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Inevitable Decline versus Predestined Stability: The Structure of Disciplinary Explanations of the Evolving Transatlantic Order

  • Author(s): Hellmann, Gunther
  • et al.
Abstract

The future of NATO has been a hotly debated topic at the center of IR debates ever since the end of the Cold War. It has also been a very complicated one given the discipline´s conceptual and theoretical difficulties in studying change. Most analysts now agree that NATO (and the transatlantic order more broadly) are going through some major changes. Yet while there is consensus that the depth as well as the pace of these changes is more far-reaching than in past decades it is unclear exactly how deep and how far these changes reach. In order to come to grips with these changes most of the chapters in this book are exploring the character as well as the sources of these changes. This chapter approaches the topic by examining how the discipline has dealt with the question of the evolution of the transatlantic order in the past. It argues that IR has not been very well equipped conceptually to deal with the phenomenon in question, ie. large-scale processes of change. In applying a typological framework developed by Paul Pierson the chapter discusses what types of causal accounts have dominated in the IR literature – and what this may tell us about particular strengths, biases and potential blind spots in coming to grips with the evolution of this order. In essence it argues that the structure of the most prominent explanations is often quite similar irrespective of paradigmatic descent. Inspite of major differences – inspite, even, of mutually exclusive predictions – as to the expected path of the order´s evolution realist, liberal and constructivist accounts heavily rely in equal fashion on causal arguments which emphasize large-scale causal processes which are almost always framed in rather statist structural terms even though they essentially entail slow moving causal processes. This temporal dimension of the causal processes presumably shaping the future of the transatlantic order is seldom spelled out in detail, however. Thus, if one examines the debate as a whole one sees a picture of IR scholarship which essentially oscillates between two extremes: the position that NATO (as the core institution of the transatlantic order) was (and is) certain to survive and the position that it was (and is) certain to collapse. What is more, these extremes on a spectrum of possible positions on the transatlantic order´s evolution between breakdown on the one hand and successful adaptation on the other are not hypothetical but mostly real. Thus, the debate does not gravitate towards the center (ie. a position which, for instance, envisages a loser but still cooperative relationship) after the usual give and take of exchanging scholarly arguments. Rather it mostly sticks with either of the two extreme positions. The chapter illustrates the problems associated with this point in some details and discusses potential remedies.

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