Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 4, Issue 1, pp 81–110 | Cite as

Post-Cold War Nato and International Relations Theory: The Case for Neo-Classical Realism

  • Luca Ratti


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  1. 1.
    I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Realism is best defined not as a single theory but as a family of theories, a ‘paradigm’.’ school’, or ‘approach’. What makes it possible and useful to refer to realism as a unified research paradigm is the existence of a series of shared core assumptions, such as the anarchie nature of the international system, the rationality of the actors, the nature of state preferences, and the primacy of material capabilities. Jeffrey W. Legro and Andrew Moravcsik, ‘Is anybody still a realist?’, International Security, Vol. 24, no. 2, (Fall 1999), p 9.Google Scholar
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    Since July 2005 NATO has been providing assistance to the African Union for Darfur, ensuring the co-ordination of strategic airlift of African peacekeeping troops into the region. Following the earthquake which on 8 October 2005 hit the northern regions of Pakistan, India and eastern Afghanistan, the alliance established, on request of the Pakistani government, an air bridge from Europe to Pakistan to carry vital supplies for the earthquake victims.Google Scholar
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    The traditional realist literature on alliances has focused, however, on alliance origins, while discarding the issue of alliance persistence after an initial catalysing threat had disappeared. Robert B. McCalla, ‘NATO’s persistence after the Cold War’, International Organization, Vol. 50, no. 3, Summer 1996, p.446.Google Scholar
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    Neo-realist and offensive realist theorists have questioned the rationale behind the U.S. decision to attack Iraq in 2003, suggesting that a policy of vigilant containment and deterrence would have been a much more adequate strategy to deal with Saddam Hussein’s regime. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, ‘An Unnecessary War’, Foreign Policy, Jan./February 2003, pp.51–59.Google Scholar
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    While NATO’s peacekeeping tasks in Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were taken up by the European Union in 2003 and 2004 respectively, the alliance maintains a conspicuous stabilisation force in Kosovo (KFOR). KFOR troops come from than 35 nations - NATO and Non-NATO nations - and currently consist of more than 16,000 soldiers. The handing over of peacekeeping responsibilities in the Balkans to the EU has allowed the United States to concentrate its military resources in the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.Google Scholar
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    While differences persist between Washington and Berlin with regard to Iraq and some U.S. tactics employed in pursuit of terror suspects, including the Guantánamo detainee camp and the abduction and detention network of suspected terrorists in Europe, the new German Chancellor Angela Merkel demonstrated a willingness to improve transatlantic ties and start the relationship anew.Google Scholar
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    Unlike realists, liberal-institutionahsts ascribe an important role to norms and values in international politics: while realists see norms and values as lacking causal force, liberalinstitutionalists argue that they play an influential role in certain issue-areas. However, even for liberal-institutionalists norms and values are a superstructure built on a material base: they have a regulative function, helping actors with given interests maximise utility. In the liberal perspective, as in the realist paradigm, it is agents who construct values, norms and institutions and not the other way around. See Jeffrey T. Checkel, ‘The Constructivist Turn in International Relations Theory’, World Politics, no.2, January 1998, p.327.Google Scholar
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    The deadlock was broken only when the alliance’s then secretary general, Lord Robertson, proposed to bring the issue before the Defence Planning Committee, in which France is not represented. The decision sheet agreed on 16 Feb. 2003 by the Defence Planning Committee can be consulted at
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    France and Germany have also opposed, for different reasons, the merging of 1SAF, the international stabilization force deployed by NATO in Afghanistan with Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. led operation that focuses on Al-Qaeda and the leadership of the Taliban.Google Scholar
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    These requirements, such as adherence to the principles of democracy, individual liberty and respect for human rights, were made explicit by the ‘Study on NATO enlargement’ that was published by the alliance in September 1995. The ‘Study on NATO enlargement’ is available at
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    See Helene Sjursen, ‘On the identity of NATO’, International Affairs, Vol. 20, no. 4. p. 694; see also Frank Schimmelfennig, ‘NATO enlargement: A constructivist explanation’ Security Studies, Vol. 8, no.2. Winter 1999, p.217.Google Scholar
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    This argument also applies to Georgia and Ukraine, following the hard-fought elections and peaceful revolutions in 2003 and 2004 respectively, which have strengthened their interest in earning NATO membership.Google Scholar
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    Although experiencing difficulties along the way and having few concrete results to advertise, the NATO-Russia Council has also made progress on a number of diplomatic, military, and educational fronts. Furthermore, the fact that NATO and Russia have continued to meet and talk over a range of issues, despite tensions over the war in Iraq and other crises, means the Council has fulfilled, at least to a certain extent, its primary purpose. For a positive evaluation of the work of the NATO-Russia Council see P. Fritch, ‘Building Hope on Experience’, NATO Review, Autumn 2003, (
  61. 57.
    For a social-constructivist evaluation of West Germany’s adhesion to the alliance as an example of international socialisation see Mary N. Hampton, ‘NATO, Germany and the United States: Creating Positive Identity in Trans-Atlantia’, Security Studies, Vol. 8, nos. 2/3, Winter 1998/99-Spring 1999, pp. 235–269.Google Scholar
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    This sentence is usually attributed to Lord Ismay who was NATO’s first secretary general between 1952 and 1957. An additional realist motivation for the preservation of the alliance was to avoid a re-nationalisation of security and defence in Europe. Robert J. Art, ‘Why Western Europe needs the United States and NATO’, Political Science Quarterly, vol. III, No. 1, Spring 1996.Google Scholar
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    Post-Cold War isolationist tendencies in the United States were behind Patrick Buchanan’s two attempts to win the Republican Party’s presidential nominations in 1992 and 1996. In 1992 Buchanan obtained about 3 million votes in the republican primaries, finishing second behind Bob Dole. During the 1990s isolationist tendencies were also reflected in the positions adopted on foreign policy issues by many of the Republican members of the Congress. For example, senator Richard Lugar, suggested that “NATO go out of area or go out of business”, implying that the alliance would face irrelevancy if it did not adapt to the changed geo-strategic context. In 1993 George F. Kennan, the acclaimed father of containment, had observed that: “the time for the stationing of American forces on European soil has passed”. See Douglas T. Stuart, “Symbol and (Very Little) Substance in the US Debate over NATO Enlargement”, in. David G. Haglund (ed.). Will NATO Go East? The Debate Over Enlarging The Atlantic Alliance, (Kingston, Ontario: Queen’s University Centre for International Affairs, 1996), p. 118.Google Scholar
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    Zbigniew Brzezinski and Anthony Lake have argued that NATO expansion is a creative response to three strategic challenges: enhancing the relationship between the United States and an enlarging democratic Europe; engaging Russia in a co-operative relationship; reinforcing habits of democracy and practices of peace in central Europe. See Zbigniew Brzezinski and Anthony Lake, ‘For a New World, a New NATO’, New York Times. June 30, 1997.Google Scholar
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    The NATO-Russia Founding Act identified a broad range of topics on which NATO and Russia could consult and co-operate, including preventing and settling conflicts, peacekeeping, preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and exchanging information on security and defence policies and forces. The text of the NATO-Russia Founding Act is available at
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    Before the elections President Clinton gave major speeches in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit, cities with significant numbers of East European voters. See James M. Goldgeier, ‘NATO expansion: the Anatomy of a Decision’, Washington Quarterly, Vol. 21, no. 1 (Winter 1998), pp.94–95. See also Kenneth Waltz, ‘Structural Realism after the Cold War’, p.22.Google Scholar
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    Ronald Asmus has argued that NATO should assume a leading role in providing security in Iraq and be prepared to help enforce an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. See Ronald D. Asmus, ‘Rebuilding the Atlantic Alliance’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 82, no. 5, (Sept./Oct. 2003), pp. 20–31.Google Scholar
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    U.S. president Bush first signalled during a visit to Poland in June 2001 that his administration favoured a broad expansion of NATO. The transcript of the President’s address to faculty and students of the Warsaw University is available at ‘’.
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    In August 2002 Romania was the first country to sign an agreement with the United States which, under article 98 of the Rome Statute of the ICC, commits it not to consign U.S. nationals to the Court. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Albania have since signed article 98 agreements with Washington.Google Scholar
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    Dan Reiter, ‘Why NATO enlargement does not spread democracy’, p.55.Google Scholar
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    According to Hanns Maull, NATO could possibly turn into a provider of co-operative security services and conflict prevention in Europe and its periphery, and a political mechanism to draw non-members closer to the West. Roberto Aliboni has suggested instead that the alliance could evolve into a collective security organisation, no less exten? sive than the OSCE. While wittingly pointing out potential paths in NATO’s evolution, these hypotheses fail, however, to acknowledge that, as assumed by the realist theoretical framework, the fortunes of the alliance will continue to depend upon the political will of its member countries. See Hanns W. Maull, ‘The future of NATO’; Roberto Aliboni, ‘Neo-Nationalism and Neo-Atlanticism in Italian Foreign Policy’, The International Spectator, no. 1, January-March 2003, p.88.Google Scholar
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    The United States has demonstrated to be aware of this Russian concern. For this reason, the Bush administration has limited its interference in Russia’s internal affairs and in the Chechen conflict, while taking a cautious line about Ukraine’s prospects of earning NATO membership. More specifically, although nurturing Ukraine’s ambition to strengthen ties with the West, the Bush administration has stopped short of providing a clear timetable for Ukraine’s admission into NATO.Google Scholar
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    In Uzbekistan, for example, Moscow openly challenged U.S. policy, supporting the decision of Uzbek President Karimov to reject NATO requests for an independent investigation into the Uzbek government crackdown against political opposition in the city of Andijon in May 2005. Two months later Russia, China, and the four central Asian states of the Shangai Co-operation Council demanded the United States to set a deadline for ending its military presence in central Asia. Alongside China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Russia is evidently worried by the U.S. attempt to promote regime change across the region.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Taylor & Francis Group 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Luca Ratti
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Rome 3Italy

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