Updated: Feb 12, 2020
The Athenian historian Thucydides wrote in the Melian Dialogue:
“The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.
This statement is often cited as the basis of realist theory, how a powerful state will always use its strength to enforce its will on a smaller one. The following will consider, with reference to neorealist theory, how a state can be sovereign and secure in an interdependent world by analysing the roles of interdependence and a state’s geographic location.
To frame this evaluation the terms sovereignty, security, interdependence, and neorealist theory are defined. Sovereignty refers to a state’s ability to exercise full authority, independent of external influences, within its own borders and its ability to interact with the international political community. Security refers to the ability of a state to protect itself from economic, military, environmental and political threats. Interdependence can be considered in the context of interdependence theory, including how relationships between states incentivise a focus on rewards rather than costs. Such an approach leads to a positive and mutually reinforcing relationship with the objective of achieving such rewards as the outcomes over time. Finally, neorealism in this evaluation mainly refers to the “offensive realism” school of international relations theory. This suggests a state’s best strategy for obtaining security, in an essentially anarchic international system, is by strengthening their comparative power, if necessary at the expense of others inoffensive fashion.
Whether a state can achieve a high level of sovereignty and security depends on its level of interdependence – a strong level disproving the neorealist theory, while a weaker level would reinforce this. Against this background, this assessment is undertaken with reference to Russia, Ukraine and Estonia, as well as West Germany and the USSR and New Zealand.
Ukraine is a large country located geographically beside Russia. It is not a member of the European Union (EU) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and this, combined with its proximity to a regional hegemon dramatically limited its chances of being sovereign and secure. Mearsheimer states a core reason for states fearing each other is the uncertainty about one’s rivals. He further argues that for a state to survive it must increase its power relative to its closest rivals. Kaplan elaborates reference to geography, including by referring to Russia’s perceptions of its geographic insecurity. Kaplan argues Russia’s limited access to the North Sea means it is essentially a landlocked state, making it “forever dissatisfied and [forced] to keep expanding or be conquered in turn themselves.” Russia observed Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2014 as potentially damaging to its security and sovereignty in the long term because of a concern that a successful ‘revolution’ in Kiev would encourage a similar rebellion in Moscow. Subsequent events portrayed Ukrainian pro-EU sentiments and, as importantly, pro-NATO. These were two sentiments Moscow would not agree to, as this would mean having NATO forces on its border. This geographic insecurity on the part of Russia led to its show of power via the annexation of Crimea. This move – the first redrawing of borders in Europe since the end of the Second World War – was made easier due to Ukraine being essentially unaligned internationally – ie it was not interdependent with the EU or NATO. This underlines the power of neorealist theory, ie Russian might was ‘right’ and Ukraine was weak and had to ‘suffer what it must.’
Conversely, Russia maintains that the referendum results in Crimea (which overwhelmingly endorsed the Russian annexation) reflects a region’s right to fulfil its desire for self-determination. This counterargument rejects neorealist theory and is more closely aligned to liberal theories of international relations with their emphasis on the right to self-determination. Ukraine’s status as an unaligned state prevented it from benefiting from interdependence, and therefore retarded its ability to be sovereign and secure.
The case of the small Baltic state of Estonia can help further illuminate this point. Despite its small size and geographical proximity to a large and powerful neighbour – Russia- with a negative perception of its independence, Estonia has maintained high levels of sovereignty and security precisely because of its interdependence, thereby posing a challenge to neorealist theory. Estonia is significantly smaller than Ukraine in landmass (45,339 km2 ) and population (1.3 million) compared to Ukraine – a larger country with a population of 45 million people and a landmass of 603, 628 km.2 Neorealist theory would suggest Ukraine is better placed to preserve its sovereignty and security than smaller Estonia, in fact, because of its weaker interdependence the opposite is true.
Like Ukraine, Estonia is not necessarily pursuing power for its own sake – in contrast to neorealist assumptions, both seek interdependence to preserve their security and sovereignty. In practical terms, both have been involved in territorial disputes with Russia, but unlike Ukraine, Estonia has prevented its sovereignty from being undermined. Estonia has been able to do this because of its interdependence economically through its membership of the EU, and its role in the NATO military alliance. Unlike Ukraine, Estonia has received support from its NATO partners through the implied commitment of Article V which states that an attack on one NATO ally is an attack on all. It is an open question whether Russia would have invaded Ukrainian territory if Kiev had been a NATO ally. The school of ‘offensive neorealists’ is not supported by this example, which would suggest Russia should have few difficulties ‘bullying’ its small neighbour compared to the larger state of Ukraine. In fact, the opposite has been true.
Although Estonia sees its relations with NATO and EU as integral to its ability to remain secure against a potential Russian threat, it can be argued these same relations have reduced Estonia’s sovereignty. It is worth noting, that Estonia’s membership of NATO and the EU do mean a loss of sovereignty to both organisations (eg on trade policy and shared security outlooks). In exchange, Estonia’s security and sovereignty is also more secure as a result of having ceded this to these institutions. Estonia may accept this reality through a realist perspective simply because it understands that without the support of these institutions it may suffer the same fate as unaligned Ukraine. The issue of interdependence is certainly significant therefore in enabling Estonia to remain secure and limit the level of sovereignty it must give away in order to preserve its overall independence.
West Germany’s geographic location at the front-line between the US and the Soviet Union, limited its sovereignty, while also helping to preserve it. Its role, like that of Estonia, as a member of NATO and the EU may have helped preserve its security and thus its sovereignty during the Cold War. Following the Second World War, Germany was divided into two. East Germany fell into the Soviet (USSR) sphere of influence while West Germany fell under the sphere of the Capitalist West. The buildup of weapons from both sides during the Cold War saw the USSR deploy the SS-20 SABRE missiles in East Germany between 1976 – 1987 in East Germany as a counter to any potential Western threat. In addition the USSR, launched Operation RYAN to collect intelligence on Western planning for a nuclear attack. Operation RYAN soon discovered that NATO was preparing for a war game Codenamed Able Archer-83 in late 1983. This involved the deployment of 40,000 NATO troops throughout Western Europe in response to a fictional “Orange” enemy force. The arrival of the US Pershing II missiles in West Germany appeared to represent the culmination of Western preparations for an actual war. Although no conflict occurred, West Germany’s proximity to East Germany and the Pershing II missiles capable of reaching Russia meant it effectively was on the front line of a potential nuclear conflict between the USSR and the US. Its geography here dictated a lower level of sovereignty and security, while at the same time helped preserve it. The trade-off was, however, that it enjoyed the protection of the US and NATO in the case of a Soviet attack, thereby sustaining its security and sovereignty.
Thus, the West German example rejects the neorealist argument as it was still able to survive as a sovereign and secure state despite its relative weakness and limited sovereignty (eg over its own defence), and the threat of attack by the Soviet Union. This underlines the important role interdependence plays in supporting a state’s ability to be sovereign and secure. Unlike the neo-realist assumption ie that a state seeks power, West Germany shows a state not seeking power in its own right. Instead, it sacrificed aspects of its sovereignty – by being dependent on the EU and NATO – as well as its power for security protection. Without its strong relations with the EU and NATO, West Germany would have had little chance of being able to withstand Soviet aggression. Therefore, for a country to remain secure and sovereign depends on the level of interdependence it is able to structure, related to its proximity to larger powers. The example of New Zealand provides a further important illustration of the weakness of the neo-realist perspective, and some support for the liberal theory of international relations.
One year after Able Archer – 83, New Zealand voters elected the Fourth Labour Government which established a Nuclear Free New Zealand initiative. This was a reflection of its sovereignty and security driven by its geographical location. In 1951, with the Cold War in full swing, New Zealand became a member of the Australia – New Zealand – United States (ANZUS) military alliance. Through ANZUS, New Zealand was able to rely on US support if attacked by the Soviet Union. However, in exchange, New Zealand was forced to sacrifice some of its sovereignty, by allowing the US nuclear powered, or armed, ships “free access” into their ports. For it to be secure from any potential Soviet attack, New Zealand required US support even if it meant relinquishing its water sovereignty. This paradigm was rooted in neorealist theory as it presumed, arguably correctly, that without ANZUS the small state of New Zealand would have no chance if faced with a Soviet threat. In 1984, however, the new Labour Government prevented any US naval vessel access to New Zealand port was it nuclear powered or armed. This would eventually culminate in the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987 which extended this ban to New Zealand’s airspace. Symbolically this legislation reflected New Zealand’s determination as an independent and sovereign state undeterred by Cold War fear mongering projected by the US.
New Zealand’s ability to implement the Nuclear Free New Zealand policy was due to their geographic distance from the main theatre of military confrontation, ie central Europe. A country like West Germany would not have been allowed to implement an idea as its geography limited its room for manoeuvre on issues of sovereignty and, at the time, security. Realist theory would therefore prevail. Had New Zealand been in Western Europe and interdependent on NATO and the US for its security, it would have been unable to stand up to the power of the US. New Zealand’s geographic role played a pivotal role in allowing the small state to showcase its strong independence and sovereignty.
Thucydides captures the reality of a non-interdependent world, however, in an interdependent world, Thucydides is incorrect. The case of Estonia and Germany reflect how states, of any size, can benefit from interdependence as a means of ensuring their security and sovereignty. The Ukraine case study further reflects the significance interdependence has in dictating a state’s ability to be secure and sovereign. On the other hand, the New Zealand example showed how geographic location also plays a large role in allowing a state’s ability to be secure and sovereign. Thucydides and neorealists are correct in outlining the reality of a non-interdependent world, however, their analysis falls short in an interdependent world. Thus a state that is interdependent can be sovereign and secure, otherwise “the weak [will] suffer what they must”.
This investigation could not have been achieved without the help of the following sources:
Bukharin, Oleg, and Frank Von Hippel. Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces. Cambridge, USA: MIT Press, 2004.
Einmann, Andres. “Estonia, Russia to Exchange 128.6 Hectares of Land under Border Treaty.” Postimees. Last modified May 23, 2013. Accessed April 14, 2018. https://news.postimees.ee/1250918/estonia-russia-to-exchange-128-6-hectares-of-land-under-border-treaty.
Fischer, Benjamin B. “A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare.” Central Intelligence Agency. Last modified July 7, 2008. Accessed April 16, 2018. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/a-cold-war-conundrum/source.htm#HEADING1-12.
Hankewitz, Sten. “The US to Invest in Estonia’s Ämari Air Base.” Estonian World. Last modified December 18, 2017. Accessed April 14, 2018. http://estonianworld.com/security/us-invest-estonias-amari-air-base/.
Haynes, Jeff, Peter Hough, Shahin Malik, and Lloyd Pettiford. World Politics. New York, USA: Routledge, 2013.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. Paperback ed. New York, USA: Random House Trade, 2013.
Kelly, Harold H., and John W. Thibaut. Interpersonal Relations: A Theory of Interdependence. Hoboken, US: John Wiley & Sons, 1978.
Markham, JAMES M. “First U.S Pershing Missiles Delivered in West Germany.” New York Times (New York, USA), November 24, 1983, national edition, Politics, 0014.
Mastny, Vojtech. “’How Able Was “Able Archer”?: Nuclear Trigger and Intelligence in Perspective.” Journal of Cold War Studies 11, no. 1 (July 14, 2009): 108-23.
McRobie, Alan. “1984: End of an Era.” In From Muldoon to Lange: New Zealand Elections in 1980s, by Stephen Levine and Alan McRobie, 107-44. Rangiora, New Zealand: MC Enterprises, 2002.
McWhinney, Edward. Self-Determination of Peoples and Plural-ethnic States in Contemporary International Law. Boston, USA: Brill Academic Publishers, 2007.
Mearsheimer, John. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York, USA: W. W. Norton Company, 2014.
Moon, Paul. New Zealand in the Twentieth Century. Auckland, New Zealand: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011.
Pry, Peter. War Scare: Russia and America on the Nuclear Brink. Santa Barbara, USA: Praeger Publishers, n.d.
Russia Today. “Crimea Declares Independence, Seeks UN Recognition.” Russia Today. Last modified March 17, 2014. Accessed April 12, 2018. https://www.rt.com/news/crimea-referendum-results-official-250/.
Schaefer, Bernd, Nate Jones, and Benjamin B. Fischer. “Forecasting Nuclear War.” The Wilson Center. Last modified November 13, 2014. Accessed April 16, 2018. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/forecasting-nuclear-war.
World Bank. “Population Estonia.” World Bank. Last modified December 31, 2016. Accessed April 14, 2018. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?locations=EE&view=chart.
———“Ukraine Population.” World Bank. Last modified December 30, 2016. Accessed April 16, 2018. https://data.worldbank.org/country/ukraine.