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NATO in International Relations

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  • Full or part time
    Prof M A Webber
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

A PhD project with Professor Webber will study NATO’s post-Cold War transformation including enlargement, operations, and relations with partners, and/or US and British policy in relation to NATO. It will particularly address policy and academic debates on NATO persistence and change, as well as normative and prescriptive accounts of the Alliance.

NATO’s longevity has been a source of interest to scholars and for some a puzzle. Mainstream Realist analysis predicted that the Alliance would wither away after the Cold War. Yet it remains the world’s premier security organization having moved away from a preoccupation with collective defence against a rival alliance to incorporate additional tasks of ‘crisis management’ and ‘cooperative security’. The manner in which this has occurred is well known. The Alliance now expressly acknowledges that it resides in an environment of ‘emerging security challenges’ that encompass terrorism, cyber-attack, piracy, energy disruption, nuclear proliferation and regional conflict. Consequently, while it remains an organisation dedicated to the military defence of its members, its main activities since the 1990s have concerned conflict management and enforcement (in the Balkans, Libya and Afghanistan), maritime interdiction (in the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aden), military mentoring and assistance (in Iraq and the Balkans), the integration of new members, and the construction of partnerships that extend across the wider Europe, Eurasia, North Africa, the Gulf region and the Asia Pacific. Driven by task expansion, NATO has reformed its command structures and pursued a series of initiatives geared towards enhancing operational effectiveness and relevance (thus, in addition to developing expeditionary and conflict-management capabilities, the Alliance has also created a cyber-defence capability). In parallel, NATO has retained what Alexander Mattelaer has referred to as ‘its greatest asset’, namely ‘its permanent command chain [...] linked to a culture of inter-operability based on Allied joint doctrine’. However, these military features no longer determine NATO’s essential character. Functional and organisational change mean it is ‘best thought of [...] as a sprawling, complex security network rather than a traditional alliance focused on a common enemy’.

Yet these processes of change – while fundamental to the provision of security in the Euro-Atlantic area – remain under-theorised. NATO, in contrast to international organisations such as the EU and the UN, has given rise to only limited theoretical consideration. It has been viewed variously as (i) an alliance that ‘balances’ against a known source of power or threat; (ii) a ‘community organisation’ indicative of the democratic identity of its members; (iii) as a special kind of alliance and so subject to explanations that focus on considerations of intra-alliance management (the problem of ‘free-riding’ and the alliance security dilemma of abandonment versus entrapment; and (iv) as an ‘international institution’ whose ‘portable assets’ have ensured its ongoing attraction to its members.

In parallel with this theoretically-informed work, Webber is currently leading a seminar series funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which examines the issue of ‘NATO after Afghanistan’. This series of meetings has involved scholars, as well as NATO and UK government officials in looking at core policy-relevant questions: what is NATO’s likely operational direction after the withdrawal of ISAF from Afghanistan at the end of 2014? Has its agenda of enlargement and partnerships become exhausted? What are the implications of defence spending cuts upon the viability of NATO? And what do shifts in American foreign policy (including the so-called ‘pivot’ to Asia) portend for NATO’s future?

On the basis of these projects, Webber is interested in supervising doctoral research which considers any aspect of NATO’s development. This may be work which has an expressly theoretical focus (including prescriptive and normative accounts) or work which seeks to consider more applied issues that relate to NATO’s functional adaptation or the foreign policies of the UK and the US. Such doctoral work would be derived from Political Science/International Relations scholarship. Equally, Webber has a historical interest in NATO. Having researched and written on the Alliance himself since the late 1990s and having published work which examines all periods of NATO’s development, he would welcome proposals for doctoral study motivated by historically-informed approaches.

For information about the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS), please visit:

Funding Notes

The School of Government and Society and the College of Social Sciences have a limited number of competitive studentships available for PhD study. Details on studentships available at the University of Birmingham can be found at:

For details of the funding available and advice on making your application, please contact:
[email protected]


J. Sperling and M. Webber, ‘NATO from Kosovo to Kabul’, International Affairs, Vol.85(3), 2009.

M. Webber, ‘NATO: within and Between European International Society’ Journal of European Integration, Vol. 32(2), 2011

M. Webber, J. Sperling and M. Smith, NATO’s Post-Cold War Trajectory: Decline or Regeneration? (Palgrave, Macmillan: 2012)

J. Sperling and M. Webber, 'NATO's Intervention in the Afghan Civil War', Civil Wars, Vol.14(3), 2012.

M. Webber, 'NATO since 9/11', in R.E. Utley (ed), 9/11 Ten Years After: Perspectives and Problems (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012)

M. Webber, 'NATO's Post-Cold War Operations in Europe', in J. Sperling and S.V. Papacosma (eds.), NATO after Sixty Years: A Stable Crisis (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2012)

M. Webber, ‘NATO: Crisis. What Crisis?’, Great Decisions (New York: Foreign Policy Association, 2013).

M. Webber, ‘NATO after 9/11: Theoretical Perspectives’, in E. Hallams, L. Ratti and B. Zyla (eds.), NATO beyond 9/11: the Transformation of the Atlantic Alliance (Palgrave, Macmillan: 2014).

How good is research at University of Birmingham in Politics and International Studies?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 47.07

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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