Period 1990 – 1999

Period 1990 – 1999: deep unipolarity, bandwagoning

Times go by

The profound collapse of Soviet Union and thereafter Russia’s widespread political, social, economic and military problems as well as the internal turmoil in China (Tiananmen tragedy) created favorable circumstances for the emergence of the US unipole. The overall decennium was characterized by deepening American unipolarity and strengthening hegemonic position and, on the other hand, weakness and fragility of Russian and Chinese positions. China’s economic growth was weak at that time and political unsteadiness in Russia were symptomatic to those years.

On the international scene, this period started with the Gulf War (Iraq) 1990-1991, which war “certified” the unipole role of the US by military means being first “pre-action” in the role of US unipole.

Estimated incentives of the US in this war were testing and consolidating the power of influence in the region and securing the oil business. The other major powers at that time, collapsing USSR/Russia and China, were too weak to resist the US operation and in the middle of internal problems. Therefore, they joined the US resolutions in UNSC and followed suit.

 A glimpse of first early awakening took place in 1997 when Russia and China signed and sent the letter to the UN “the Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Formation of a New International Order”.

Some prominent events in the Russian politics in late 1990s changed the picture and direction of that country: Primakov became foreign minister, Yeltsin was re-elected as president in 1996 but resigned in 1999 and Putin became as an acting president and was finally elected as President of Russia in March 2000.

Disintegration process of Yugoslavia (1990 – 1999), Kosovo war was a turning point in 1999 in many ways. The US resumed robust action in the role of the unipole aiming to contain Russia’s position, enlarging NATO eastward and certifying the power of influence in Europe. Russia and China strongly opposed the NATO-led bombing campaign but still were in the too-weak position in order to organize any harder measures.


During this whole period, Russia’s armed forces were in severe and extensive adaptation and change process from the Red Army position to something else, among difficult and acute financial and personnel problems. Russia’s military capability and capacity were at their lowest level for the last 70 years.

China was just in the beginning of opening and the Chinese economy was taking first steps in the coming massive growth path and China’s armed forces were just in the very beginning of their massive modernization process, from Mao’s peasant army to the modern professional army. Sino-Russian military cooperation was confined mainly to the arms sales from Russia to China.

In this period the Sino-Russian cooperation relations evolved through some consecutive phases, in the following way:

  • the transition period, 1990-1993, from the collapse of Soviet Union to “reborn” Russia
  • the 1994 simple partnership, when “constructive partnership” was set up,
  • the 1996 the security partnership, when China and Russia established a strategic partnership after Primakov became the Foreign Minister of Russia

It is worth to realize that after 25 years of mutual distrust and unfriendliness, the thaw began in late 1980s. So soon both sides survived their “worst moments” (1989-1993), they understood common threats and strategic convergence and cooperation enlarged promptly.

Soon after China and Russia formed the “constructive partnership” in 1994, the security situation dramatically changed for both partners. While China experienced the third Taiwan crisis from July of 1995 to March of 1996, which almost escalated into a military confrontation with the United States. Russia faced tremendous strategic pressures from both NATO’s eastward expansion and the first Chechen war and the period culminated to Yugoslavia’s disintegration. The common outside adversary and threat to both partners had been found.

From theoretical point of view

American foreign policy makers may be identified as being realists, not all structural realists, but nevertheless majority of them seems to share realist assumptions. Economic and military capabilities translate into power in its material definition and practical realists (decision makers) comprehend power as an integral whole, not divided into components. Moreover, to these policymakers the power available for the use of foreign policy purposes is relative to that power or capabilities of other countries. According to the central arguments of structural realism (Kenneth Waltz), power is a material factor and its distribution defines the structure of the international system.

The US point of view

From the US point of view, due to absence of factual political and military constraints on the international scene during 1990-2010, the US foreign policy makers used to make decisions without considering or worrying too much of others reactions. In this kind of circumstance the policymakers seeking after national interests, are more prone to make intervention (military intervention) a viable option. International law, non-intervention principle, sovereignty of states and other accepted rules of international behavior can and should be put aside when American interest are under consideration. The slogan “might is right” seems to be the incisive motto of the ruling policy elite in the US.

During this period the main threat perceptions of the US were consisted of

  • Nuclear proliferation stemming from unsecured nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union
  • Rogue state’s acquisition of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction (such states like Iran, Iraq, North Korea)
  • terrorism

Balancing Continuum

Under these circumstances, when looking at this period from the point of view of the re-designed Balancing Continuum, the following can be concluded:

  • both Russia and China adopted bandwagoning or neutrality in their relation with the US in the first half of this decennium; just according to Walt’s theory, where adopted behavior is viewed as a response to threats.
  • considering factors that will affect the level of threat that the US is estimated to pose to its competitors: aggregate total power, offensive power and aggressive intentions, all these are according to Walt’s theory.
  • in the second half of this period, some early small changes took place in this picture; both Russia and China criticized publicly the US bombing campaign in Yugoslavia; the joint letter to the UN
  • certain features of neutrality, “leash-slipping”, even cautious soft balancing can be found in some Sino-Russian responses to the US threat
  • the US realized and internalized the unipolarity and its new hegemony status

The situation can be visually presented by the graphics of triangle network relations: