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.