I. Thinking Theoretically
- A theory is a set of propositions and concepts that seeks to explain phenomena by specifying the relationships among the concepts; theory’s ultimate purpose is to predict phenomena.
- Good theory generates groups of testable hypotheses: specific statements positing a particular relationship between two or more variables.
- As more and more data are collected, one must be tolerant of ambiguity, concerned about probabilities, and distrustful of absolutes.
- International relations theories come in a variety of forms, and this chapter will introduce three general theories and one newer perspective.
II. Theory and the Levels of Analysis
- In a categorization first used by Kenneth Waltz, three different sources of explanations are offered.
- If the individual level is the focus, then the personality, perceptions, choices, and activities of individual decision makers and individual participants provide the explanation.
- If the state-level, or domestic, factors are the focus, then the explanation is derived from characteristics of the state: the type of government, the type of economic system, or interest groups.
- If the international system level is the focus, then the explanation rests with the anarchic characteristics of that system or with international and regional organizations and their strengths and weaknesses.
- The purpose of theory is to guide us toward an understanding of which of these various explanations are the necessary and sufficient explanations for the invasion.
- Good theory should be able to explain phenomena at a particular level of analysis; better theory should also offer explanations across different levels of analysis.
III. Realism and Neorealism
Realism is based on a view of the individual as primarily selfish and power seeking. Individuals are organized in states, each of which acts in a unitary way in pursuit of its own national interest, defined in terms of power.
- Power is primarily thought of in terms of material resources necessary to physically harm or coerce other states.
- States exist in an anarchic international system, characterized by the absence of an authoritative hierarchy.
- States’ most important concern is to manage their insecurity, and they rely primarily on balancing the power of other states and deterrence to keep the international system intact.
- Four of the essential assumptions of realism are found in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.
- The state is the principal actor in war and politics in general.
- The state is assumed to be a unitary actor: once a decision is made to go to war or capitulate, the state speaks and acts with one voice.
- Decision makers acting in the name of the state are assumed to be rational actors. Rational decision making leads to the advance of the national interest.
- A state’s need to protect itself from enemies both foreign and domestic. A state augments its security by building up its economic prowess and forming alliances with other states.
- St. Augustine (354-430) added an assumption, arguing that humanity is flawed, egoistic, and selfish, although not predetermined to be so. He blames war on this basic characteristic of humanity.
- Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) argued that a leader needs to be ever mindful of threats to his personal security and the security of the state
- The central tenet accepted by virtually all realists is that states exist in an anarchic international system. Thomas Hobbes originally articulated this tenet, and maintained that each state has the right to preserve themselves.
- Hans Morgenthau (1904-80), whose textbook, Politics among Nations, became the realist bible following World War II, argued that international politics is a struggle for power that can be explained at three levels of analysis:
- The flawed individual in the state of nature struggles for self-preservation.
- The autonomous and unitary state is constantly involved in power struggles, balancing power with power and preserving the national interest.
- Because the international system is anarchic—there is no higher power to put the competition to an end—the struggle is continuous.
- Not all realists agree on the correct policy. Defensive realists argue that all states should pursue policies of restraint. Offensive realists argue that under conditions of international anarchy, all states should seek opportunities to improve their relative positions and that states should strive for power.
- Neorealism, as delineated by Kenneth Waltz’s theory of international politics, gives precedence to the structure of the international system as an explanatory factor, over states.
- The most important unit to study is the structure of the international system, and that structure is determined by the ordering principle (the distribution of capabilities among states)
- The international structure is a force in itself; it constrains state behavior and states may not be able to control it. This structure determines outcomes.
- Like classical realism, balance of power is a core principle of neorealism. However, neorealists believe that the balance of power is largely determined by the structure of the system.
- In a neorealist’s balance-of-power world, a state’s survival depends on having more power than other states, thus all power are viewed in relative terms.
- Neorealists are also concerned with cheating. The awareness that such possibilities exist, combined with states’ rational desire to protect their own interests, tends to preclude cooperation among states
- Robert Gilpin offers another interpretation of realism. Gilpin adds the notion of dynamism: history as a series of cycles—cycles of birth, expansion, and demise of dominant powers.
- Whereas classical realism offers no satisfactory rationale for the decline of powers, Gilpin does, on the basis of the importance of economic power.
- Hegemons decline because of three processes:
- The increasingly marginal returns of controlling an empire, a state-level phenomenon
- The tendency for economic hegemons to consume over time and invest less, also a state-level phenomenon
- The diffusion of technology, a system-level phenomenon through which new powers challenge the hegemon.
- Ann Tickner adds gender to realism. She argues that human nature is not fixed and inalterable, but multidimensional and contextual.
- Power cannot be equated exclusively with control and domination, but must be reoriented toward a more inclusive notion of power, where power is the ability to act in concert (not just conflict) or to be in a symbiotic relationship (instead of outright competition).
IV. Liberalism and Neoliberal Institutionalism
- Liberalism holds that human nature is basically good and that people can improve their moral and material conditions, making societal progress possible. Bad or evil behavior is the product of inadequate social institutions and misunderstandings among leaders.
- One origin of liberal theory is found in Enlightenment optimism:
- French philosopher Montesquieu argued that it is not human nature that is defective, but problems arise as man enters civil society. War is a product of society. To overcome defects in society, education is imperative.
- According to Immanuel Kant, international anarchy can be overcome through some kind of collective action—a federation of states in which sovereignties would be left intact.
- Another origin, nineteenth-century liberalism, reformulated the Enlightenment by adding a preference for democracy over aristocracy and for free trade over national economic self-sufficiency:
- This liberalism saw man as capable of satisfying his natural needs and wants in rational ways.
- Individual freedom and autonomy can best be realized in a democratic states unfettered by excessive governmental restrictions
- Free markets must be allowed to flourish and governments must permit the free flow of trade and commerce. This will create interdependencies between states, thus raising the cost of war.
- Twentieth-century idealism is also termed Wilsonian idealism (its greatest adherent was Woodrow Wilson, author of the League of Nations).
- War is preventable; more than half of the League covenant’s provisions focused on preventing war.
- The covenant also included a provision legitimizing the notion of collective security, wherein aggression by one state would be countered by collective action, embodied in a league of nations.
- Liberals also place faith in international law and legal instruments -mediation, arbitration, and international courts.
- The basis of liberalism remains firmly embedded in the belief of the rationality of humans and in the unbridled optimism that through learning and education, humans can develop institutions to bring out their best characteristics.
- Neoliberal institutionalism asks why states choose to cooperate most of the time even in the anarchic condition of the international system.
- One answer is the story of the prisoner’s dilemma, developed by Robert Axelrod and Robert Keohane. Two prisoners are interrogated separately for a crime. Each prisoner is faced with a onetime choice. Neither prisoner knows how the other will respond; the cost of not confessing if the other does is high. So both sides will confess.
- Similarly, states are not faced with a onetime situation; confront each other over and over again.
- The prisoner’s dilemma provides neoliberal institutionalists with a rationale for mutual cooperation in an environment where there is no international authority mandating such cooperation.
- Cooperation emerges because for actors having continuous interactions with each other, it is in the self-interest of each to cooperate.
- With the end of the Cold War, liberalism has achieved new credibility.
- Shared democratic norms and culture inhibit aggression and international institutions that bind democracies together act to constrain behavior.
- Large-scale conflict is less frequent than in earlier eras. Thus, as Francis Fukuyama argues, there is an absence of any viable theoretical alternatives.
V. The Radical Perspective
- Radicalism assumes the primacy of economics for explaining virtually all other phenomena.
- The writings of Karl Marx (1818-83) are fundamental to all radical thought. According to Marx, private interests control labor and market exchanges. A clash inevitably arises between the controlling, capitalist bourgeois class and the controlled proletariat workers.
- During the evolution of the economic production process from feudalism to capitalism, new patterns of social relations were developed. Radicals are concerned with explaining the relationship between the means of production, social relations, and power.
- Another group of radical beliefs centers on the structure of the global system. That structure is the by-product of imperialism, or the expansion of certain economic forms into other areas of the world.
- John A. Hobson theorized that expansion occurs because of three conditions:
- Overproduction of goods and services in developed countries
- Underconsumption by workers and the lower classes in developed nations because of low wages
- Oversavings by the upper classes and the bourgeoisie in the dominant developed countries
- To solve these problems, developed states have expanded abroad, and radicals argue that developing countries are increasingly constrained and dependent on the actions of the developed world.
- Theorists emphasize the techniques of domination and suppression that arises from uneven economic development is inherent in the capitalist system, enabling the dominant states to exploit the underdogs.
- Contemporary radicals, such as dependency theorists, attribute primary importance to the role of multinational corporations (MNCs) and international banks based in developed countries in exerting fundamental controls over the developing countries. Dependency theorists are pessimistic about the possibility of change.
- Virtually all radical theorists are uniformly normative in their orientation. They evaluate the hierarchical capitalist structure as “bad” and its methods as exploitive.
- Some have discredited radicalism as an international relations theory because it cannot explain the cooperation between capitalist and socialist states at the end of the Cold War, why and how some developing countries have escaped dependency, and did not foresee or predict the demise of the Soviet Union.
- The major theoretical proposition that all constructivists subscribe to is that neither individual, state, nor international community interests are predetermined or fixed.
- Individuals in collectivities forge, shape, and change culture through ideas and practices. State and national interests are the result of the social identities of these actors.
- Constructivists eschew the concept of material structures. Constructivist theorist Alexander Wendt argues that political structure explains nothing and tells us little about state behavior.
- Many constructivists emphasize normative structures. What we need to know its identity, and identities change as a result of cooperative behavior and learning.
- Constructivists see power in discursive terms—the power of ideas, culture, and language. Power exists in every exchange among actors, and the goal of constructivists is to find the sources of power and how it shapes identity.
- Constructivists claim there is no objective reality, if “the world is in the eye of the beholder,” then there can be no right or wrong answers, only individual perspectives. Thus, they see sovereignty not as an absolute, but as a contested concept.
VII. Theory in Action: Analyzing the 2003 Iraq War
The Realist Interpretation
The Liberal Interpretation
- Realists would focus on state-level and international-level factors. Realists see the international system as anarchic and few states other than the United States would be able and willing to rid the world of the Iraq threat.
- Iraq posed a security threat to the United States and the only way to eliminate this threat was to oust the Baathist regime from power.
- Not all realists agree that the policy the United States pursued was the right one: both John Mearsheimer, an offensive realist, and Stephen Walt, a defensive realist, have jointly argued that the war was not necessary.
- George W. Bush and other realist theorists believe that Saddam was not being effectively deterred. Bush argued that Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the past meant that it was probable he would use them to threaten the United States.
- Liberals would utilize all three levels of analysis.
- Individual: Saddam was clearly an abusive leader and committed atrocities against his own population
- State: The Iraqi state had an authoritarian nature, and replacement by a democracy would lessen the coercive threat of the state and enhance stability in the Middle East
- International level: Iraq was not confronting to its obligations under various UN Security Council resolutions; thus, there was an obligation for the international community to take collective action.
- The international community did not respond as some liberals would have predicted because the UN Security Council did not endorse the action, and there was insufficient evidence for the presence of weapons of mass destruction.
- Radicals would focus mainly on the international system structure
- Political colonialism spawned an imperialist system in which the economic needs of the capitalist states were paramount. In the Middle East, that meant imperialism by the West to secure oil resources.
- The instability of the oil supply coming from Iraq explains the U.S. invasion. Many radicals believe the United States wants to control Iraq’s oil, pointing to the fact that U.S. troops protected oil fields all over the country.
- World-system and dependency theorists would not be surprised at all that the core states of the capitalist system—the United States and its allies—responded with force with Iraq threatened their critical interests in oil.
- A constructivist view of the war would focus on the social construction of the threat.
- How the threat of Saddam Hussein was portrayed is a key part of the analysis.
- The concept of legitimacy was also key. The United States recognized the need for legitimacy of its actions, though in the long run, the efforts to gain legitimacy through the United Nations failed.
VIII. In Sum: Seeing the World through Theoretical Lenses
- How each of us sees international relations depends on his or her own theoretical lens. These perspectives hold different views about the possibility and desirability of change in the international system.