Category Archives: Steps to war

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.