Leaving exhausted theories behind

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.

Glossed over here is the issue that these findings have been interpreted by scholars as running directly against the default assumptions of Neorealism! Conflict theorists in the steps to war tradition argue that war does not arise out of the general jockeying for power among states, the whirl and dance of military coalitions that states create and dissolve as they each seek to advance their own power or security at the expense of any and all others. Instead, conflict originates in specific issues over which pairs of states disagree – most often territorial issues – and self-reinforcing, reciprocated patterns of power-political behavior between such pairs of states. It is completely false to suggest that the claims in the strategic rivalries literature are atomic, atheoretical hypotheses – they are part of a well-established, elaborate research project set out most fully in Vasquez’s The War Puzzle. It’s also false to suggest that no attempts have been made to explain why territory is especially likely to generate conflict or why strategic/enduring rivals account for so much conflict in modern international history. Vasquez’s original arguments suggested links between the psychology of territoriality and aggression, he and others later emphasised the role of hardliners and the formation of pro-war coalitions within states in sustaining rivalries, others still emphasise the socially constructed aspects of territory and rivalry. The arguments and empirics presented by the steps to war approach might still fail to convince, but it makes no sense to claim that it is not a theoretically-informed research programme that attempts to contribute to our knowledge of fundamentally important features of the international system.
M & W’s example is badly chosen and interpreted uncharitably and misleadingly. On the other hand, Vasquez’s criticism of Neorealism as a research programme, made in 1997, still stands up:

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.


Posted on November 1, 2015, in critical theory, End of IR Theory, geopolitics, international relations, mechanisms, methods, quantitative methods, realism, Steps to war, theorists, Walt, Waltz and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Walt has offered some well-judged observations about contemporary international politics, but these are often made in spite of Neorealism

    Yes. For example, what Walt talks about in Taming American Power is various measures short of balancing that states have used to thwart U.S. goals, usually not covered in the standard neorealist picture. People have also pointed out that a lot of Mearsheimer’s policy prescriptions and observations about U.S. behavior are in conflict or in tension with his theoretical views. (OTOH, when M&W said that Ukraine should be made a buffer state between Europe and Russia, rather than being incorporated into either ‘side’, I’m not sure that contradicted their theoretical stances.)

    I think you’re likely right about the theoretically-informed character of the Vasquez (and related) research program, though I’m not that familiar with it. I did write a post quite a long time ago about Gibler’s The Territorial Peace (based on reading blog posts about it) which is in that general stream of work, I think.

    If one considers, admittedly crudely or in a broad-brush way, what the leading IR theories say about the causes of war, Waltzian neorealism, it seems to me, doesn’t say that much. All he really says in this respect is that attempts at Europe-wide or quasi-global hegemony (Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler) will be met by balancing coalitions. Absent an aggressive would-be hegemon, it seems there can be no system-wide war in Waltz’s theory, and he’s just not that interested in other kinds of war or conflict (though he did, of course, have views on e.g. the ostensibly pacifying effects of nuclear proliferation).

    So one might suggest, although Vasquez himself would presumably reject the suggestion, that the Vasquez-style view that, to quote your post, “conflict originates in specific issues over which pairs of states disagree” is not necessarily opposed to systemic theories — whether Waltz, Gilpin, Snyder, Zakaria, Mearsheimer, perhaps Braumoeller (?) or whoever — but rather is aimed at answering a different question, namely “under what conditions are two countries likely to end up fighting?” rather than “what causes system-wide war”? If one leans to the view, as I do, that system-wide or hegemonic war is obsolete, then all those theories about the causes of system-wide war are only of historical interest. For instance, Mearsheimer argues in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics that “unbalanced multipolarity” is the most war-prone systemic configuration, but if systemic war is obsolete then the whole question is of no interest, or only of purely historical interest.

    Last observation: any course in the U.S. these days on ‘the causes of war’ would either start with, or at least give a prominent place to, Fearon’s 1995 article and the literature stemming from it. (Since I took the required comtemp. IR theory seminar in 1995-96, Fearon’s article had just come out or was just coming out and accordingly wasn’t on the syllabus.) Fearon, like Vasquez, is basically interested in the question of when/why states A and B are likely to end up fighting, but that’s pretty much where the similarities between them end, or such is my impression.

    (Haven’t said anything about the hypothesis-testing etc. points in the post, but I think I’ve rambled on enough.)

  2. Lots of good points, almost all of which I agree with.

    I agree that the upshot of the ‘soft balancing’ debate was that there was little real soft balancing, but lots of push-back against the US by particular states over particular issues and some counterveiling coalitions in particular issue-areas. In other words, the normal process of to-and-fro bargaining in a world where the unipolar power lacks overwhelming preponderance.

    Neutralisation of the Ukraine might have been a plausible alternative policy (i.e. something stronger than the Budapest Memorandum), it worked with regards to Austria during the Cold War. I could also be persuaded that Realism might have something to say for why the West and Russia played political tug-of-war over the country, each ‘defecting’ from the principle of a neutral Ukraine and overestimating their own ability to shape events in Ukraine. So I will give M & W that, although events have certainly not proven M’s earlier claims about an imminent return to balance of power in Europe correct.

    With Waltz and war, yes. He does however say that war can occur due to misperceptions about the balance of power in a multipolar system, acknowledging ‘market imperfections’ in anarchy. But Waltz’s approach faces the problem that it can’t explain why would-be hegemons make a run for dominance over the system if they inevitably provoke a balancing coalition. Mearsheimer, on my understanding, seems to think that rising powers have a slim chance at attaining regional hegemony and becoming much more secure – so they will usually roll the die and risk everything. But again there is a strange inevitability that the balance of power reasserts itself just in time to preserve the system. Only the US has attained continental hegemony.

    I do think that Neorealism makes some claims about lesser wars too. If states can increase their security or power at the expense of other states then they might well take such opportunities when they arise. This is pretty similar to the picture that Hobbes paints of life in the state of nature, with actors killing others because they are potential threats, the weak grouping together against the strong, and some enslaving others to expand their own power. Every proximate state is a threat, potential ally and potential victim to every other state. Glaser discusses some of these dynamics I believe, e.g. conditions under which security-seeking states will pursue territorial expansion at the expense of weaker states to protect themselves from stronger states.

    At the same time, the steps to war approach has been applied to systemic wars – which scholars like Vasquez have suggested originate in dyadic disputes and then spread through alliances to the rest of the system.

    But yes, perhaps it’s moot as systemic wars may be obsolete. I don’t think that we have much reason to think that systemic power struggles short of war are obsolete however. This is an issue that will become increasingly relevant with the rise of China.

    The post you wrote on Gibler and Atzli was interesting, thanks for mentioning it. Personally I think Gibler had a tendency to overclaim for his theory, but I think in the recent research he has moderated or qualified his claims. One problem for me is that within the literature on democratisation, no one has ever claimed that settlement of territorial disputes is the major (permissive) cause of democratisation. Perhaps comparative political scientists, historians, journalists and everyone else concerned with democratisation have got it completely wrong – but I am sceptical. I do think that Gibler has identified something interesting about the potentially reciprocal relationship between peace and democracy though. In any case, although I think that people like Vasquez and Gibler could for example have done more to integrate their research with the study of territorial norms in geography and historical sociology, it is pretty clear that they are not engaged in atheoretical, noncumulative testing of arbitrary hypotheses as M & W suggest.

    Fearon is a rational choice scholar, his starting point is that wars are rational endeavors. Vasquez’s work has been driven by the opposite assumption, that war is a disaster and realpolitik is self-defeating because it makes states less secure. Fearon’s bargaining model is supported by the finding that states are more likely to go to war if they are of roughly equal capabilities though. I am not sure how Vasquez’s approach and Fearon’s could be integrated, I guess they might agree that war usually means that someone involved has miscalculated – but that is pretty small beer!

  3. I should add that I think you are definitely right that there is a difference between system-level and dyadic theories of conflict. But ultimately theories operating at both levels of analysis are trying to explain patterns of conflict in the world, so they can be evaluated relative to one another.

    I have been thinking and therefore blogging about these issues a bit because I am writing a new module on foreign policy and world politics structured in terms of different levels of analysis. Hence the posts on agency, structure, systems, and dyadic conflict.

  4. Yes, I probably drew too sharp a distinction between system-level and dyadic theories, so I take your points. I see the point that the steps-to-war approach could be applied to systemic war, with war “originat[ing] in dyadic disputes and then spread[ing] through alliances to the rest of the system” (sounds rather like WW1, to take an obvs. example, and I think Vasquez has written about WW1), and I also agree that neorealism makes some claims about non-systemic conflict.

    On Mearsheimer (who is fresher in my mind than Waltz at this point): yes, he argues that the most that states can achieve, as a practical matter, is regional hegemony, but even that much is difficult. He spends a certain amount of time arguing (against what he takes to be Snyder’s position in Myths of Empire) that simply because a state starts a war and loses, it doesn’t necessarily mean the decision to go to war was irrational or a case of self-defeating “overexpansion.” Hence Mearsheimer argues, for example, that Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor was not irrational: Japan faced only bad choices and even though its chances of prevailing vs. the U.S. were slim, it was not an irrational decision. (Fearon, starting from somewhat different premises, might agree with Mearsheimer here — I’m not sure.) I don’t know whether anyone in the IR field cares much about these particular debates any more. (But people are still doing systemic theory, perhaps in a more sophisticated way — e.g. Braumoeller or Dale Copeland’s new book.)

    Switching gears, I don’t know whether this would work for the module you’re writing — probably not, for various reasons — but if I were teaching some of this (and the only thing I’ve ever taught is the intro-to-IR survey where none of this was gone into in any depth), I might take two or three historical cases (e.g., even something as overstudied as the causes/origins of WW1) and compare what the different approaches say about it. I believe that Jennifer Sterling-Folker edited a book in which the Iraq war of 2003 is “the case,” and about fifteen different contributors write essays about how their preferred theoretical approach (from feminism to critical theory to some brand(s) of realism etc etc) ‘explain’ it. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know whether it ‘works’, pedagogically or otherwise.

    I think agency/structure/dyads/system(s) could be a good way to do levels of analysis. One could also do it in terms of four levels (individual/state/interstate system/’global’) which is the approach J.S. Goldstein uses at the beginning of his textbook, but since the agency/structure “problematic” is of course important beyond IR, it’s probably good that you’re doing it in those terms. (Even if the differences are partly just differences of vocabulary or terminology, that can matter.)

    As for Gibler, I’ll have to refresh my memory by re-reading my post on him and Atzili, and if I have something to add (which I may not), I’ll come back.

  5. One way to bridge dyad-level and system-level analysis is through social network analysis, as in the work of Zeev Maoz. But this stuff is in its infancy and there is such a gigantic amount going on in any social network analysis that it seems easy to get lost. But this is a tangent…

    For me, the claim that Hitler was a rational statesman who did what any other leader of Germany would have done and acted purely in response to systemic imperatives is the point where Mearsheimer’s theory jumps the shark. It also seems to me to be incredibly arbitrary that M thinks that the United States is just about the only state in the history of the world to act irrationally in the face of systemic imperatives, i.e. ignoring Mearsheimer’s foreign policy proposals in the early 1990s.

    I do think the Neorealist efforts to explain departure’s from Waltz’s model produced some interesting work, Schweller on underbalancing, Snyder on overexpansion and Taliaferro on quagmires for example. But the problem is I’m not convinced that Waltz’s model provides a convincing baseline from which we have to explain departures and exceptions. A further problem is that if states respond to anarchy in a huge variety of different ways, we have to give up the idea that there is a uniform ‘logic of anarchy’. Which I think most people in the discipline have. But then again Monteiro got good reviews for his book on unipolarity, which seeks to square Neorealism with manifestly obvious features of contemporary world politics. So some people clearly find this sort of post hoc adjustment of established systemic theories to fit the facts worthwhile!

    Sterling-Folker’s book looks interesting, but I am not covering the general IR theories or paradigms on the course I’m writing – that’s covered elsewhere on the degree programme. I might well use a few classic cases like the ones you suggest throughout the course though, try to demonstrate that the same scenario can be explained at different levels of analysis.

  6. Re Mearsheimer: Not only does he pay a big price for “simplifying reality” (to use his own words: ‘Tragedy’ p.11) so drastically; I also think at least one or two of his basic assumptions are flawed (e.g., the supposed ineradicable or irreducible uncertainty about intentions — that is not a justified baseline assumption in a lot of cases, it seems to me).

    Good luck with the course.

  1. Pingback: Networked Neorealism? | Chaos and Governance

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