A Comparative Argument for “The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics”

October 22, 2008

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.


One Response to “A Comparative Argument for “The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics””

  1. dunne101 said

    Kenneth Waltz’s text is the ‘Theory of International Politics’ not relations……

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