Category Archives: Wohlforth

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.