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Neorealist Theory and NATO Behavior Essay

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Updated: Jan 15th, 2022


Neorealist theory views power distribution as a factor which determines the behavior of states. Usually states are compelled to seek policies of “self help” to avoid excessive threats when such a need arises. This comes as a means of survival and lack of authority that is overarching. This competition makes the institution weak hence irrelevant, and cooperation becomes impeded. Neorealist theory does not go against formation of international institutions. Indeed, it supports their formation where necessary, or where the states share a common interest. The institutions prove to be essential, but when the common interest is achieved or appears unlikely to happen, the institutions must be discarded. Neo-realists do not feel that institutions render long-term cooperation, especially when some actors wish to benefit more than others (Snidal 2005, p. 76).

Most activities carried out by NATO pose challenges to both neoliberals and neo-realists. NATO as an international organization which is getting involved in different areas in terms of peacekeeping missions. The organization, therefore, conforms to neoliberal thinking, but neorealist theorists still try to explain NATO’s intra-state involvements. Neo-realist theory believes that states operate in agreement with their nationalized interests. Some NATO members did not show any concern that the crises would spill over. The US showed much concern that the conflict would destabilize the country since the Balkans had, according to history, an effect on European security. These fears, however, did not serve as a determining factor. For example, in case of Bosnia, Italy and Greece would have suffered the most. Surprisingly, these two nations were reluctant to get involved with NATO. Neo-realist theory cannot explain why some nations would be more involved than others, in the Balkans conflict.

To understand this, an individual must focus on neoliberal theory for an explanation on alliance intervention. In analyzing reaction of NATO to the conflicts of Balkan, policy communities must be get involved. These are networks of experts who are in authority, and operate in national and international bureaucracies. These communities played a crucial role in bringing Kosovan and Bosnia conflicts to the states’ agendas. They raised concerns of NATO’s member states over the issues that affected each individual state. This direction came from groups and individuals from NATO and, therefore, some states had no interest in that crisis.

Neorealists, however, make some grounds when it comes to substantial differences within NATO as an alliance. In response to Bosnia conflict, NATO was lethargic while responding. The institution got subjected to considerable divisions in deciding the course of action. This brings us back to the idea of coming together with a common interest, which governs the institution’s cohesion. Worth noting is that, in the case of Kosovo, the two parties involved had the willingness to resolve their issues. However, an institutional motive was behind this, to maintain credibility of NATO. Once again, this demonstrates the role of an international institution in considering the policies of an individual state. The dual nature of NATO comes out clearly in its activities. The organization shows both neorealist and neoliberal behavior (Sorensen 2007, p. 52).

Game theory

Game theory is an approach of decision making grounded on the assumption of actor rationality in a competition situation. In this case, each actor tries to minimize losses and maximize gains. The conditions in such a case are usually of incomplete information and uncertainty. An actor, therefore, should rank the preferences in order, discern what the other actor is likely to do, and estimate probabilities. In a two-person game, when one person wins, the other one loses in equal terms i.e. if one actor wins five, the other actor loses five. In a variable sum game, both lose, and the gains do not have to be equal. Possibilities exist that both sides may gain. In some other cases, both parties may lose with different amounts. Models of deterrence have been developed as a contribution of Game Theory. This has become the basis of how collaboration of competitive states can be achieved in an anarchic world. The problem comes when one state decides to defect other than collaboration with the other actor state. This brings a problem on international relations and conflict resolution, as well as international regimes (Keohane 1986, p. 63).

Prisoners’ dilemma

Game theory came from economists after World War II. It became formal from long held views of international relations. This model refers to interactions whereby the behavior of one actor depends on the behavior of another actor. One game is the Prisoners dilemma. This game involves two actors. Each of the actors in this case has two strategies; one is a cooperative and the other one is a competitive/ defect. The come has four outcomes; reward from cooperation, defection in the present of cooperation, losing as a result of cooperation, and penalty from mutual defection. Prisoner’s dilemma comes from a commonly told story. In the story, a police officer has two thieves, which he catches separately for questioning. Each of them receives a plea bargain if he confesses against the other. In case they fail to confess, they will obtain a conviction on a charge. The dilemma comes in when the police officer asks the two thieves whether they will confess or defect. The only sensible strategy in this situation would be mutual defection, though the two persons would be left in a sub-optimal position (Myerson 1997, p. 65).

Strategy of defection seems to be crazy as it leaves the two actors worse if they cooperated. The two actors reaching a mutual agreement to cooperate can evade the dilemma. They will, therefore, establish an enforcement mechanism, hence increasing the likelihood of cooperation. This will, in turn, reduce the chances/ risk of being suckered. This is likely to occur in a criminal partnership to bring a profitable interaction. Another solution would be altering the preferences of the two actors. To overcome the dilemma; however, there must be a structure of interaction. Realism, therefore, is a theory that brings out prisoners dilemma as necessary in international relations. International anarchy must have cooperation agreements, since they are marked by competition, completion, and insecurity (Zara 2010, p. 67).

When one actor takes a security measure, he is seen by others as a threat, since each party’s intentions are not well known. The other actors also take measures to protect themselves. Best intentions can be defeated by anarchy. Prisoners’ dilemma emphasizes the political distance between achievement and desire. Competition cannot be avoided even though the parties prefer the outcome which is cooperative. Any international institution must have insurance schemes and agreements explaining division of cooperation benefits. This would help avoid being locked in a cycle of competition.

A compelling test is provided by the small states in international relations. Debates have been triggered on an international alliance theoretical models. Weak states show weak behavior when it comes to military coalitions. This shows that neorealist theory is insufficient as a perspective. More institutional and domestic factors need to be considered to get a better understanding of alliance patterns. This weak behavior means that the state can choose to bandwagon instead of balancing against a potential threat. International institutions, national politics, and cultural affinities play a little role according to neorealist theory (Patomaki & Wight 2000, p. 224).

Case study

The case study to be used here will be that of Iceland membership to NATO. The two main theoretical models to be used will be balancing and band wagon. Balancing comes in when a state wishes to find security while resisting or defeating a threat. Band wagon, on the other hand, comes when a state wants security through appeasing its threat. Regardless of the theoretical approach, a state can either balance or bandwagon. These two can also occur against both internal and external threats. Neorealist holds that external pressures outweigh domestic pressures since leaders choose foreign policies that minimize risk in security in an international system. It is believed that empowered leaders will overcome domestic constraints that may affect their global interactions (Edgar 2002, p. 71).

The other approach is the liberal approach. Attributes of the states and their societal conflicts affect international choice of policy. This makes the United Nation unable to respond to the international exigencies. A limit is also placed by institutionalism on the premise of neorealist to the fully self-interested and rational leaders who seek minimization of risk. Constraint comes when ideological and political ties become forged within by the United Nations, which is the international institution in this case.

When it comes to balancing, the truth lies between the extremes. To author certain international politics, rational leaders must be included in the process. These leaders must be people with political stake in their states/ nations. However, they should not be preoccupied with their nations’ politics. This is because this would affect the process of policy making due to absenteeism. They must develop their strategies while giving a thought to the external conditions. To come up with a leading global institution, there must be an effect on the thoughts of the leaders. This will help compel the leaders to take the necessary actions to counter their self-interests. It is, therefore, crucial to cooperate and to forget self interest which may affect the activities of an international institution (Snidal 2005, p. 42).

It is fascinating that Iceland laid down its arms in the 14th century. According to the Ambassador of the United States, it is questionable how such a country can obtain NATO membership. Since the country lies in the North Atlantic, the geographic location should have no significance in NATO membership criterion. This had been attested by Greece. The argument comes in because Iceland as a country lacks military yet it participates in the United Nations, a powerful military coalition.

Iceland’s lack of a military force does not mean that the country contributes nothing to NT. The coalition has a base at Keflavik, a location strategic for defending Atlantic. This serves as a strategic location, to protect Atlantic against threats by Soviet. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, the location has not been providing significant advantage, but it accommodated forces who should have been stationed somewhere by NATO. NATO prefers to hold its meetings and NATO summit in the capital city of Reykjavik, the place that has a political symbolism since the 1986 Summit. The summit was between Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet Prime Minister, and Ronald Reagan who was the United States president wt that time. This helped promote the public image of peace seeking and reconciliation after the Cold War. NATO had defended Iceland from attacks although the cost of defending the country was negligible.


Neorealist theory cannot account fully for NATO’s development after the Cold World War ended. This theory is the most appropriate to understand the formation of the alliance. Neoliberals’ theory cannot also account for its development. However, it can offer an explanation to the events that took place in 1990’s. Neorealist theory has elements of the traditional notion, and this explains the treatment of Russia by NATO. In 1990’s, when the security risks had reduced, institutionalism took the lead to direct NATO alliance. When there was international terrorism that considered to be dangerous to national security, a course of neorealist became alleged. Neorealist cannot, therefore, explain the behavior of international institutions when it comes to policy making. It cannot also explain the intervention of the institutions when there are no immediate threats (Baldwin 2000, p. 18).

NATO has gone ahead to admit former nations that were communists. This process is seeking questions of the theory of Neorealist. The admission of “lesser” members brought doubts on whether the institution focused on relative gains. By granting “lesser” countries membership, the countries benefit more, whereas the old members benefit less. This behavior goes against “the mechanism of a lancing of power”.

Enlargement of NATO shows the unchecked power of the United States being exerted. America wants to maintain leadership in the region. Exclusion of Russia by NATO can only be explained by neorealist theory. The valid assessment here is that NATO would view admission of Russia as different from admission of other nations. Involvement of Russia in NATO would mean heightening of European stability, and in turn, Russia would enormously benefit. Neorealist views enlargement of NATO in the regional context. In this case, the Eastern countries/ states are balancing locally against power. This can also be explained as bandwagon by America where the states side with short term gains (Rauchhaus 2001, p. 67).

When the Cold War ended, the expectations by theorists, that NATO would disintegrate having served its purpose. This was expected to happen either consciously or through the lack of relevance. According to neorealist theory, dissolution would have worked out naturally. Engaging in an international institution leads to loss of policy control, significant costs, and loss of resources, among others. This loss happens due to collective commitments by nations. These costs are considered to be high. In fact, Article V of NATO’s constitution states that the sole purpose of the institution is no longer the war decision. It adds that the interest of member states must be strong in a way to accept the high costs. According to NATO, the threat was the external power, which was being balanced against a common interest. The level of the threat, according to theorists, would determine the level of cohesion of the institution (Chris 2005, p. 47).

Some authors refer to Soviet Union as “the glue holding NATO together”. Without Soviet Union, the states would have no reason for remaining united in NATO. In another view of the theory of neorealist, dissolution of NATO alliance would be striking. The Cold War left America as the only super power in the world. The theory of balancing power would explain that European Nations would actively try to balance against unchecked United Nations of America. After the war, however, most NATO states had their military forces reduced. The Europeans, on the other hand, looked for alternative provisions to their military forces.


  1. Baldwin, D. A 2000, Neorealism and Neoliberalism: the contemporary debate, Columbia University Press, New York.
  2. Chris, B 2005, Understanding International Relations, 3rd edition, Palgrave Macmillan, London.
  3. Edgar, D 2002, The prisoner’s dilemma, Nick Hern Books, London.
  4. Keohane, R 1986, Neorealism and its critics, Columbia University Press, New York.
  5. Myerson, R. B 1997, Game theory: analysis of conflict, New York: Harvard University Press.
  6. Patomaki, H & Wight, C 2000, ‘After post positivism? The promises of critical realism’, International Studies Quarterly, 44 (2): 213-237.
  7. Rauchhaus, RW 2001, Explaining NATO enlargement, Routledge, London.
  8. Snidal, D 2005, Rational choice and international relations’ Handbook of International Relations, Sage, London.
  9. Sorensen, G 2007, Introduction to international relations: theories and approaches, Oxford University Press, London.
  10. Zara, S 2010, History and Neorealism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
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