Search results: "john ikenberry pissed"

John Ikenberry’s Pissed

At Charles Krauthammer. Remind me never to make John mad.

Charles Krauthammer is well known as the chief polemicist of the neo-conservative movement and op-ed guru of American unilateralism – and he has just outdone himself in writing the most thoroughly risible piece of foreign policy commentary that I have recently seen. Indeed, it is so absurdly fanciful that it is best read as self-parody.

In this new polemical burst, Krauthammer argues that the “post-Cold War era has seen a remarkable ideological experiment: Over the past 15 years, each of the three major American schools of foreign policy – realism, liberal internationalism, and neoconservatism – has taken its turn at running things.” And, surprise-surprise, Krauthammer finds that neoconservatism — in the able hands of the Bush administration — has bested realism and liberal internationalism. One wonders what neo-conservative-guided Bush foreign policy would look like if it had failed!

John launches a number of trenchant criticisms, but he also raises an interesting issue in its own right when he points out that:

Krauthammer wants to suggest that neo-conservatism is more than a democracy promotion ideology – it is a grand strategy that is co-equal in some intellectual sense with the “big boys” of grand strategy, namely realism and liberal internationalism.

Indeed, this is exactly how Krauthammer begins his article: “the post-Cold War era has seen a remarkable ideological experiment: Over the past 15 years, each of the three major American schools of foreign policy–realism, liberal internationalism and neoconservatism–has taken its turn at running things.”

John accepts Krauthammer’s argument. Sort of.

And indeed there is a neo-conservative vision here that can be pieced together. It is not really directly about the promotion of democracy, it is about the exercise of American power and a view that international order is best maintained through American primacy. In effect, the neo-con view is that the U.S. should stand aloof from the liberal international order to exercise power directly. American military power must be put back into the service of the nation’s principles and interests. In doing this, the U.S. must pull back from treaties and international agreements that jeopardize American sovereignty and constrain the exercise of power.

But is neoconservativism on par with realism and liberal internationalism? I’m not convinced.

Realism comes in a wide variety of flavors, but its adherents generally agree on a number of principles:

1. International politics are, at heart, characterized by a struggle for power.
2. Attempts to transcend power – through, for instance, international institutions – are at best misguided and, at worst counterproductive.
3. The primary actors in international politics are states and the leaders of states.
4. They ultimately pursue “state interests” (‘raison d’état’).

An important corollary of these principles is that states should not engage in “ideological crusades” such as democracy promotion. The concerns of power politics should always take precedence over the pursuit of values in foreign policy.

Liberal internationalism also covers a lot of territory, but its proponents generally agree on rather different principles than realists:

1. International politics may involve a struggle for power, but it is possible to construct international orders that restrain power politics.
2. This can be achieved through creating robust international institutions, expanding democracy and political openness, and promoting open markets.

Although these descriptions are oversimplified, they do focus our attention on the degree to which realism and liberal internationalism represent polar opposite positions. Indeed, realism emerged as a coherent body of thought out of the experience of the failure of the League of Nations. Realists criticized so-called “idealists” for their “naive” faith in the power of international law, international institutions, and of disseminating proper norms of international conduct.

One could argue that neoconservativism is distinctive insofar as it borrows principles from both schools. It shares with realism a distrust of international institutions and a belief in the basic efficacy of force, but it borrows from liberalism the view that democracy promotion and the expansion of open markets will bring about a more peaceful international order. Indeed, in “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy” (which many consider the most important manifesto of neoconservative foreign policy) Robert Kagan and William Kristol embraced basic Wilsonsian reasoning:

The remoralization of America at home ultimately requires the remoralization of American foreign policy. For both follow from Americans’ belief that the principles of the Declaration of Independence are not merely the choices of a particular culture but are universal, enduring, “self-evident” truths. That has been, after all, the main point of the conservatives’ war against a relativistic multiculturalism. For conservatives to preach the importance of upholding the core elements of the Western tradition at home, but to profess indifference to the fate of American principles abroad, is an inconsistency that cannot help but gnaw at the heart of conservatism.

Just as Al Gore would later argue in the 2000 debates when George Bush spoke of a “humble” foreign policy, Kagan and Kristol contended that promoting American values would simultaneously promote American intersts

foreign policy should be informed with a clear moral purpose, based on the understanding that its moral goals and its fundamental national interests are almost always in harmony. The United States achieved its present position of strength not by practicing a foreign policy of live and let live, nor by passively waiting for threats to arise, but by actively promoting American principles of governance abroad — democracy, free markets, respect for liberty. During the Reagan years, the United States pressed for changes in right-wing and left-wing dictatorships alike, among both friends and foes — in the Philippines, South Korea, Eastern Europe and even the Soviet Union. The purpose was not Wilsonian idealistic whimsy. The policy of putting pressure on authoritarian and totalitarian regimes had practical aims and, in the end, delivered strategic benefits.

It is not for nothing that many describe neoconservativism as “Wilsonsianism with teeth”: as the view that Reagan proved that “moral clarity” could be a kind of “force multiplier.”

But neoconservativism is not a third school of thought. It is not an alternative to realism and liberal internationalism.

Krauthammer makes the classic mistake of the smart policy wonk: he confuses policies with core positions.

Unilateralism is a policy.

Neoconservativism, as an approach to foreign policy, is clearly an extreme derivation of liberal internationalism.

For realists, the failure of international institutions stems from a broader set of problems with putting “norms” and “values” above hard-nosed power politics. The neoconservative critique of multilateralism for its own sake is premised, instead, on a particular set of trajectories from within the American liberal tradition and on a diagnosis of current conditions in international relations.

1. If the United States embodies liberal values – correctly understood – then institutional restraint on the US will always be illiberal.

2. Many international institutions, but particularly the UN, reflect the same leftist “relativistic multiculturalism” that threatens those values at home. After all, the UN is filled with dictators, bureaucrats, human-rights abusers, members of the non-alligned movement, and all sorts of illiberal types. What could be more frustrating than the basic rules of diplomacy that operate at the UN, which allow, for instance, representatives of genocidal regimes to pass judgment on human rights violations?

3. It follows that if we had robust international institutions, understood as ones that genuinely reflected core “western” and “liberal” values, they would improve international order and security. Hence the proposals floating around for “democracy clubs” and the like.

In other words, we should take seriously the claim that neoconservativism involves “a resort to unilateralism when necessary.” The reason it often seems necessary is, in neoconservativism, a failure of the current order, not because of any generalized neoconservative rejection of the possibility of a liberal institutional order.

Of course, all of this means that there’s nothing all that conservative about neoconservativism. I think it is time we gave it another name. The best I can come up with is “Exceptionalist Internationalism.”

Any thoughts?

Filed as:, , and


Preliminary Notes on Progressive Foreign Policy in the Age of Trump


I apologize for inflicting this on you all, but I’ve found that blogging helps me think through ideas and questions—especially given the Duck’s readership. So, without further introduction, here are some half-baked notes on Progressive foreign policy.


The 2016 primary contest highlighted the general atrophy of progressive foreign-policy thought and infrastructure.

  • Virtually the entire left and liberal foreign-policy apparatus lined up behind Clinton, whether because of affinity, hope for employment and fear of retaliation, or out of the calculation that she was the only viable game in town.
  • Sanders never articulated a coherent foreign-policy paradigm, although you can find it in skeletal terms: multilateralism in most issue areas, a much higher threshold for military force, the rejection of ‘regime change’ as a legitimate basis for war, a rejection of the ‘neoliberal’ trading order, the pursuit of human rights and human security, lower defense spending, and a moderate position with respect to rival—and potentially rival—great powers.
  • After Sanders, the Greens attempted to claim the mantle of progressive foreign policy. Too often, this took the form of caricature: the old saw that American foreign policy is essentially imperialist and a tool of large corporations, and therefore anyone who opposes US foreign policy should either be embraced—or, at least, flirted with.

The Trump Administration, on the other hand, is a crucible for progressive foreign policy. It forces us to ask basic questions about what we stand for—independent of specific policies.

  • Some of the policies Trump espoused on security—criticism of the Iraq War and the Libyan intervention—and international political economy—opposition to the TPP and to ‘neoliberal’ trade deals—resonated with the progressive left. Both in terms of their own policy priorities—less war, more protectionism—and in terms of their overall distrust of neoliberal variants of internationalism.
  • What is neoliberal internationalism? It combines, in brief, a disposition to use force for liberal ends with the ‘Third Way’ consensus. The progressive left often sees it as indistinguishable for neoconservative foreign policy—a view reinforced in 2016 by Clinton’s votes for the Iraq War, history of support for trade agreements, and Bill Clinton’s role in passing NAFTA.
  • But this is not quite right. As I’ve argued elsewhere—in the context of liberal internationalism—both approaches embrace activist foreign policy and the promotion of liberal order, neoliberal internationalists see multilateralism and multilateral institutions as intrinsic goods. Neoconservatives do not. The neoliberal institutionalists are correct. One reason: a great many of the challenges we face—such as climate change, global disease, and transnational terrorism— require collective action. That depends on multilateral cooperation.
  • Trumpism highlights not only how neoconservatives and neoliberal internationalists are in the same family, but that progressive foreign policy also belongs to that family. This is not to downplay the significance of our differences. For instance, the Iraq War, targeted killings, and the like are matters of life and death. But we are arguing on similar terms. Trumpism, however, represents a stream of thought about the American role in the world that was, until now, marginal—and marginalized—in the post-war era.
  • Progressive foreign policy is a variant of liberal internationalism. In 2003, the Progressive Policy Institute released a report calling for “Progressive Internationalism.” I can’t find the full report, but it looks pretty much like centrist democratic foreign policy. But I think “Progressive Internationalism” is the right term for the variant of liberal internationalism that progressives ought to champion.

Continue reading


What We Talk About When We Talk About Neoconservatism

A Guest Post by Jonathan Caverley in reply to Dan Nexon

The irony of being accused of taking texts in directions their original authors might not have intended by the scholar behind Harry Potter and International Relations is too delicious to pass up. Plus I am sensitive to accusations like Nexon’s (might as well confront that elephant head on).

I am not slighting Professor Nexon’s excellent TNR piece and book. In fact our approaches are quite similar; we both drag a body of writing into a discipline to which the original authors evinced little desire to enter. There are always problems inherent to this, but it can be productive. Nexon used Harry Potter to make cogent observations on globalization, and this justifies a somewhat (ahem) esoteric reading of JK Rowling. Whereas Harry Potter-related injuries are limited to scrapes on the pale, tender skin of the privileged, neoconservative-informed policies have killed a lot of people and cost a lot of money. So considering neoconservatism systematically and from a variety of perspectives seems a useful exercise.

I wrote the article because I did not buy realists’ self-serving lumping together of neoconservatism and liberalism. I argue that neoconservatism’s policy recommendations are largely motivated by the belief that democracies play with a severe handicap in the game of power politics. If that’s true, then neoconservatism cannot be considered antithetical to the self-styled foreign policy wing of realism, which claims “Power can be used only if it can be mobilized. Two variables are particularly important for this: the state’s extractive ability and inspirational capacity” (holla Brian Rathbun). I conclude that “Lack of enthusiasm for democratization is not really a logical proposition for neoclassical realists so much as a taboo left over from their ancestors.”

Nexon does not challenge me on neoclassical realism. He does not challenge my claim that neoconservatism and realism share similar starting assumptions. He does not challenge my interpretation of neoconservatism as a theory of a democratic handicap. He does not challenge my claim that democratic weakness explains neocon enthusiasm for primacy, the revolution in military affairs, bandwagonning logic, and preventive war.

Nexon briefly makes the case for neoconservatism as liberalism, but what truly motivates his 4,000 word post is a disagreement with my claim that neoconservatism suggests spreading democracy as a means of balancing, a small but important component of the article.

I’ll address both criticisms, but we should first acknowledge our debate’s slightly absurd nature. Neither Nexon nor I are considered neocons (as far as I know); any claim by us to a singular, true understanding should strain belief. Never mind that neocons (like realists and liberals) disagree among themselves, and that they (and JK Rowling) couldn’t care less about what Nexon and I think of them. Not surprisingly then, non-neocons disagree on neoconservatism.

Nexon cites two (excellent) pieces written/co-written by one person to describe a nonexistent scholarly consensus. Nexon might agree with Michael Desch’s (deliberate) nonsense phrase, but Gerard Alexander defines neoconservatism as balance of threat realism, and Aaron Rapport equates it with systemic constructivism. And those are just North American scholars.

Neoconservatism is not some mutant form of foreign policy liberalism. Consider my admiration for Derek Jeter, but my contempt for every other aspect of his team. I cannot (will not!) be considered a Yankees fan. One might therefore conclude that other reasons explain my respect for Jeter. Excepting democratization and human rights, neocons dismiss every mechanism associated with IR liberalism: transnational norms, trade, and institutions. Perhaps they are not motivated by liberal logic.

A really, really strong desire to spread democracy does not make them any more liberal. I’m sure Minka Kelly loves Jeter with all her soul, but if she could not even bring herself to say something nice about Mo Rivera, it’s doubtful we’d consider her a Yankee fan either.

On to the bulk of Nexon’s post. To support my assessment of neoconservatism as a theory of democratic weakness, I surveyed a lot of literature to find some common themes. Trying to synthesize so many writers in order to critique a grand theory necessarily leads to simplification. But consider the essential assumptions of realism. Now find me five realists that agree with all of them.

To use Nexon’s terms, I cheerfully plead guilty to extrapolation, but that would seem to be a good alibi against the crime of esotericism. Esoteric thinking assumes a code unlocking truths within a canonical document for the initiated. I go to the opposite extreme, trying to find something uniting the diverse group calling themselves neocons. Given his treatment of Harry Potter, and given that block quotes from a single article are 30% of his post, Nexon appears a very black pot.
Interestingly, with the possible exception of Muravchik, Nexon pulls quotations from the more realpolitik-oriented of the neocons to challenge my argument that neoconservatism is not motivated by core realist principles. I’ll deal with them quickly.

Kirkpatrick’s magisterial article argues for the strategic and moral foolishness of simultaneously promoting liberalism within traditional authoritarian states while refusing to do likewise in totalitarian Soviet satellites, i.e. “participat[ing] actively in the toppling of non-Communist autocracies while remaining passive in the face of Communist expansion.” Among other things, the article nicely captures the neoconservative spectrum of power-mobilizing regimes: liberal America weak and vacillating, autocracies perhaps less weak and certainly less threatening, totalitarian states expansionist and strong. Schweller would approve.

The Krauthammer quotations lamenting the American penchant for cutting deals that shift unfavorably American relative power support my case.

As for Kagan, John Mearsheimer called and wants his American pacifier piece back.
Regarding the Muravchik article, rather than wade through the single article that literally makes up 30% of Nexon’s post, can I just give Dan that one and ask people to look at the dozens of other pieces I cite?

Let me emphasize that I agree that there is often a very strong moral impetus to the neoconservative desire to spread democracy, but this cannot be separated from neoconservatives’ equal obsession with power in a dangerous world. To paraphrase Nexon on Harry Potter, for IR scholars neoconservatism is something of a Rorschach Blot, capturing various anxieties about international affairs. I look at the blot though the prism of its realist antagonist. Wading into the “neo-neo” debate I decided that there was little fundamental to their principles to explain their very different policy preferences.

Now Nexon does not think that neoconservatism is a grand theory, and that neo-classical realism is “an amorphous container for some pretty heterogeneous scholarly theories.” One could make the same claim about liberalism. All grand IR theories with multiple advocates get pretty fuzzy when you try to pin them down, but that does not make thinking about theory, and especially comparing theories, unproductive. To paraphrase Eisenhower, grand theories may be useless, but grand theorizing is indispensible.

As the old insult goes, Nexon has failed me on a Rorschach test, which brings me to his thoughts on peer review. Nexon plucked my article from obscurity because he was “pissed off” by my use of texts about which he had a pretty strong opinion. He would have rejected my article based on this. He then extrapolates (!) that because he would have rejected it, then peer review failed. Nexon is not alone; most academics assume the N of our “peers” to be 1, as the expressions of wounded amour propre in the original post’s comments amply demonstrate. We all know that the review process is pretty arbitrary; in terms of publishing I was lucky to not get Nexon as my referee (although I suspect he would have given great feedback, as I did get from Millennium, which by the way is one of the few IR journals that does desk rejects).

But before we moan about how much of what we consider drivel gets published, spare a thought for the Type II errors. Perhaps we should let more stuff see the light of publication and then let the discipline as a whole (which largely ignored my article) or Duck of Minerva (which trashed it) sort it out.


Against Esoteric Readings of Neoconservatvism, or Always Check the Footnotes

I’m currently working on a few difference pieces that deal with the relationship between liberalism and empire. I also, as long-team readers of the Duck know, consider neoconservative understandings of international politics as a variant of liberalism that constitutes a specific flavor of the US commitment to democratic enlargement as transformative of international politics. Neoconservatives reject the idea that international institutions, at least as currently configured, and US self-restraint pacify global politics; their liberalism is strongly inflected by particular currents of American nationalist exceptionalism.

Most published international-relations scholarship concurs with this assessment, thus I read with great interest Jonathan D. Caverley’s “Power and Democratic Weakness: Neoconservatism and Neoclassical Realism” which appeared in Millennium: Journal of International Studies (May 2010, pp. 593-614) [earlier, but ungated, version]. Here’s the abstract:

While realists and neoconservatives generally disagreed on the Iraq invasion of 2003, nothing inherent in either approach to foreign policy accounts for this. Neoconservatism’s enthusiasm for democratisation would appear to distinguish the two but its rejection of all other liberal mechanisms in world politics suggests that the logic linking democracy and American security shares little with liberalism. Inspecting the range of neoconservative thought reveals a unifying theme: the enervating effects of democracy on state power and the will to wield it in a dangerous world. Consequently, the United States enjoys greater safety among other democracies due to a more favourable distribution of relative power. Viewing regime type through the prism of state power extraction in a competitive, anarchic world puts neoconservatism squarely in the neoclassical realist camp. The article concludes by suggesting why the rest of International Relations should care about this new ‘neo–neo’ debate.

Caverley contends, in consequence, that we should see neoconservativism as a form of neoclassical realism. After all, neoconservatives see anarchy as characterized by unforgiving power-political competition and worry that the domestic politics of liberal states render them vulnerable to authoritarian and totalitarian rivals. They recommend civic virtue and strong political leadership — along the lines of Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” — as an antidote.

This combination looks, as Caverley argues, rather similar to Gideon Rose’s description of neoclassical realism as holding that

The scope and ambition of a country’s foreign policy is driven first and foremost by the country’s relative material power. Yet it contends that the impact of power capabilities on foreign policy is indirect and complex, because systemic pressures must be translated through intervening unit-level variables such as decision-makers’ perceptions and state structure.

While most of Caverley’s claims are well-rehearsed in the “how to make sense of neoconservative foreign policy” debate, I’ve never before seen his argument that neoconservatives support democratizing other countries as a way of making them weaker. It turns out there’s a good reason for that: they don’t make any such claim.

Before I explain how Caverley’s arguments combine esoteric readings of neoconservative texts with both invocation of non-existant arguments and quotations taken plainly out of context, I should touch upon a set of even more basic problems with Caverley’s claim that neoconservativism isn’t liberalism. The crux of Caverley’s reasoning looks like this:

G. John Ikenberry identifies six ‘big ideas’ shared by Wilsonianism and modern liberalism. The first four cover various paths to peace: democracy, free trade, international law and international bodies, and collective security. The final two are a progressive optimism about modernity coupled with the need for American global leadership as a ‘moral agent’. Neoconservatism clearly accepts both the importance of democracy as an American national interest and of American moral global leadership, but explicitly rejects the remaining four points of liberalism/Wilsonianism [emphasis original].

First, liberalism, of course, is not identical to Wilsonianism; liberal internationalism represents only one of many ways of translating liberalism into grand strategy. In the United States, liberal principles have undergird foreign-policy approaches ranging from a complete rejection of foreign “entanglements” to the establishing of formal empire.

Second, it is a bit silly to say that neoconservativism isn’t liberal because it overlaps with neoclassical realism. Neoclassical realism is a somewhat amorphous container for some pretty heterogeneous scholarly theories; in consequence, it provides a poor benchmark for assessing non-scholarly debates about the proper guiding principles for American foreign policy.

Third, the Hobbes-Locke debate over the relative unpleasantness of the state of the nature–which Hobbes distinguishes from the texture of relations between sovereign states–is an intra-liberal debate about the parameters of the social contract. Liberals can disagree about whether institutions such as the League or the United Nations are sufficiently robust to mitigate anarchy, let alone whether concessions of sovereignty necessary to create such institutions would be worth the consequent threat to domestic freedom and self-determination in liberal democracies.

Indeed, it isn’t difficult to understand why neconservative praxis is incompatible with realism:

  • It holds that relations among democracies are fundamentally different than those among democracies and non-democracies;
  • It holds that global politics should be understood as an ideological struggle between the forces of freedom and their antagonists; and
  • It sees no contradiction between the pursuit of liberal values, at least properly understood, and national interests.

Although specific academics who call themselves realists might accept one or more of these propositions, none are “realist” in any meaningful sense. No realist would, as many neoconservatives have, advocate a “League of Democracies” as a superior alternative to the United Nations.

Consider Caverley’s discussion of the neoconservative rejection of “liberal, transnational norms.” Caverley quotes Krauthammer as writing that “moral suasion is a farce,” but here’s what Krauthammer writes:

Moral suasion? Was it moral suasion that made Qaddafi see the wisdom of giving up his weapons of mass destruction? Or Iran agree for the first time to spot nuclear inspections? It was the suasion of the bayonet. It was the ignominious fall of Saddam–and the desire of interested spectators not to be next on the list. The whole point of this treaty was to keep rogue states from developing chemical weapons. Rogue states are, by definition, impervious to moral suasion.

Moral suasion is a farce. Why then this obsession with conventions, protocols, legalisms? Their obvious net effect is to temper American power. Who, after all, was really going to be most constrained by these treaties? The ABM amendments were aimed squarely at American advances and strategic defenses, not at Russia, which lags hopelessly behind. The Kyoto Protocol exempted India and China. The nuclear test ban would have seriously degraded the American nuclear arsenal. And the landmine treaty (which the Clinton administration spent months negotiating but, in the end, met so much Pentagon resistance that even Clinton could not initial it) would have had a devastating impact on U.S. conventional forces, particularly at the DMZ in Korea.

This is pretty par for the course in terms of US nationalist exceptionalism: bad regimes don’t care about their image in the “international community,” the US needs strength to pursue liberal ends, treaties with autocratic rivals only weaken US power, etc. Similarly, Caverley quotes Robert Kagan, who writes in “End of Dreams, Return of History” that “there is little sense of shared morality and common political principle among the great powers.” But Kagan’s piece, with a title rebutting Francis Fukuyama’s claim that great ideological struggles are over, is a call for the US to recognize the new authoritarian threat to liberalism. And here’s the full context:

Today there is little sense of shared morality and common political principle among the great powers. Quite the contrary: There is suspicion, growing hostility, and the well-grounded view on the part of the autocracies that the democracies, whatever they say, would welcome their overthrow. Any concert among them would be built on a shaky foundation likely to collapse at the first serious test.

American foreign policy should be attuned to these ideological distinctions and recognize their relevance to the most important strategic questions. It is folly to expect China to help undermine a brutal regime in Khartoum or to be surprised if Russia rattles its saber at pro-Western democratic governments near its borders. There will be a tendency toward solidarity among the world ’s autocracies, as well as among the world’s democracies.

For all these reasons, the United States should pursue policies designed both to promote democracy and to strengthen cooperation among the democracies. It should join with other democracies to erect new international institutions that both reflect and enhance their shared principles and goals. One possibility might be to establish a global concert or league of democratic states, perhaps informally at first but with the aim of holding regular meetings and consultations on the issues of the day. Such an institution could bring together Asian nations such as Japan, Australia, and India with the European nations — two sets of democracies that have comparatively little to do with each other outside the realms of trade and finance. The institution would complement, not replace, the United Nations, the g-8, and other global forums. But it would at the very least signal a commitment to the democratic idea, and in time it could become a means of pooling the resources of democratic nations to address a number of issues that cannot be addressed at the United Nations. If successful, it could come to be an organization capable of bestowing legitimacy on actions that liberal nations deem necessary but autocratic nations refuse to countenance — as nato conferred legitimacy on the conflict in Kosovo even though Russia was opposed.

Given such overwhelming evidence against neoconservativism’s illiberalism, much depends on Caverley’s claim that neoconservatives favor liberal enlargement as a way of weakening rivals by saddling them with democratic institutions. As I’ve alluded to already, some of this argument depends (fittingly enough) on a Straussian-style esoteric reading of neoconservative writings. Neoconservatives worry about the erosion of republican values in modern liberal polities. They advocate strong leadership and “new nationalism”-style programs to counter this tendency. They consider Europe as a cautionary example for the United States. But to read their various worries and exhortations as containing a hidden message that Washington should spread democracy for instrumental purposes–to enfeeble rivals–is, as one of my professors once noted of Straussian esoteric readings, “fascinating, ingenious, and totally wrong.”

How wrong it is becomes clear when Caverley moves beyond esoteric inference and claims to cite neoconservatives making this argument.

Fukuyama observes that the advocates of trans- forming Iraq into a Western-style democracy are the same people who question the ‘dangers of ambitious social engineering’. This apparent paradox becomes coherent given this idea of democratic enfeeblement. Kirkpatrick points out that because totalitarian states are inherently more threatening, the United States should focus its democratisation efforts there. Her famous essay does not criticise neoconservative enthusiasm for democratisation so much as connect it to a grand strategic logic. Because of the military advantage enjoyed by non-democracies, a United States interested in self-preservation should aggressively spread this cost aversion Muravchik succinctly states the core (and inherently power political) logic: ‘The spread of democracy offers an important, peaceful way to weaken our foe.

But by this logic would not other regime types attempt to spread democracy, preferring to be the only autocrat in a world of Kantian peaceniks? Kagan and others address this question by claiming that the existence and success of democracies is inherently threatening to the stability of authoritarian regimes. This autocratic support (perhaps unlike democracy) is not based in ideological affinity but on self-preservation and the desire to maximise power. Moreover, autocrats:

see their comparative advantage over the West when it comes to gaining influence with African, Asian or Latin American governments that can provide access to oil and other vital natural resources or that, in the case of Burma, are strategically located.

Why am I so dismissive of all of this? It seemed odd to me, so I checked the footnotes.

Kirkpatrick nowhere in “Dictatorships and Double Standards” argues that the US should focus democratization efforts on totalitarian states because they are “inherently more threatening” (at least in the sense Caverley implies). She argues that, in the struggle against communist totalitarianism, the US should support friendly anti-communist authoritarians as both, whatever their flaws, morally superior and more amenable to subsequent democratization than totalitarian regimes. The Carter Administration, as well as the American left, both weakens US interests and the cause of democratic liberalism insofar as its weakens its autocratic allies in favor of self-styled liberation movements. As she concludes:

For these reasons and more, a posture of continuous self-abasement and apology vis-a-vis the Third World is neither morally necessary nor politically appropriate. No more is it necessary or appropriate to support vocal enemies of the United States because they invoke the rhetoric of popular liberation. It is not even necessary or appropriate for our leaders to forswear unilaterally the use of military force to counter military force. Liberal idealism need not be identical with masochism, and need not be incompatible with the defense of freedom and the national interest.

Caverley’s ‘smoking gun’ quotation from Muravchik, moreover, is completely out of context. When Muravchik argues that “The spread of demcoracy offers an important, peaceful way to weaken our foe” he has a specific foe in mind: militant jihadism. As Muravchik notes earlier in the article:

what is undeniable is that Bush’s declaration of war against terrorism did bear the earmarks of neoconservatism. One can count the ways. It was moralistic, accompanied by descriptions of the enemy as “evil” and strong assertions of America’s righteousness. As Norman Podhoretz puts it in his powerful new book Bush offered “an entirely unapologetic assertion of the need for and the possibility of moral judgment in the realm of world affairs.” In contrast to the suggestion of many, especially many Europeans, that America had somehow provoked the attacks, Bush held that what the terrorists hated was our virtues, and in particular our freedom. His approach was internationalist: it treated the whole globe as the battlefield, and sought to confront the enemy far from our own doorstep. It entailed the prodigious use of force. And, for the non-military side of the strategy, Bush adopted the idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East in the hope that this would drain the fever swamps that bred terrorists [emphasis added].

That’s right: Moravchik’s argument has zilch to do with Caverley’s “democratic enfeeblement” hypothesis. Rather, it amounts to a fairly standard neoconservative claim that democratization weakens radical Islamism.

There’s something perverse about using an out-of-context quotation from this particualr Muravchik piece. Here’s what Muravchik has to say about neoconservativism in the early pages of his article:

The term “neoconservative” was coined in the 1970’s as an anathema. It was intended to stigmatize a group of liberal intellectuals who had lately parted ways with the majority of their fellows.

As a heretical offshoot of liberalism, neoconservatism appealed to the same values and even many of the same goals—like, for example, peace and racial equality. But neoconservatives argued that liberal policies—for example, disarmament in the pursuit of peace, or affirmative action in the pursuit of racial equality—undermined those goals rather than advancing them. In short order, the heretics established themselves as contemporary liberalism’s most formidable foes.

Two distinct currents fed the stream of neoconservatism. One focused on domestic issues, specifically by reexamining the Great Society programs of the 1960’s and the welfare state as a whole. It was centered in the Public Interest, a quarterly founded and edited by Irving Kristol. The other focused on international issues and the cold war; it was centered in COMMENTARY and led by the magazine’s editor, Norman Podhoretz.

The former current has little if any relevance to the controversy surrounding neoconservatism today. Much of the domestic-policy critique mounted by neoconservatives eventually became common wisdom, symbolized by President Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform program and his declaration that “the era of big government is over.” In the meantime, several of the seminal figures of the domestic wing—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer—drifted back toward liberalism.

It was the foreign-policy wing that was, all along, more passionately embroiled in ideological disputation.1 For one thing, the stakes were higher. If a domestic policy fails, you can try another. If a foreign policy fails, you may find yourself at war. Also, the battles that rived the Democratic party in the 1970’s, at a time when virtually all neoconservatives were still Democrats, principally concerned foreign affairs. These battles sharpened ideological talons on all sides.

The divisions stemmed from the Vietnam war. Not that all neoconservatives were hawks on this particular issue; some, including Podhoretz, were (qualified) doves. But when opponents of the war went from arguing that it was a failed instance of an essentially correct policy—namely, resisting Communist expansionism—to contending that it was a symptom of a deep American sickness, neoconservatives answered back. Whatever problems we may have made for ourselves in Vietnam, they said, the origins of the conflict were to be found neither in American imperialism nor in what President Jimmy Carter would call our “inordinate fear of Communism,” but in Communism’s lust to dominate.

Contrary to Carter and the antiwar Left, neoconservatives believed that Communism was very much to be feared, to be detested, and to be opposed. They saw the Soviet Union as, in the words of Ronald Reagan, an “evil empire,” unspeakably cruel to its own subjects and relentlessly predatory toward those not yet in its grasp. They took the point of George Orwell’s 1984—a book that (as the Irish scholars James McNamara and Dennis J. O’Keeffe have written) resurrected the idea of evil “as a political category.” And they absorbed the cautionary warning of the Russian novelist and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn against yielding ground to the Communists in the vain hope “that perhaps at some point the wolf will have eaten enough.”

Many in our history, both statesmen and scholars, had drawn a distinction between Americans’ sentiments and America’s self-interest. Where Communism was concerned, the neoconservatives saw the two as intertwined. Communism needed to be fought both because it was morally appalling and because it was a threat to our country.

And, as he notes a bit later on:

Even those traditional conservatives who distrusted the readiness of Nixon and Kissinger to make deals with the Soviet Union tended to share the underlying philosophy of foreign-policy “realism.” As opposed to the neoconservative emphasis on the battle of ideas and ideologies, and on the psychological impact of policy choices, realists focused on state interests and the time-honored tools of statecraft. That was one reason why, for the neoconservatives of the 1970’s, the great champions in American political life were not conservative or Republican figures but two Democrats of unmistakably liberal pedigree: Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and George Meany, the president of the AFL-CIO. When President Ford, on Kissinger’s counsel, closed the White House door to Solzhenitsyn upon his expulsion from Soviet Russia, these two stalwart anti-Communists formally welcomed him to Washington.

It was only with the accession of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1981 that the neoconservatives made their peace with Republican-style conservatism. Reagan brought several neoconservatives—notably Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Max Kampelman, and Elliott Abrams—into pivotal foreign-policy positions in his administration (and, on the domestic-policy side, William J. Bennett and others). With time, most neoconservatives moved into the Republican fold. As for Reagan’s “belligerent” approach to the cold war, it was criticized as loudly by both liberals and conservatives within the foreign-policy establishment as it was cheered by neoconservatives. But there can be no question that it issued in a sublime victory: the mighty juggernaut of the Soviet state, disposing of more kill power than the U.S. or any other state in history, capitulated with scarcely a shot.

So, while Muravchik does describe neoconservativism as sharing elements with both ‘realism’ and ‘idealism,’ his account amounts to a refutation of Caverley’s core thesis:

The military historian Max Boot has aptly labeled it “hard Wilsonianism.” It does not mesh neatly with the familiar dichotomy between “realists” and “idealists.” It is indeed idealistic in its internationalism and its faith in democracy and freedom, but it is hardheaded, not to say jaundiced, in its image of our adversaries and its assessment of international organizations. Nor is its idealism to be confused with the idealism of the “peace” camp. Over the course of the past century, various schemes for keeping the peace—the League of Nations, the UN, the treaty to outlaw war, arms-control regimes—have all proved fatuous. In the meantime, what has in fact kept the peace (whenever it has been kept) is something quite different: strength, alliances, and deterrence. Also in the meantime, “idealistic” schemes for promoting not peace but freedom—self-determination for European peoples after World War I, decolonization after World War II, the democratization of Germany, Japan, Italy, and Austria, the global advocacy of human rights—have brought substantial and beneficial results.

Belief in deterrence, alliances, and force does not a “realist” make if those instruments are deployed on behalf of a global crusade for liberalism.

Given all of this, it should come as no surprise that Caverley takes Kagan out of context in order to answer why, given “democratic enfeeblement,” autocracies don’t support democratization. Here’s the full pargraph, with the part that Caverley quotes underlined:

Neither Russia nor China has any interest in assisting liberal nations in their crusade against autocracies around the world. Moreover, they can see their comparative advantage over the West when it comes to gaining influence with African, Asian, or Latin American governments that can provide access to oil and other vital natural resources or that, in the case of Burma, are strategically located. Moscow knows it can have more influence with governments in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan because, unlike the liberal West, it can unreservedly support their regimes. And the more autocracies there are in the world, the less isolated Beijing and Moscow will be in international forums such as the United Nations. The more dictatorships there are, the more global resistance they will offer against the liberal West ’s efforts to place limits on sovereignty in the interest of advancing liberalism.

I suppose there might be something to Caverley’s arguments; as I’ve noted, one can make a case for fitting “neoconservativism” under the rubric of “neoclassical realism.” But doing so requires us to ignore not only the evidence of intellectual DNA, but also to reduce “liberalism” to its Wilsonian variant. Still, his conclusions about academic neoclassical realism might have some punch. I just find it difficult to overlook the fact that Caverley’s novel claims concerning “democratic enfeeblement” find no textual support.

All of this dovetails in interesting ways with recent discussions of peer review. This article, at least in its present form, would not have survived adequate peer review. Any reviewer familiar with recent neoconservative writings should have wondered about some of these quotations, all of which come from articles available online. So either Millennium couldn’t find appropriate reviewers, those reviewers were too  “overburdened” to do due diligence, or they just didn’t care.

Update: my claim about this being a failure of peer review only involves the out-of-context quotations that I discuss at the end of my critique–those specific to Caverley’s “democratic enfeeblement” argument. Peer review is supposed to catch that sort of thing. The rest of the issues I raise are, I think, subject to debate; reasonable people will disagree about them. Reviewers should either have rejected the entire piece or suggested a revise-and-resubmit with either (1) better evidence for “democratic enfeeblement” or (2) an abandonment of that argument in favor of more general points about how neoconservatives work themselves into a place quite similar to that of some neoclassical realists. But the current “evidence” for that hypothesis should not have made it into a published article.


Concert of democracies: The liberal internationalist case

Ivo Daalder’s and Robert Kagan’s “Concert of Democracies” opinion-editorial has been generating waves of derision from the left coast of blogland.

I’ve already argued that Kagan’s ‘Cold War II’ outlook on the liberal-authoritarian divide amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy–although the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s activities suggest that we’re already heading in that general direction. So I’m certainly not going to defend every aspect of the proposal. But I have been a bit frustrated with some of the criticisms coming from the left. In brief, while Kagan’s case for a Concert of Democracies certainly stems from neoconservative ideology, or what I’ve termed “Exceptionalist Internationalism”, there is an “Exemplarist Internationalist” case for a Concert of Democracies. Consider the Princeton Project on National Security’s endorsement of the Concert of Democracies idea (PDF):

While pushing for reform of the United Nations and other major global institutions, the United States should work with its friends and allies to develop a global “Concert of Democracies” – a new institution designed to strengthen security cooperation among the world’s liberal democracies. This Concert would institutionalize and ratify the “democratic peace.” If the United Nations cannot be reformed, the Concert would provide an alternative forum for liberal democracies to authorize collective action, including the use of force, by a supermajority vote. Its membership would be selective, but self-selected.

Members would have to pledge not to use or plan to use force against one another; commit to holding multiparty, free-and-fair elections at regular intervals; guarantee civil and political rights for their citizens enforceable by an independentjudiciary; and accept the responsibility to protect.


Neither America nor the world can wait forever for U.N. reform, no matter how desirable it is. The United States must take the lead and invest the time, energy, and resources to accomplish significant reform, on the principle of “mend it, don’t end it.” At the same time, however, we should work with our allies to develop a new global institution dedicated to the principles underpinning liberal democracy, both as a vehicle to spur and support the reform of the United Nations and other global institutions and as a possible alternative to them.

This alternative body would be a global “Concert of Democracies.” Its purpose would be to strengthen security cooperation among the world’s liberal democracies and to provide a framework in which they can work together to effectively tackle common challenges – ideally within existing regional and global institutions, but if those institutions fail, then independently, functioning as a focal point for efforts to strengthen liberty under law around the world. It would also serve as the institutional embodiment and ratification of the “democratic peace.”

This is basically a proposal for Kant’s “League of Nations.” Note that the Concert of Democracies proposal is intended, in this context, to accomplish a number of things:

First, to put pressure on the UN to abandon the Security Council veto and implement other reforms. The Concert of Democracies functions as a graduated exit option for the US and other democratic states.

Second, to provide a more robust constitutional order to bind the US to strategic restraint and provide enhanced voice opportunities for other powers. In theory, at least, a Concert of Democracies would be more difficult for US policymakers to ignore; a supra-majority system would make it more attractive to small powers and also diminish the ability of the US to revert to Bush-style unilateralism, e.g., adventures like Iraq.

Third, to increase the prestige and benefits of democratization in world politics.

I’m not endorsing a Concert of Democracies. My point is merely this: arguing for a Concert of Democracies does not require endorsing neoconservative foreign-policy principles.

UPDATE: James Poulus has a good–and critical–discussion of the issues raised here.

Image source: Freedom House


What’s in a foreign-policy label?

Dan Drezner’s at Princeton discussing liberal internationalism, so he posts this rather interesting placeholder on his blog:

One question that came up at today’s sessions was pretty basic but rather important: how, exactly, would one define liberal internationalism? It’s one of those terms that foreign policy wonks like to throw around, but often means very different things to different people.

[So what’s your definition, smart guy?–ed. A marriage between the pursuit of liberal purposes (security, free trade, human rights, rule of law, democracy promotion, etc.) and the use of institutionalist means to pursue them (multilateral institutions of various stripes — not only the UN, but NATO or the G-7 as well).]

Why should foreign policy wonks be the only ones to debate this question? Readers, have at it.

I’ve written a variety of posts that touch on this topic (e.g., this one, this other one, this one here, and yet another one). My main concern with Dan’s definition is that he reduces the role of institutions to a “means” of spreading liberalism; certainly many liberal internationalists would view international institutions as an ends as well: liberalism’s writ spreads governance and law at the expense of international anarchy.

Beyond such objections, I wonder how far we can actually push the whole “what’s the best definition” question. Does liberal internationalism have an “essence,” or is it a shifting configuration of policies and rationales? Wilson’s “liberal internationalism” surely looks different from FDR’s, let alone George W. Bush’s.

Filed as:


Neocons, liberals, realists, and all that

A few days ago Younghusband posted some thoughts about an old post of mine, in which I argued that, from an IR theory perspective, “neoconservativism” is not an alternative vision of international politics on par with realism and liberalism. I further claimed that neoconservativism shares more with the liberal than the realist tradition of IR theory.

Younghusband asked, in essence, if neocons were leftists (let’s put aside jokes about old Trotskyites changing their words but not their tune, at least for the moment). Younghusband’s commentators pointed out that we shouldn’t equate IR theories, such as liberalism and realism, with political ideologies or specific policies. Nathan, of Registan put it this way: “realism and liberalism in the IR sense should primarily be understood as theories rather than political positions.”

I agree, but with important qualifications.

I cannot stress enough the importance of not conflating IR theories with contemporary political ideologies or with concrete policies. This is a common mistake made by undergraduates in “Introduction to International Politics” classes. Realism and liberalism, in their various incarnations, are claims about the key processes and mechanisms that operate in international politics.

At the same time, realism and IR liberalism are not ideologically neutral. Both involve some important wagers about world politics. IR liberals generally believe that force and coercion can be transcended (or, if you prefer, ‘tamed’) through some combination of international institutions, norms, democratization, etc. Realists disagree. They further endorse a realpolitik approach to international relations that subordinates the pursuit of, for example, liberal values to reason of state. When core state interests aren’t at stake, however, realists believe that states can pursue more traditional values. Thus, John Mearsheimer argues that US intervention in Rwanda would’ve been just fine.

It should come as no surprise, then, that IR liberalism fits more comfortably than realism within the ideological frameworks of political-theoretic liberalism, while one can find elements of Burkean conservativism and philosophical republicanism in the realist tradition. Yet one can be an American-style liberal and generally endorse a realist conception of international processes, and one can be an American-style conservative but side with IR liberalism when it comes to a belief in the pacifying effects of trade and democracy. It doesn’t help matters, of course, that American conceptions of “liberal” and “conservative” have a very complicated relationship with the liberal and conservative political-theoretic tradition.

So, is neoconservativism and IR theory or an ideology? The correct answer is “both.” Neoconservatives make a number of wagers about international political processes, from which they draw policy prescriptions. Some of these are superficially realist, such as a skepticism of international institutions, but I read their underlying criticisms as deriving from a liberal perspective. For them, international institutions would be fine if they weren’t dominated by the wrong sort of states, if they lived up to their responsibilities in terms of promoting human rights, and if they weren’t corrupt and subject to the worst sort of bureaucratic pathologies. Institutions don’t have intrinsic value for neoconservatives, nor do necons believe that they necessarily grease the wheels of US hegemony. Instead, they should be judged entirely on whether they hurt or hinder American efforts to promote a more liberal economic and political order. From my perspective, this sounds pretty liberal – in the IR sense – even if it leads to courses of action that align with realist policy prescriptions.

When we examine neoconservativism as an IR theory, however, the same caveats I discussed above with respect to IR liberalism and realism apply. A neoconservative theory of world politics is not the same thing as the specific policies implemented by the Bush administration.

Steven Hurst makes this point well in “Myths of Neoconservativism: George W. Bush’s ‘Neo-conservative’ Foreign Policy Revisited’ (International Politics 42,1, March 2005, pp. 75-96). Drawing upon Daalder’s and Lindsay’s typology in America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy, Hurst argues that Bush foreign policy is more driven by “conservative nationalism” than by “neoconservativism.” He tags both approaches as broadly “realist.” I don’t agree with his characterization of neoconservativism, but I think there is a very close affinity between elements of realist thought and “conservative nationalism.”

The takeaway point for us is that neoconservativism is not only a form of IR liberalism, but also has a good deal in common with ideological liberalism. The specific policies adopted by the Bush adminsitration, however, do not represent a pure translation of either ideology or of IR theoretical claims into practice. Foreign policy is, after all, a product of actual politics… with all the resulting messiness, contradictions, and compromises.

Filed as:,, ,


Balancing and the balance of power, part 1

On Tuesday I posted a quotation from one of Peter Golden’s articles on Central Asian steppe formations. The entry received some interesting commentary, but may have struck some of our readers – particularly those who don’t know me – as a bit odd. How relevant can pre-Cinggisid steppe dynamics be to the more contemporary subject matter of international relations?

Pretty relevant, actually.

This is a first installment in a series of posts that clarify why they matter through a discussion of the current state of theory and evidence about the inevitability of balance-of-power politics.


Realism is, arguably, the most venerable framework for understanding international relations. Aspects of realist thought can be found in the writings of Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Sun Tzu, andThucydides. I’ve already discussed the core claims of realism here at the Duck, but one of the most common arguments found in realist theory is that prudent states ought to pursue balance-of-power politics.

The basic idea is that if a state, or coalition of states, begins to amass enough power to threaten another state’s autonomy, the other state should respond by forming countervailing alliances or developing its own capabilities. I often illustrate this to my classes using the following pictures. They show four states – A, B, C, and D – represented at circles. The bigger the circle, the more powerful the state.

Here are the four states at the start of the process:

All things being equal (which they never are – more on this later), B,C, and D should respond to A’s power by forming an alliance:

A’s power is checked, the system is in balance.

But let’s say that, over time A’s power declines and C’s is on the upswing, such that the distribution of power between the four states starts to look like this:

The logic of the balance of power would dictate a shift in alliances, such that A, B, and D would ally against C:

These diagrams only represent balancing alliances – they don’t represent efforts at balancing through developing one’s own military capabilities. A lot of the debate about Chinese military spending pivots around the question of whether China is starting to balance against the US in this fashion, while some argue that its current foreign policy might constitute a kind of “early stage” balancing as well.

This is, more or less, the vision of the balance of power we get in Machiavelli’s and Guicciardini’s discussions of both correct and mistaken policies adopted by Italian rulers during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Here’s Guicciardini:

it was easy to maintain an alliance contracted in the names of Ferdinand, King of Naples, Giovan Galeazzo, Duke of Milan, and the Republic of Florence in defense of their states. …. The principal aim of the pact was to prevent the Venetians from becoming any more powerful since they were undoubtedly stronger than any of the allies alone, but much weaker than all of them together. … The fact that they [the Venetians] had aspired toward Italian hegemony had been very clearly shown at various times… (The History of Italy, p. 8)

Here’s Machiavelli:

King Louis was brought into Italy by the ambition of the Venetians, who expected by his coming to get control of half the state of Lombardy. …. By taking Lombardy, the king quickly regained the reputation lost by Charles. Genoa yielded, and the Florentines turned friendly; the marquis of Mantua, the duke of Ferrara, the Bentivogli (of Bologna), the countess Forlì, the lords of Faenza, Pesaro… and the people of Lucca, Camerino, Piombino, and Siena all sought him out with professions of friendship. At the point the Venetians began to see the folly of what they had done, since in order to gain for themselves a couple of districts in Italy, they had now made the king [Louis] master of a third of Italy. (The Prince, Book III)

European theorizing about the balance of power picks up markedly in the seventeenth century, but really takes off in the eighteenth.

The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) mentions fears about the impact on the European balance of power if France and Spain were united as a cause of the war – and the prevention of that union as a basis for peace:

“II. That all fears that the Realms of France and Spain might ever be conjoined in one Person shall be allayed, and that the peace herein convened between the two Powers shall be firmly established and the proper balance of forces ever guaranteed and peace thereby ensured, His Catholic Majesty does here reiterate and reaffirm the abdication of all His rights to the Crown of France. Hereto were appended the Act of Abdication, the resolution of the Cortes, the Royal Decree naming the House of Savoy as lawful heirs and successors to the Spanish Throne, the Acts of Renunciation made by the French Royal Family of all Their claims and rights to the Throne of Spain, and the epistle of His Most Christian Majesty.

By the middle of the eighteenth century a similar notion of the balance of power is extremely prevalent in European writings about what we would now call “international affairs.”

A fair number of international relations scholars argue that realist conceptions of the balance of power were relatively consistent until the 1960s and 1970s. In that period, international-relations theorists, influenced by the rise of systemic theorizing in the social sciences (from structural-functional anthropology and sociology to cybernetic theory), really start to talk about “balance-of-power systems” as a way of ordering international politics with its own distinctive logics and processes. The apogee of this trend was Kenneth Waltz’s seminal Theory of International Politics, published in 1979. Waltz’s argument, in essence, is that the anarchical nature of international politics exerts strong pressures on states to adopt policies that, in aggregate, produce recurrent balances of power at the level of the international system. To quote one of my working papers:

The basic contours of structural-realist theory are familiar to most scholars of international relations. Structural realists argue that the international system is anarchical, meaning that no actor has the authority to command obedience from other actors. Anarchical orders, in turn, are governed by principles of self-help. As Waltz argues, “units in the condition of anarchy – be they people, corporations, states or whatever – must rely on the means they can make for themselves.” Since self-help systems require states to place their security before other considerations – whether domestic welfare or the drive for universal domination – states are primed to pay attention to changes in relative capabilities. The only way to ensure survival is to prevent any sate, or coalition of states, from developing the capabilities to subordinate other actors in the system. Thus, actors may seek to counterbalance changes in relative power by expanding their own capabilities (internal balancing) or forming countervailing coalitions (external balancing). Processes of competition and socialization tend to bring actors into conformity with these expectations, because states that fail to pay attention to relative power become marginal to the workings of the system. The net result is that international politics are driven by the balance-of-power mechanism and characterized by the recurrent formation of balancing equilibria.

Many international-relations scholars see Waltz’s structural-realist theory as a major departure from “classical realism,” specifically in terms of how he treats the balance of power. The argument goes that, for Waltz, the balance of power is a basic mechanism of international politics; for many classical realist it was more of a “strategy states should pursue.” Waltz departs in a number of ways – not least of which is his commitment to systems theory – from older realists and theorists of the balance of power, but the argument isn’t as different as people often suppose. If you boil Waltz down to his policy prescriptions, you’ll find him arguing ‘ignore the balance of power at your peril.’ Which is pretty much what Guicciardini and Machiavelli argued.

It would be difficult to understate the influence of structural realism on international-relations theory over the last quarter century. Although only a minority of scholars, including realists, are anything close to being orthodox Waltzians, structural realism profoundly shaped the development of its current mainline rivals: liberalism and constructivism. A lot of seminal constructivist work, for example, is virtually incomprehensible outside of the context of a critique of structural-realist theory.

Although a lot of abuse gets heaped on structural realism, it is actually a pretty compelling and sophisticated theory (Stacie Goddard and I explain why in a recent article). Along with other approaches that stress the balance of power as a fundamental force in international relations, it would seem to have a lot going for it.

Or does it?

If the balance of power is not a central feature of international relations, there are tremendous implications for US foreign policy and for the future of international relations.

As I shall discuss in the next installment, there is a growing body of evidence – or at least a growing number of scholarly writing – that Waltz’s balance-of-power mechanism, and the balance of power more generally, doesn’t deserve a central place in our understanding of the dynamics of world politics.

Filed as:, , , and


© 2021 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑