For many years, scholars have viewed modernity as a category exclusive to the Western world while non-Western states ostensibly remain in a near inert, pre-modern stage of political, social, and economic development. These traditional academics contend that in recognizing their backwards state, non-Western states engage in a continuous process of borrowing “modern” concepts and ways of life from the West, since modernity originated in the West, in an effort to bridge the divide between modernity and pre-modernity. Well established academics of the Islamic world, such as James Gelvin, have contributed to the prevalence of the traditionalist discourse, asserting that the Islamic world continuously looked westward, borrowing “modern” ideas in an attempt to bridge its various disparities with Europe and stave off Western domination. In his examination of the region in The Modern Middle East: A History, Gelvin labels the western orientation “defensive developmentalism.”[1]

In A Modern History of the Islamic World, however, Reinhardt Schulze departs from the mainstream perspective and analyzes the political discourse surrounding the social, political, and economic changes in the 20th Century Islamic world without resorting to the archaic and Orientalist notion of modernity. Instead, Schulze founds his argument upon a belief of a universal modernity defined as “universal time”. To put it more precisely, his modernity occurs in global simultaneity, irregardless of socio-political and geographic location.[2] Modernity is a set of conditions to which nations, as a collective, must respond; thus, no nation or region maintains a monopoly over modernity. For example, the prevalence of ideas such as nationalism, constitutionalism, and civil law in the Islamic world’s political discourse in the early 20th century does not, Schulze suggests, indicate an acceptance of “Western” concepts as there is nothing inherently “Western” about them. These concepts could have equally originated elsewhere. Further contributing to the common miscategorization of the non-Western world, and the Islamic world in particular, as pre-modern is the West’s inability to correctly translate the Islamic world’s approach to modernity, which has been often shrouded in an Islamic discourse. When the Western conception of modernity has been defined to a significant extent by secularism in social and political affairs, a reliance on religious, and in this case a specifically Islamic, justification for contemporary responses to modernity become difficult for western observers to comprehend as modern. This lack of cross-cultural synchronicity, and the shortcomings of Gelvin’s approach, becomes apparent when examining primary sources from nationalist thinkers from the Islamic word.

During the Islamic world’s nationalist era, Schulze identifies competing discourses of nationalism, the most popular of those providing reasoning for nationalist and constitutionalist movements through a return to the organic values of Islam. Typifying these ideas were the Salafists, who believed that deviations were the result of the fracturing of Islamic theology resulting from the end of the reign of the rightly guided caliphs. For instance, Muhammad ‘Abduh, an Egyptian proponent of modernist Islam, contends the uniqueness of Islam rests in the Qur’an’s promotion of rational judgment, but the variety of interpretations of the Holy Book since the death of ‘Uthman have been diluted by other philosophies, which lack the rationality Islam provides.[3] He writes, “A glimmer of Islam, it is said, illuminated the west, but its full light is in the east. Yet precisely there its own people lie in the deepest glom [sic] and cannot see.”[4] In his argument, ‘Abduh implies that a unification of Islamic world behind a purified conception of the faith would allow it to respond “rationally” to the challenges posed by modernity. The argument complements his essay on the change of laws in the Islamic world from arbitrary law to of civil law, which purportedly occurs only when polities gain a capacity to challenge habits that are anachronistic within the prevailing zeitgeist. It is safe to assume that ‘Abduh perceives Islam as central to the transformation of his society.[5] It is important to note that references to western ideas and values are absent from his work, which directly contribute to a refutation of Gelvin’s assertion regarding “defensive developmentalism” as the driving force of the modern Middle East, which of course includes the nationalist era.[6] Moreover, Gelvin’s sweeping categorization of the nationalists under the rubric of “defensive developmentalism” homogenizes what was, as Schulze recognizes, a plurality of movements espousing complex and varying nationalist programs.

Abduh’s mutually influential contemporary ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, a Syrian born journalist, found an outlet for his disdain for the adulterated state of the Islamic world in a fictional account of meetings in Mecca. He too identifies a “stagnation” resulting from theological, political, and moral divisions in the Muslim civilization that must be remedied through pan-Arabism and a return to Arab-centric interpretations of the faith. Notably, al-Kawakibi, like Abduh and, as I will mention momentarily, Na’ini, advocates the implementation of civil law and accountable rulers.[7] To make this example concise, Al-Kawakibi provides another instance where Gelvin’s argument falls short. The diffusion of interpretations of Islam, according to Al-Kawakibi, was identified as the central reason for the “stagnation” of the Muslim world. The inculcation of a purified Islam among the masses was again seen as the sole way in which the Islamic could be institutionally modern.

The Iranian religious scholar Muhammad Husayn Na’ini also advocated a return to Islamic scholarship, yet while ‘Abduh and al-Kawakibi explicated their belief that a return to the fundamentals of Islam would guide the path towards confronting general issues of modernity and promote pan-Arabic or pan-national Islamic unity, Na’ini utilized Islamic theology to directly influence Iran’s 1906 constitutional revolution. In his political tract, Na’ini argues in favor of constitutionalism insisting that absolute power, as a tyrant on Earth possesses, belongs solely to God; thus, for a man to wield such power is an “affront to the Creator and His creation.”[8] Furthermore, he attributes the weakness of Islamic society in the modern world to tyrannical – or “possessive”, as he labels it – rule. The absolute and arbitrary rule of the tyrant is juxtaposed against a government in which a ruler is restricted by the citizens’ participation in the decision-making processes of government – ensuring that citizens’ rights are not violated by the ruler.[9] Na’ini frequently borrows from the Qu’ran and the hadith to bolster the Islamic foundation of his denunciation of tyrannical rule and oppression, appropriating verses referencing the Pharaoh and the Israelites. “So let the Israelites come with us and do not oppress them,”[10] he recites while placing it within the modern context. To end the scourge of absolutism, Na’ini writes, the people must recognize its un-Islamic quality and enter into a cooperative pact with the government protected by a constitution. Again, he quotes the Holy Book: “Verily, God does not change the state of a people til they change themselves.”[11]

For these three reformists, the first step towards achieving a common good, which they identify as the construction of legal-governmental orders that are responsive to the demands imposed by modernity, is a realization by the masses of historically-located deviation from the fundamentals of Islam. To be modern, in their sense, is to possess a government justifiable under traditional Islamic teachings. If a common good is central to the modern nationalist movements as Schulze contends, [12] the reasons for dissynchronicity between Western and non-Western understandings of modernity is elucidated. The utilization of an Islamic discourse for the purposes of promoting the ideas embodied in the nationalist fervor of the early to mid 20th century does not, as the West has assumed, indicate that the Islamic world is anti-secular and pre-modern. Instead, the return to Islam was the catalyst for the region’s drive to modernity and the foundation of nationalisms.

When examining primary sources emanating from the Islamic world’s nationalist era, Schulze’s nuanced argument ultimately prevails over that of Gelvin. By recognizing the importance of reintegrating the notion of “universal time” in the historiography of the modern Islamic world, Schulze has accurately represented the internal dynamics of that civilization and produced universal intelligibility concerning the modern Islam world.

[1] James Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 74.

[2] Reinhardt Schulze, A Modern History of the Islamic World (New York: New York University Press, 2002) 3.

[3] Muhammad ‘Abduh, “Laws Should Change in Accordance with the Conditions of Nations and The Theology of Unity,” in Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook, ed. Charles Kurzman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 58.

[4] Ibid, 60.

[5] Ibid, 54.

[6] Gelvin, 203.

[7] Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, “Summary of the Causes of Stagnation,” in Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook, ed. Charles Kurzman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 153.

[8] Muhammad Husayn Na’ini, “Government in the Islamic Perspective,” in Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook, ed. Charles Kurzman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 117.

[9] Ibid, 119.

[10] Ibid, 123.

[11] Ibid, 121.

[12] Gelvin, 198.


Neo-realism is a structural paradigm that explains interstate conflict as an outgrowth of the anarchical structure of the international system. Without a central authority, sovereign states are forced into a constant state of competition and employ self-interested policies in order to retain their sovereignty and, ultimately, survive. Invariably, a hierarchy of power among states exists in the system. The strongest of the states, labeled great powers, are central to the neo-realist model since they maintain the stability of the international system by engaging in balance of power politics. Beneath neo-realism’s broad assumptions, though, exists a distinct schism between the “defensive realists” and the “offensive realists.” If, hypothetically, the president of a nation announced that he adopted a foreign policy based on the defensive and offensive realist models because of their foundation in an absolutely anarchical system, his state’s interaction with the outside world would be erratic and contradictory. In order to demonstrate this hypothesis, I will follow three related trajectories. First, I will summarize defensive and offensive realism’s main points with the purpose of displaying their incompatibility when forming a comprehensive foreign policy. Then, I will address the deficiencies of the neo-realist approach to international relations. Finally, I will conclude by considering two alternative theories available to leaders and policymakers when determining policy and lobbying for the one with the most utility.

The literature produced by Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer, the preeminent scholars of the defensive realist and offensive realists schools, respectively, share neo-realism’s core assumptions but differ in their expectations of state action. However, the mere fact that both theorists’ believe that anarchy determines state action, that states and not individuals are the primary unit of analysis, and that the aim of all states is survival is insufficient for the construction of a coherent policy based on both their models. In neo-realism’s founding text, Theory of International Relations, Waltz explicates what is now known as defensive realism. As a defensive realist, Waltz asserts that states, in order to survive in the state of anarchy, engage in balance of power politics rather than the pursuit of dominance in the international system. Any attempt by a great power to become the dominant actor in the system is futile and potentially dangerous to its welfare because it provokes a balancing response by its great power competitors. States often balance by temporally allying with others states against the more powerful state – or less frequently through unilateral actions – via economic or military means. The impossibility of a unipolar system necessarily results in perpetual existence of a bi- or multipolar system. Within Waltz’s system of power relations, power acquisition is perceived by the states as an absolute rather than relative gain. In order to maintain parity, the acquisition of power by one state must be balanced by the other(s).

Mearsheimer, on the other hand, argues in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics that the anarchical structure of the international system, the inability of one state to predict the intentions and actions of other states, and states’ inherent desire to survive compels them to pursue hegemony. In other words, hegemony, not balance of power, is perceived by policymakers as the only means through which a state can guarantee its survival. In this model, alliances, when they do exist, are in a constant state of transience. A state is only motivated to partner with another if it helps it achieve absolute gains against its nearest rival. When the alliance becomes too politically or economically costly for either state, it is dissolved. According to Mearsheimer’s theory, though, hegemony is a doubled-edged sword. Hegemony necessarily involves expansion but, as history demonstrates, no global hegemon has existed because in their pursuit of dominance states inevitably overburden and overstretch their power. Rival states, consequently, attempt to fill the power vacuum and the model is perpetuated. Mearsheimer’s prescription for the problem of states’ drive for hegemony is simple: Instead of striving to become a global hegemon, states should aim to become a regional hegemon while enacting policies that promote balance of power politics in other regions. Despite initially rejecting Waltz’s balance of power explanation of great power interaction, Mearsheimer ultimately utilizes it to qualify hegemony’s Catch-22.

After explicating the tenets of defensive and offensive realist models of state behavior, it becomes clear that it is theoretically incompatible for a national leader to construct a foreign policy premised on the both conceptions. Even if a leader or policymaker were only to adopt the position of Waltz or Mearsheimer, they would be faced with the neo-realist misinterpretation of the international system. Contrary to central assumption of neo-realism, anarchy is not the only determinant of state behavior. One need only open the newspaper for evidence that states are subject to formal and informal constraints. Though a considerably less problematic issue than neo-realism’s reification of the system, another concern for policymakers interested in appropriating neo-realist thought is each scholar’s justification for their examination of international politics. Waltz’s analysis is aimed at producing an explanatory theory of international politics while Mearshiemer utilizes neo-realism to construct a model that is both explanatory and prescriptive. While Theory of International Relations can be manipulated into policy, it can only occur under duress and against the intentions of the author.

The most popular alternative to neo-realism among the academe is liberalism. Though liberalism is a theory that encompasses a wide array of sub-theories of international politics, liberal scholars generally believe that states’ policymaking elites choose to cooperate through international institutions in the international system. This assumption does not mean that liberals reject the idea of an anarchical system or advocate the formation of a central entity that encroaches upon the sovereignty of states. They contend, rather, that political and economic cooperation leads to interdependence which, in turn, increases the costs of conflict between states. States, as rational entities, will not engage in any action unless benefits exceed the costs. Liberals also believe that domestic politics can affect state action at the international level. The most blatant manifestation of this hypothesis is Democratic Peace Theory. According to the doctrine, liberal democracy cultivates a culture of political civility that, through social and political processes, influences policy elites and that democracy’s companion, liberal economic policies, promote economic interaction between states. While Democratic Peace Theory possesses immense potential, it overlooks the fact that democracy is a relatively new phenomenon and it fails to foresee potential conflicts between democracies of the Global South due to resource scarcity. The optimism of Democratic Peace Theory is endemic in liberalism and undermines it as a general theory of international relations. Despite their structural formation as cooperative bodies, international institutions like the United Nations are often unable to prevent conflict between states without a prolonged struggle and the idea of interdependence as the primary component of international stability, like Democratic Peace Theory, has yet to be adequately tested by history. As a result of liberalism’s deficiencies, policymakers should turn elsewhere for guidance in international politics.

By integrating neo-realist and liberal concepts, “English School” scholar Hedley Bull conceives a more enlightened theory of international politics. While he also accepts the neo-realist notion of an anarchical international system, Bull posits in The Anarchical Society that the system encompasses an ordered international society comprised of states. The differentiation between these two levels is crucial to his theory. The anarchy of the system is tempered by the acceptance of common interests, international law, and institutions by the units of international society. Bull comments, for example, that all states are interested in preserving their sovereignty; therefore, they acknowledge the common interests such as minimizing the outbreak of war and maintaining the stability of the system. The acknowledgement of these interests results in the creation of informal rules that are generally recognized by the units of international society. By acknowledging the common interest in minimizing the war, to continue the example, states will accept the norm that only a defensive war is just. To ensure that these normative rules are obeyed, states turn to institutions of international society. When Bull writes of institutions, he does not necessarily mean brick-and-mortar organization managing and dictating international society. A definition as such would be in contradiction to his acceptance of the anarchical system. Instead, he classifies balance of power politics, war, international law, great power politics, and diplomacy as institutions of the international society that contribute to the maintenance of decentralized order in international society. In a spectacular theoretical synthesis, the duality of international politics is resolved: anarchy and order exist in simultaneity.

If a leader was tasked with founding his nation’s foreign policy in one of the three theories of international politics I presented (neo-realism, liberalism, and Bull’s English School), the wisest decision would be the theory presented in The Anarchical Society. The empiricism and intricacy of Bull’s argument bares the reductionism of neo-realism and liberalism’s idealism. Moreover, the model elucidated in The Anarchical Society endows states with agency, which Waltz’s defensive realism denies. In other words, Bull recognizes the potential for dynamism in international society and among its units. By granting states agency, they can act individually, in groups, or as a whole to modify international society’s perception of common interests, rules, institutions. In addition, the informal mechanisms of the decentralized order existing at a level below the anarchic system do not necessarily force states to engage in balance of power politics. Instead, states can choose or create institutions of international society with which to maintain or transform the norms of the international society. Through simultaneous recognition of state agency and the constraints imposed by anarchy, leaders can adopt a pragmatic foreign policy that can comprehensively analyze and respond to the conflicts of international politics that threaten the welfare of their states.