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Any causal model involves an input and an output, an independent variable and a dependent
variable, a thing that does the explaining and what is to be explained. For the realist, as well as
neoliberal (liberal institutionalist), the independent variables are political power, anarchy, and selfinterest. For the English School and constructivists there are an additional three: common interests,
rules (norms or principles), and institutions. The dependent variables range from the international
system or international order, international relations, to distribution of capabilities or values, and
balancing or bandwagoning. The intervening variables include the actors, such as states or regimes,
human nature, the market, social epistemes and conventions such as sovereignty, and regular patterns
of behavior that leads to shared expectations or coordination of behavior to achieve desired
The question is how frequently, how fundamentally, and where the independent variables
need to be taken into account. How often can Waltz’s variables explain international relations? He
never says that common interests, rules, and institutions don’t exist, just that they make the picture
too complicated to analyze and understand and are not strong enough explanatory forces for what is
going on in the world. I will argue against this position. Realism is effective and simple, perhaps
exceedingly simple, and the independent variables of common interests, rules, and institutions do not
make it too complicated of a theory to account for change. Rather, they are quite relevant in
explaining today’s world of primarily non-security interests in the traditional sense. In the end, then,
realism is limited in its explanation. Actors are not merely rational egoists and balancing is no longer
the preferred behavior, rather bandwagoning is more prevalent. States have acted more so out of
concern for rules and institutions; they have acted out of a commitment for certain norms such as
territorial integrity, sovereignty, anti-aggressive wars, property rights.
Realists represent the purely structural argument, neoliberals the functionalist argument, the
English School the institutional causal explanation, and the constructivists the social causal
explanation. The last two models present the best causal argument because of the depth given to
explaining the complex world of today. Common interests, rules, and institutions are part of the
efficient causation of international order and they are among the necessary and sufficient conditions
of what is occurring. Common interests, rules, and institutions do not fulfill functions in the
international order; rather, there exists an international society that has certain needs and these
elements are necessary for those needs.
Summary and Overview:
Realism argues that the international system, if it is a “system” at all, is composed of
sovereign nation-states which are the primary units in both the political and legal sense. Nation-states
are the most important actors in world politics because they have sovereignty and also have power in
conducting their relations with other nation-states. Leadership and decision-making are centralized in
the nation-state. Sovereign nation-states possess interests and are the only form of organization
entitled to interests. Nation-states operate on a rational basis, rational in the sense of egoistic and
selfish motives, much the same way human beings interact. International anarchy, the fear of it, and
the need for survival as independent actors supports and shapes these motives and actions by nationstates. As the international environment is anarchic, nation-states will pursue their own interests.
These interests are defined and realized in the pursuit of power and security by nation-states and not
by cooperation of international institutions and organizations. Interests become matters of
international concern when competing nation-state actors press these interests. For instance, when
issues involving scarce resources are present in the relations between sovereign states, then power
must be used to resolve the difference. States are therefore predisposed to competition in the mildest
sense and conflict in the most extreme sense. The exercise of power is the political means of conflict
resolution in international relations. The most prominent political instrument of power is military
force, which is one option for resolving differences between states. Therefore, international
organizations and institutions affect the possibility of cooperation slightly or indistinctly.
The first proposition that Hobbes begins with is the fundamental equality of all men in terms
of the equality of hope, of the prospect for acquisition of things. However, there is only a limited
quantity of acquiring things; there is a zero-sum game because of the problem of scarcity. This is
Hobbes’ second proposition. How do we grapple with this problem? Hobbes proposes that it is
solved by either competition, cooperation (but this is problematic since there is no force that exists to
ensure the viability of this action, anarchy prevents this), and protection of what one already
possesses. Hobbes identifies three different passions: competition, which leads to invasion for gain,
diffidence, which leads to invasion for safety, and glory, which leads to invasion for reputation. From
this structure we get the model of human nature—competitive, fearful, and vain.
Realism emphasizes the constraints of politics that are imposed by the fixed human nature of
egoism. Realism also emphasizes anarchy at the international level. There is an absence of
international government. The third emphasis of realism, a deduction of the first two, is that selfish
actors, whether individuals or states, interacting in anarchy produce a politics of power and security
because of the constraints of human egoism and the absence of international government. Classical
realism gives equal emphasis to egoism and anarchy. Anarchy alone does not explain power politics.
It is the fact that egoists in anarchy produce a politics of power and security. Structural realism
emphasizes the structure of anarchy. The emphasis is on the way in which international anarchy
shapes and interacts with human nature.
The system of international politics is composed of political structure, which is defined by
the arrangement of parts, not the characteristics of behavior of units. The arrangement of units is the
property of the system. A structure is a constraining condition which cannot be seen or examined, but
tends to produce a uniformity of outcomes despite a variety of inputs. It is not a concrete agent, but a
“selector” that “limits and molds and agents and point them toward a common outcome even though
the efforts and aims [of agents] vary” (Waltz 74). Therefore, structures affect behavior within the
system indirectly, namely through socialization or interaction with the structure, which influences
behavior and through competition between actors in which unsuccessful behaviors get screened out
of the system – behaviors are either rewarded or punished. A structure is free of the attributes and
interactions of units. Structure means ignoring how units relate to one another in the sense of
interaction, and concentrating on how they stand in relation to one another, i.e. how they are arranged
or positioned. Therefore, structure accounts for only one type of change, namely changes of
arrangement. Change is not well dealt with in structural theory, but Waltz states: “A structural
change is a revolution, whether or not violently produced, and it is so because it gives rise to new
expectations about the outcomes that will be produced by the acts and interactions of units whose
placement in the system varies with changes in structure” (Waltz 70).
Political structures are defined by ordering principles of the international system. For Waltz,
anarchy, or the absence of central authority, is the primary ordering principle of the international
system. In international politics states are arranged formally equal, decentralized and anarchic and
are therefore primarily concerned with survival. Just as in Hobbes’ state of nature individuals may
use force at any time so states may at any time use force and must be prepared to do so since a state
of nature, a state of war, exists. The characterlessness of units also defines political structures, i.e.
states are functionally undifferentiated. Functional differentiation is the idea that there are different
political actors in a hierarchical society in a given state, but for Waltz states are functionally
undifferentiated, meaning there is complete lack of such a quality at the level of systems – at the
international level. States stand fundamentally equal to one another at the systemic level. Each state
has sovereignty over their capabilities and territorial boundaries, their power and security. In this
respect all states are more or less alike. There is little in the way of the division of labor, or
interdependence, in international politics among states, especially among great powers when it comes
to these two issues. Although states are not the only actors, they are the major ones and they are very
similar in ends (e.g. laws, defense, taxes). Lastly, they are defined by the distribution of capabilities,
of the number of great states that possess power, which is always a relative distribution and is a
system-wide concept. The distribution of capabilities or power is a question of polarity, of how many
great powers exist. States balance against one another from fear of a rising power that could
challenge, counter, or conquer them, especially in this anarchic and unreliable world. As a result,
bipolar systems are more stable than multipolar ones because there is only one state to be concerned
with. If there were more than two powers, shifts in alignment would be more frequent because there
would be several means of adjustment and flexibility to the system. In a multipolar world there are
greater uncertainties about where the threat comes from, where opposition will come from, and who
will gain or lose from the actions of other states. Since there are several powers it is difficult to draw
clear and fixed lines between allies and adversaries. One can imagine the world of Orwell’s 1984. In
a bipolar world, balancing does not lie in adding allies but in strategy since one state does not need to
worry about the preferences of others. Dangers are not diffused and responsibilities are clear. A
drawback is that vital interests are not as easily observed.
The system is defined by states who are unitary rational actors who behave in a self-help
manner. States are primarily concerned with power and security and therefore seek to maximize their
relative gains of these by means of balancing. The structure of international politics limits
cooperation because of inequality among states renders relative instead of absolute gains important.
Since states are uncertain about the future intentions of others, they will avoid situations in which
cooperation benefits others relatively more. Cooperation is also limited by dependence.
Interdependence is conducive to war, not peace since any kind of reliance on another state implies a
need that is fulfilled by another. This can only arouse a state to adopt an objective that is competitive,
diffident, or vain. The structure of the international system therefore punishes states that do not
behave in this manner and rewards those who do. For Waltz, the problem is that “even if every state
were stable, the world of states might not be. If each state, being stable, strove only for security and
had no designs on its neighbors, all states would nevertheless remain insecure; for the means of
security for one state are, in their very existence, the means by which other states are threatened”
(Waltz 64).
However, since the threat of force always looms in the background states limit their
manipulations of one another, moderate their demands, and seek to settle disputes before escalation.
Prudence functions as the primary virtue in international politics, as a self-help mechanism, to ensure
self-preservation at minimum and expansion or universal domination at maximum. Security and
survival are the highest ends in which power is the means to those ends. “Considerations of security
subordinate economic gains to political interest” (Waltz 107). Therefore, “the first concern of states
is not to maximize power but to maintain their positions in the system” (Waltz 126). States therefore
prefer to join the weaker of two coalitions so that combining with the strong states does not absorb
I will address some problems in Waltz’s argument. Realism does not take seriously the
possibility that states may choose absolute over relative gains, particularly in situations where
institutions can alter payoffs (the neoliberal argument). Realism fails to recognize the manner in
which agents and structures interact and are mutually created (the constructivist argument). The
“self-help” principle is the assumption behind anarchy, as Waltz states: “I assume that states seek to
ensure their survival” (Waltz 91). Survival is the prerequisite to any other end for a state, especially
in a world where security is not assured. What is implicit is this statement is that security and power
can only operate on a unit level, not a system level. Anarchy entails relations, on matters of security
and power, of only coordination and entirely excludes any kind of cooperation on these two points.
Waltz does not get beyond the statement that states are “autonomous political units” that remain alike
in their tasks (Waltz 95). Although he recognizes the existence of non-state actors, he dismisses their
importance because states remain the most powerful actors on the world, that is, states have the most
influence and only they set the rules. However, institutions and rules also define the international
system. States might shape rules and institutions, but rules and institutions also shape states. Waltz
implicitly assumes that economic capability, resource endowment, military strength, and political
norm stability cannot be divided separately and weighed. Another implicit assumption is that safety
depends upon the maintenance of balance, rather than upon interdependence.
Criticisms in the literature:
Neoliberalism argues that even though states are the most important actors in the
international system, there are other important actors who play a major role in world politics such as
non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations, transnational and transgovernmental
coalitions, labor unions, political parties, trade associations, international agencies and institutions.
Leadership and decision-making has been moving toward decentralization, though they are not
fragmented as traditional liberalists would argue; they are still concerned with security. They agree
with the realists that nation-states do operate on a rational basis; however, nation-states should and in
fact have moved towards operating on a more cooperative basis for each other’s benefit and
realization of common interests such as the need to secure greater comfort and well-being for their
own populations. Technology, knowledge, interdependence, the need for military stability, trade and
financial liberalization, the concern for human rights, the spread of democracy and capitalism – all
undermine the force of international anarchy, as traditional liberalists would argue. But above all the
very prospect of international anarchy is its own undermining force as there is an overwhelming fear
of instability and the recognition that order is in everyone’s best interest as everyone has something
to loose from worldwide conflict. Along with the interest in stability, states are increasingly
becoming more preoccupied with economic and social growth as multiple international institutions
proliferate with specialized roles towards similar ends without threatening state sovereignty.
Common interests become matters of international concern as a matter of political stability in order
to foster conditions of economic and social prosperity. Issues involving common interest, such as the
scarcity of resources, necessitate international cooperation. International disagreements and
arguments are then situations that can be met by mutual reciprocity and cooperation. International
organizations and institutions supply this need to resolve conflicts and promise a more positive result
in world affairs by being involved in the negotiation and cooperation process.
The English School argues that there exists in international relations a society of states. Much
like the realists and neoliberals, they also assume anarchy as the primary explanatory power of state
interaction, but instead argue that this condition creates an international society, which can be
identified in ideas such as sovereignty, diplomacy, and international law, but above all in the mutual
recognition of sovereignty by states. This is not to say that realists and neoliberals exclude these
factors in their theories, but they do not incorporate them in an ideational or qualitative manner, i.e.
as social forces. Rather, they only work solely as tools of material power in their respective theories,
exclusively as empirically and quantitatively, i.e. as rational forces only. The English School is
concerned with the social order, observing that states function as social actors with a patterned
interaction that leads to a specific result. States may arise from mechanical processes, but they can
also arise from rules and institutions. In contrast to the realist and neoliberal approach, the English
School sees social mechanisms, namely societies, at work that effectively regulate the use of force
and material power. These societies provide mechanisms that guarantee contracts and agreements,
which in turn provide a stable expectation of the future, since these agreements primarily rely upon
rules and adherence to them. States do not act in a void, in a mechanical fashion of action-reaction, of
concentrations of capabilities; instead, states act in an environment. In addition to the variables
already found in realism and neoliberalism (power, anarchy, self-interest), this theory adds rules (that
prescribe behaviors that sustain interests), institutions (which give effect to rules), and common
interests (which can find their source in shared identities and proposes that our well-being is a shared
concept). As such, international societies are sustained by the belief that there is an international
community (a society of states) in which all actors share. International society does not depend on
government. Anarchy and society are compatible. In terms of a spectrum, the English School seeks a
middle way between power politics and utopianism.
If Hobbes is the main inspiration for realists and neoliberals, and Locke and Grotius are the
comparative figures in the semi-rational English School, then Rousseau and Kant typify the
constructivists. Like the English School constructivists stand for the conviction that ideas, rather than
material capabilities, shape the conduct of international politics. Constructivists focus on the
normative or ideational structure of the world. That is not to say that material structures are
unimportant, but that even a core concept such as the power politics of realism is socially
constructed, i.e. capable of being transformed by human practice. Ideas about identities, interests,
culture, material resources of states (mainly military power, the capitalist world economy), structures
of amity and enmity, are all social constructs of actors that are deeply social. These factors in social
reality need to be explained rather than to be seen as mechanical calculations. People are shaped by
their participaion in society and it is the goal of this theory to understand how their interests are
adopted and developed. It shares with the English School the importance of rules and institutions, but
explains them in terms of ideas, consciousness, identities, that shape human nature, human behavior,
as well as society and states. This is not to say that constructivists do not share certain key
assumptions of the other schools. Constructivists also share the realist assumption of states as actors
in international politics, albeit in a more sophisticated perspective, and the existence of anarchy and
the centrality of states in the international system; however, they render anarchy in cultural rather
than materialist terms.
Axelrod & Keohane rebut the realist perspective on relative gains by arguing that the
probablity for cooperation can be increased if the gains from cooperation can be increased and the
gains from defection can be decreased. Cooperation does not mean harmony, since harmony is a
complete identity of interests between actors. Rather, cooperation is an adjustment of behavior to the
perceived preferences of others. Where there is greater conflict of interest, there is greater likelihood
that actors will choose to defect. The task is to affect this behavior that would be conducive to
cooperation. One can attempt to change the preferences or interests of another if the place of
intervention is identified, the forces that are shaping the situation are identified, and modifying
actors’ perceptions and beliefs of others, in order to make it possible to change the situation. It
becomes possible to change the situation by minimizing the maximum possible loss, by lowering the
risks of cooperating or increasing the incentives for gain and by increasing the risks of defecting or
decreasing the costs for loss. States will always pursue their own interests first, but the structure of
interactions that produce for competition for gain, fear of being exploited or manipulated and of high
costs and defection, as well as excessive self-aggrandizement, can be managed and changed by
realizing mutual preferences or interests and altering the payoff structure: the greater the convergence
between actors’ preferences over outcomes, the greater the probability of successful cooperation.
Cooperation becomes more likely when there are long time horizons (knowing you will be involved
in the game repeatedly), regularity of stakes (regularity in rewards and punishments), and quickness
and reliability of information about the others’ actions. The more future payoffs are valued relative to
current payoffs, the less the incentive to defect and the greater the incentive to cooperate.
They offer a game-theoretic framework: (1) rewards for cooperation outweigh noncooperation (Stag Hunt), (2) encourage cooperation because of disastrous consequences (Chicken),
or (3) encourage cooperation because of great rewards (Prisoner’s Dilemma). One can introduce
enforcement mechanisms to ensure cooperation as well. Effective sanctioning can strengthen
cooperation – when actors can identify defectors with good information in a timely fashion, focus
retaliation on the defectors, and have sufficient long run interests to punish the defectors. The most
effective way to ensure sanctioning is establishing regimes that monitor and set standards for all
involved, in effect creating a hierarchy of responsibility for enforcing sanctions. Issue linkage also
facilitates cooperation in which each party may be willing to grant concessions on a lesser issue in
exchange for something deemed more important. There is a non-zero sum game here, i.e. seeking
absolute gains. Therefore, although anarchy means that no common sovereign government exists, it
does not preclude a world that is devoid of organizational forms, i.e. international regimes. New
norms gain acceptance by the work of these regimes, which change the context and structure of the
interaction by: (1) providing incentives to award cooperation and punishing defection, (2) monitoring
behavior to identify defection, (3) focusing rewards and punishment accordingly, and (4) linking
issues in productive rather than self-defeating games.
Bull rebuts the realist perspective that the structure of anarchy creates states by arguing that
the international system of anarchy also creates social order, an international society of states with
rules, institutions, and common interests. Rules prescribe or give guidance of behaviors and
imperative principles that sustain interests. Institutions give substance, permanence, and effect to
rules. Finally, common interests remind us that our well-being is not just the matter of individual
interests we happen to have but is a shared concept or realization of common interests. Without
common interests no society can last very long. Common interests are fundamental to society. Bull
makes a distinction between a system of states and a society of states. While the former means that
there are states that have contact and interact with each other in which each has sufficient impact on
one another’s decisions to cause them to behave as parts of a whole (resembling each other in
manners, religion, social improvement, reciprocity of interests, involving common interests and
values as resting upon a common culture or civilization), the latter refers to an international society
while presupposing an international system in which states are conscious of common interests and
values bound by a shared set of rules and institutions that govern their relations with one another.
Whereas the neoliberals assumed that there was only self-interest and no morals, and therefore no
true authoritative force, with Bull there is the prospect for agreements to have permanence since
there is actual substance, i.e. common interests and values as embodied in substantive rules and
institutions. Whereas Waltz discreetly notices such principles as equality among states in terms of
sovereignty in which each has similar rights and duties, Bull does not take such a principle as
ordinary in international society. In fact, principles presuppose the international system. Bull is much
more aware of and gives more importance to how order is maintained, i.e. as an actual or possible
situation for a state of affairs.
Order is a quality that one might or might not obtain in international politics. Order itself is
not a value or a goal in itself; it is not assumed to be desirable or overriding; it lacks a normative
dimension. In fact, Bull is as much preoccupied with justice as with order and neither takes
precedence, as his argument in chapter four illustrates. As mentioned above, anarchy and society are
compatible. Although the modern system of states is anarchical and there is no functional
differentiation, states do form a society with common rules and institutions. The danger of war is still
immanent, but the rules and institutions agreed upon are implicit, thus a kind of unofficial order yet
one that contains some discernible principles. Whereas realism argues that there is an arrangement of
states in international politics, Bull proposes there is an arrangement of social life in international
politics that promotes order.
There are three fundamental and unifying goals that all societies seek to ensure: (1)
preservation of the system and society of states that will be secure against violence resulting in death,
(2) promises or agreements that will be carried out to provide for a stable expectation of the future,
i.e. maintaining the independence or sovereignty of individual states, and (3) that the possession of
things will remain reasonably stable and will not be subject to constant conflict, i.e. absence of war.
Life, truth, and property. These goals are elementary in that they are essential to the existence of
society, primary in that they are necessary for the realization of other goals, and universal in that they
are all observed by any society. But these goals are not paramount or mandatory. In addition, these
goals are independent of rules and they are valuable because they give predictability to one’s
existence and to behavior in others. An international order is then a pattern of activity that sustains
these goals of the society of states, i.e. international society.
What sustains this international order? For Bull it can rest upon one or another state at any
time that exerts hegemony, i.e. permanence for practical purposes. It can also rest on a suzerain state
system, i.e. where hegemony passes from one power to another and is constantly challenged. The
difference is that in the former structure, sovereignty is possessed by all states whereas in the latter
sovereignty is only possessed by one state at a time. Ultimately, international societies are sustained
by the belief that there is an international community. This is not to say that the emphasis is on
international law or international organization, but on order alone, i.e., it exists independently of
both. Bull eventually finds it possible for there to exist a world order. In this order, the pattern of
activity that sustains life, truth, and property become the primary goals of social life among mankind
as a whole. Not just states, but every individual lives in the sight of this social order. Regardless,
rules and institutions maintain order.
Wendt and Reus-Smit rebut the realist perspective that the structure of anarchy creates states
by arguing that agents and structures interact and are mutually shaped via forces other than material
power, anarchy, and self-interest, namely ideas, identities, and consciousness in addition to
institutions. The political culture of a system is the most important thing we need to know to
understand how the international system works. They propose there is an arrangement of social life
in international politics that promotes certain goals, values, and ideas. “Constructivism is
characterized by an emphasis on the importance of normative as well as material structures, on the
role of identity in shaping political action, and on the mutually constitutive relationship between
agents and structures” (Reus-Smit 209). That is, “material resources only acquire meaning for human
action through the structure of shared knowledge in which they are embedded”, “identities inform
interests and in turn actions”, and “institutionalized norms and ideas define the meaning and identity
of the individual actor and the patterns of appropriate economic, political, and cultural activity
engaged in by those individuals” (Reus-Smit 217-218). The pattern is no longer objective, but is for
the first time intersubjective. Actors are deeply social, interests are a consequence of identity, and
society generates actors that are informed social and political agents (Reus-Smit 219). These forces
help shape human nature, human behavior, and society at large. These forces allow people to
communicate and function as a social society in which a common idea, which several people agree
upon, holds a certain paradigm with a purpose in society, allowing people to form a social bond
beyond their personal beliefs and significance. These identities or ideas have explanatory power
beyond the material. Political power is not merely a matter of material power, but also a matter of
ideas. Anarchy no longer has an explanatory power. Instead, anarchy only exists as a methodological
tool since no real examples of anarchy in the extreme case exists.
Constructivism makes the argument that structures and rules such as balancing of power and
sovereignty are given, latent, undemanding of attention, and unconscious to others in international
politics. To account for agency and change it is necessary to adopt the ideas of ideational causation
and collective intentionality. These ideas express a mutual bond that brings people together to create
a particular occurrence, especially by means of epistemic communities or carriers of knowledge from
one group to another. The primary argument made against Waltz is that anarchy is not a precondition
or a pre-determined fact of human nature and life. Rather, there is variation in anarchy. Anarchy is
what states make of it, depending on how a state approaches the other. Anarchy is compatible with
more than one structure or logic. Anarchy can have at least three kinds of structure or logic,
depending on the types of roles that dominate the system (enemy, rival, or friend).
Up to a point Wendt agrees with Waltz: the structure of the international system constructs
states. However, it is incorrect to assume that only the behavior of states is affected by the structure
of the international system. The structure of the international system also affects or constructs the
identities and interests of states, societies, and individuals by the distribution of ideas. Distribution of
capabilities is not the sole source of exercising power. The question of polarity and the mechanical
process that is used to explain it is not the only question. In addition, there is the question of the type
of social order prevalent, explained by social mechanisms. It is not simply that states are not the only
social actors (for Waltz they are not social actors, they are concentrations of capabilities), but states
or any social actor do not act in a void. There is a substantial ordering found in the world: social and
constituent rules (i.e. sovereignty), institutions, and ideas, which have explanatory power beyond the
material. There is a real social dimension to the system. The international system constructs their
identities and interests by making them observe one of three cultural norms: (1) coercion, (2) selfinterest, or (3) legitimacy of norms, where the culture of anarchy constitutes the actor. The nature of
the anarchic system will depend on which culture dominates; that is, states will be pressured into
taking on the role demanded by the nature of the system. An anarchic system acquires an explanation
if the appropriate structure exists for it. The concept of a singular structure of international anarchy is
therefore meaningless without the elements that make it up. Wendt’s argument is quite powerful
since there is an emphasis upon domestic politics within a structural approach to the international
system. By conceptualizing the structure in social rather than in material terms his argument becomes
Any causal mechanism in the social sciences must be a social mechanism. Since there are no
purely knowledge based concepts of mechanisms of necessity, that is, deterministic or law-like, strict
relationships in the social sciences, but only those operating on probability and functional
relationships, it is important to pay attention as closely as possible to the random element in these
social mechanisms—the human factor. Since there are an innumerable amount of concepts that
attempt to explain relationships between the independent and dependent variables, the key is to focus
on the most important ones that can provide a good explanation. Due to the complexity, reflexivity
(the natural, unavoidable interest to be involved in the outcome of an event and therefore effect it),
and uncertainty of experiences, there will always be a random component of collective action (the
human element of social interaction in the socio-political sphere) that will make it impossible to
predict a particular event exactly because the social world cannot be objectively determined. There
are no straightforward logical inferences because there are no straightforward patterns of empirical
evidence; there are only approximations, so it is important not to lose sight of social mechanisms.
Where and when does the realist model apply? How much of the world can be successfully
simplified by this model? What things in the world are successfully modeled in these terms? Where
in the world can realism be used effectively? It is powerful and logically coherent, but is it the right
logic for the right circumstance?
The Critique:
The explanation of political structures in international relations is not solely a function of the
ordering principle of anarchy, the characterlessness of units as defined by the absence of functional
differentiation at the system or world level, and the distribution of capabilities or material power.
There are other ordering principles, i.e. social rules, institutions, identities, and ideas; there is in fact
strong evidence that functional differentiation does exist, i.e. governance regimes on various issue
areas, the most prominent being trade regimes and the widespread social idea and practice of
“comparative advantage” which brings trade to the forefront that has not only an economic but also a
security dimension for states; and there is another type of distribution or structure to international
relations other than capabilities or material power, i.e. distribution of authority and a constitutional or
intersubjective structure. The social sphere, contra the strictly political statist sphere, thrives on such
structures. Reality is in part shaped or constructed by mutual constitutive practices, i.e. the social
reality or the social world is not independent of human subjectivity, it is intersubjective.
Waltz seeks to understand the causes of war. In Man, the State, and War, Waltz answers that
the major causes of war are found in the combination of three “images” of international relations: (1)
within man (i.e. the nature and behavior of man), (2) within the structure of the separate states (i.e.
the internal organization of states), and (3) within the state system (i.e. the anarchy of the
international system). While human nature undoubtedly plays a role in causing war, it cannot by
itself explain both war and peace. Balance-of-power concerns often dictate that states go to war.
Waltz uses the theories of balance of power and distribution of capabilities as tools to isolate
a part of reality in an intellectually coherent sense and they do represent reality well and have an
effective explanatory power for how order is maintained and how international relations are
conducted between states, but states are not the only social mechanisms or actors. The realist model
isolates one realm (the system of states) at the expense of all the others.
States do interact in the absence of international government. There is an atmosphere of
anarchy—one must be constantly preparing for attack, one must rely primarily on oneself. Waltz
makes a crucial assumption: in such a world material power and security are primary in an
environment where great powers are at least are equal. This necessitates that states be fundamentally
selfish. In fact, it is the job of national leaders to promote and pursue not the human good but the
national interests. Realism might be a more practical model for engaging in international relations
than the other theories, but that does not mean it is more reliable. There are several problems that the
model has:
(1) Realism focuses on power too narrowly, namely as material interests and coercive power. Power
can also reside in institutions and ideas, not as material power but as social and normative power. To
focus on structural power risks gross oversimplification; there is also institutional and ideational
power. Structures and agents interact and are mutually shaped. For the realist, interests are simply
fixed, but constructivism shows that interests are constructed/created.
(2) The inability to account for the possibility of absolute over relative gains. Survival, in terms of
territorial integrity, is not enough for existence at the minimum and neither is expansion, in terms of
conquest of others, enough at the maximum. There might also be the need to satisfy other needs, such
as economic security.
(3) Rules and institutions, non-governmental organizations and trans-advocacy networks, and
bandwagoning and interdependence can be just as powerful as the principle of anarchy, states, and
balancing, in defining the international system.
(4) Anarchy, conceived on matters of security and power, can entail relations of coordination or even
cooperation. Security and power can operate on an international or world level, not only on a unit
level. This can be argued from the perspective of EU security and power. There is no more balancing
in Europe at all. Economic capability and political norm stability are just as forceful in power politics
as military strength.
(5) Realism’s logic does not apply to all states. It only applies to states that are roughly equal in
power, which means that at the system level it only applies to great powers. Because of the relations
between great powers and small powers, the inequality of power creates a certain kind of hierarchy
which makes the likelihood of the resort to war in that relationship extremely low since anarchy no
longer prevails, but there is a relative order maintained. At the system level the logic applies to great
powers and at the regional level it applies to regional powers. For Waltz, anarchy and hierarchy, i.e.
inequality, are mutually exclusive. Inequality of power is a source of order. Inequality of power
replaces anarchy with hierarchy. However, in the real world, anarchy and inequality of power are
frequently found together.
(6) While for realists, security and power are objective facts, there is a significant element of how
security is constituted; security is subjective.
(7) For Waltz, authority quickly reduces itself to capabilities, to the number of great states that
possess power. However, this is not really evident in today’s world. It is utterly inexplicable in the
realist perspective that there are nearly 200 states in the world, many of which do not possess
material power.
(8) For realists, only the concern for material power drives and should drive foreign policy. What
does not further material power is bad foreign policy.
(9) Structure still remains crucial, but it does not adequately explain what is going on. Structure
points to indeterminate predictions, pressures, a framework, but one that still needs other things.
Understanding structures solely in terms of power holds very infrequently in international relations.
Powers are important in making rules, but they are not useful in explaining rules. Rules, institutions,
and ideas can be sources of power, not merely an expression of power. Power is central, but not
determining. Power cannot be a source of explanation of behavior of the social dimension.
(10) The problem with the realist-rationalist model is that it does not take into account morality or
ethics. People are fundamental calculating thinkers in this model and their moral positions are
irrelevant, whether moral or immoral. Moral intentions matter absolutely nothing. Whether an action
is intended from benevolent or malevolent intentions does not factor into the rational model of
realism. Knowledge or communication is absent from the realist model. Communication between
actors does not factor in to the realist model since it is a form of cooperation, which for realists is not
utilized because of the anarchic nature of human relations. There is only self-interest, a base form of
reasoning that takes into account only personal preferences, which seriously reduces the likelihood of
cooperation and peace in the world. Let us address the moral issue first.
Argument 1:
Under the realist model, although patterns are presented as objective, values are subjective—
we do not aim at something because it is good; we call it good because we move toward it. In the
realist model, everyone aims exclusively at his own good since what each individual is aiming at is
simply the pleasure he expects to feel when he moves toward it. Therefore, the happiness of a moral
being consists in the satisfaction of one appetite or desire after another; it is what Hobbes termed
felicity. In addition, freedom cannot be the source or the goal of the state. Since the state comes about
by virtue of the contract made in conditions where everyone is in fear and danger of a violent death
and desire security, it is not of their own free will that men submit part of their natural liberty, but
under pressure of necessity. Moreover, once instituted, the aim is to provide security for everyone,
not freedom, for security and freedom are in conflict. Indeed, for Hobbes, liberty implies conflict.
Liberty is incompatible with law; they are mutually exclusive. In principle, the state under realism
can never transgress against law, because all law originates with it. The state’s laws for maintaining
security and power are its actions and thoughts, conceived not merely as natural right or customary
law, but as divine right and divine law, as sovereignty. The state embodies a will without limitations,
an end in itself, initially universal and realizable yet consequently particular and inaccessible. Will
becomes embodied in an unpredictable, artificial, disembodied, and ethereal artificial construction,
and as such freedom assumes the same character. According to the state’s pleasure, law and justice,
rights and property, right and wrong, even the meaning of good and evil are at the impulse of its will
in return for security and protection. It operates on obedience, on subordination, on a surrendering of
freedom. But not only is there an unconditional submission of rights, as civil society derives its
existence from the state and is essentially state-created, but there is also an unconditional submission
of conscience, since every man identifies completely with the judgments and attitudes of the state.
The reason the realist is so obsessed with order via the state is because it attains a higher end; order
brings peace, stability, and security. Rational justification is one thing, and creating motives and
dispositions is another. In order to change a man’s action and his self-image, it is not enough to
change his reaction nor replace it with a new action, one must also change his motivation. Good
intentions are not enough. A construction of political morality cannot be merely a rational
construction. Reason, as personified in the state, conceived of as a rational calculation of needs, such
as peace and security, cannot operate in a normative realization of an ideal like freedom. Obligation
or obedience hardly can be considered a motivational force. Order operates on fear and awe, as these
are the necessary supplements to the strict logical demonstration that ultimately anarchy presents for
realists. These can hardly be moral motivations. Furthermore, education is not a solution in the realist
model. People and states have predetermined preferences that rest on self-interest alone, in which a
desirable outcome alone matters. Nations are constrained only by other nations and people are
constrained from social pressures, measures which are amoral and purely external. Relationships are
defined by only forceful language, not moral language.
Argument 2:
An important point that realists ignore is in regard to absolute gains: issue linkage can gain
additional bargaining leverage by making one’s own behavior on a given issue contingent on others’
actions toward other issues. In other words, the payoff structure can be altered to reduce conflicts of
interest and foster a greater likelihood of cooperation. Relative gains describes the actions of states in
the international community only in respect to power balances and without regard to other factors,
such as economics. The theory is related to zero-sum game, under which wealth cannot be expanded
and the only way a state can become wealthier is to take wealth from another state. Absolute gains
describes the actions of states in the international community in regard to the total effect of a decision
on a given state or organization, regardless of gains made by others. Absolute gains can include
power relations, but it emphasizes economic effects of an action. The theory is related to comparative
advantage, according to which free trade offers all countries chances to gain by specializing in what
they do best. Countries gravitate toward the industries in which they have the greatest advantage.
Relative gains are not necessarily the only concern for states and neither is national security the only
vital interest in preserving a state’s existence. Absolute gains and economic concerns are just as vital
to a state’s security. Contemporary international trade cases or economic security illustrate the point.
Even though the lack of an international sovereign makes it difficult for states to arrive at their goals
they perceive to be in their interest, cooperation in areas of security overlap with economics and
show that they are becoming indistinguishable, forcing states to become more cooperative with one
another and to focus on absolute gains. The globalization of the oil market suggests that the goal of
self-sufficiency in physical security, not to mention energy which aids in economic security, is
becoming obsolete. There does not seem to be a prospect for better management of the strategic
petroleum reserve, or knowing when to release a supply of oil in an emergency situation. Information
is vital in making such decisions effectively. This information must be in anticipation of both low
and high oil production levels around the world, as well as embedded in reliable sources that provide
such information. It seems highly unlikely that the U.S. can achieve these goals to predict price
shocks and price drops. Second, research and development into alternative sources of energy is
driven largely by private sector businesses. This route appears to have nominal support by the U.S.
government and has been historically unsuccessful or absent. Then there is the option of sustaining
military and political alliances in the Persian Gulf. This policy is sustained at extreme risk and
reluctant cooperation that could result in resistance by governments in the Middle East if events took
a bad turn. Although the U.S. is on favorable terms with many of the oil producing nations in the
region, it also maintains a close relationship with Israel, which is seen by many people as an enemy.
With the military presence in Iraq, there exists a high potential for conflict with the Arab world if the
U.S.’s presence will come to be indefinite. Therefore, the military aspect of this policy is
unsustainable in the long-term. In addition, the political ties are being threatened by terrorism and
Islamic extremism, which calls upon the Arab world to force the U.S. out of the region. Many are
coming to see the U.S. as an exploiter of Arab oil. Therefore, the only alternative left at the moment
seems to be security of supplies that can be enhanced by an overall diversification of supply. To put
this point differently, the development of several producing regions leads to more stability in
international oil markets. Energy security is an international or foreign issue that necessarily entails
growing interdependence between major producers and consumers. No country or region alone can
achieve a state of physical security without energy security. In order to secure energy security,
perhaps the most fundamental goal right now for a state’s security, relationships of cooperation must
be fostered and the only means of achieving this end is by focusing on absolute gains and issue
linkage. Relative gains matter little in today’s globalizing economy, and if a state today wishes to
protect itself against the encroachments of others by their future economic prosperity, which
certainly allows for a state to exercise its military strength—as energy is crucial in carrying out
military operations, then it would be wise for states to abandon the realist idea of self-sufficiency,
which leads to the focus on relative gains. Realists suggest that neoliberals overemphasize the
importance of absolute gains, but then why have the Central Asian states joined with Russia in
cooperating, despite the danger it can pose to their national independence from Russia? Why has
Russia been manipulative of their bilateral alliances with the Central Asian states, and yet
cooperation between them persists? Why has the U.S. shifted in policy from a unilateral stance to a
more cooperative relationship with Kazakhstan? The issue hinges on economic development and
energy security, the most viable routes to a state’s physical security. The willingness of the Central
Asian states to cooperate with Russia demonstrates that relative gains matter very little, and that it is
absolute gains that are important. Waltz’s ridicule of the “myth of interdependence” is what really
obscures the reality of international politics and asserts a false belief about the conditions today.
Interdependence is no longer mutual vulnerability. Rather, an illusion of self-sufficiency tends to
increase political instability in a country. Any country today that attempts to assert self-sufficiency
today most likely has an impoverished economy and population and will bring along with it domestic
political catastrophes. Neoliberalist economic ties have outpaced realist political ties. The incentive
to defect is becoming more and more dangerous, not because of retribution by other states to punish
the defection, but that other competitors (other states) will fill in the void left behind and take
advantage to boost their economic and therefore security standing in the world. The gains of mutual
cooperation in today’s interconnected world are far too great for defection. Realists would argue that
achievements of absolute gains in the present might produce a more dangerous foe in the future, that
states worry that today’s friend may be tomorrow’s enemy in war. This brings me to the third point
against the realist argument—the absence of the anarchic culture of an enemy.
Argument 3:
Here I will address points four and six from above. International institutions have not only
created an environment of mutual interdependence and cooperation, rewriting the meaning of
security, but they have also redefined anarchy. Realism asserts that the world of politics is a
geopolitical struggle among sovereign states in an international system of anarchy or absence of a
world government in which states compete in the name of national interest.
“For realists, international anarchy fosters competition and conflict among states and inhibits
their willingness to cooperate even when they share common interests. Realist theory also
argues that international institutions are unable to mitigate anarchy’s constraining effects on
inter-state cooperation” (Grieco).
While states might indeed compete with one another due to international anarchy, that does
not automatically lead to unwillingness to cooperate when there are common interests. Quite the
contrary, international institutions and international regimes are able to mitigate the effects of
anarchy, as conceived by the realists, and foster cooperation. While perhaps the constraint of natural
resources in the world might be an accidental property of the earth that has brought about
cooperation, there is no mistaking that cooperation has also appeared in the form of the creation of
purposive international institutions in general, which have remained constant over time, persistent
and connected by an ensemble of particular rules that go beyond the realist’s worry of superficial
common interests, such as in valuing international economic order as a means for political stability,
and they have appeared as the EU in particular.
While neoliberals adopt a major idea of the realist paradigm, namely that anarchy impedes
the achievement of international cooperation, they retain their own argument that realism
overemphasizes conflict and underestimates the capacities of international institutions to promote
cooperation. In other words, neoliberals accept the realist depiction of the world; where they differ is
on the question of the immutability of the present condition and that one should work to change the
current arrangements. Neoliberals argue even if the realists are correct in believing that anarchy
constrains the willingness of states to cooperate, states nevertheless can work together and can do so
especially with the assistance of international institutions.
Realists do suggest that a structural explanation for cooperation is hegemonic stability. In
brief, this theory suggests that the presence of a state with a dominance of resources is necessary to
establish and perhaps even sustain international cooperation. Such a privileged actor is able to
overcome collective action problems by assuming the costs of establishing international regimes or
other forms of cooperation. That is, if economic capabilities are concentrated in a single state an open
or liberal, international economic order will come into being. Conversely, if this concentration of
capabilities erodes, the liberal economic order is expected to unravel, in which domestic political
authority is asserted over international economic issues. However, what any would-be hegemon
chooses to do with its power is not determined by existing power relationships, but depends upon
particular circumstances, including domestic politics. It is ironic that any realist could conceive, in a
perceived world of international anarchy, that a benign hegemon would arise at all. Rather, as the
case may be, a hegemon is not predisposed to be benign at all, but depends most importantly upon
the hegemon’s domestic, internal politics and its politicians. A hegemonic Japan in Asia and a
hegemonic Germany in Europe during the 1950s, had the Axis won World War II, would hardly
promote the type of cooperation put forth by the realists, namely the benign hegemonic framework.
That is why traditionally realists tend to de-emphasize both cooperative efforts among states and the
importance of international institutions. They have, however, specified some conditions under which
international cooperation is likely to emerge. Treating all forms of interstate cooperation like military
alliances, realists hypothesize that small states will collaborate if there is a common, superior threat.
In such a situation, inter-state rivalries are overlooked and unity is preferred. However, Russian
influence is felt more than ever and the perceived Russian threat by the Central Asian states has not
dissuaded them from cooperating with Russia. What should be even more perplexing and
inexplicable from the realist perspective is that as U.S. power has and is still declining globally, these
international regimes continue to persist as vibrant actors on the world geopolitical scene. According
to realists, behavior is a function of the distribution of power among states and the position of each
particular state. When power distributions change, behavior will also change. Realists argue that
hegemons create institutions to maximize relative gains and that regimes weaken when hegemons
decline. The first half of the statement is certainly true, but second certainly does not follow as
readily. Despite the decline of the world hegemon (the U.S.) in recent history, international regimes
for money and trade (like the IMF and the GATT, which later became the WTO) have reflected and
affected the evolution of the international economic order since World War II and continue to do so
effectively without any clear hegemonic world power. These regimes reflect the way in which
multilateral cooperation is designed to reinforce domestic economic stability. The Hobbesian and
Waltzian notion that cooperation is impossible without a single sovereign power is demystified by
the reality of the situation in today’s world. The situation in the world today is one in which there is
no hegemon but there is a resemblance of social purpose among the leading economic powers. After
the collapse of Bretton Woods an abandonment of economic liberalism did not occur; rather, the
economic principles of a market system that the world had come to known became embedded as an
economic system in every society, becoming global. This system promoted and institutionalized
liberalism (GATT), or free and stable exchanges on one hand, while it also allowed individual states
to practice autonomy in domestic economic affairs. Governments could promote domestic growth
policies while also maintaining monetary stability through international cooperation (IMF) by shortterm borrowing to finance payment deficits, rationing the supply of currency, and allowing nations to
impose exchange restrictions on their currency. The best examples perhaps can be found in CentralEast European countries, in which reformed mid-level communists gradually adopted capitalist
measures even prior to the official fall of communism and carried over more liberalizing policies
afterwards. That multilateralism and the quest for domestic stability were coupled and even
conditioned by one another reflected the shared legitimacy of a set of social objectives to which the
industrial world had moved even with the decline of U.S. power (manifested particularly in the end
of the dollar being convertible into gold and the adoption of floating exchange rates). Thus, while
institutions like the IMF and the GATT changed to reflect a lessening of American influence, this did
not amount to a reversion to an earlier economic system. Hegemonic decline, hence, is not
necessarily destabilizing when social purpose remains the same. In fact, the EU has moved beyond
even this framework to one in which member countries have abolished tariffs and capital is allowed
to move freely. Indeed, the realists concede that a problem for them lies in explaining the existence
of the EU. Although Waltz de-emphasizes the prevalence of relative gains and balancing, the EU
presents a counterexample in the sense that absolute gains and bandwagoning are becoming much
more functional in explaining international relations, not only on the economic aspect but also on the
political side. There is the attraction of the EU as a guarantor and promise of Western economic
prosperity. While exclusivist nationalist ideologies remained powerful in the illiberal governments of
Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia, after a while the EU came to be perceived by these countries as a
means of obtaining economic wealth by political liberalization. In effect these three countries
allowed the EU to influence the political environment in such a way that it brought moderate
opposition and an open and pluralistic political arena into being with ruling coalitions. The effect of
the EU depoliticized ethnic nationalism and opened up political competition. The economic
nationalism that these countries had promoted was replaced by economic reforms that new political
elites committed themselves to. What these examples showed was that people were willing to adopt
new rules, i.e. political liberalization, in order to attain economic prosperity. But there is also the
attraction of the EU as a choice of civilization, as a democratic political community. While
Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary had seen the importance of economic power that came with
EU membership, they had singled out joining the EU as their most important foreign policy goal
initially on the basis of the political benefits. The EU did not operate as a coercive power to take
advantage of these states by imposing political rules, rather the countries themselves made the
decision to adopt these rules.
Even with no single definitive hegemonic power in the world, intercontinental trade is high
(trade dominates), the concentration and global organization of capital is complex, there is high
borrowing by nearly every country, there are large international finance flows, and there is long-term
foreign investment—all tied together by the idea of world economic governance, either in the form of
the IMF, GATT (WTO), or the EU. Yet, these circumstances of interdependence and these
institutions are not supposed to be possible in the realist world of anarchy.
What the realist theory leaves out are rules and practices that shape and govern human
behavior. In realist theory there are calculated interests according to prudence, but there are no rules.
These institutions provide economic incentives that outpace state sovereignty and also provide
normative rules that cannot simply be reduced to rationality or calculated self-interest. The behavior
of actors can, in a meaningful and significant way, be governed by rules and norms. Institutions can
operate on a world principle or social purpose. It can be seen that system is not merely structure, as
the realist would argue, but structure and process (sets of rules that address states’ behaviors). While
for realists security is conceived of as an objective fact, there is an element of how security can be
constituted or subjective. Although nation/state identities remain in some sense primary, they have
been transformed in ways that make “Europe” politically real and a source of stability. The idea of
Europe functions as a security community in the sense that achievements are in the realm of
cooperation (as opposed to resolving conflicts of national interest) and upon a focus on expectations
of non-war. An integrated Europe is presented by some as the only way to avoid a return to a warridden, balance of power driven Europe.
Realist theory relies solely on the language of power, thereby ignoring the dimension of
social purpose. This formulation of focusing only on material power may predict the form of the
international order, but not its content. So, to say anything sensible about the content of international
order and about the actors and regimes that serve them, it is necessary to look at how power and
social purpose project political authority into the international system. Only when we fuse these two
factors together can we predict the content of the international order. The behavior of states may be
looked at vis-à-vis the markets, but they do not determine the kinds of social relations and the
specificity of social relations. However, international institutions are neither solely determinative (as
viewed by neo-liberals) nor entirely irrelevant (as viewed by neo-realists) in constructing society.
Instead, they provide part of the context that shapes the character of the world in which they play a
role in the political and economic spheres of governance. Everything is not solely a function of
material power, and this is perhaps where the neoliberals also fall short of the mark. Ideas have a
strong influence on international relations, which brings me to points one, three, eight, and nine made
Argument 4:
Realists and neoliberals share three different assumptions: (1) “political actors, be they
individuals or states, are assumed to be atomistic, self-interested and rational” (2) “actors interests
are assumed to be exogenous to social interaction. Individuals and states are thought to enter social
relations with their interests already formed. Social interaction is not considered an important
determinant of interests” and (3) “society is understood as a strategic realm, a realm in which
individuals or states come together to pursue their pre-defined interests. Actors are not, therefore,
inherently social; they are not products of their social environment” (Reus-Smit 213). The realist
denies the existence of a society of states, an international society. The neoliberal acknowledges it,
but it remains as a strategic concept. States come together to cooperate and maintain their functional
institutions, “but their identities and interests are not shaped or constituted in any way by their social
interactions” (Reus-Smit 213).
The existence of mutual interest is prerequisite for international cooperation, but neoliberals
insist that the existence of such interests does not itself explain the extent and nature of
cooperative relations between states – international cooperation remains difficult to achieve.
Even when states have interests in common, the lack of a central world authority often deters
them from incurring the reciprocal obligations that cooperation demands. Without a central
authority states fear that others will cheat on agreements; they can see cooperation as too
costly, given the effort they would have to expend; and often they lack sufficient information
to know that they even have common interests with other states” (Reus-Smit 212).
Expectations might converge, but the accidental properties of interests do not create for a
very reliable and consistent model.
Both realism and neoliberalism are models of an approach to international studies that is
known as rationalism. In this approach one examined international relations in terms of a
mechanical/structural view. The alternatives to that theory are the English School and constructivism,
or rather, a sociological approach to international studies where one examines international relations
in terms of a society of states and other actors. Each brings a distinctive purpose and quality that
helps to understanding the field of international relations.
For Waltz, order is found in the balance of power. There is no reference to anything social or
societal, but only a concern with concentrations of power, i.e. forces. States behave in fundamentally
mechanical ways. States are mechanical actors, concentrations of capabilities that are in and must
interact in anarchy, a void, emptiness, an absence and we extract from all attributes of states from
their capabilities. There is no reference to anything social. So states are not social actors, but
concentrations of capabilities. This is a very useful system that provides for order and accounts for
action and reaction. But society can also be a source of order. The behavior of states may arise from
mechanical processes, but they may also arise from social rules and institutions, as it has been
pointed out. International relations have both the system (mechanical) and society (social) elements.
Waltz takes the self-interested and sovereign character of states as given, and in practice he
ends up focusing on how structure conditions the behavior of given states. Actors’ identities are also
taken for granted. However, agency and environment mutually construct one another. Just as actors
act on the environment, environments may affect the behavior of actors, their identities, interests,
capabilities, and even their existence altogether. Preferences and capabilities of actors are not simply
given independent of environment. Institutions, norms, and other cultural factors have considerable
The purpose here is to focus closely on the issue of how power is exercised in order to gain a
complete picture of international relations. The issue is whether the forms of power can be explained
by material factors alone, or whether cultural factors are necessary to account for them. The issue is
what accounts for power, not whether power is present. This entails presenting an entirely different
set of questions to approach the normative framework: (1) To what extent are mechanical processes,
based on material power, important and to what extent are social processes, based on rules and
institutions, important? (2) To what extent is there a substantial order of a society of states that
shapes the character of international relations? (3) To what extent are there patterns of social order
dependent upon rules and institutions? (4) To what extent, in any time or place, are these rules a
function of domestic, international, or world society? (5) Are international relations today anarchical
societies? (6) To what extent, in any time or place, is there a substantial political order that is
organized horizontally, as opposed to vertically? (7) To what extent are societies strong and robust or
weak and thin? (8) How frequently, where, and when are these variables (common interests, rules,
and institutions) found? (9) To what extent are they present in a given situation in international
relations? (10) How frequently do these variables shape the behavior of certain actors (states,
societies, individuals, etc.)?
Every society provides for security against violence, that is, every society must regulate the
use of force. Waltz’s world does not incorporate society, that is, there is no social mechanism for
regulating the use of force. The world is rather a self-help system that functions through either
individual initiative or cooperation with others. While for Waltz we do not have a mechanism for
implementing or enforcing agreements or order except by the sword, for Bull the heart of what
society provides is not so much the sword but the agreements because society is the capacity to reach
these agreements, to make promises, which provide stable expectations about the future. In Waltz’s
world there is no stable expectations about the future except that of being attacked. While Waltz’s
model might operate in times of economic trouble and state independence in financial markets,
today’s world of relative stability and interdependence lends to the sociological models. International
cooperation and international division of labor functions between states today, which is elaborated in
the idea of “comparative advantage” according to which free trade offers all countries, rich and poor,
chances to gain by specializing in what they do best. These comparative advantages arise from local
skills and productivity. The most productive countries gravitate toward the industries in which they
have the greatest advantage. As long as the most productive countries and the less developed ones
can trade freely, both gain from this specialization. This allows a country to pursue a more
commodious life, which is impossible in Waltz’s world since such a normative framework relies on
rules and agreements to follow these rules. Society is fundamentally a mechanism for producing
agreed upon rules. Order, as such, is more than simply the product of the regulation of the use of
force (as with Waltz). Order also involves maintenance of a system of rules and a system of rights.
The way in which the idea of comparative advantage operates today demonstrates that we are
living in a world that has a substantial element of social order, a substantial and significant
international society. Waltz’s argument that there is no functional differentiation among states on the
international level is easily discounted with the very real existence of regimes, such as the NonProliferation Treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, International Human Rights Covenants, the Antarctic
Treaty Regime, and of numerous regimes of trade. The rationalist obviously would object and say
that we are living in a world in which international society is a very thin, weak, and relatively
unimportant, superimposed surface on what is essentially a mechanical system based on power.
However, there is no compelling power that forces other states into behaving a certain way. The way
in which the power of comparative advantage works goes beyond the realist’s worry of superficial
common interests and shows that power is not merely material, but ideational. International society,
which has particularly been built around regimes of trade, is sustained by the belief and idea that
there is an international community, a society of states, which provides expectations of the future and
stability. The way in which power is exercised today, not as pure structural/compulsory force or
material power but as institutional and even productive power (a form of power about broad
conceptions of right and wrong, good and evil, appropriate and inappropriate), means that realist
often exaggerates his position. Points five and seven are relevant here as well. There is no longer an
incompatibility of anarchy and hierarchy in international relations. While there is still an absence of
world government, unequal states cooperate relatively peacefully. But to return to the idea of
comparative advantage, there has been an authoritative allocation of values – politics has also
become the domain in which principles assemble to distribute value. The productive or authoritative
force of comparative advantage is an accepted legitimate exercise of power by each state. Order is
maintained by the shared rule and norm of political-economic self-determination and politicaleconomic openness, and the means of governance and authority (ideational forces) in the world rests
with regimes of trade such as the WTO, the EU, and ASEAN. The same principles are gaining
momentum in Central Asia. The idea behind these international societies is the prevention of
pessimistic expectations of future trade (whether for industrial goods, agricultural products, or
natural resources), which leads to war. The primary cases here are WWI and WWII. Selfdetermination, or sovereignty, is an important ideational element in the development of any state.
Openness is necessary for both small and large nations as well if one or the other wishes to benefit.
This openness facilitates interdependence in two ways: (1) specialized industries, which are vital to a
small nation’s economic system must import a wide range of goods from large scale industries and
(2) large scale industries, which thrive on high-quality goods, must rely on the specialization of
goods that small scale industries possess. This import-export relationship that develops between the
smaller and larger nations heavily focuses on first the right of sovereignty for each nation (to exist),
the self-determination to produce these goods, and the practice of openness. These notions provide
the normative framework for the social order of states today. It is not simply a matter of
interdependence, but the principle to contain aggression and outbreaks of war, while aiming to build
an international community of relative peace. The EU is perhaps the best example, as expansion of
the organization is premised not just on economic concerns but also on the political concern to avert
territorial revisionism in Europe, which could ignite a major war. Therefore, stability, peace, and
coexistence among states are powerful norms. These rules of engagement are an adoption and
commitment to certain norms such as anti-aggressive wars, self-determination, and openness, the
existence of which cannot be simply explained by material force, but only by an authority, by a
legitimate force – the near universal agreement in the value of an international community built on
those norms. Without the notion that there is an international community, one does not have an
international society. Without that belief we just have a system, particularly the realist system.
Jepperson, Wendt, and Katzenstein illustrate that security environments are also an important
form of power on an institutional and cultural level and not merely an exercise of material power.
These security environments cannot be explained by the realist imagery of the balance of power.
Cultural environments affect not only incentives for different kinds of state behavior but also the
basic character of states—what they call “identity”. This contrasts with the prevailing assumption,
made by neorealists and neoliberals, that the defining actor properties are intrinsic to states, that is,
“essential” to actors (rather than socially contingent) and exogenous to the environment. Formal
institutions or security regimes such as NATO, OSCE, NPT, and SALT operate on a legitimate form
of power (authority) that affect the behavior of their members concerning what constitutes an
acceptable or unacceptable action. The regimes, which are founded on certain norms of a world
political cultural, carries a moral language and a moral force that operates just as effectively and even
more efficiently than the realist framework of power. Rules of sovereignty, international law, norms
for the proper enactment of sovereign statehood, and social and political ideas carried by networks,
transnational actors, and international movements display an international pattern and cohesive order
in international relations that has greater explanatory power in explaining change and issues of amity
and enmity than realism because they incorporate the cultural dimensions of human existence.
Regimes of security change the modal character of states in the system, such as on the issue of war.
War is no longer seen as a virtuous exercise of state power; instead, international norms and domestic
factors have tamed the aggressive impulses in many states, especially in the West, creating a
disposition to see war as a necessary evil at most.
The realist argument is that anarchy on the international level precludes the possibility of an
international society. Since men cannot form a society without a government, states cannot form an
international society without an international government. This argument mainly draws on Hobbes’s
view of state of nature. But the modern international system does not entirely resemble the state of
nature put forth by Hobbes. Whereas in Hobbes’s society all strength of an individual is channeled
into providing security for himself, precluding the possibility of industry, agriculture, trade, etc., on
the international level states do not exhaust their strength in providing security against others. Notion
of right and wrong in international behavior have always held a central place despite the condition of
anarchy. States behave fundamentally different in anarchy than individuals. Furthermore, it is not the
case that fear alone of a supreme government is the sole source of order within a modern state, as
realists are prone to exaggerate. There are other reasons why men are capable of orderly social
coexistence within a modern state: reciprocal interest, a sense of community or general will, and
There is also a real possibility that we might achieve a world society, a cosmopolitan society
of all individual human beings that function without the intermediation of states, a universal norm.
This world society includes an expanding range of actors such as “epistemic communities”, NGO’s,
trans-advocacy networks, and multinational groups. This argument does not describe any formal
change in sovereignty, nor does it see any movement toward a global protostate. Rather, the
jurisdiction and agenda of states is worked out within a transnational context.
These groups mobilize popular opinion and political support both within their host country
and abroad; they stimulate and assist in the creation of like-minded organizations in other
countries; and they play a significant role in elevating their objective beyond its identification
with the national interests of their government. Indeed, their efforts are often directed toward
persuading foreign audiences, especially foreign elites, that a particular prohibition regime
reflects a widely shared or even universal moral sense, rather than the peculiar moral code of
one society (Nadelman).
While the realist claim is true that there is no common government to enforce rules, and by
the standards of domestic society, international institutions are weak, such countervailing forces of
international organizations can operate in the absence of a centralized authority and still bind states to
not only keep their promises, but become agents of political cultures and normative change at the
domestic level and on a world level. Their ability to achieve political goals concerning issues such as
human rights and the ability to succeed by tactics such as “information politics” (the ability to
generate and effectively use relevant information), “symbolic politics” (the ability to call upon action
from distant audiences), “leverage politics” (the ability to utilize powerful and influential actors), and
“accountability politics” (attempting to hold world leaders accountable to their promises and actions)
demonstrates their effectiveness with the notion of a distribution of authority (Keck & Sikkink,
Activists Beyond Borders). The reversal of Argentina’s and Mexico’s human rights violations came
as a result of Amnesty International drawing attention to the issue and thereby forcing international
pressures upon them. Contrary to realists, there are instances in which political collective action or
international cooperation of international institutions and organizations are possible and even more
effective than state action because of their impartiality, reliability, representativeness, and
accountability, which shows that there is a functioning distribution of authority, that there has been
and is an authoritative allocation of not just power, but more importantly, values. Persuasive power is
just as important as material power, and is becoming frequently more effective in this social world as
there has been a worldwide increase of concern with such issues.
There is a utility to realist theory, namely that states remain the most important actors relative
to the unconstrained character of actors in general. Substantial governmental autonomy can still be
observed even in the world today. But the international political situation of today invalidates many
of Waltz’s ideas. Even Waltz’s argument that multipolar systems tend to be more prone than bipolar
systems to instability and military conflict does not hold true today. Indeed, there was no significant
change in the level of stability in Europe from multipolarity (1495-1521) to bipolarity (1521-1559).
Although the bipolar structure of the international system from 1945 to 1989 was the main cause of
security and stability for Western Europe, balancing has taken a back seat to bandwagoning. The
principle of balancing at best only holds for modern times and in a particular region (Western
Europe); it certainly does not apply to pre-modern times and in the modern era in the East, as even
the most recent case of the relations between Russia and Central Asia illustrates. One would expect
the Central Asian states to balance against a rising Russia, particularly because of their distaste of
Soviet subjugation and their new found wealth in raw materials. Also contrary to Waltz, economic
interdependence has decreased the likelihood of war. What was missing in Waltz’s model was the
pathological factor.
Because states remain the predominant legitimate actors in the world today, theories of
national security in international anarchy remain dominant. Since the only recourse that states have if
another state attacks them is to use force as well (states are by definition self-help agents), realism
frames the political discourse on national security. As the world system changes so does the way in
which the domain of national security is defined and conceptualized. The way issues are defined or
conceptualized can determine the way they are categorized (national security, environmental
concern, education, population control, etc.) and any one such category can shift to become another.
However, there is always the serious problem that realists have in identifying the human or
social element in international relations. A definite weakness in realist theory has to do with the
persistence of uncertainty in international relations. States are uncertain about one another’s future
intentions thus they pay close attention to how cooperation might affect relative capabilities in the
future. States no longer command authority to reliably provide information on intentions. The
intelligence failures of the United States alone, which spends more on intelligence than the combined
budgets of all the other countries of the world on the matter, speaks volumes. There was the lapse of
intelligence on the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950, China’s entry into the Korean
conflict in the same year, the failure of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the developments in Vietnam in the
1960s, the unforeseen invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets in 1979, the fall of the Iranian Shah in
the same year, the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989-1991, and of course the terrorist attacks in
However, even though anarchy does shape the behavior of states, anarchy has become a
weaker causal factor in explaining their behavior in the international system, due primarily to
institutions and ideas as found in international regimes, international societies, norms and principles,
common rules, interests, and values, and the redefining of power relations.
Anarchy, as the realists have pointed, remains an enduring political condition of international
relations and the world. But while we have obviously not overcome this structure, we have
transcended its social effects to a degree, in a moral and cultural sense. As Bull put it, we are still
living in an international system that is identified by the condition “where states are in regular
contact with each other and where in addition there is interaction between them, sufficient to make
the behavior of each a necessary element in the calculation of the other”. However, there is no
inevitability of the realist logic, or as Bull put it, there is no “inevitable tendency for a balance of
power to arise” because states do not always seek to maximize their relative power position, often
preferring to devote their resources and energies to other ends; the balance of power relationship is
an episodic and “fortuitous” feature. If we were to take realism seriously, we would expect states in
the international system to balance against an aspiring (Russia, China) or existing (U.S.?) hegemon.
Yet not only is Europe not balancing against the current global hegemon, but the United States is not
withdrawing from Europe in the way realists predicted it would more than a decade ago. As it has
been shown, the balance of power that results is independent of the numerous objectives being
pursued by states, i.e. the balance of power, and even the distribution of capabilities and the absence
of functional differentiation on the global level among states, are not defining features of the system.
States often fail to generate these structures.
While certainly we have not done away with the worry that other states might not behave
benignly, the worry of total annihilation has been considerably reduced by the adoption of
institutions, rules, and norms such as the mutual recognition of sovereignty, regimes of trade and
cooperative security, international organization and trans-advocacy networks, the indivisibility of
freedom, the prohibition against aggressive wars, concern for human rights, concern for absolute
gain, interdependence, and openness. Indeed, states do not exist merely in an anarchic system driven
by material power structures. States live in an increasingly global international society whose
cosmopolitan values are widespread and increasingly internalized, which eventually leads to greater
cooperation and order among states. Global norms are part of the explanation for the definition of
state and individual interests.
Reginald Bauer
INTS 4900 Paper
Sources Used:
Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Keohane, Neo-Realism and Its Critics)
Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State and War
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
Joseph M. Grieco, “Realist International Theory and the Study of World Politics”
Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society
Christian Reus-Smit, “Constructivism”
John Gerard Ruggie, “What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social
Constructivist Challenge”
Robert Axelrod and Robert O. Keohane, “Achieving Cooperation Under Anarchy: Strategies and
Alexander E. Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics
Ronald L. Jepperson, Alexander Wendt, and Peter J. Katzenstein, “Norms, Identity, and Culture in
National Security”
Ethan A. Nadelman, “Global Prohibition Regimes: The Evolution of Norms in International
Keck & Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders
Ted Hopf, Polarity, “The Offense Defense Balance, and War”