Category Archives: diplomatic history

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.

The Congress of Riyadh

A guest post by Conn Hallinan on Juan Cole’s blog compares a meeting of the Arab League in Sharm el-Sheikh  to the Congress of Vienna – which presumably makes the coalition prosecuting the intervention in Yemen a C21st West Asian Holy Alliance. I’ve been thinking and reading about the Congress a fair bit recently, so I thought it was an interesting angle. I’m not sure about Hallinan’s argument that the intervention has nothing to do with religion or actions by Iran. On the first count, I’m not sure that political power, ideology and religion are easily disentangled at the current conjuncture. On the second count, the Houthi groups don’t have to be pawns of Iran for others to be threatened by their success. The very possibility that they could act as proxies or allies in the future, opening up Yemen as a battleground, might be enough to motivate action against them. Such worst-case scenario reasoning may well be more likely given the strategic rivalry that exists between the Kingdom and the Republic, and in the context of the sectarian polarisation sweeping across the region.

The comparison with the interventionist coalition of C19th conservative powers is apt though. I’m currently reading John Owen’s The Clash of Ideas in World Politics, who argues that political instability, leading to ideological polarisation, leading to great power intervention, leading to further ideological escalation is a longstanding and perennial cycle within world politics. Internal ideological challenges and external threats become intertwined and reinforcing as powers compete to impose compatible regimes through intervention and cross-border ideological networks struggle to shift the ideological and geopolitical alignment of states. If he is correct, then the length of past cycles is pretty sobering: around 100 years.

On a closely related topic, I’m going to just note some of the different accounts of what exactly IS is that have popped up: Stern & Berger’s account of the role of foreign fighters, Wood’s comparison of IS to the fanatical sects of the 30 years war, and Reuter’s account of the Baathist origins of IS – which makes him prefer the Stasi as the chosen historical analogue.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about how to think about international relations systemically in the wake of the exhaustion of the paradigm wars in international relations theory. Whatever a revived systemic approach to world politics looks like, transnational ideological networks and non-state violent actors have to have an important place.

Edit: Another article on the Daesh-Baathist connection from the Washington Post, from a little while back. Also, Channel 4 docu.

The Congress in Vienna

Congress of Vienna Final Act

My current stay in Vienna coincides with the Europe in Vienna exhibition at the museum of the Belvedere Palace*, which commemorates the bicentenary of the Congress of Vienna 1814/5, and so I made a visit to the exhibition on Saturday. It was pretty interesting, organised chronologically and thematically it showcased many artifacts and paintings from the long-running negotiations which set the shape of European international relations for the C19th century and beyond (video preview here).

The exhibition examined Vienna’s experience of the Napoleonic wars, the intellectual and social environment that surrounded the Congress, Austria’s diplomacy under Metternich, Austria’s use of aesthetic means to pursue what Morgenthau and Gilpin would call a policy of prestige, and the relationship among the principle powers – particularly Prussia, Russia and Austria. The exhibition featured lots of fascinating caricatures and cartoons from the era, lots of hagiographic depictions of generals and statesmen, one of the remaining versions of Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass, and the original Austrian copy of the Congress of Vienna Final Act itself – opened to the page of signatures. The exhibition really helped me envisage the Congress and make the events of that era present in my mind. I’ve been reading Braumoeller’s case study of the post-Vienna order and I’m tempted to delve deeper into the subject and getting to grips with the accounts by Schroeder and Osiander – but I think I will focus on more pressing goals in the immediate future. There’s never going to be a shortage of interesting things to read about world politics and interesting history.

*=Although the Belvedere was the site for the exhibition, the negotiations that comprised the Congress were conducted primarily at the Hofburg Palace closer to the centre of the city.