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Networked Neorealism?

The past few posts have been quite critical of Neorealism. I thought it might be interesting to say something qualified in the theory’s favour. In Networks of Nations, Zeev Maoz presents what he calls the theory of networked international politics. It hasn’t been discussed very much on IR blogs, apart from by Braumoeller over at the Monkey Cage during a discussion of systemic theory and networked vs. traditional approaches. Maoz’s theory applies familiar mechanisms drawn from existing IR theories to analyse social network patterns of interstate interaction. Drawing on Neorealism he analyses patterns of strategic interaction, Liberalism patterns of mutually beneficial self-interested interaction, Constructivism patterns of homophily and the formation of different cultural cliques, and World Systems Theory patterns of inequality and hierarchy. He also makes some novel claims about prestige and status in the network of nations, developing some original hypotheses that develop concepts within social network theory (but which also echo recent and classic discussions of status in international relations). Interestingly, he finds that each theory makes successful predictions in its own core area of competence. Combining the different mechanisms, Maoz puts forward a complex and detailed account of how the spillovers generated by cooperation amongst security-seeking states results in an increasingly complex, evolving network structure of cooperation within the international system. Democratisation within strategically interacting groups of states tends to reduce competition and accelerate the formation of cooperative relationships. Yet the system remains unequal and hierarchies of status may generate conflict.

This is only a brief summary of a dense, detailed book that examines dozens of hypotheses and a huge range of interactions at different levels of analysis within different areas of world politics. One area of focus is what Maoz calls the strategic reference group (SRG), which he refers to as the basic unit of for the analysis of national security policy within his framework. An SRG is a state’s security environment, it is made up of all the states who are likely to be perceived as threats to a state – those the state has been involved in military disputes with, those the state has been in a rivalry with, and allies of both sets of ‘enemy’ states (the friend of my enemy is my enemy). Neorealists believe that states often engage in ‘internal balancing’, arms build-ups, if they believe that they are vulnerable. The military capabilities of others are dangerous unless they are checked and negated by counterveiling power. Building up a state’s own power resources is one way a state can make itself less vulnerable, forming alliances is an alternative strategy. Do states actually behave this way? Maoz finds that yes, states will tend to build up their military capabilities if they are weak relative to their strategic reference group*. Forming alliances makes a state less likely to engage in a military build-up. So it seems that isolated states with many powerful enemies seek to increase their capabilities. States that are powerful, have powerful allies and have few enemies may feel themselves safe enough to reduce their capabilities – perhaps opting for butter instead of guns.

This at least seems to provide support for a Neorealist perspective, especially the Defensive Neorealism of Waltz, Walt and Glaser, as Maoz’s results are consistent with the hypothesis that states seek security by attempt to achieve ‘enough’ power. But there are one or two problems. First, Maoz’s definition of the strategic reference group isn’t thoroughly Neorealist. In Maoz’s analysis, states are not concerned about all other states, just specific threatening states. States have specific issues and disagreements with past enemies, strategic rivals, and their allies. Anarchy is not necessarily a war of all against all in the theory of networked international politics. Second, I’m slightly cautious about the findings as there could be other factors not included in the model that might lead to states within SRGs to experience a growth in military personal and expenditure at the same time or sequentially. Economic growth and industrialisation are likely to be regional processes and may be associated with a rise in military capabilities. Third, Maoz notes that states that are very strong compared to their SRGs are less likely to get involved in conflict. Does this support or undermine Neorealism? If Neorealists are committed to the hypothesis that unipolar global and regional inter-state systems are very unlikely to form and very unstable because they provoke counter-balancing coalitions, then this seems to undermine the theory. Fourth, although Maoz argues that these results are robust and in line with Neorealist expectations, he notes that they don’t have a great deal of predictive power. So Neorealist theories don’t explain all that much how states respond to potential threats – perhaps (as Maoz suggests) because states have many foreign policy tools available to them apart from military build-ups and alliance formation.

Maoz examines many other processes within the global inter-state system in further detail, again finding that some Neorealist claims are borne out. But so are the claims of other theories, such as democratic peace theory. Even on a charitable interpretation of patterns of conflict and cooperation, Neorealism provides an incomplete account of the phenomena that it was created to make sense of.

Maoz’s Networks of Nations is a fascinating application of familiar theoretical frameworks to a host of levels of analysis within the international system – social network analysis seems to offer a veritable smorgasbord of possible levels of analysis for international relations scholarship. Focusing on indirect as well as direct interactions between states offers a very powerful set of tools for scholars looking for behavioural patterns in world politics. It would be especially interesting to see a network analysis of other middle-range theories in IR – is for example territorial peace and conflict a network phenomena? In my view such research would help us think creatively and rigorously about the nature of international systems and move past exhausted theories.

*I think that there is a mistake on page 143, which states that the variable State/SRG capability imbalance is generated by ‘subtract[ing] a state’s military capabilities from the sum of the military capabilities of its SRG members’. The name of the variable, the discussion in the text, and the operationalisation of the variable in the case where a state has no SRG all suggest that this is a typo and that the actual operationalisation is the state’s military capabilities less the sum of the capabilities of the states in its SRG. This operationalisation is consistent with Maoz’s interpretation of the negative coefficient for the variable in regression model for military build-ups: ‘As the difference between the capabilities of the focal state and the aggregate capabilities of its SRG increases, the extent of the absolute and rate-of-change in the state’s capabilities declines’. In other words, states with large capabilities and a weak set of states in their SRG (i.e. a positive State/SRG capability imbalance) are likely to reduce their military capabilities.

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 End of IR Theory? Part I: Bennett and Goddard on Mechanisms

Duck of Minerva, increasingly well-established as the nexus of academic IR online, is hosting a symposium on the ‘The End of IR Theory?’  special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. Lots of interesting posts so far, including one by Mearsheimer and Walt in defence of bold ‘big picture’ grand theorising. Also interesting is Bennett’s take, in which he calls for ‘structured pluralism’ focusing on causal mechanism rather than unproductive inter-‘paradigm’ debate between -isms.  Goddard (who co-wrote what to my mind is one of the best discussions of Waltz in the literature) offers a sympathetic critique, arguing that the pluralism that Bennett advocates might not be all that easy to achieve in practice – as scholars cannot just suspend their pre-established beliefs and reach for the most appropriate mechanisms from a common toolbox when tackling a given problem of explanation. She also defends the pedagogical relevance of introducing students to argument over big ideas in world politics, ‘the lifeblood of the paradigmatic debates’. An overriding focus on the minutiae of mechanisms and nuance of particular theories could result in such a focus being lost.

There’s lots and lots to agree with in this two posts, both on the importance of causal mechanisms for research and advanced-level teaching as well as the relevance of ‘big ideas’ for getting students and aspiring scholars interested in the subject (and let’s be honest, this is why people choose to study and aspire to become scholars of international relations in the first place). In Bennett’s article he makes the important point that

Middle-range theories are not just theories about individual causal mechanisms, but theories about how combinations of mechanisms interact in specified and often recurrent scope conditions or contexts to produce outcomes (p. 470)

This I think provides a bridge from the debate over causal mechanisms within international relations theory to causal mechanisms as understood by historical sociologists such as Charles Tilly (see my post from last year). A central tenet of historical sociology, as I understand it, is that one can indeed locate recurrent causal mechanisms across time and space – but they combine and interact with each other in very different, historically specific ways. So scholars searching for trans-historical covering laws are on a hiding-to-nothing, but – against strongly idiographic approaches that see every historical period, every cultural context as sui generis and incomparable in its uniqueness – we can engage in careful comparisons and draw attention to recurrent sets of causal mechanisms. This is, I think, what Mann means in the later volumes of The Sources of Social Power when he describes the ambitions of his project as lying somewhere between those of Marx and those of Weber.

I’m uncertain, however, about certain aspects of Bennett’s taxonomy of theories of social mechanisms. One dimension of this taxonomy distinguishes between material power, institutional efficiency and normative legitimacy – mirroring the distinction between realism, liberalism and constructivism that seems to have become the orthodox trinity of theories in US IR. I wonder if this set of distinctions leaves room for ideas of social power, as employed by historical sociologists such as Mann. ‘Material power’ implies raw, unsocialised power – what Arendt refused to call power proper but instead termed violence. Institutional efficiency brings to mind Pareto efficiency, discussion of which obscures consideration of inequality and power – as argued by Sen. Mann’s idea of social power involves social organisation (institutions in the broad sense) but involves recognition of the ability of those at the apex of social organization to ‘outflank’ subordinate actors. This kind of power isn’t ‘material’ as such, and it doesn’t really relate to the question of efficiency among institutions. Mann’s notion of social power is quite close to the idea of structural power as employed in Barnett and Duvall’s influential article on concepts of power in IR theory. I’d suggest, therefore, that it’s omission from Bennett’s typology limits this version of ‘structured pluralism’ to some degree.