Category Archives: realism

Relative gains are (mostly) bunk

I helped to teach a course on international institutions last term. The course included an overview of the debates from the 1980s and early 1990s over multilateral agreements and the possibility of mutually beneficial cooperation between states. According to most IR textbooks, these debates established an enduring point of contention between Realist and Liberal Institutionalist perspectives – the latter focusing on absolute gains (welfare improvements) and the former on relative gains (share of power resources). I am not sure this is a very accurate summary of current debates in the discipline, I don’t think that there has been much research on relative and absolute gains in quite some time (this and this were the only articles I could find from the last decade). If my grasp on the recent history of the discipline is correct, that this is likely because the initial research programme on relative gains initiated by Mastanduno and Grieco fizzled out pretty fast when the empirical evidence proved to be mixed and inconclusive. More hardcore rational choice theorists demonstrated that the claims made about relative gains being a barrier to cooperation did not really stand up to scrutiny. Liberal Institutionalism won the argument to a large extent, but then mutated into a pretty generic rational choice institutionalism concerned with the same sort of problems of credible commitment and collective action as much mainstream economics and political science – losing touch with discipline-defining debates. So relative vs. absolute gains provides a neat way for textbook writers to distinguish between two ‘paradigms’, but it’s not a division that provides much of a guide to current research in journals like International Organization.

But the division does appear in textbooks, so it’s part of the education of many thousands of students every year. Unfortunately, the argument that if states are concerned with relative gains (share of power resources) they will forgo the benefits of cooperation is bunk and can be shown to be so very easily. In writing this up I discovered that this argument may have been made by Duncan Snidal 25 years ago, no doubt more rigorously. But the fact that its not hard for people like me who lack Prof. Snidal’s expertise in game theory to show flaws in the relative gains argument demonstrates how flimsy the argument is, even granting all the assumptions made by its Hobbist proponents.

Let’s adopt the same soft rational choice approach of many 80s and 90s IR theorists. I’m not convinced by this approach, with its contextless hypothetical examples and stereotyped, oversimplified scenarios, but it’s the ground on which proponents of the relative gains argument chose to pitch.

Suppose states A, B, C and D are states, each with a GDP of 10 trillion dollars. Let’s use GDP as a measure of material capabilities, as many neo-realists do (and with good reason). Each state therefore controls 25% of the material capabilities in the system. If (offensive) neo-realism is correct, each desires to increase their share. They are expected to forgo economic gains if it would also involve larger gains for another state, as this would lead to a reduction in their relative power. Logically, if they are rational as defined within rational choice theory, they would even accept a lower absolute income in order to have a greater share of power resources. It seems, therefore, that asymmetric trade deals that benefit some of our actors more than others would never be struck. This is not the case, however.

Let’s say A offers B a take-it-or-leave-it trade deal that will benefit A by $2trn and B by $1trn. This example follows the discussion on page 105 of Theory of International Politics where Waltz explicitly discusses an imaginary deal skewed 2:1 in favour of one state. If B is concerned with relative gains, should they take this seemingly unfair deal? Contra neo-realism, yes: it increases B’s share of power resources in the system by 0.6% and puts it ahead of C and D in terms of their power ranking. So concern with relative gains will lead towards cooperation even though the terms are unequal. Let’s say that B can offer a similar deal to C and C to D. Assuming that each deal really is a take-it-or-leave it offer in which no better alternative is available, each offer will be accepted because each time it will increase the share of power of both states involved – providing relative gains.

Finally, after this chain of deals, if D can offer A a similar asymmetric deal, will A take it? Unless A is very concerned with a very specific sort of relative gain (i.e. gains or losses relative to the most powerful in the system), then it will. The deals that A and D were not involved in reduced their share of material power, and making a deal – even if it benefits D more – will increase A’s share of power resources.

At the end of the chain of deals, each actor will have $13trn GDP and so the same 25% share of power resources that they started with. Even if they cared only about relative gains, each state has ended up better off and participating in mutually advantageous cooperation.

So under this scenario, relative gains are not a barrier to cooperation. It should be easy to see that under more realistic conditions, the same will apply. A state is unlikely to want to be left out of a multilateral trade deal that provides benefits to others, even if the deal is skewed. In his book Ruling the World  Lloyd Gruber argues that something similar to this process created the clamour to join the WTO in the 1990s – even though many states in the global South preferred its forerunner the GATT. It’s only when the number of states is very small and the distribution of benefits very skewed that we should expect relative gains to matter and to prevent cooperation.

Alternatively, if we abandon the idea that all states are threatening to each other and acknowledge that states are primarily focused on certain specific rivals  then relative gains considerations might be relevant. There’s real world evidence for this: witness concern over French arms exports to Russia in the aftermath of its annexation of the Crimea. As pointed out by my students, one of the most compelling examples of relative gains presenting a barrier to cooperation comes from international environmental negotiations, where the US seems to have been concerned to avoid any agreement that would disadvantage it relative to China.

But in the scenario that neo-realism posits, where all states are rivals, somewhat counter-intuitively relative gains considerations will no longer be relevant as a loss of relative power compared to the other contracting state may be compensated by the relative gain compared to others. 

Starting with broadly Hobbist assumptions, there are other reasons why states might avoid entering into positive-sum multilateral agreements with each other. Waltz notes that states may be concerned with the vulnerability that dependence on a potential enemy or rival might bring. States might guard their sovereignty jealously and be wary of any loss of de jure or de facto independence. But whilst the issue of relative gains might prevent cooperation in some special cases, it isn’t a general barrier to cooperation under conditions of anarchy – even if the system is characterised by competition and aggression. Glancing at the historical record, this should have been fairly obvious: transnational capitalism emerged coterminously with the turbulent European state-system.

Mistaking Realism for Idealism

This academic year, I’ve been wondering why IR students frequently develop the mistaken belief that they are realists (in the IR theory sense). I say mistaken belief because I think that some of them are not actually realists at all, and if they understood realism as an IR theory and political tradition better they would realise this too. There are clearly students who really are realists, who grasp the theory and believe that it provides a good account of what goes on in world politics – and fair enough. But a sizeable number of students seem to suffer from a sort of false consciousness in which they mistake their own views for the realist perspective.

Previously on the blog, I’ve described neo-realism as a squatter in IR theory textbooks and introductory courses – occupying the role of the power-politics theory of IR even though it is not a very good theory of power-politics. Some theory of power-politics probably needs to be part of the debate in any academic discussion of international relations, and so neo-realism gets undue limelight because it is so familiar and so well-sedimented in teaching materials.  Some students latch onto neo-realism because it is the only theory of power-politics they are familiar with. The evidence for this is that such students tend to think that every power-political explanation is a neo-realist explanation (in fairness neo-realists have often tried to claim this, which led to accusations that neo-realism was a degenerating research programme) and that these students become confused when they are introduced to alternative theories such as Marxism that make very similar claims about the self-aggrandising nature of states.

I don’t think that this is the only reason why students think they are realists or neo-realists even when they might not be. This is because that I don’t think it’s just the specific claims about the operation of the balance of power, for example, that they would disagree with – but the underlying outlook and the normative and explanatory core at the heart of most realist perspectives. What students sometimes miss, I think, is that realism provides an endorsement rather than just a description of the use of power politics. To condemn a state’s behaviour as narrowly self-interested and power-seeking is to depart from a conventional realist perspective (although to condemn it as reckless is not). Realism doesn’t offer a critique of power politics: ruthless behavior is rational and necessary, given the way that the international system is organised.

It’s my hunch that a lot of students that think themselves realists are actually the opposite, they are outraged by the selfish use of power politics by major states – and again, this is an entirely reasonably position to hold. But mainstream IR realism doesn’t provide any foundations for this outrage, it offers a shrug and the insistence that this is the way that things have always been and always will be.

This conflation of realism and its opposite, idealism, is also why Noam Chomsky retains appeal and why he crops up to support ‘realist’ arguments in essays. Like many people encountering debates on international relations for the first time, he assumes that there is a robust framework of rights and duties beyond the state, and that self-aggrandisement is the product of the malfeasance of particular actors. Although Chomsky’s perspective anticipates that important states will act in a self-aggrandising power-political fashion, it is utterly different from mainstream IR realism in how it conceives of the international system. There’s not nothing in Chomsky’s viewpoint, just as there is something of value in some neo-realist arguments, but it’s a limited and reductionist perspective.

It’s not a Marxist or a critical materialist perspective either, as these perspectives reject the idea that the international system is governed by a set of universalistic legal principles that for some reason particular states keep trampling over. Rather, they hold that the rules are fixed from the very outset.

That Chomsky is unable to grasp this argument was revealed in a little spat with Matthew Yglesias from a few years ago that I missed at the time. Yglesias argued that many dubious actions of the US and other greater powers comply with international law, but that this is no great endorsement as these powers get to decide what international law is in the first place. Chomsky accused Yglesias of endorsing law-breaking by the US, to which Yglesias replied that Chomsky had missed the point and that the issue is that the deck is stacked – the US and others make the laws through the Security Council and through other means. Somewhat heroically, Chomsky misunderstood and misrepresented Yglesias again, presenting him as offering an endorsement of American law breaking. The fundamental problem is that Chomsky imagines that international law, and other norms and rules governing international relations, comply with what Chomsky would wish them to be. As Yglesias states, very clearly:

International law, as it exists, was not written by pacifists, political radicals, or grassroots communities in small or weak states. It was, rather, written by political elites who are not committed to pacifism or radical politics via a process in which militarily strong states have disproportionate weight. Therefore, people who are committed to pacifism or radical politics shouldn’t be surprised to find that the existing body of international law often fails to support their policy ideas.

Yglesias’s position is much closer to a critical perspective, but because it doesn’t conform to Chomsky’s idealism he misidentifies Yglesias’s argument as realist. For a realist, it really is silly and naive to think that great powers will (or should) submit themselves to the same rules that they impose on others.

So realist scholars are misidentified as idealists, idealists as realists, and critiques mistaken for apologias.

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.

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.

On being a geopolitics hipster

My favourite school of realism? You’ve probably never heard of it (well, you might have done).

I’ve thought highly of William Wohlforth and Stephen Brooks for quite a while, their ‘post-classical’ take on international relations – inspired by Gilpin’s War and Change in World Politics – is much more refreshing than the dogmatic, tortured interpretations of contemporary international politics offered by those few who still cling to the neorealist raft. They are still a little bit straight-jacketed by the core assumptions of traditional realism, but their contributions have helped to unpick many of the unthinking assumptions within debates about power politics. But I’ve become even more persuaded as I’ve realised that this approach is much more consistent with the empirical evidence than Waltz’s neorealism. Its proponents and its critics all agree that neorealism is a positivist theory, or an attempt to provide the foundations of one, but I wonder more and more what its positive, falsfiable claims actually are. I don’t even think neorealists have even defined the balance of power, their central concept, in a clear and unambiguous way. It is a distribution of capabilities, a configuration of capabilities, or a process arising from the individual balancing behaviours of states?  Here’s Wohlforth offering a damning verdict on attempts a few years ago to defend what Vasquez would call the neotraditional theory of the balance of power:

The recent decline in the United States’ economic fortunes does not vindicate any prediction made by any balance-of-power realist, has no implications for any theoretical proposition about the functioning of a unipolar system, and has not caused a structural shift to bi- or multipolarity. Things can be made to seem otherwise only when scholars use inconsistent measures of capabilities, do not define terms with precision, forward inherently unfalsifiable arguments, and fail to clarify causal mechanisms.

The Gilpin-Wohlforth-Brooks approach, by contrast, views international relations as a set of overlapping global and regional hierarchies. Conflict occurs as states chafe against their place within the hierarchy. This not only allows dialogue with other hegemonic leadership theories (such as that of Giovanni Arrighi, in honour of whom this blogged was named) but also with quantitative analysis of international conflict – which finds that states of similar material capabilities and close proximity are more likely to experience conflict. All that is needed is a bold, clear theory that unites existing empirical evidence across lines of inquiry and provides a compelling set of causal mechanisms…

But for now, the ‘postclassical’ approach provides the best off the shelf take on geopolitics for students and scholars.