Back to the Future?: International Relations Theory and NATO-Russia Relations since the End of the Cold War

Article excerpt

This article evaluates different theoretical frameworks for understanding both the nature ofthe NATO alliance and the evolution of NATO- Russia relations since the end of the Cold War. It argues that the evolution of relations between the alliance and Moscow is best accounted for by the realist analytical perspective, while liberal and social-constructivist perspectives fail to capture the most important aspects of the alliance. Despite the establishment ofthe NATO-Russia Council in 2002, a balance-of-power logic, dictated by an international system that has remained to a large extent anarchical, continues to shape relations between the alliance and Moscow. The article proceeds in four sections. It begins with a short summary of NATO-Russia relations since the end ofthe Cold War. It then lays out the main theoretical frameworks that have been used to explain relations between the alliance and Moscow: liberal, social-constructivist, and realist ideas about - and prescriptions for - NATO-Russia relations. The next section applies all sets of perspectives to the record of key post-Cold War NATO -Russia relations. The article concludes with a section explaining why realism is the strongest explanatory paradigm.


Although during the Cold War, and particularly in the period of détente, NATO had shown it could adapt to the evolution of east-west relations, the collapse of the USSR in December 199 1 marked the beginning of a new and uncertain phase in the alliance's history. Many scholars and decision-makers alike saw in the disappearance of the original catalyzing threat, which had led to west European calls for a US defence commitment to Europe in 1947, the risk that the alliance might soon become obsolete - unless its members were able to craft a new role for NATO. While the failed Soviet conservatives' coup in August 199 1 served as a warning that NATO's original purpose could not be completely disposed of, western leaders were swift to recognize the need for a rapid update in this institution's role. The declaration on a "transformed North Atlantic Alliance" that was adopted by the North Atlantic Council in London in July 1990, while reaffirming the basic principles on which the alliance rested, also identified a first set of initiatives aimed at reforming NATO's role in post- Cold War Europe. At its Rome summit in November 1991, the alliance adopted a new strategic concept in which, alongside restating the defence dimension, prominence was also given to economic, social, and environmental issues. In addition, the new strategic concept envisioned a peacekeeping role for NATO outside the borders of its member countries. These changes reflected a consciousness that, unless the alliance was willing to reform, it risked drifting towards gradual irrelevance and marginalization.1

The efforts to revitalize the alliance and assert its relevance in the postCold War international system also kicked offa new phase in relations with Moscow. After the end of the Cold War, Russian decision-makers expected NATO somehow to atrophy and championed the emergence of a new European security structure; at the same time, however, they did not reject the alliance's offer of cooperation and declared their identification and wish to align with the west. After the establishment in December 199 1 of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council to discuss issues of common concern between NATO and former Soviet bloc states, Moscow joined the newly launched Partnership for Peace program in June 1994. However, the Kremlin insisted that Russia would not let itself be treated as a country on a par with other nonmembers of the alliance, but required an arrangement that was qualitatively different from those offered to other former Soviet bloc states. Following the alliance's intervention in the Balkans and the signing of the Dayton peace agreement in November 1995, Russian troops participated in the implementation and stabilization forces that were deployed in BosniaHerzegovina with the aim of supervising the application of the agreement, and in May 1997 Russia entered the Euro- Atlantic Partnership Council. …


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