Changing My Mind I: Neo-Realism

As noted in my post a few days ago, I’m going to emulate Stephen Walt with a short series of posts about how I’ve changed my mind on some major issues in international relations since I first starting studying the subject way back at the beginning of the War on Terror. One of those issues is the status of the theoretical perspective that Walt is a major contributor to: Neo-Realism (or Structural Realism). The theory is still described as the orthodoxy within IR, even though that hasn’t been the case for a long while. Nonetheless, as Wohlforth has argued, it’s still an important foil for rival theories. Indeed, criticising the central Neo-Realist text, Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, is one of the few things that gives the discipline any kind of coherence.

Nearly everything I read on IR theory as an undergraduate and MA student was an attempt to refine or overcome the framework set out by Waltz. When introduced to the theory, I agreed with the criticisms that Waltz’s approach was fatalistic, mechanical and ideological: providing a set of rationalisations for callous and cynical foreign policy. But once I started to read ToIP for myself I realised that it wasn’t philosophically naive at all, but the product of serious reflection on the nature of social scientific theory. Although I disagreed with the substantive claims of the theory, I respected it as an intellectual achievement. When I started my doctoral research, I was persuaded by the more positive reappraisals offered by scholars such as Nexon and Goddard as well as PT Jackson, Richard Little and even Justin Rosenberg.

Nonetheless, I’ve cooled on the theory as a starting point for theorising. Waltz’s framework was an intellectually rigorous attempt to define international politics as a separate sphere of social activity governed by its own laws. The problem is that huge amounts of evidence and compelling theory has accumulated that international politics is closely, perhaps inseparably intertwined with domestic politics and the world economy. Waltz attempted to distinguish between theories of foreign policy, which explain particular courses of action, from theories of international politics, which identify recurrent patterns of behaviour. But this gambit depends on the identification of an equilibrium that the system tends towards: if the system has a natural rest point to which it will always tend, we don’t need to be too concerned with how it will get there.

The problem with this argument is that Neo-Realism has had huge difficulty in identifying this equilibrium point. The claim that the international system tends naturally towards a balance of power has proven difficult to defend theoretically and empirically. Scholars have tried to patch up the problems with BoP theory and with Waltz’s ambiguous statements about what Neo-Realism actually expects to occur in international poltiics, but the difficulties have mounted up much more rapidly. Wohlforth, a major proponent of Neo-Realism, has even argued that Robert Gilpin’s argument that concentration of power is the norm would have made a more compelling starting point for Neo-Realist theory – but Gilpin never attempted to separate international relations from politics and economics like Waltz did. Waltz made a compelling case for systemic theory and for a focus on structure, but I think the discipline has absorbed what it needs from Neo-Realism and can move on. The attempt to establish a general equilibrium theory that would enable us to understand any international interaction in terms of the system-wide balance of power has not been successful.


Posted on April 7, 2015, in international relations, theorists, Waltz and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I generally agree with this. Btw, in the current issue of Perspectives on Politics, Keohane reviews a book by a young(ish) scholar: N. Monteiro, Theory of Unipolar Politics. Keohane calls it a v. Waltzian bk in its structuralism and neglect of domestic politics, though it departs from the emphasis on balance-of-power. (If you don’t have easy access to Perspectives, let me know and I’ll e-mail you a pdf.)

  2. Another point: my impression is that some grad students apparently still feel the need to, or are being told that they have to, point out the inadequacies of the best-known (mostly Waltz and Gilpin) versions of realism, whether or not it’s really necessary to their work to do that. A few weeks ago I skimmed through an article by a grad student in Am Pol Sci Rev that argued that basing soldiers in other countries w the latters’ consent (mainly though not exclusively a U.S. practice) represented a new practice/norm of sovereignty. While taking his theory from the ‘practice turn’ and pragmatism, the author felt obliged toward the end of the piece to take a swipe at Waltz, which would have been ok except that he did not state Waltz’s theory particularly accurately in the process. Not worth going into the details, I think, but I was slightly surprised that that part of the article made it into print (in APSR no less). Probably shouldn’t have been surprised but I was.

  3. I read most of the big contributions to the unipolarity debate during my doctoral research. The problem with the whole debate however is that remains wedded to Neo-Realist assumptions about polarity, the relations among great powers and about the balance of power. The Monteiro book looks interesting, but I’m not sure what’s left of structural realism without the BoP. I’ll look at Keohane’s review.

    Referring to the theoretical frameworks in IR as paradigms is less popular than it was. But those who used Kuhn’s idea of paradigms had a point I think, at least in terms of disciplinary sociology, as problems and anomalies will simply mount up without causing a radical change in how scholars discuss their subject unless an alternative general framework for analysis comes along. Without an alternative general framework for analysis, Waltz has remained the starting point for much analysis even though not many scholars are Neo-Realists. This is why there are lots of ritual denunciations of Waltz, which at least indicate some kind desire for a shared disciplinary conversation. The alternative is to the non-paradigmatic research that fills a lot of the journals: piecemeal contributions that don’t contribute a great deal towards the accumulation of knowledge.

  4. I have no particular objection to ‘ritual’ criticisms of Waltz, which I agree may indicate a desire for shared disciplinary conversation (or however one wants to phrase it). I am also not a particular fan of Waltz myself.

    What I do object to is when someone writes (as the person I mentioned above did in APSR) that Waltz sees “global security competition…as a hallmark of a bipolar order….” While strictly speaking this is not wrong, it is misleading since: (1) the ‘logic’ of the theory suggests that Waltz sees “security competition” as a feature of any anarchical system containing two or more states, regardless of whether it’s multipolar, bipolar or unipolar; and (2) W. actually, as is well known b/c it’s one of the main points in TIP, sees bipolarity as more stable than multipolarity. But it suited this author’s purposes to phrase the criticism as he did. How much this sort of thing matters, given that it’s one passage buried toward the end of an article, I suppose is a matter of individual perspective.

  5. p.s. Mentioned on my front page that you’ve resumed posting. (Won’t produce as much traffic as a link from a big site would, but perhaps a couple more readers…)

  1. Pingback: Changing My Mind II: The Third Image is Where the Action is At | Chaos and Governance

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