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First Lens
Second Lens
Third Lens
Case Study
First Lens
Second Lens
Third Lens
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International Security
International Economics
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International relations are complex. There are thousands of factors that may affect why a particular event occurred. Why did Serbian and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic allow NATO bombing to persist for so long in the spring of 1999 before relenting to NATO occupation? Why did the People's Republic of China spy on U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories in the 1990s? What are the sources of terrorism? What makes economic trade between Canada and the United States so important, and why are there so few conflicts between these two countries? Should Internet privacy standards be set by international treaty? Do individual leaders make a difference? Or do international politics really spring from domestic variables? Is conflict inherent or do factors like trade and technology structure cooperation? These are questions that go to the heart of international relations.

The initial difficulty with these questions is determining where to look for reasonable explanations. Studying world politics requires a student to make basic assumptions in order to find answers to the overwhelming number of questions. The premise of this webBOOK is that comprehending complex events requires the construction of filters. Without such filters, it is difficult to move beyond mere description to explanation.

How you decide to look at something ultimately affects the conclusions you draw. Consider the contrasting effects of a magnifying glass, binoculars, and a telescope. When you look out a window with a magnifying glass, certain things come into focus. Look out that same window, but with a pair of binoculars, and what comes into focus is utterly different. Likewise, a telescope further alters the picture; the picture has changed because the lens brings a different element into focus. The same is true of looking at events through a theoretical lens. Assuming that certain variables are more important to study than others will affect what factors you focus on when studying an event; we will see those factors and their ramifications more clearly than all others. In this sense, basic assumptions shape thinking like different optical lenses affect vision—they focus attention on a particular aspect of a broader phenomenon.

In this webBOOK, we call the use of conceptual lenses to focus our attention a lenses of analysis framework. This framework assumes that much of the literature on world politics relies on three very different types of causal variables. These three types of variables suggest very different starting points for studying international relations and, in a conceptual sense, function like lenses to narrow and focus thinking. Each lens reflects a different expectation about what variables are most important in describing and explaining world politics.

A case study that this webBOOK will refer to throughout to explain its theoretical approach—Serbia's choice to resist NATO's demands at the 1999 Rambouillet conference and endure seventy-nine days of bombing—will illustrate the necessity of such assumptions about international relations. It is difficult to understand the Serbian decision without employing an assumption about the basic underpinnings of international relations. If you were to assume that individual leaders are more important than the structure of the international system, you would understand the Serbian-NATO confrontation much differently than you would if you believed that the distribution of power trumps all else. Should we examine the choices and preferences of key decision makers within Serbia and NATO? Or should we analyze NATO's internal politics and the role of the United Nations? Naturally, all of these elements interact, but we must separate out important parts from the whole in order to assess the nature and function of those parts. We can then examine how the parts relate to each other, eventually developing a better appreciation of the whole. In short, finding sophisticated explanations requires us to dissect the problem and examine each section through the appropriate lens.

Scholars of world politics use three general lenses to direct their attention to the key variables that shape the international issue they are studying and lead them toward the clusters of variables that influence the event most profoundly. Some scholars assume that (1) individuals are key to international relations, others suggest that (2) states' domestic structures drive how countries behave internationally, while yet others contend that (3) the international system is most important. These basic assumptions produce very different pictures, and can be thought of as First-Lens, Second-Lens and Third-Lens thought processes.

The First Lens

The First Lens assumes that the preferences and character of individuals explain world events. First-Lens analysis suggests that history is altered by leaders' actions. If we assumed a First-Lens perspective to explain the Second World War, the thinking, planning, and decisions of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler would become the focus of our analysis. The assumption behind such an analysis is that history would have taken a different course if such a man had not led Germany.

Although the assumption that individual leaders matter seems unassailable, consider how many individuals in 1939 had to acquiesce before the war could be fought. The decision of a few individuals to fight does not automatically mean that millions of other individuals will follow. Therefore, to explain a world war—the goals of which, by definition, require the active or passive acceptance of millions—may require more than a focus on leaders.

The Second Lens

The Second Lens assumes that domestic political environments ultimately affect the conduct of world politics. For many political scientists, the structures in which key individuals act affect international relations more than do the individuals themselves. For these thinkers, the type of government (democratic or authoritarian), the type of population (multinational or homogeneous), and the type of economy (free market or state controlled) lead to specific decisions regardless of leadership. The Second Lens suggests that the individual matters much less than does the political situation.

To illustrate this point, consider the United States's approach to the Soviet Union, 1945–1990, a period known as the Cold War. Although U.S. presidents of this period hailed from different political parties and had unique backgrounds, they all followed a relatively consistent policy of containment. The Second Lens interprets U.S.—Soviet relations as ideological competition, rather than as a conflict between individual leaders. Although there were differences in outlook between Republicans and Democrats, the grand strategy of the United States remained consistent when Harry Truman was replaced by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 as well as when Jimmy Carter handed the White House over to Ronald Reagan in 1980. The Second Lens, with its focus on domestic structure, suggests that U.S. policy remained consistent while leaders changed because policy reflected U.S. democratic capitalism. The United States's form of government, economy, and history structured the relationship with the communist totalitarian state, which viewed capitalist democracy as a competing form of governance. The domestic structures of these two superpowers determined their relationship.

Reconsider the question about the Second World War's origins through the Second Lens, this time assuming that countries' internal domestic structures determine world politics. This assumption shifts the focus from Hitler to Germany's domestic instability after the First World War. A weak democratic structure, combined with a terrible economic depression, increased political extremism and radicalized the populace. The internal condition of Germany's economy, political system, and society may have meant that conflict with its neighbors was likely regardless of leadership.

The Third Lens

Some political scientists suggest that beyond individuals and the domestic fabric of a state, the structure of the international system itself affects state relations; this is the Third Lens. Researchers working from a Third-Lens perspective note that certain types of governments might approach international relations similarly but will not follow the exact same course. For instance, France and the United States are both democracies and were allies in two world wars, yet they disagree on many issues and have pursued, at times, very different foreign policies. In addition, the Germany that both France and America defeated in both world wars is now a military ally in NATO. The German people have not discarded their culture or their sense of the German nation, yet America, France, and Germany have related very differently to each other during the last fifty years of the twentieth century than they did during the first half of the century.

The Third Lens assumes that just as the state shapes individual leaders, so too does the overall international system affect collections of individuals (states). The dynamics of a bipolar international system, one dominated by two superpowers, might differ from the workings of unipolar or multipolar systems, each of which is based on a different distribution of power. The Third Lens assumes that the distribution of power among states affects democractic and authoritarian governments similarly. The way in which U.S. president George W. Bush and Russian president Vladimir Putin guide their two countries at the start of the twenty-first century is determined less by their personal interests or state structures than by the power of the United States relative to Russia.

The Third-Lens perspective also considers international institutions, such as the United Nations or NATO, and international legal standards. In short, the Third Lens focuses our view of international relations on the interaction between institutions and law on the world stage and on the relative power of states.

Examined through the Third Lens, responsibility for the Second World War shifts from a focus on Hitler (First Lens) and German domestic instability (Second Lens) to the map of Europe. Germany did not exist before 1871. A few short years later, though, an emergent Germany controlled large portions of central Europe. The Third Lens explains Germany's pivotal role in the two world wars by the fact that it emerged in the middle of a politically settled region. Its arrival on the map upset the distribution of power and sparked conflict that lasted well into the twentieth century. From this perspective, it was not a fanatical leader or domestic instability that brought about war, but rather a dramatic change in political geography and power relations that was not contained by law or the international institutions of the time.

Lenses versus Levels

In the late 1950s, Professor Kenneth Waltz wrote the seminal work Man, the State, and War, which comprehensively reviewed the study of international conflict. He asked what causes war and found that most of those who contemplated this question started from one of three general assumptions: The causal variable was either individuals, domestic structures, or the international system itself. Waltz noted: "Staring at the same set of data, the parties to the debate came to sharply different conclusions, for the images they entertained led them to select and interpret data in different ways"(Waltz, Man, the State, and War, p. 10). Waltz suggests that, "the idea we entertain becomes a filter through which we pass our data" (p. 10). His book explained why so many competing explanations of war exist by showing that different basic assumptions produce different answers.

Recognizing how assumptions about world politics shape viewpoints is not merely interesting academically, but rather is profoundly important in the world of policy as well. Waltz pointed out that the "practice of politics is greatly influenced by the images the politicians entertain" (p. 225). He noted, for example, that President Woodrow Wilson's conviction that democracies would prefer to avoid war led to his promotion of democracy as a policy for world peace. Although "making the world safe for democracy" meant waging war against nondemocratic states, Wilson assumed that creating democracies would extend the zone of peace. Wilson viewed the world through the Second Lens, he assumed that the domestic structure of states mattered most, and this colored his view of both individual leaders and the balance of power.

Political scientist J. David Singer broadened Waltz's examination by suggesting that these different conclusions about the causes of war stemmed from analytical distinctions that could facilitate the study of international relations in general. Singer suggested that Waltz had discovered different levels at which world politics could be analyzed. In most textbooks today, therefore, Kenneth Waltz's name is associated with the phrase "levels of analysis," despite the fact that he did not emphasize this phrase in Man, the State, and War.

The lenses of analysis framework presented in this webBOOK reflects the same analytical distinctions discussed in other books using the phrase "levels of analysis." The notion of a lens, however, better reflects the thought processes used in studying world politics analytically. As Waltz suggested, our perspective on important variables filters the study of international relations. Our basic assumptions provide a powerful lens that determines what variables we choose to examine closely, what descriptions we develop, what arguments we present, and what conclusions we draw.

Building a Mosaic?

It is important to consider whether the best explanation of international events integrates the separate pictures produced by the three lenses into a larger mosaic. Once we have simplified the complexity of international politics by taking snapshots with each lens to narrow our focus on an issue, should we integrate all of the pictures into one multifaceted whole to achieve a fuller understanding? The answer is: Not necessarily.

An important distinction exists between description and explanation. A description of an international event will be richer when all of the images produced through the three lenses are considered together. However, taking partial views of a complex scene may be sufficient to support solid explanation. Indeed, the key causal variables in a particular case may be found through one lens. The addition of other lenses may provide more information but may not improve our understanding of the core reason why an event occurred or why an aspect of world politics follows a certain pattern.

It is also important to recognize that the assumptions behind each lens are not necessarily compatible. Consider the earlier example of Woodrow Wilson. He concluded that a focus on relative power and the need to balance had led to the First World War. Wilson believed, however, that democracies, which gave voice to the people and emphasized respect for individuals, could avoid the dangers of the balancing dynamic. This Wilsonian logic was applied seventy years later to the decision to expand NATO membership. NATO's official statement on expansion maintains:

that NATO's expansion will accord with "the safeguarding of the freedom, common heritage, and civilization of all Alliance members and their people, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law . . . [and will lead to a] security architecture that transcends and renders obsolete the idea of dividing lines in Europe.

The expectation of NATO members is that the expansion of democracy—institutionally supported by linking NATO membership with democratic structures, such as free elections, representative legislatures, and civilian control over militaries—would create a zone of peace in Europe. The focus is not on how relative power divides states but on how common governments bind states. The notion of eliminating dividing lines borrows directly from a Wilsonian rejection of balance-of-power politics.

On the other hand, Otto von Bismarck, Germany's famous nineteenth-century chancellor, viewed the balance of power as the key to international politics. At its core, his foreign policy goal was to maintain an equilibrium, so that Germany would never have to face both France and Russia in war at the same time. Bismarck derived his image of world politics from the Third Lens—he thought that the distribution of power in Europe was the determining factor in European state behavior. A Bismarckian view might contend that the First World War was caused by poor management of the balancing dynamic and not by the balance of power itself.

In a sense, Wilson and Bismarck's views are not reconcilable. If one assumes that all great powers are concerned with balancing and shifting alliances, then whether they are democracies or not does not matter. Either balancing is inherent in international relations, or it can be overcome by democratic governance.

Thus, building an integrated mosaic may not be possible. While acknowledging that combining all three lenses can produce a broader description of all the key variables related to an issue, the prescriptions (that is, the policy choices) that derive from each perspective may not be easily blended together. If it is correct that democracies do not go to war with other democracies, then spreading democratic ideologies will decrease the possibility of war within a given region. Thus, NATO's expansion in the 1990s should support stability in Europe. If, however, it is the balance of power among nations and not the domestic structure of those nations that leads to peace, then NATO expansion will increase tensions. From a balance-of-power perspective, NATO expansion should lead to the formation of balancing coalitions—Russia and China, for example—even if Russia were to become a democratic state. Therefore, if U.S. and Russian leaders hold different assumptions about international relations, their policy decisions concerning NATO may come into conflict.

Rather than thinking about building a mosaic, consider comparing the different pictures produced by the lenses. Through this process of comparison, we can determine whether the picture produced through one lens is more compelling than that produced through another. On its own, a First-Lens focus on Slobodan Milosevic may produce an interesting explanation of Serbia's actions versus NATO in 1999. But whether that explanation is the best cannot be determined unless alternative arguments are examined. The conclusions produced by the other lenses must be considered when assessing the strength of any given argument.

In summary, examining a case through all three lenses may enhance description but will not always lead to the best prescription. Instead, picking up each lens in turn and comparing the findings that result will produce the best answers.

A word of caution, however: Beginning with one particular lens can distort the images that emerge through the other lenses. J. David Singer imparted some good advice on this score, when he wrote that "there is a natural tendency to endow that upon which we focus our attention with somewhat greater potential than it might normally be expected to have" ("The Level of Analysis Problem in International Relations," p. 80). Start with a balanced view, but recognize that in the end, one lens might actually prove more useful than another in producing a persuasive argument.

The Framework section is divided into three parts. Each part begins with a basic assumption—one of the three lenses—about international relations' important variables. You can click on the core variables related to each lens to read about how those variables affect a picture of the world.



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Credits Copyright 2001 W. W. Norton & Company Copyright 2001 W. W. Norton & Company