Robust and Rhetorical Action: Explaining NATO's Long Commitment to the Bucharest Decision

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Virginia Tech

Why, despite the territorial fragmentation and unresolved conflicts in both countries, does NATO maintain a public commitment to a 2008 decision promising the future membership of Ukraine and Georgia? It can be argued that the "Bucharest decision" has prompted the very attack that NATO membership was meant to prevent. Russia has invaded both states to, among other things, prevent their likely incorporation in NATO. What causes publicly articulated military alliance policy aspirations to endure when they induce such geopolitical conflict, and geopolitical transformation, that it undermines their purpose? This dissertation takes these puzzles as its object of inquiry. The focus of the study is Ukraine and Georgia's partial integration into NATO from 2007 to 2020. This research uses the concepts of robust action and rhetorical action to examine the two countries' growing partnerships with the alliance during this period. It defines robust action as a series of ambiguous moves to achieve tactical goals while maintaining long term flexibility. Rhetorical action is defined as the strategic use of arguments to serve an agent's interests. By using a narrative analysis method, the study draws from a body of NATO official texts and speeches and a set of original interviews to illustrate the public and private narratives used by political and military officials to help them make sense of NATO's engagement with Ukraine and Georgia. Existing literature on NATO expansion has not addressed how the alliance has adapted the process of integrating aspirant countries short of membership. Moreover, the literature on robust action has not focused on how international security organizations like NATO can use ambiguous actions to tackle complex challenges and maintain flexibility.
The study argues that NATO's engagement with Ukraine and Georgia since Bucharest constitutes a robust action strategy. Through a combination of rhetorical and material support, NATO has simultaneously been able to maintain the appearance of a commitment to the two countries, show Western resolve and solidarity in opposing Russia and sustaining the United States' preferred vision of Europe's security order, all while denying Ukraine and Georgia "full membership" in the alliance. Ukraine, Georgia, and their allies in NATO have used rhetorical action, arguments based on the self-defined liberal values and norms of the Euro-Atlantic community that NATO represents on the one hand, and the historical precedent of an open door policy toward membership, on the other, to rhetorically entrap NATO into staying committed. The study shows how multilateral commitments are more layered than the traditional membership/no membership choice and how NATO has been able to successfully maintain such a commitment through both rhetoric and action while avoiding a direct war with Russia. It concludes however that NATO's commitment is untenable for a military alliance based on defense and deterrence. This has implications for the future of NATO expansion and the overall trajectory of the alliance.

NATO Enlargement, Ukraine, Georgia, Russia, Robust Action, Rhetorical Action