benevolent alliance” is a contradiction in geopolitical reality.    

Rynning is no opponent of the American and NATO mission in Afghanistan. Rather, he is a proponent of the alliance pursuing new-world-order aims that are definitively tied to old-world-order interests. In other words, NATO can only succeed in Afghanistan or East Asia and remain a viable security organization so long as it hews to a relatively orthodox sense of power, diplomacy, and global politics.

Since foxes know much about many things, they generally pen gripping narratives. It follows then that the hedgehogs write plodding monographs. In the case of NATO in Afghanistan this typecast rings true. Sten Rynning is writing for a particular elite audience and not for the masses. Thus, the book’s proper audience includes specialists, policymakers, and advanced graduate students. Channeling his inner-hedgehog, the author has produced an important and timely work that offers a vision for a viable twenty-first century NATO.


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