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At the end of the Cold War, the United States came to pursue a policy of “liberal primacy” that would maintain America’s hegemonic status while expanding the liberal institutions that constituted the postwar international order. At least three important, long-standing questions persist about liberal primacy. First, was liberal primacy consistent with, or a radical departure from, US strategy during the Cold War? Second, how did the United States come to embrace primacy as a central objective of its foreign policy in the post-Cold War period? Finally, why did the United States choose specific strategies of expansion, especially its decision to enlarge NATO, rather than pursue other options like Partnership for Peace? We suggest that focusing on the legitimation of US foreign policy can shed light on these questions. Over the decades, US leaders have consistently invoked familiar liberal concepts and tropes to justify US foreign policy. From a legitimation perspective, there is much more continuity than change between Cold War and post-Cold War US foreign policy. We argue liberal legitimation made the post-Cold War strategy of primacy palatable both at home and abroad. Finally, liberal legitimating language bolstered the proponents of NATO expansion, clearing the path for expansionist policies.
The United States emerged as the world’s sole superpower from the embers of the Cold War’s end, without, however, a wholesale reformulation of the principles and tools used to execute US grand strategy. This was particularly true in Europe, where the United States remained engaged politically, economically, and military; retained significant numbers of forward-deployed forces; and orchestrated the continuation and eventual expansion of NATO. For the United States, and for many Europeans, continued American dominance after 1991 of the continent’s security through NATO was a logical outgrowth of what Washington had provided in the West after 1945. Even within the context of America’s leadership of NATO, alternative strategies to the ultimate path of NATO’s post-1999 enlargement were possible. These included the Partnership for Peace, initially seen as an alternative to NATO enlargement formulated by the Pentagon; some enlargement of NATO to the east, but not as much as occurred; and a concrete path for Russia to join the alliance. This chapter considers the pros and cons of each of these alternatives to the NATO enlargement policy chosen by the United States and its partners in order to provide a more detailed assessment of the policy than has existed previously.
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