Get Real! Chicago IR guys out in force

Jan 3, 2012

In light of the recent exchange on the Duck about Matthew Kroenig’s work on Iran and policy-relevant research, I thought I’d flag a couple of articles from three University of Chicago alums from International Security (where Nuno Monteiro has a piece on unipolarity) and Perspectives on Politics (where Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler have an article [Ed: behind paywall] prescribing a realist foreign policy for the United States).

While I disagree with a number of their conclusions and theoretical observations, these are the kind of pieces that I think will generate a lot of healthy discussion in the discipline because they are accessible, address important topics in the real world, and yet are theory-driven inquiries. Kudos to them for that!

For our Duck readers, in summarizing their main arguments and conclusions, I wanted to throw out a couple of concerns that stuck out for me. As is my wont on this blog, this is going to take a couple of posts to get out.

Both of these pieces are structural if not in Monteiro’s case unabashedly realist inquiries into the nature of unipolarity and implicitly U.S. foreign policy.

Monteiro’s piece  “Unrest Assured: Why Unipolarity Is Not Peaceful” basically takes issue with Bill Wohlforth’s earlier work on unipolarity and tries to ask a slightly different question. Rather than assess whether unipolarity is stable, he tries to evaluate whether it is peaceful. And his answer is that unipolarity is not at all peaceful and much less peaceful than other periods and then seeks to explain why.

Is Unipolarity Peaceful?
As evidence, Monteiro provides metrics of the number of years during which great powers have been at war. For the unipolar era since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been at war 13 of those 22 years or 59% (see his Table 2 below).

Now, I’ve been following some of the discussion by and about Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein’s work that suggests the world is becoming more peaceful with interstate wars and intrastate wars becoming more rare.

I was struck by the graphic that Pinker used in a Wall Street Journal piece back in September that drew on the Uppsala Conflict Data, which shows a steep decline in the number of deaths per 100,000 people. 
How do we square this account by Monteiro of a unipolar world that is not peaceful (with the U.S. at war during this period in Iraq twice, Afghanistan, Kosovo) and Pinker’s account which suggests declining violence in the contemporary period?
Where Pinker is focused on systemic outcomes, Monteiro’s measure merely reflect years during which the great powers are at war. Under unipolarity, there is only one great power so the measure is partial and not systemic. However, Monteiro’s theory aims to be systemic rather than partial. In critiquing Wohlforth’s early work on unipolarity stability, Monteiro notes: 

Wohlforth’s argument does not exclude all kinds of war. Although power preponderance allows the unipole to manage conflicts globally, this argument is not meant to apply to relations between major and minor powers, or among the latter (17).

So presumably, a more adequate test of the peacefulness or not of unipolarity (at least for Monteiro) is not the number of years the great power has been at war but whether the system as a whole is becoming more peaceful under unipolarity compared to previous eras, including wars between major and minor powers or wars between minor powers and whether the wars that do happen are as violent as the ones that came before.

Now, as Ross Douthat pointed out, Pinker’s argument isn’t based on a logic of benign hegemony. It could be that even if the present era is more peaceful, unipolarity has nothing to do with it. Moreover, Pinker may be wrong. Maybe the world isn’t all that peaceful. I keep thinking about the places I don’t want to go to anymore because they are violent (Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Nigeria, Pakistan, etc.)

As Tyler Cowen noted, the measure Pinker uses to suggest violence is a per capita one, which doesn’t get at the absolute level of violence perpetrated in an era of a greater world population. But, if my read of other reports based on Uppsala data is right, war is becoming more rare and less deadly (though later data suggests lower level armed conflict may be increasing again since the mid-2000s).

The apparent violence of the contemporary era may be something of a presentist bias and reflect our own lived experience and the ubiquity of news media. Even if the U.S. has been at war for the better part of unipolarity, the deadliness is declining, even compared with Vietnam, let alone World War II.

Does Unipolarity Drive Conflict?
So, I kind of took issue with the Monteiro’s premise that unipolarity is not peaceful. What about his argument that unipolarity drives conflict? Monteiro suggests that the unipole has three available strategies – defensive dominance, offensive dominance and disengagement – though is less likely to use the third. Like Rosato and Schuessler, Monteiro suggests because other states cannot trust the intentions of other states, namely the unipole, that minor states won’t merely bandwagon with the unipole. Some “recalcitrant” minor powers will attempt to see what they can get away with and try to build up their capabilities. As an aside, in Rosato and Schuessler world, unless these are located in strategically important areas (i.e. places where there is oil), then the unipole (the United States) should disengage.

In Monteiro’s world, disengagement would inexorably lead to instability and draw in the U.S. again (though I’m not sure this necessarily follows), but neither defensive or offensive dominance offer much possibility for peace either since it is U.S. power in and of itself that makes other states insecure, even though they can’t balance against it.

US troops in Afghanistan

A brief version of Monteiro’s argument was posted on Steve Walt’s blog, and I was surprised the piece did not do more to reference balance of threat theory. In Walt’s view, the United States is violence prone because we can be; there is no countervailing power to dissuade us from using our power. Like John Ikenberry, Walt has counseled that we restrain ourselves and moderate our behavior, lest we encourage the kind of balancing behavior that revisionist powers have traditionally inspired. But, Walt’s argument isn’t based on power alone, a host of largely domestic factors have made the U.S. more willing to use force in the unipolar era.

However, in Monteiro’s view, the U.S. power position alone, even where the U.S. seeks to defend the status quo, is enough to generate conflict with “recalcitrant” minor powers. Here, “recalcitrance” seems to be cover for some domestic-level variables, either quixotic or idiosyncratic leadership characteristics by the likes of Saddam and Milosevic or attributes of authoritarian regimes. I’m not sure that U.S. power is doing the work for Monteiro.

Rather, I suspect that aspects of U.S. domestic politics (a la Walt) intersecting with domestic attributes of “recalcitrant” regimes are doing much of the heavy lifting. If we were or become different (practice restraint, focus on the home economic front for a bit) and if the regimes we face become less recalcitrant (post Arab-spring if we’re lucky, post-Kim Jong Il if we’re really lucky and something different in Iran if we’re really, really lucky), then unipolarity is not structurally determined to be violent.

In any case, I enjoyed this piece and understand how difficult it is to draw theoretically and empirically informed conclusions from a single episode in world history. In my next post, I’ll address Rosato and Schuessler’s equally provocative piece that suggests acting more realist might have prevented World War II!

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.