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An Emerging Security Dilemma

by Greg Granger

In his second article for American Diplomacy Professor Granger argues that the stakes are high with regard to U.S.-Russian relations and should be treated as such. In this piece Granger analyzes three key issues: NATO enlargement, the U.S. and NATO in Central Asia, and post ABM Treaty nuclear control. He believes developments in these three areas will to a great degree determine the geopolitical structure of the next international system.—Assoc. Ed.

In this paper I analyze U.S.-Russian relations in regard to three key issues: NATO enlargement, the U.S. and NATO in Central Asia, and post-ABM Treaty nuclear arms control. I focus on the re-emergence of Russia not as a reincarnated superpower but certainly as an increasingly independent and strident voice for its own national interests. I argue the ultimate outcome of the ongoing developments in the three issue-areas discussed here will to a great degree determine the geopolitical structure of the next international system. Therefore, I consider the future of U.S.-Russian relations to be a structural factor in play with both global (the United Nations Security Council) and regional organizations such as NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) playing the conduits of this relationship, and arms control once again a central issue through which the international system is endangered and/or stabilized.

The international system is experiencing an evolving balance of power, though to say what we are facing is a shift of a unipolar system to a multipolar system, even given all of the real-world circumstances that entails, is insufficient. Some analysts have compartmentalized the balance of power question, distinguishing the economic structure from power political and cultural relations. In this scenario, the United States remains an unparalleled military superpower, but is challenged economically by the European Union, Japan and to lesser but growing extent China, Russia and India. Furthermore, the international system can no longer be sufficiently modeled along great power geopolitics alone. Introducing non-state elements such as business, crime, terrorism, and humanitarianism is commonplace in contemporary analyses, and rightfully so. However, there are numerous indicators that Realist, state-centric concepts such as the security dilemma hold post-Cold War and even post-9/11 relevance, as resurgent great powers are exhibiting behaviors as this perspective would expect.

Will a U.S.-Russian Security Dilemma Shape the World Again?
Security dilemmas in international relations are often considered functions of actors’ perceptions, and in particular the reciprocation of threat perceptions. John Baylis describes a security dilemma as follows: “Policymakers believe that their own armaments are defensive while those of others are often seen as offensive. What makes the policies of others appear offensive is a matter of political judgment about the threat which is conditioned by a wide range of issues, including historical animosity, ideology, alliance affiliations, and contemporary military policies.”1 Robert Jervis’ definition reinforces the action-reaction dynamic as central to the security dilemma: “The security dilemma: many of the means by which a state tries to increase its security decrease the security of others.”2 In each of the three issue-areas discussed below, Russian reactions to U.S. policies are clearly illustrative of these dynamics. Russett and Oneal’s recent consideration of the potential for a U.S.-Russian security dilemma called for Russian membership in NATO, going as far as to conclude that, “Continued expansion of NATO without Russia runs the risk of creating a severe security dilemma.”3 Russett and Oneal apply their model – by which peace is more likely as interdependent democracies share membership in international organizations – to the likelihood of a U.S.-Russian security dilemma in the absence of these factors, which could include Russia opting to ally with China to balance against the United States. They conclude rather stridently that Russia should become a NATO member; otherwise a global and dangerous balance of power system is likely to develop. The six years that have passed since the publication of their book Triangulating Peace offer us a chance to review the status of U.S.-Russian relations in light of Russett and Oneal’s warnings. I begin with the issue of NATO enlargement.

NATO Enlargement
To Russia’s west and south, the post-Cold War reversal of alliances draws the formerly Soviet republics and Soviet bloc clients closer to the West and thus farther from Russia. The immediate post-Cold War era saw Russia incrementally institutionalizing relations with NATO and the alliance’s new initiatives such as the Partnership for Peace and, more directly, the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (PJC) which was replaced in 2002 with the NATO-Russia Council (NRC). However, the time since has seen a reactionary turn in the Russian response to NATO growth in membership and interventionism, and a growing distrust of Putin by some western leaders as he takes his government in an authoritarian direction. 4

As NATO’s first post-Cold War enlargement was being finalized in 1999, Clemens5 posited four motivations for enlarging NATO that are typical of the literature on the subject:

  • to maintain NATO’s relevance and the United States’ formal ties to Europe;
  • to “preempt the emergence of a ‘grey zone’ or a power vacuum on the borders of current member countries, thus reducing areas of potential volatility with Russia”;6
  • to manage relations among the post-Soviet and Soviet bloc states;
  • to provide military contributions including personnel, materiel and forward-basing opportunities.

In the time since 1999 each of the above remains an accurate statement, though the declared forward basing value of the new NATO members is less ambiguous, now focused on perceived threats emanating from the Middle East and Central Asia. Regardless, the progression of states joining NATO (and the European Union), including former Soviet republics, has de facto produced a geopolitical encirclement of Russia and has coincided with an increasingly emboldened Russian foreign policy. Even more interesting times may lie shortly ahead, as the near future of NATO enlargement includes consideration of membership for, among others, Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine, a line-up that constitutes a particularly aggravating factor in Russia’s worldview. Russia has traditionally been Serbia’s “big Slav brother,” and one need only recall the 1999 standoff at the Pristina airport between Russian and U.S. and British troops for an example of these relations under conditions of war. Even more challenging to Russian vital interests would be the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in NATO. It is difficult to imagine the Russian government taking anything but offense at this prospect regardless of how the inclusion of Georgia, Ukraine and others would be justified.

Enlarging the alliance does not occur in a vacuum, of course. The underlying purpose of NATO has evolved to include not only the traditional territorial defense of its membership, but also a focus on crisis management. Quite obviously this means taking the alliance to where crises require management. From the Rome Summit of 1990 through the recent Riga Summit, the debate over taking the alliance “out of area” has continued while real-world events have kept the topic quite relevant. Now, with a U.S. presence in Central Asia — albeit one that may be more fragile than the United States would prefer, exemplified by the expulsion of U.S. personnel from Uzbekistan — and with NATO commanding the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the encirclement Russia is feeling is now realized to be from a U.S.-led alliance willing to operate militarily outside of its territorial boundaries.

NATO and the United States in Central Asia
Russian perceptions of national security are also being shaped in part by a posture of reaction to several U.S.-driven moves in Russia’s Central Asian “near abroad” or the “post-Soviet space.” Russia has not succeeded in unilaterally shaping the regional order throughout its former Eurasian territory and sphere of influence. Protestations against NATO enlargement, a scramble to move into Central Asian airbases not already claimed by the United States, and the creation of and recent heightened attention to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have not deterred NATO enlargement, nor NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan nor U.S. plans to station missile defense systems in Europe.

The Central Asian region is vital because it is the geopolitics of energy security that is supporting Russia’s renewed confidence on the international stage. As long as Russia can properly manage its future as supplier and transit zone in the oil and gas market, its political leadership can be expected to pronounce and protect Russian interests with growing voice. Having demonstrated its willingness to leverage oil and gas supplies for political gain, Russia under President Putin has left observers mostly wondering what will come next, but quite certain that Russia’s world politics are increasingly important and likely to remain so.

In part due to these petro-politics, Russia’s geopolitical status depends most immediately upon developments in the post-Soviet space. Once again for Moscow the Central Asian landmass is valued not for its human resources, but for its energy resources and service as energy transit zones. If anything, the humans in this region are problematic for Russian interests, as an increasing number of them are organizing into resistance groups motivated either by the desire for western-style reforms or by the desire to enforce Islamic law. Regardless, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has not allowed Russia to consistently wield adequate influence in Central Asia, though the CSTO may be taking shape as a means to accomplish two goals: (1) institutionalizing Russian influence in the region and (2) allowing the Central Asian states to retain a sense of sovereign independence through participation in regional organizations. Furthermore, Russia’s membership along with China in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) creates an overlap of institutions within which Russia and China can further their bilateral relations while buffering against U.S. inroads into the region.

The United States has decided against direct relations for itself or through NATO with the CSTO and SCO, preferring to relate bilaterally with the member-states of each. However, with NATO in Afghanistan and with the CSTO and SCO each focusing increasing attention to counter-terrorism, the probability for some connection with NATO is increasing over time. An incremental series of attempts at inter-organizational cooperation between NATO, the CSTO and/or the SCO could aid the effort to legitimize U.S. military presence in Central Asia for an indeterminate length of time to come. However, the current U.S. position is that the CSTO and SCO would themselves be legitimized if formal contact is established, which is not at this time considered to be in the U.S. national interest. This choice is in line with Foot, MacFarlane and Mastanduno’s conclusion on the effect of international norms on U.S. policies regarding international organizations: “…international norms that support the idea that interdependent political actors within an international community should operate collectively rather than unilaterally appear to have little causal significance in the explanations of American behaviour. Norms. . .are indicators of the reasons for U.S. acceptance or avoidance of particular international institutions.”7 In this case, while the United States shares the stated interests of the CSTO and SCO in counter-terrorism and non-proliferation of WMD, there are wide political differences, particularly in reference to the U.S. democracy promotion policies, keeping the United States at a distance.

In sum, from the Caucasus through the Caspian Basin and Central Asia, diplomatic and military wrangling has yet to result in a dominant player or coalition. Russia, China and the United States retain the opportunity to construct a network of international regimes to co-manage the cross-cutting issues driving each of their national agendas in this region. Thus far, however, the maneuvering of each has done far more to confirm Realist/balance-of-power/security dilemma expectations than those of liberal internationalism.

Arms Control
The recent announcement of U.S. plans to station missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic moved Russia into a more defensive role, thereby putting in place another component of an emerging security dilemma.8 The United States maintains that plans for missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic are intended for defense against “rogue” state missile programs, most notably Iran. However, U.S. diplomatic efforts notwithstanding, the deployment of missile defense systems in eastern Europe in addition to a NATO missile defense plan of its own are sowing Russian reactions wholly expected by the security dilemma model. Within a short time after the missile defense plans for Europe were made public, voices from Russia were proclaiming the move to be “a substantial reconfiguration of the American military presence,”9 and confirming Russia’s ability to strike the missile defense sites militarily.

The nature of this particular plan, i.e., missile defenses, is especially acute in Russian national security perceptions. When early in his administration President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the result was more than the closure of another Cold War matter, though it has taken some time for this to be realized. The ABM Treaty was seen as the central factor in the strategic stability between the superpowers, allowing the establishment of additional arms control regimes not only bilaterally but multilaterally as well. As both the United States and Russia retain large nuclear arsenals, the stability of their relationship is of greater significance than most other bilateral relationships, and with global ramifications. The end of the Cold War ideological conflict and the rapidly established gap in military capabilities between the United States and post-Soviet Russia have not erased the fact that each side continues to possess the capability to destroy the other (and beyond). The deployment of missile defense systems in Europe, regardless of their purpose, is a clear example of behavior that will elicit perceptions in line with a security dilemma, putting at risk cooperation in nuclear affairs worldwide. The irony is that the United States and Russia share an interest in preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons but their policies reflect an obsession with one another, obviating whatever reason one or the other acts and a gap in threat perceptions, though continued Iranian intransigence may bring the entire UN Security Council permanent membership closer together on the matter of proliferation.

The United States and Russia are both interdependent and competitive, conjoined through diverse political and economic networks, far more than during the Cold War. The Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations treated Russia somewhat cavalierly as they proceeded with the enlargement of NATO in membership and partnerships across Eastern Europe and Central Asia and led NATO’s first military operations, again in the former Soviet sphere of influence. Two attempts to institutionalize NATO-Russian relations have not produced desired outcomes, and thus Russett and Oneal’s argument about Russian membership in NATO is intriguing but increasingly unlikely to materialize. However, in support of Russett and Oneal’s broader argument, the United States and Russia do share membership in some of the world’s most significant international organizations, such as the United Nations Security Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the G-8. The contributions of these multilateral contacts on the severity and/or management of the U.S.-Russian security dilemma is potentially significant, but beyond the scope of this paper. We do know, however, that U.S.-Russian diplomacy in these organizations are primarily concerned with matters less central to the U.S.-Russian relationship than the issues discussed here and that Russia’s current foreign policy priorities are associated with the post-Soviet geopolitical space, where the United States has made recent inroads.

Additionally, the arms control regimes that linked Washington and Moscow’s strategic calculations have weakened, as seen in the case of the 2002 Strategic Offensive Weapons Reduction Treaty (SORT), which committed neither the United States nor Russia to the destruction of any nuclear warheads.10 The treaty also did not address defensive systems, and the Bush administration has been strongly committed to advancing missile defense systems to deployment, a key element in the emerging security dilemma, closely representing the very definition of a security dilemma as a state’s defensive measures creating the perception of a threat in one or more other states.

In sum, this analysis of U.S.-Russian relations in regard to these issues reveals a situation explained best by Realist precepts, although that was by no means inevitable. Put another way, of the options available, Russian and American decision makers have chosen to act as Realism would expect, specifically relative to balance of power considerations and an emerging security dilemma. When the states in question possess the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, are once again diverging ideologically, and at least one is asserting geopolitical interests in the historical sphere of influence of the other, the stakes are high and should be treated as such. A security dilemma manifesting as a renewed nuclear arms race between otherwise asymmetric powers is not a replay of the Cold War; what it may become is, or should be, frightening enough in prospect to bring pause and reflection to policymakers who seem satisfied with proclamations of defensive policies regardless of the real consequences of one’s actions. Whether such reflection is itself a realistic expectation is, at this point in time, an open question.End.

1. John Baylis, “Arms Control and Disarmament,” in John Baylis, James Wirtz, Eliot Cohen and Colin S. Gray, Strategy in the Contemporary World: An Introduction to Strategic Studies, 200.
2. Robert Jervis, “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,” in Richard K. Betts, Conflict After the Cold War: Arguments on Causes of War and Peace (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1994), 312.
3. Bruce Russett and John R. Oneal, Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001), 285.
4. See Tuomas Forsberg, “Russia’s Relationship with NATO: A Qualitative Change or Old Wine in New Bottles?” Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 21 (3) (September 2005), 343 passim.
5. Clay Clemens, “The Strategic and Political Consequences of NATO Enlargement,” in James Sperling, ed. Europe in Change: Two Tiers or Two Speeds? The European Security Order and the Enlargement of the European Union and NATO. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 139-159. See also Richard Holbrooke and Ronald D. Asmus, “Next Step for NATO,” Washington Post (March 14, 2006), A19.
6. Clemens, 140.
7. Rosemary Foot, S. Neil MacFarlane, and Michael Mastanduno, eds. U.S. Hegemony and International Organizations: The United States and Multilateral Institutions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 270.
8. Jacquelyn S. Porth, “European Missile Defense Would Protect against Mideast Threats,” USINFO 2 March 2007
9. Quote from General Yuri Baluyevsky, Russian Army Chief of Staff, qtd in Rupert Cornwell, “U.S. prepares ‘son of star wars’ to counter Iran from European bases,” The Independent (London) (24 May 2006), 20 via LexisNexis.
10. James Sterngold, “Disarmament in Tatters,” San Francisco Chronicle (April 6, 2003), A6.

Greg Granger is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the School of Social Sciences at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA. He is co-author of International Organizations: A Comparative Approach to the Management of Cooperation, 4th ed. (Greenwood Press, 2001) and has published several articles and book chapters on U.S. national security policy and international relations. Most recently, he wrote the “Introduction to Central Asia” in CQ Press’ Political Handbook of Asia 2007. Dr. Granger was the first Bostick Professor of Social Science at NSU, and is past president of the Louisiana Political Science Association.


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