The Nature of NATO Expansion - A Realist View

August 04, 2022

About the author:

Zhang Haozhe, M.A. candidate, Johns Hopkins University; TI Youth Observer


Conventional wisdom about the enlargement of NATO is either America-Centric or Russia-Centric. The Western countries blame Russia as the source of NATO’s expansion and say there is no alternative to defending themselves from the Russian threat.1 Russia argues that its decisive and aggressive operations are driven by NATO expansion, which is equivalent to waking to find NATO tanks parked at your front door.2

This “chicken and egg situation” provides an excuse for both sides to reach a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, neither the America-Centric or Russia-Centric view is built on sand or mutually exclusive. Based on the structural realism theories - one of the most popular theories in describing international relations - the expansion of NATO is inevitable, and both sides’ explanations possess specific rationalities. Thus, this article takes a realist perspective to investigate the myths surrounding NATO expansion.


When Mearsheimer Meets Waltz

“What happened in Ukraine is the West’s fault!” John J. Mearsheimer stated in his gentle Brooklyn accent. He was expressing this astounding idea to dozens of students without scruples in a one-and-a-half-hours seminar.3 Some of the audiences were studying at the Center of International Relations (CIR) and others came from different schools at the University of Chicago, but all were attracted by Mearsheimer’s fame and controversial reputation. His audience, brainwashed by a deep-seated sense of optimism and moralism within “American values,” kept silent, while simultaneously, a series of explosions were happening in their brains. 

Mearsheimer was not the only one who foresaw the effects of NATO enlargement. Most realists, whether they are defensive or offensive, share similar predictions. In fact, from their perspective, the enlargement of NATO and the reactions of Russia are rational and inevitable. Interactions were not determined solely by one side in the game, but by the overall structure of the international system.4

What is the international system? After the Cold War, the world order was unipolar, and the United States was the only hegemon. So, how did the international system drive each side’s grand strategies? Three patterns, in the context of realism, play vital roles in the process of grand strategy formation: First, all states are fearful and realize the need for self-reliance within an anarchic international system; second, the ultimate objective of a great power is to become the sole hegemon within the system; third, is the balance of power theory. The first two came from the bedrock assumptions of Mearsheimer’s aggressive realism, and the pattern about power balancing was first outlined by Kenneth Waltz in 1979. Together, they explain how the structure of the international system has driven NATO expansion.




When the U.S. Meets NATO

The first wave of NATO enlargement in the post-Cold War era was not initiated by NATO. In 1991, the Smmit of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) tried to establish the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) and invited the Soviet Union and other Central and Eastern European states (CEEs) to become members. The purpose of the NACC was to provide a new forum for multilateral security consultations, not an attempt at NATO expansion. However, in 1993, President Walesa of Poland, Havel of Czechoslovakia, and Goncz of Hungary asked if their countries could join NATO in a meeting with then US President Clinton.5 The strong desire for NATO membership expressed by the three presidents inspired the Clinton administration to begin considering NATO enlargement seriously.6

The aforementioned self-reliance principle explained the actions of the three CEE presidents. As former Warsaw Pact members and Intermarium states, the three dreaded Russian powers, incapable of fending off the giant of the East, they saw NATO as the best guarantor for their security. As such, it is reasonable to accept the CEEs’ perspective on Russia as a major motivator for NATO expansion. It is also the key argument of the West’s Russia-Centric narrative - NATO would expand passively only if others felt threatened by Russia. However, fundamental questions remained: Were there alternatives to the expansion of NATO when the three CEE countries sought a security commitment from the West? Why would the United States desperately push for the enlargement of NATO without consideration for the consequent rise in tensions created by applying a revisionist diplomatic strategy in the neighborhood of Russia? In other words, what other incentive might the United States have in its acceleration of NATO enlargement?

The incentive for the United States to expand NATO derives from the second and third patterns alluded to above. In the history of human civilization, international power distribution has never been as asymmetrical as it was during the 1990s. According to Mearsheimer and many other scholars, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States became the first “real hegemon” in history.7 Due to its economic power, projective capability, and dominant ideological status, America could shape the world order at will. Nevertheless, challenges to American power still existed. Waltz argued that, in this situation, the balance-of-power theory applied as an unassailable axiom.8 In this view, other states, including Russia, China, Japan, and the European powers, must unite to balance American hegemony.

Indeed, the enviable position the U.S. found itself in required the maintenance of its status as the primary assignment of American grand strategy. How many US presidents have publicly advocated their ambitions, and feelings of pride, in the US role of world policeman? Moreover, statesmen in Washington D.C. also understood that American hegemony was vulnerable when considering the balance of power theorem. For offshore balancing, America must maintain a permanent military presence in any critical region, even if it could/will enhance others’ suspicions of American expansionism. Waltz captured this argument in his seminal article on NATO expansion: “Unbalanced power, whoever wields it, is a potential danger to others.”9 Waltz predicted that in the post-Cold War era, the traditional European allies of the United States would try to unite to balance the hegemon’s power. The historical evidence fits the anticipation of realists: in 1991, France tried to detach European security from NATO and return to the Western European Union (WEU); later, when the Clinton administration implemented NATO enlargement, Germany objected.10 However, Washington saw NATO as a functional instrument to alter the balance of power. NATO provided the United States with an excellent means of crippling the decision-making autonomy of the great European powers and bringing them under US dictate. NATO membership effectively excluded the most developed and industrialized regions from the exercise of power balancing. Thus, extending NATO longevity became the most crucial objective of the American grand strategy.

The United States found two challenges in sustaining NATO, namely the fundamental questions of purpose and legitimacy. Glenn Snyder wrote that “alliances have no meaning apart from the adversary threat to which they are a response.”11 What was NATO’s purpose once it had no enemy? The existence and the expansion of NATO drew a new line of division on the European continent. Furthermore, it would weaken Russia, which was more inclined toward East-West integration. How would Washington overcome these obstacles?

Of the two strategies introduced above, the first was the creation of an adversary for NATO. The new adversary must be sufficiently powerful to threaten the security of Europe’s entirety; it should be close to the frontier of NATO, and it should be a traditional nation-state with continuous subjectivity. Iraq and Yugoslavia were too weak, China was too far, and terrorism was too abstract. For America, there was no better option than Russia.

The second strategy was to institutionalize Imperial Liberalism in offering legitimacy to NATO. Imperial Liberalism, which features the values of liberalism and democracy as well as other “Western values,” was weaponized to achieve discriminatory national interests. These sacred “Western values” have been wielded by the United States like King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. Thus, the expansion of NATO is for the protection of all democratic nations; NATO’s military operations in the Middle East became efforts to overthrow tyrants; bombs dropped on Belgrade became angels from Heaven to end the holocaust. Professor Robert Tucker called it a “Freedom Crusade.”12 Which country is a democracy, and which is not? What is liberty, and who suffers under tyranny? Who should be blamed for a war crime? Only the U.S. was gifted with determinate power.



The origins of NATO expansion, derived from the request of CEE states, thrived due to the US ambition to become the world’s hegemon. World order changed with the end of the Cold War, and NATO, a twisted product of a particular historical era, became obsolete. However, the U.S. spared no effort in sustaining NATO for its functional capacity to both avoid systemic power balancing and thus, maintain its hegemonic position. To extend the longevity of NATO, the U.S. created a new enemy for Europe and then developed Imperial Liberalism to endow NATO with expansionary legitimacy. In a nutshell, NATO has evolved into a multilateral weapon to sustain the US hegemonic status. Two strategies were introduced to maintain the presence of NATO, and enlargement became its unique path.  

Joseph Schumpeter argued that once organizations have been created, they will find something to do and become hard to get rid of. Once NATO’s purpose had been changed from balancing against the Soviets to protecting American hegemony, its destiny was fixed; thus, if Russia were to collapse, China would become the primary enemy; if China failed, India or Japan would become the enemy. Until all potential opposition to US hegemony was demolished, the expansion of NATO would not cease. The recent NATO Summit in Madrid confirmed the organization’s irrevocable trend of expansion. In the Madrid Summit’s final declaration, NATO explicitly named Russia “the most significant and direct threat” and branded China as a “systemic challenge.” To some extent, NATO has thrown the world closer into a yawning abyss of dangerous confrontation.



1. NATO, “NATO-Russia Relations: The Facts,” NATO, August 9, 2019,

2. Vladimir Putin, “Address by the President of the Russian Federation,” President of Russia, February 24, 2022,

3. The University of Chicago, “Why Is Ukraine the West’s Fault? Featuring John Mearsheimer,”, September 25, 2015,

4. John J. Mearsheimer, “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” Foreign Affairs 80, no. 6 (2001): 173,

5. Kimberly Marten, “Reconsidering NATO Expansion: A Counterfactual Analysis of Russia and the West in the 1990s,” European Journal of International Security 3, no. 2 (November 1, 2017): 135–61,, 140-142.

6. Ibid, 144-146.

7. Mearsheimer, 42.

8. Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1979)., 117.

9. Kenneth N. Waltz, “NATO Expansion: A Realist’s View,” Contemporary Security Policy 21, no. 2 (August 2000): 23–38,

13523260008404253., 24.

10. Lawrence S Kaplan, Nato Divided, Nato United : The Evolution of an Alliance (Westport, Ct ; London: Praeger, 2012)., Chapter 6.

11. Glenn H Snyder, Alliance Politics (Ithaca, Ny: Cornell University Press, 1997)., 192.

12. David Hendricks and Robert Tucker, “The Freedom Crusade,” The National Interest 81 (2005): 12–21,


Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.


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