The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Realism, anarchy, and domestic politics: an impolitic response to Peter H.

May 13, 2009


What it is not, however, is a Realist argument. To continue my picking on Walt, if you’re going to run around calling yourself a realist and writing a realist blog, for cryin’ out loud, advance a realist argument from time to time!!!

Lets review: Realism assumes an anarchic world of rational state actors maximizing security, defined as sufficient military force to defend the integrity of a the state. In that anarchic environment, systemic pressures are the primary factor states rationally consider in security decisions.

In other words, all states act the same, the only thing that differentiates them is their relative position in world politics, ie their relative power.

I hoped that Stacie Goddard’s and my “Paradigm Lost? Reassessing Theory of International Politics would put this kind of talk firmly to rest.

Our exegesis of Theory of International Politics explains in excruciating detail why Peter’s reading of neorealism–let alone earlier forms of realism–doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In brief, the structural incentives created by anarchy only “shape and shove” state behavior; they are but one input into the processes that produce foreign policy. Walt’s own “balance of threat” theory is consistent with this variant of realism (see both The Origins of Alliances and
Revolution and War.

Indeed, Theory of International Politics spawned a significant body of realist literature doing exactly what structural realism implies (and Peter sees as un-realist): explaining variation in responses to anarchical environments by looking to domestic politics, decision-making processes, and so forth. In other words, many so-called “neo-classical realist” theories are entirely consistent with structural realism.

I apologize for what I’m about to do, but I get tired writing this sort of stuff over and over again. So I’m going to quote from my most recent article (paywalled PDF) making these claims:

We can conceptualize balance of power theories as falling along a continuum. The strongest forms of balance of power theory hold that balance of power mechanisms preclude the formation of international hierarchies. By contrast, the weakest balance of power theory holds that balance of power mechanisms need not concatenate to produce systemic power balances; nevertheless, such mechanisms remain significant factors in determining international political outcomes. Most contemporary articulations of balance of power theory fall somewhere in between, although they tend to cluster on the left-hand side of the continuum; in other words, they view systemic balances of power as likely or predominate outcomes in international politics.

Waltz’s variant of balance of power theory occupies a somewhat ambiguous position on this continuum. Waltz sometimes describes his argument in ways that locate it as a rather strong variant of balance of power theory. Consider Waltz’s claim that the present unipolar system is unlikely to last and that we are seeing the early phases of an “all-but-inevitable movement from unipolarity to multipolarity.” at the same time, Waltz insists that international structures and their associated mechanisms merely “shape and shove” units in the direction of balance of power dynamics. International structural mechanisms provide only a partial explanation for the specific foreign policies pursued by states; they account for why, “through all the changes of boundaries, of social, economic, and political form, of economic and military activity, the substance and style of international politics remain strikingly constant.”

Waltz, therefore, presents a moderately strong balance of power theory, one that allows actors to choose to ignore structural imperatives but that nonetheless expects a tendency toward systemic balances of power. Thus, attempts to discredit the theory on the grounds that many realists invoke unit-level factors—such as domestic political structures, economic arrangements, and governing ideologies—to explain specific outcomes rest on a misreading of Waltz. Structural realism is, at least in broad strokes, consistent with the neoclassical realist “middle ground between pure structural theorists” and those that deny the importance of international structures in influencing outcomes.

Defining balance of power theory in this way raises some interesting issues. First, even though waltz presents a relatively strong version of balance of power theory, he allows for the possibility that other factors will overcome balance of power mechanisms. Second, just as those influenced by structural realism sometimes uphold the general parameters of the theory while jettisoning Waltz’s specific claims about bipolar stability, we can, in principle, recast it as a weaker form of balance of power theory than the one Waltz presents. Third, if we slide structural realism far enough toward the weak side of the continuum, its claims become indistinguishable from those of most variants of contemporary realism.

There are some interesting things going on with Walt’s recent emphasis on these factors. First, as I noted above, one can read what he’s arguing as a reasonable extension of his own balance-of-threat theory, insofar as he’s describing a set of processes that (arguably) produced–and continue to produce–threat inflation. This looks like a pretty straightforward set of claims concerning why the US (arguably) tends towards power-maximizing rather than security-seeking policies.

Second, I take Peter’s criticisms to note the risk of real slippage here for realists such as Walt. The more that realists look to processes of social construction and interest-group politics (these are not necessarily exclusive) to explain variation in how threatening states find the international environment, the more they inch towards a line across which “anarchy” ceases to do any significant explanatory work. This is, in fact, why most Constructivists find balance-of-threat theory so convivial for advancing their agenda.

Third, despite the unequivical truth of everything I’ve written above, realists do have a tendency to slip into naïve versions of their own arguments. In particular, as Jacob Levy noted in his critique of the “Israel Lobby” paper, Walt (and Mearsheimer) have shown a tendency to conflate prescriptive and evaluative implications of realist theory with predictive claims. In other words, they see the United States engaging in policies that they consider incompatible with its own national interests, and find this difficult to understand.

[Mearsheimer and Walt] are committed to the neorealist view that powerful states act in their security interest. They’re also, independently, committed to opposition to the Iraq War and to what they see as U.S. overreach in the Middle East; they think that the U.S. does not effectively pursue its security interests in the region. So there’s a puzzle, an anomaly– of their own making. If you are both committed to a predictive theory and committed to an interpretation of a particular case by which it falsifies your theory, then there’s a puzzle for your views, but not yet a puzzle about the world.

What’s odd here is why realists would react to putatively self-defeating state policies as if they comprised some kind of anomaly. After all, almost all of their “timeless lessons” about international politics involve states screwing things up: provoking counter-balancing coalitions, trying to make collective security work, getting involved in irrelevant peripheral conflicts, and so forth. Moreover, their underlying theoretical architectures are, as we’ve already seen, compatible with a broad range of state behavior.

But for some reason, many realist scholars default back to the very caricatures of their theories that their critics peddle, whether in academic or policy settings. I can only speculate as to why this is the case, but I suspect it has something to do with the disjuncture between, on the one hand, realist aspirations to produce “scientific” and “predictive” theories and, on the other hand, the actual character of realism.

I’m not entirely sure what the epistemic status of contemporary realism is, but I see three alternatives:

• Realism amounts to a general argument about the parameters in which international politics take place. Call this “weak neorealism.”

• Realism is really a normative argument about the priority of “reason of state” in guiding foreign policy decisions. Following Meinecke, let’s call this “Machiavellianism.”

• Realism constitutes a heuristic for uncovering the power-political dimensions of foreign policy and international relations. Because “Critical Realism” is taken, the best I can come up with is “Critical Realpolitik.”

None of these, however, satisfy mainstream political-science criteria for social-scientific inquiry.

See, also, Stefano Guzzini’s Realism in International Relations and International Political Economy: The Continuing Story of a Death Foretold)

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.