The aim of this study is to evaluate two of the leading theories in international relations – neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism – by assessing their usefulness when applied to the case of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). At the end of the Cold War these two theoretical traditions came to opposite conclusions about the viability of the Atlantic Alliance in a world without the Soviet Union: Neorealism expected NATO’s demise, while neoliberal institutionalism expected it to remain the basis for transatlantic cooperation.
While it is clear that the break-up scenario predicted by many realists in the early 1990s has not materialized, it seems apparent that the structural forces of the international system are slowly pulling the North American and European pillars of NATO apart. The most recent manifestation of this is the conflict in Afghanistan, where NATO members have been unable to agree upon a coherent strategy and where Alliance solidarity has become severely strained. Although the final result of that conflict has yet to be determined, it has uncovered cracks in the Atlantic Alliance that are unlikely to be easily mended.
The thesis concludes that the usefulness of each theory depends on what question one wants to answer, but that their usefulness overall is limited. Systems theories are so broad that they can explain almost any turn of events, and although they can help us understand direction of the international system, the condition for their falsification is difficult if not impossible to specify. The international structure is vital to understanding the context within which states act, but systems theories are in themselves insufficient to explain particular events.