I helped to teach a course on international institutions last term. The course included an overview of the debates from the 1980s and early 1990s over multilateral agreements and the possibility of mutually beneficial cooperation between states. According to most IR textbooks, these debates established an enduring point of contention between Realist and Liberal Institutionalist perspectives – the latter focusing on absolute gains (welfare improvements) and the former on relative gains (share of power resources). I am not sure this is a very accurate summary of current debates in the discipline, I don’t think that there has been much research on relative and absolute gains in quite some time (this and this were the only articles I could find from the last decade). If my grasp on the recent history of the discipline is correct, that this is likely because the initial research programme on relative gains initiated by Mastanduno and Grieco fizzled out pretty fast when the empirical evidence proved to be mixed and inconclusive. More hardcore rational choice theorists demonstrated that the claims made about relative gains being a barrier to cooperation did not really stand up to scrutiny. Liberal Institutionalism won the argument to a large extent, but then mutated into a pretty generic rational choice institutionalism concerned with the same sort of problems of credible commitment and collective action as much mainstream economics and political science – losing touch with discipline-defining debates. So relative vs. absolute gains provides a neat way for textbook writers to distinguish between two ‘paradigms’, but it’s not a division that provides much of a guide to current research in journals like International Organization.
But the division does appear in textbooks, so it’s part of the education of many thousands of students every year. Unfortunately, the argument that if states are concerned with relative gains (share of power resources) they will forgo the benefits of cooperation is bunk and can be shown to be so very easily. In writing this up I discovered that this argument may have been made by Duncan Snidal 25 years ago, no doubt more rigorously. But the fact that its not hard for people like me who lack Prof. Snidal’s expertise in game theory to show flaws in the relative gains argument demonstrates how flimsy the argument is, even granting all the assumptions made by its Hobbist proponents.
Let’s adopt the same soft rational choice approach of many 80s and 90s IR theorists. I’m not convinced by this approach, with its contextless hypothetical examples and stereotyped, oversimplified scenarios, but it’s the ground on which proponents of the relative gains argument chose to pitch.
Suppose states A, B, C and D are states, each with a GDP of 10 trillion dollars. Let’s use GDP as a measure of material capabilities, as many neo-realists do (and with good reason). Each state therefore controls 25% of the material capabilities in the system. If (offensive) neo-realism is correct, each desires to increase their share. They are expected to forgo economic gains if it would also involve larger gains for another state, as this would lead to a reduction in their relative power. Logically, if they are rational as defined within rational choice theory, they would even accept a lower absolute income in order to have a greater share of power resources. It seems, therefore, that asymmetric trade deals that benefit some of our actors more than others would never be struck. This is not the case, however.
Let’s say A offers B a take-it-or-leave-it trade deal that will benefit A by $2trn and B by $1trn. This example follows the discussion on page 105 of Theory of International Politics where Waltz explicitly discusses an imaginary deal skewed 2:1 in favour of one state. If B is concerned with relative gains, should they take this seemingly unfair deal? Contra neo-realism, yes: it increases B’s share of power resources in the system by 0.6% and puts it ahead of C and D in terms of their power ranking. So concern with relative gains will lead towards cooperation even though the terms are unequal. Let’s say that B can offer a similar deal to C and C to D. Assuming that each deal really is a take-it-or-leave it offer in which no better alternative is available, each offer will be accepted because each time it will increase the share of power of both states involved – providing relative gains.
Finally, after this chain of deals, if D can offer A a similar asymmetric deal, will A take it? Unless A is very concerned with a very specific sort of relative gain (i.e. gains or losses relative to the most powerful in the system), then it will. The deals that A and D were not involved in reduced their share of material power, and making a deal – even if it benefits D more – will increase A’s share of power resources.
At the end of the chain of deals, each actor will have $13trn GDP and so the same 25% share of power resources that they started with. Even if they cared only about relative gains, each state has ended up better off and participating in mutually advantageous cooperation.
So under this scenario, relative gains are not a barrier to cooperation. It should be easy to see that under more realistic conditions, the same will apply. A state is unlikely to want to be left out of a multilateral trade deal that provides benefits to others, even if the deal is skewed. In his book Ruling the World Lloyd Gruber argues that something similar to this process created the clamour to join the WTO in the 1990s – even though many states in the global South preferred its forerunner the GATT. It’s only when the number of states is very small and the distribution of benefits very skewed that we should expect relative gains to matter and to prevent cooperation.
Alternatively, if we abandon the idea that all states are threatening to each other and acknowledge that states are primarily focused on certain specific rivals then relative gains considerations might be relevant. There’s real world evidence for this: witness concern over French arms exports to Russia in the aftermath of its annexation of the Crimea. As pointed out by my students, one of the most compelling examples of relative gains presenting a barrier to cooperation comes from international environmental negotiations, where the US seems to have been concerned to avoid any agreement that would disadvantage it relative to China.
But in the scenario that neo-realism posits, where all states are rivals, somewhat counter-intuitively relative gains considerations will no longer be relevant as a loss of relative power compared to the other contracting state may be compensated by the relative gain compared to others.
Starting with broadly Hobbist assumptions, there are other reasons why states might avoid entering into positive-sum multilateral agreements with each other. Waltz notes that states may be concerned with the vulnerability that dependence on a potential enemy or rival might bring. States might guard their sovereignty jealously and be wary of any loss of de jure or de facto independence. But whilst the issue of relative gains might prevent cooperation in some special cases, it isn’t a general barrier to cooperation under conditions of anarchy – even if the system is characterised by competition and aggression. Glancing at the historical record, this should have been fairly obvious: transnational capitalism emerged coterminously with the turbulent European state-system.
This academic year, I’ve been wondering why IR students frequently develop the mistaken belief that they are realists (in the IR theory sense). I say mistaken belief because I think that some of them are not actually realists at all, and if they understood realism as an IR theory and political tradition better they would realise this too. There are clearly students who really are realists, who grasp the theory and believe that it provides a good account of what goes on in world politics – and fair enough. But a sizeable number of students seem to suffer from a sort of false consciousness in which they mistake their own views for the realist perspective.
Previously on the blog, I’ve described neo-realism as a squatter in IR theory textbooks and introductory courses – occupying the role of the power-politics theory of IR even though it is not a very good theory of power-politics. Some theory of power-politics probably needs to be part of the debate in any academic discussion of international relations, and so neo-realism gets undue limelight because it is so familiar and so well-sedimented in teaching materials. Some students latch onto neo-realism because it is the only theory of power-politics they are familiar with. The evidence for this is that such students tend to think that every power-political explanation is a neo-realist explanation (in fairness neo-realists have often tried to claim this, which led to accusations that neo-realism was a degenerating research programme) and that these students become confused when they are introduced to alternative theories such as Marxism that make very similar claims about the self-aggrandising nature of states.
I don’t think that this is the only reason why students think they are realists or neo-realists even when they might not be. This is because that I don’t think it’s just the specific claims about the operation of the balance of power, for example, that they would disagree with – but the underlying outlook and the normative and explanatory core at the heart of most realist perspectives. What students sometimes miss, I think, is that realism provides an endorsement rather than just a description of the use of power politics. To condemn a state’s behaviour as narrowly self-interested and power-seeking is to depart from a conventional realist perspective (although to condemn it as reckless is not). Realism doesn’t offer a critique of power politics: ruthless behavior is rational and necessary, given the way that the international system is organised.
It’s my hunch that a lot of students that think themselves realists are actually the opposite, they are outraged by the selfish use of power politics by major states – and again, this is an entirely reasonably position to hold. But mainstream IR realism doesn’t provide any foundations for this outrage, it offers a shrug and the insistence that this is the way that things have always been and always will be.
This conflation of realism and its opposite, idealism, is also why Noam Chomsky retains appeal and why he crops up to support ‘realist’ arguments in essays. Like many people encountering debates on international relations for the first time, he assumes that there is a robust framework of rights and duties beyond the state, and that self-aggrandisement is the product of the malfeasance of particular actors. Although Chomsky’s perspective anticipates that important states will act in a self-aggrandising power-political fashion, it is utterly different from mainstream IR realism in how it conceives of the international system. There’s not nothing in Chomsky’s viewpoint, just as there is something of value in some neo-realist arguments, but it’s a limited and reductionist perspective.
It’s not a Marxist or a critical materialist perspective either, as these perspectives reject the idea that the international system is governed by a set of universalistic legal principles that for some reason particular states keep trampling over. Rather, they hold that the rules are fixed from the very outset.
That Chomsky is unable to grasp this argument was revealed in a little spat with Matthew Yglesias from a few years ago that I missed at the time. Yglesias argued that many dubious actions of the US and other greater powers comply with international law, but that this is no great endorsement as these powers get to decide what international law is in the first place. Chomsky accused Yglesias of endorsing law-breaking by the US, to which Yglesias replied that Chomsky had missed the point and that the issue is that the deck is stacked – the US and others make the laws through the Security Council and through other means. Somewhat heroically, Chomsky misunderstood and misrepresented Yglesias again, presenting him as offering an endorsement of American law breaking. The fundamental problem is that Chomsky imagines that international law, and other norms and rules governing international relations, comply with what Chomsky would wish them to be. As Yglesias states, very clearly:
International law, as it exists, was not written by pacifists, political radicals, or grassroots communities in small or weak states. It was, rather, written by political elites who are not committed to pacifism or radical politics via a process in which militarily strong states have disproportionate weight. Therefore, people who are committed to pacifism or radical politics shouldn’t be surprised to find that the existing body of international law often fails to support their policy ideas.
Yglesias’s position is much closer to a critical perspective, but because it doesn’t conform to Chomsky’s idealism he misidentifies Yglesias’s argument as realist. For a realist, it really is silly and naive to think that great powers will (or should) submit themselves to the same rules that they impose on others.
So realist scholars are misidentified as idealists, idealists as realists, and critiques mistaken for apologias.
The year draws rapidly to a close, time for a quick glance back at the past at the wreckage before the winds of progress blow us onward to 2016. Many of the disasters of 2014 continued to rumble on, but the year saw two major diplomatic successes in the Vienna and the Paris deals – impressive victories for the Obama administration strategy of taking the long view and sticking with multilateralism even when it didn’t produce immediate payoffs.
The Syrian conflict metastasised into Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, France and Lebanon (with secondary symptoms all over the world), Russia went all in on propping up the Baathist state and Britain and France chose to leap into the vortex. Along with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the war demonstrates that internationalised civil wars (a category that comprises almost all civil wars) are the most important form of large-scale organised violence in the contemporary world.
Russian involvement in two regional conflicts simultaneously proves beyond any doubt that the Russian elite are willing to pay high costs to try to maintain a role as a major power. The militarisation of the South China Sea shows that China is willing to risk diplomatic frictions and potential security dilemmas on matters it has identified as a core national interest – although perhaps the ‘one belt, one road’ strategy will move its focus West and away from areas in which there could be frictions with the US. For its part, the world’s only superpower has shifted from messianism to a relatively restrained posture under Obama – but the success of Trump demonstrates that belligerent nationalism may be no hindrance in seeking the presidency. Even under Obama the US remains entangled by its alliances to regimes in the Middle East pursuing their own goals and vendettas – as does Britain of course.
European populations continued to respond to terrorist atrocities with stoicism. Despite the vein of genuinely ugly racism and xenophobia in some quarters, the continued sympathy for refugees across large parts of Europe and the US was heartening, even if the situation was mishandled by Merkel. Her actions were poorly thought through and shockingly unilateral, just like the bullying mercantalist policies that Germany has adopted towards Greece during her Chancellorship. More generally, European neo-liberal politicians (including the Conservatives in the UK) have shown that they’re increasingly out of touch with the people that they claim to represent and lack the leadership to address the challenges that the continent faces.
Meanwhile, the campus ‘regressive left’ jumped the shark in Yale in the US and Goldsmiths in the UK. Hopefully, the censorious, relativist current among students comprises a tiny minority that is just howling over the rest – certainly the overwhelming majority of students I encounter are happy to debate controversial issues in a mutually respectful spirit of inquiry.
I disagreed with increased UK involvement in strikes within Syria, for strategic not moral reasons. There was an amazing amount of rubbish spoken in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, so much so that it caused me to change my evaluations of several commentators and politicians. But the decision was exposed to an impressive level of scrutiny, publicly and in parliament. It is important that such decisions are never taken lightly and that the threshold for war is set very high.
So plenty of chaos, less and worse governance than we might hope for. But some reasons for chastened optimism. The most important outcome of 2016 is likely to be whether there is a viable peace deal in Syria – as well as the small matter of the US election.
Like everyone else, I want to express my solidarity with the people of Paris after the atrocious attacks of the weekend. It’s a solidarity I feel at a very visceral level, but not because I have been or am likely to be a victim of such an attack – I realise that we who live in the democracies of the North remain very safe. Rather, I find that reading about the nihilistic cruelty involved in such mass casualty attacks and the gloating that accompanies the slaughter leaves me physically stressed. As tenuous as my own connection to the events actually is, the reports of the Utøya massacre, the Suruç massacre, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, sectarian atrocities in the Syrian civil war and accounts of the massive sexual violence perpetrated by Daesh all left me feeling angry, shocked and disgusted. I find it quite hard, therefore, to think about terror attacks in a cool and rational manner in their immediate aftermath. This can’t be too unusual, if one key aim of terror attacks is to generate irrational emotions for political purposes then it’s not surprising that thinking clearly about them is difficult.
What’s especially aggravating is that so much of what is written online and in social media in the aftermath of such attacks disrespects the dead through callous indifference, self-indulgent weaving of conspiracy theories, or cheap political point-scoring. The bombings always mean we should support my politics. Every horror buttresses preconceived worldviews and generates ugly cries of ‘I told you so!’ by commentators with diametrically opposed views. In particular, those peddling two different versions of the clash of civilizations narrative can always find evidence that confirms their prejudices. I say two, because the ideologies held by the crank left and the wingnut right have come to mirror each other. The standard, original brand Huntington clash of civilizations thesis suggests that civilizations are clearly defined, mono-vocal, essentially unchangeable and destined to come into conflict with each other. According to this narrative the Muslim world is a monolith, any violence done in its name is the result of primordial features of Islam and only reveals the true and essential features. So far, so Breivik.
The other variety of the clash of civilizations has come to dominate far left debates on contemporary international relations. It sees civilizations as being clearly defined, mono-vocal, essentially unchangeable just like the classic version. Only in this version, the West is the intrinsically malign, monolithic culture – persecuting Muslims because they are Muslims due to its deep and ineradicable racism and intolerance. This perspective resembles the most crass, manichean vulgarisation of postcolonial theory – but sadly it seems to have some purchase. This is what happens when people are only able to think about power relations, inequality and insecurity in terms of identity, and when culture is taken at face value rather than placed in its social, economic and political context.
A variant of this perspective has greater influence, owing to the fact that it contains an element of truth. This variant, the Chomskyite perspective on world affairs, sees Islamist terror attacks as a mechanical response to Western actions. The international system is a simple environment in which action leads to an equal and opposite reaction in a quasi-automatic fashion. Only the West has any agency, the criminal acts of Western states call forth terrorist attacks on Western citizens as a sort of misdirected but inexorable karmic force.
‘Blowback’ is very real: dangerous proxies do bite the hand that feeds. Western foreign policy does generate grievances that provide some of the impetus for terror attacks – which is not to say that those actions or even those grievances are legitimate. What those perspectives completely miss, however, is that many of the factors that generate Islamist terrorism are internal to the Middle East and the political struggles within and between the states of the region. Halliday argues in The Middle East and International Relations, that such crass perspectives overstate the role of outside powers and underplay the significance of the different strategies pursued by actors engaged in struggles over the state and the political order within the region. So contextualising the Paris terror attacks requires an analysis of Daesh as an organisation, the structural pressures and opportunities it faces, the crisis and collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi states (and yes, the US-UK invasion was central here) and the wider regional sectarian conflict.
The other pitfall to avoid is to assume that we know what the purpose of the terror attacks was. Many people leapt to the conclusion that the goal was to provoke deeper involvement on the part of France and the West. But provocation is only one strategy that may motivate terror. Attacks can also be used as a form of attrition or deterrence, imposing costs and generating fear in order to dissuade an actor from pursuing a particular policy. If this was the goal, then for France to withdraw from the coalition against Daesh would be ‘giving the terrorists what they want’. Indeed given how frequently actors rationalise events due to cognitive dissonance, it’s possible that any change in policy can be claimed as a victory for the perpetrators – after all it demonstrates that they have exercised the power to overcome the will of their enemies and alter their behaviour. Terror attacks may also be used for reputational purposes, as a credible display of strength, resolve and commitment to a cause. The recipients of the message sent through terror are potential recruits or allies in this case, not the enemy themselves. Alternatively, they might not be instrumentally rational in a strategic sense but rather motivated by deeply-felt moral commitments that mandate inflicting harm on a hated enemy – as suggested by Gilbert Ramsay.
In any case, it makes little sense to base one’s reaction to a terror attack on what the perpetrators intended. If the attackers desired to provoke further attacks this does not mean that this should refrain from stepping up its air campaign, as Daesh may have miscalculated as many other violent groups have done in the past when they have provoked their own destruction (Adam Elkus expressed this point very well). Similarly, if the goal of a terror attack is to force a change in policy, then recommitting to that policy does not make sense if the costs really are too great to bear – no matter how painful it may be to admit this. ‘Doing the opposite of what terrorists want’ has a psychological appeal, but is not the basis for sound decision-making.
An assessment should be made based on an unvarnished assessment of the actor’s own goals, the costs of various alternative policies and the likely effects on the overall strategic environment – bearing in mind risk that comes with any compromise of fundamental values. Terror is not the automatic, mechanical result of Western foreign policy and nor should it determine Western foreign policy in an automatic, mechanical fashion.
Edit: An interesting interview with John Berger, who favours the provocation interpretation, focusing on the lack of good options for dealing with Daesh.
The past few posts have been quite critical of Neorealism. I thought it might be interesting to say something qualified in the theory’s favour. In Networks of Nations, Zeev Maoz presents what he calls the theory of networked international politics. It hasn’t been discussed very much on IR blogs, apart from by Braumoeller over at the Monkey Cage during a discussion of systemic theory and networked vs. traditional approaches. Maoz’s theory applies familiar mechanisms drawn from existing IR theories to analyse social network patterns of interstate interaction. Drawing on Neorealism he analyses patterns of strategic interaction, Liberalism patterns of mutually beneficial self-interested interaction, Constructivism patterns of homophily and the formation of different cultural cliques, and World Systems Theory patterns of inequality and hierarchy. He also makes some novel claims about prestige and status in the network of nations, developing some original hypotheses that develop concepts within social network theory (but which also echo recent and classic discussions of status in international relations). Interestingly, he finds that each theory makes successful predictions in its own core area of competence. Combining the different mechanisms, Maoz puts forward a complex and detailed account of how the spillovers generated by cooperation amongst security-seeking states results in an increasingly complex, evolving network structure of cooperation within the international system. Democratisation within strategically interacting groups of states tends to reduce competition and accelerate the formation of cooperative relationships. Yet the system remains unequal and hierarchies of status may generate conflict.
This is only a brief summary of a dense, detailed book that examines dozens of hypotheses and a huge range of interactions at different levels of analysis within different areas of world politics. One area of focus is what Maoz calls the strategic reference group (SRG), which he refers to as the basic unit of for the analysis of national security policy within his framework. An SRG is a state’s security environment, it is made up of all the states who are likely to be perceived as threats to a state – those the state has been involved in military disputes with, those the state has been in a rivalry with, and allies of both sets of ‘enemy’ states (the friend of my enemy is my enemy). Neorealists believe that states often engage in ‘internal balancing’, arms build-ups, if they believe that they are vulnerable. The military capabilities of others are dangerous unless they are checked and negated by counterveiling power. Building up a state’s own power resources is one way a state can make itself less vulnerable, forming alliances is an alternative strategy. Do states actually behave this way? Maoz finds that yes, states will tend to build up their military capabilities if they are weak relative to their strategic reference group*. Forming alliances makes a state less likely to engage in a military build-up. So it seems that isolated states with many powerful enemies seek to increase their capabilities. States that are powerful, have powerful allies and have few enemies may feel themselves safe enough to reduce their capabilities – perhaps opting for butter instead of guns.
This at least seems to provide support for a Neorealist perspective, especially the Defensive Neorealism of Waltz, Walt and Glaser, as Maoz’s results are consistent with the hypothesis that states seek security by attempt to achieve ‘enough’ power. But there are one or two problems. First, Maoz’s definition of the strategic reference group isn’t thoroughly Neorealist. In Maoz’s analysis, states are not concerned about all other states, just specific threatening states. States have specific issues and disagreements with past enemies, strategic rivals, and their allies. Anarchy is not necessarily a war of all against all in the theory of networked international politics. Second, I’m slightly cautious about the findings as there could be other factors not included in the model that might lead to states within SRGs to experience a growth in military personal and expenditure at the same time or sequentially. Economic growth and industrialisation are likely to be regional processes and may be associated with a rise in military capabilities. Third, Maoz notes that states that are very strong compared to their SRGs are less likely to get involved in conflict. Does this support or undermine Neorealism? If Neorealists are committed to the hypothesis that unipolar global and regional inter-state systems are very unlikely to form and very unstable because they provoke counter-balancing coalitions, then this seems to undermine the theory. Fourth, although Maoz argues that these results are robust and in line with Neorealist expectations, he notes that they don’t have a great deal of predictive power. So Neorealist theories don’t explain all that much how states respond to potential threats – perhaps (as Maoz suggests) because states have many foreign policy tools available to them apart from military build-ups and alliance formation.
Maoz examines many other processes within the global inter-state system in further detail, again finding that some Neorealist claims are borne out. But so are the claims of other theories, such as democratic peace theory. Even on a charitable interpretation of patterns of conflict and cooperation, Neorealism provides an incomplete account of the phenomena that it was created to make sense of.
Maoz’s Networks of Nations is a fascinating application of familiar theoretical frameworks to a host of levels of analysis within the international system – social network analysis seems to offer a veritable smorgasbord of possible levels of analysis for international relations scholarship. Focusing on indirect as well as direct interactions between states offers a very powerful set of tools for scholars looking for behavioural patterns in world politics. It would be especially interesting to see a network analysis of other middle-range theories in IR – is for example territorial peace and conflict a network phenomena? In my view such research would help us think creatively and rigorously about the nature of international systems and move past exhausted theories.
*I think that there is a mistake on page 143, which states that the variable State/SRG capability imbalance is generated by ‘subtract[ing] a state’s military capabilities from the sum of the military capabilities of its SRG members’. The name of the variable, the discussion in the text, and the operationalisation of the variable in the case where a state has no SRG all suggest that this is a typo and that the actual operationalisation is the state’s military capabilities less the sum of the capabilities of the states in its SRG. This operationalisation is consistent with Maoz’s interpretation of the negative coefficient for the variable in regression model for military build-ups: ‘As the difference between the capabilities of the focal state and the aggregate capabilities of its SRG increases, the extent of the absolute and rate-of-change in the state’s capabilities declines’. In other words, states with large capabilities and a weak set of states in their SRG (i.e. a positive State/SRG capability imbalance) are likely to reduce their military capabilities.
Two years ago prominent Neorealist authors Mearsheimer and Walt lamented the current inattention to grand theory in IR as an academic field (which they also summarised over at Duck of Minerva). They argued that ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ had replaced inquiry into the fundamental features of world politics and the debate among rival intellectual frameworks seeking to make sense of international relations. There probably is too much ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ in IR, the use of positivist methods to answer micro-questions that no-one has every actually cared about abounds in major journals. But Mearsheimer and Walt’s critique was odd and misdirected in lots of respects, as others noted at the time it was published. Notably, M & W are dismissive of any non-positivist approach such as critical theory and feminism – yet their commitment to positivism hardly sits well with their aversion to ‘normal science’.
I’ve got time for Stephen Walt as a theorist, his version of Neorealism is flexible and non-dogmatic. His analysis in his blog is measured and rejects nationalistic claims about US exceptionalism. But along with Mearsheimer, his criticism of ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ reads like rearguard action in support of a version of Realism that just doesn’t convince any more, doesn’t provide any useful leads for empirical research and doesn’t warrant any further theoretical refinement.
The example that they use to illustrate ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ is telling, as it does little to support their case. Research by conflict theorists on strategic rivalries, they claim, produced:
an expanding set of empirical findings but did not produce a broader synthesis or a general explanation of the various positive and negative results. Instead, we get generalizations of the following sort: ‘Dyads that contend in territorial disputes have a greater probability of going to war than is expected by chance,’ or ‘[Enduring] rivals have a greater probability of going to war than other dyads’ (Vasquez and Leskiw, 2001: 308–309). But we still have little idea why.
The field hardly needs realism to tell it that states will oppose threats to themselves (if they can) or that revisionist states will seize opportunities to gain re-wards (especially if the risks are low).
Once again, Neorealism offers little more than the banal observation that international politics is a rough-and-tumble world and that states pursue their interests – if we define interests broadly enough to include just about any possible goal that a state might feasibly pursue. Walt has offered some well-judged observations about contemporary international politics, but these are often made in spite of Neorealism – indeed as corrections to the baseline Neorealist model developed by Waltz. The discipline of IR doesn’t need Waltzian Neorealism as a grand theory, certainly not to the exclusion of critical theory, or middle-range research programmes such as steps to war, or the much more convincing rival systemic theories that despite M & W’s protests are actually out there.
The other day I made a post championing ‘postclassical’ realism in the vein of Gilpin’s War and Change in World Politics, which I have been reading this morning and can confirm is full of insights about the interrelationship between military power, international institutions, ideology and economic development. In the previous post I quoted Wohlforth on the theoretical weaknesses of contemporary balance of power theory, defended by neorelist acolytes of Waltz. Many years ago Paul Schroeder, the diplomatic historian, took apart neorealist claims about the operation of the balance of power in C19th Europe. One passage in the article was particularly astute, noting that in broad terms neorealism does seem to describe world politics, but on closer inspection the specific mechanisms and processes it identifies and the hypotheses it offers are all unconvincing or even absurd:
Some facts in the history of international politics seem to hold broadly for the modern European states system through much of its existence and thus give the Waltzian picture a prima facie plausibility. It is generally true, though not at all uniformly so, that states in the modern era, regardless of their ideology, domestic structure, individual aims, etc., have claimed exclusive sovereignty over their territory and the sole right to the legitimate use of force within it, have set a high value on their independence and security, have upheld their right to use force in self-defense, have tried to provide means for their defense, and have conducted foreign policy with an eye to maintaining their security and independence. This is obvious and familiar. Nevertheless, the more one examines Waltz’s historical generalizations about the conduct of international politics throughout history with the aid of the historian’s knowledge of the actual course of history, the more doubtful – in fact, strange – these generalizations become.
This surface plausibility is part of the reason that until a few years ago neorealism was something like the default theory of international relations (it’s not anymore, generic rational choice institutionalism has taken its place). But the plausibility is only shallow, the actual content of the theory makes claims at basic variance with the evidence – such as that unipolarity will never emerge or will be hopelessly unstable. Years ago, on my old blog, I wrote that neorealism is something of a squatter on the territory of IR theory: it takes up the space as the ‘power theory’, with constructivism hogging the space as the ‘ideas theory’ and so on. But neorealism is not a good theory of geopolitics. It should be turfed out, and replaced with something better.
My favourite school of realism? You’ve probably never heard of it (well, you might have done).
I’ve thought highly of William Wohlforth and Stephen Brooks for quite a while, their ‘post-classical’ take on international relations – inspired by Gilpin’s War and Change in World Politics – is much more refreshing than the dogmatic, tortured interpretations of contemporary international politics offered by those few who still cling to the neorealist raft. They are still a little bit straight-jacketed by the core assumptions of traditional realism, but their contributions have helped to unpick many of the unthinking assumptions within debates about power politics. But I’ve become even more persuaded as I’ve realised that this approach is much more consistent with the empirical evidence than Waltz’s neorealism. Its proponents and its critics all agree that neorealism is a positivist theory, or an attempt to provide the foundations of one, but I wonder more and more what its positive, falsfiable claims actually are. I don’t even think neorealists have even defined the balance of power, their central concept, in a clear and unambiguous way. It is a distribution of capabilities, a configuration of capabilities, or a process arising from the individual balancing behaviours of states? Here’s Wohlforth offering a damning verdict on attempts a few years ago to defend what Vasquez would call the neotraditional theory of the balance of power:
The recent decline in the United States’ economic fortunes does not vindicate any prediction made by any balance-of-power realist, has no implications for any theoretical proposition about the functioning of a unipolar system, and has not caused a structural shift to bi- or multipolarity. Things can be made to seem otherwise only when scholars use inconsistent measures of capabilities, do not define terms with precision, forward inherently unfalsifiable arguments, and fail to clarify causal mechanisms.
The Gilpin-Wohlforth-Brooks approach, by contrast, views international relations as a set of overlapping global and regional hierarchies. Conflict occurs as states chafe against their place within the hierarchy. This not only allows dialogue with other hegemonic leadership theories (such as that of Giovanni Arrighi, in honour of whom this blogged was named) but also with quantitative analysis of international conflict – which finds that states of similar material capabilities and close proximity are more likely to experience conflict. All that is needed is a bold, clear theory that unites existing empirical evidence across lines of inquiry and provides a compelling set of causal mechanisms…
But for now, the ‘postclassical’ approach provides the best off the shelf take on geopolitics for students and scholars.
I’m writing a new IR module and, being a bit weary of the way that IR debates are usually presented, I’ve been trying to use the structure-agency debate as one of the unifying threads. Reading up on the topic, I found an interesting article by Loyal and Barnes – the latter of whom I first encountered on philosophy of science reading lists when I was an undergraduate. Describing (common uses) of the term ‘agency’ red herrings in social theory, they note some of the unconvincing features of arguments about the political significance of free will:
A voluntaristic style of discourse may have suited the libertarian socialism of Giddens, but it has also suited the objectives of repressive political and religious regimes, which have sought to constrain their subjects precisely by stressing their freedom of action and making them responsible and accountable for what they do—with their lives in some cases. Conversely, fully causal accounts of action, for example, those in the various theological doctrines of predestination and divine determination, have been adopted by collectives concerned precisely to ignore and contravene the authority of church and state and even actively to oppose and overthrow them. Oddly perhaps, but oddly only to us, through and beyond the Reformation, it suited creative and resourceful opponents of the political and institutional status quo to hold that, of themselves, they could not have acted otherwise.
Free will is a will-o’-the-wisp of a concept. I’m with Spinoza, radical democrat and critical theorist: it can play no role in making sense of the world and human freedom is entirely possible in its absence. Although I don’t see ‘agency’ as intrinsically wedded to the idea of free will as Loyal and Barnes do, their alternative of ‘responsible action’ has a lot to recommend it.
As I said previously, I’ve changed my mind about what quantitative methods can contribute to international relations research. Becoming more familiar with quantitative research has exposed me to the existence of a more diverse set of viewpoints on the appropriate use of statistical techniques and what they can tell us about the social world. I’ve found the anti-inductivist arguments of scholars of the analytical sociology movement and the creative, innovative positivism of Philip Schrodt particularly useful in their criticism of standard practices in quantitative social science.
Another unorthodox perspective is provided by Salvatore Babones. I first became aware of Babones research on the global income distribution a long time ago when I studying for my MA. His work was one of the influences that led me to gradually take the empirics of global inequality more and more seriously, leading me to my current set of interests. Babones, however, is an anti-positivist – something that he considers to be compatible with the employment of statistical techniques. He argues that quantitative methods should not be put in service of theory-testing, which he regards as an attempt to emulate the natural sciences that is of dubious merit when dealing with observational data. Instead, he advocates the use of statistical techniques as powerful tools to enable the researcher to engage in a dialogue with the data as part of a holistic, reflexive research enterprise. This leads him to a surprising conclusion in a recent article:
The goal of interpretive research is not really to answer research questions. The goal of interpretive research is to develop the expertise of the researcher. The decomposition of new environments into basic building blocks that have already been studied and the assembly of those building blocks into conjectural policy solutions is what human experts do. The practice of interpretive data analysis helps them learn how to do it better.
There seems to be some overlap here with the emphasis on the concatenation of mechanisms by analytical sociologists. Interestingly, Babones notes that he is more sympathetic to the use of traditional statistical technique such as regression than some analytical sociologists. Perhaps the difference arises from the more optimistic and philosophically realist position of analytical sociologists: they believe that sufficiently sophisticated and realistic models can succeed at identifying underlying data-generating processes. Babones seems a bit more sceptical, he offers an interpretative perspective in part because he holds that variables are always at least one remove from the entities we are interested in (I wondered if this might dispose him towards latent factor analysis and it turns out he’s edited a book on the topic). In places, Babones’s account seems a bit too inductivist from the position in the philosophy of science that I occupy – but I intend to read his book on Macro-Comparative Research to engage with his standpoint in more detail, as Babones is an expert researcher who has offered a distinct perspective on quantitative methods.