The misleading surface plausibility of realism

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.

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Posted on October 16, 2015, in diplomatic history, geopolitics, Gilpin, realism, Waltz, Wohlforth. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I also like aspects of Gilpin’s ‘War and Change’, even if some basic parts of his theory seem wrong or dated, or both.

    Btw, thanks for your comment on Schweller at my blog, to which I’ve replied.

  1. Pingback: Leaving exhausted theories behind | Chaos and Governance

  2. Pingback: Networked Neorealism? | Chaos and Governance

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