Since the events of September 11, 2001, the question of terrorism and its effects on the primacy of the state in interstate politics has been vigorously debated among international relations theorists. Virtually all analyses of terrorism seek to formulate a response to the tactic through an understanding its origins. It is in the proposed response that scholars of international politics reveal their position on the issue of state centrality as a unit of analysis. Realist and neo-realist scholars, for instance, argue that states are the actors most equipped for combating terrorism via interstate competition. By and large, they believe that terrorism is a strategic tactic employed for political ends; thus placing terrorism in direct conflict with states. The diverse liberal school, on the other hand, attributes terrorism to a wide range of factors, from poor education and poverty to the effects of undemocratic rule and culture. Liberals’ solution to terrorism is often the mobilization of informal and formal international institutions to combat its cultural and/or economic symptoms. In this paper, I contend that the aim of terrorism is the delegitimization of the afflicted state in the domestic sphere for the purpose of achieving specific political goals. Terrorism’s assault on the internal perception of state legitimacy, however, does not undermine the state as the primary actor in international relations since they are the only unit of social organization endowed with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, to borrow a phrase from sociologist Max Weber. The delegitimization of the state by terrorist violence, in other words, compels states to reaffirm their legitimacy through reassertions of their sovereignty.

To support my argument, I will review the texts of scholars representing the prominent schools’ discussions on terrorism. For this purpose, I have chosen to examine the research of Robert A. Pape, Michael Mousseau, and Donald Puchala. Though the scholars persuasively present their arguments, each approach has significant flaws. With this in mind, I blend the two strongest arguments in order to substantiate my hypothesis.

Terrorism is popularly viewed as the result of the irrational fanaticism of individuals and groups adhering to strictly apolitical cultural or religious dogma. In “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” Robert A. Pape rejects this reasoning entirely. Instead, he theorizes that terrorism, and specifically suicide terrorism, is an entirely rational tool for terrorist groups. By examining all publicized suicide terrorist attacks between 1980 and 2001, Pape determines that suicide terrorism has been a historically effective tactic for the achievement of political goals. In most cases, terrorist groups seek the removal of foreign military forces from a homeland or they struggle to secure minority rights. In the article, Pape elucidates the manner in which terrorists rationally time and target their attacks in order to maximize the political effect of violence. If, to use an example from the study, Hamas believes that Israel is not uphold an agreement to remove Israeli Defense Forces units from the West Bank, Hamas will employ suicide terrorism in an effort to coerce the Israeli government to implement the withdrawal. Historically, Israel has capitulated in the face of suicide attacks. Suicide terrorism, in sum, is a strategic political tool. The success rate of terror in political struggles in the past accordingly encourages its use against states by disgruntled groups in the future. Despite documenting the utility of terrorism, Pape predicts that it ultimately fails to be a truly significant political tool because it can only achieve modest aims. States, he says, will endure immeasurable suffering if their core national interests are threatened.

Although Pape persuasively argues that suicide terrorism is a strategic political instrument, I find his conclusion logically problematic. In the body of the article, Pape assumes a pragmatic hierarchy of state interests. Some interests are more important to national interest than others and, if need be, can be abandoned. In the conclusion, however, he basically claims that states have certain concrete and nonnegotiable national interests.[1] If one adopts the position, as he does, that all political actors, whether terrorist organizations or states, are driven by the rational pursuit of their interests, then all interests must be core interests. That is, interests are undifferentiated because political actors only pursue policies that enhance their power. Pape’s argument, which is by-and-large cogent, requires further clarification on this possible contradiction.

In contrast to Pape, Michael Mousseau attributes terrorism to a clash of economic cultures in “Market Civilization and Its Clash with Terror.” In this article, he contends that two types of economies exist in the world, market and client. Borrowing from the work of sociologists, economists, and anthropologists, he claims that each economic structure produces certain traits that are inhered within the populace.[2] As follows, Mousseau identifies client economies as structures that operate on trust-based personal relationships within an in-group. Consequently, an inclusion-exclusion dichotomy underlies social relations of patron-client societies, breeding suspicion – if not enmity – for groups external to the patron-client relationship. Conversely, market economies create societies based on contractual obligations and instill liberal values such as individualism, openness, tolerance, and cooperation within a people. Basically, client economies are exclusive and resistant to external pressures to change whereas market economies are inclusive and welcoming to change. As market economies have expanded through globalization, Mousseau says, the peoples of client-economies have violently responded as conditioned by the client-patron culture. To resolve the conflict between client and market cultures, Mousseau recommends that market states create and work within supranational institutions to facilitate and guide the transformation of client economies in market economies.[3]

While Mousseau’s model is initially compelling, I believe it ultimately falls short on four accounts. First, he depoliticizes terrorism. For him, terrorism is a gut reaction to the disturbance of atavistic socio-cultural relations by the global spread of market conditions and not a political tool as Pape empirically demonstrates. Second, Mousseau overemphasizes institutions’ capacity independent, transformative action. This misidentification leads him to implicitly claim that the sovereignty of client-structured states can be circumvented by institutions. Third, he makes an illogical leap when he writes that market institutions should enact polices that transform client-patron socio-economies into market economies. This assertion is problematic because he identifies market economies as both the source of and solution to terrorism. Would not an attempt at such a conversion create more violence? Finally, and most importantly, his hypothesis is un-testable. Mousseau’s claims are purely speculative since he offers no empirical or quantitative documentation. Instead, his research is an amalgamation of purely theoretical work produced by a variety of social scientists.

In the article “Of Pirates and Terrorists: What Experience and History Teach,” Donald Puchala loosely equates the current struggle against terrorism to that of piracy in the 17th and 18th centuries. Though the goals of piracy and terrorists differ (the former seeks economic ends whereas the latter political), he says that the means are similar. Both are cellular entities that operate outside the purview of states and they both attempt to achieve their ends through fear and asymmetrical violence. Moreover, they recruit from the underprivileged classes and operate from a secure location. The most important impediment to combating piracy, he claims, was the inability of the international community to outlaw the practice. While states never negotiated an agreement, the British, as the globe’s dominant power, unilaterally outlawed piracy and, therefore, could legitimately pursue and eliminate pirates irrespective of their nationality. He writes, “Historically speaking, might did in fact repeatedly set things right.”[4] Puchala continues drawing parallels between terrorism and piracy, contending that former can be confronted in a manner similar to the latter. The solution to terrorism, then, is the pro-active pursuit of terrorists by a dominant state. In fact, the threat to the state’s national interests compels it to enhance its capabilities to exert power. At the same time, he says, the fight against terrorism can be bolstered by the negotiation of a universally acceptable definition of terrorism, cooperation, and the maintenance of a stable international system.

Though Puchala relies on some unsubstantiated assumptions concerning the socio-economic origins of terrorism, such as its support from and recruitment of the underprivileged, I believe that he arrives at the most compelling conclusion of the three scholars reviewed here for two related reasons. First, Puchala rightly observes that terrorism, like piracy, will never be eradicated. Instead, it experiences phases of frequency and latency. Second, he makes the key recommendation that states should cooperate if they wish to expeditiously eradicate terrorism when it is prevalent. By synthesizing these two observations, Puchala’s general position concerning the primacy of the state in interstate politics can be abstracted. For him, the state is the dominant actor in the international system because formal or informal international institutions exist at the will of states. That is, institutions do not formulate an institutional logic independent from the interest of states or, more specifically, the dominant states.

In my opinion, none of these scholars, despite their efforts, comprehensively explicate the link between the motivations of terrorism and the appropriate response to terrorism. Yet these studies are not for naught. Although Mousseau presents an entirely speculative theory, Pape and Puchala empirically identify the origins and responses to terrorism, respectively. If the convincing elements of these two articles are combined, a more compelling argument can be produced. With this in mind, I propose the following: Terrorism, as strategic tactic, attempts to delegitimize the state by undermining its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In order to guard against the state’s further delegitimization in the eyes of its polity – and therefore redeem its ability to retain and enhance its national interests – the state, as the primary actor in the national system, is compelled to pursue terrorists unilaterally or through multilateral or international institutions as determined by their best interests. In the current struggle against terrorism, states are still the central actors in the international system. Though institutions may play an active role in the conflict, they only do so at the will of states.


[1] Robert A. Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” The American Political Science Review 97 (2003): 335.

[2] Michael Mousseau, “Market Civilization and Its Clash with Terror,” International Security 27 (2002-2003): 6.

[3] Ibid, 25-26.

[4] Donald Puchala, “Of Pirates and Terrorists: What Experience and History Teach,” Contemporary Security Policy 26 (2005): 13.

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An enduring debate among theorists of international politics concerns the appropriate level of analysis from which to examine interstate relations. Most scholars delineate three levels: the individual, the state, and the systemic. Academics preferring systemic analyses focus on the forces applied by the structure upon the states in the system. Their approach disregards domestic factors entirely. The ordering principle of the system’s structure – whether it is ordered by anarchy or capitalism – determines how states will act. The state is a “black box,” with its various internal components devoid of any agency. The literature originating from the neorealist school is the most well-known application of the structuralist approach. Their model of international relations explains the dynamics of the system with an examination of balance of power politics. The anarchical structure, as the ordering principle of the international system, compels policymakers, consciously or unconsciously, to balance against their competitors in the system. On the other hand, the first two levels of analysis – the individual and the state – acknowledge the effect of domestic factors such as the bureaucracy, “the people”, the leader’s personality, multinational corporations, non-profit interests, and/or culture, on international politics. Liberals are the most egregious employers of individual and/or state approaches, as evidenced by their extensive writings on Democratic Peace and Interdependence theories. I believe, however, that other schools of thought more persuasively argue that international politics should be approached with a focus on domestic factors. Rational-choice models, such as selectorate theory, and cultural models are viable alternatives that integrate domestic concerns into studies of state interactions.

The split between the domestic institutionalists and structuralists is deep but, in reality, the reductionism of each approach distorts examinations of international politics. The divide is not irreconcilable; rather, it can be resolved by integrating the structuralist and domestic modes of analysis. In this paper, I argue that domestic factors influence policymakers’ foreign policy decisions and that the structure of the international system, on occasion, also influences their decisions. Whether the structure’s influence on policymakers is conscious or unconscious is determined by their competency. While policy elites are active agents in the system, I contend that the structure remains the best determinant of the outcome of their decisions. To demonstrate my hypothesis, I will critically review the texts of two well-known proponents of domestic institutionalism: Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s The Logic of Political Survival. I chose these books because each acknowledges the influence of domestic factors while avoiding the idealism endemic to liberalism. While I differentiate these scholars’ understanding of core concepts from liberalism, it should be clear that my primary goal is to bridge the gulf between the domestic institutionalist and structuralist approaches.

In The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington contends that the world’s future conflicts will emerge from de facto borders separating the world’s great cultures – which are defined by the dominant religions. Though he is not a liberal theorist, Huntington appropriates the idea of interdependence – a concept often championed as a method of ensuring peace in the system. However, instead of viewing interdependence as a tool for conflict mitigation, he claims that interdependence via globalization produces discontents such as rural-urban migration and the West’s attempt to universalize its values. Adding the fact that “it is human to hate,”[1] globalization produces conflict between great cultures, each of which are attempting to assert their cultural identity globally. Essentially, Huntington argues that globalization intensifies identity politics at the global level which, in turn, fuels recognition of difference and the demonization of the “other”. The increasingly violent schism between culturally differentiated groups is, therefore, a product, of interdependence. The influence of a cultural identity has, in the past, proved to be a strong influence on states approach to international relations. Nazism, to use a worn example, typifies the state’s embodiment of cultural recognition and assertion on the international stage. Identity can be formally or informally manifested in state institutions or the leader’s ideology and is, therefore, a very real force in international relations.

Bueno de Mesquita, on the other hand, constructs an explanatory model of international relations that is indifferent to effects of culture and identity. His model, known as selectorate theory, predicts the outcome of interstate state conflict based on the relationship between national leaders and the group empowered with the ability to choose the leader, known as the selectorate. A sub-group of the selectorate is the winning coalition, which is the faction that supports a leader’s rise to power. In a modern democracy, the selectorate is the entire citizenry whereas in an authoritarian regime it may be restricted to a cadre of generals or an exclusive. The winning coalition in the United States’ most recent presidential election, though, would only be comprised of Democratic voters. According to selectorate theory, the leader, as an individual interested in remaining in power, must allocate public resources to meet the needs and or desires of members of the winning coalition to secure their continued support. If the leader is unable to retain the loyalty of his supporters, a challenger from the selectorate may persuade a sufficient number of the winning coalition to defect to his coalition.

In the realm of international politics, the leader, whose sole desire is to remain in power, pursues policies that allow him to maintain or enhance the level of returns to the winning coalition. According to Bueno de Mesquita, leaders of large coalition systems warring with other states are likely to expend more resources in the war effort because the coalition expects to receive significant returns. Large coalition systems also provide cover for the leader because of the difficulty for challengers to persuade more individuals to their cause than in a small coalition system. Concepts such as loyalty and affinity make attempts to challenge the leader in a large coalition system even more complicated. Therefore, large coalition systems are insulated and can fight for longer durations. Small coalition systems, in contrast, are less likely to exert a maximal effort in a military conflict because there is an enhanced and immediate threat to the leader if he diverts resources from the winning coalition to support the conflict. Thus, authoritarian governments are more likely than democracies to lose wars simply because of effort. The observation that democratic leaders are obliged to aggressively pursue victory also explains the reluctance of democracies to engage in war. This assertion directly refutes liberalism’s account of Democratic Peace Theory, which postulates that democracy cultivates a culture of political civility that influences policy elites and institutionalizes liberal economic policies promoting economic interaction and, ultimately, positive interdependence between states.

While Bueno de Mesquita and Huntington cogently interpret the manner in which domestic factors influence the practice of international politics, their theories are deficient because each discounts the power exerted by the structure upon states. In the opening pages of The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington instills in the reader the belief that cultural conflict is all but inevitable. He fails to acknowledge, however, that certain informal and formal institutions exist within the international system to mediate conflict. Culture may determine how states, or factions within states, view and react towards the global community, but the structure will determine the outcome of those actions. Balance of power politics, which only receives cursory mention in his book, is transcultural. In his discussion of China’s expected rise to hegemony, he unites present day Japan and the United States as balancers. As China becomes more powerful, Huntington assumes that Japan will become culturally aware and join the Sinic sphere; thus, the United States will fail to balance. Huntington’s framework of cultural schisms, though, forces him to discount the possibility of the United States and Russia, as members to two distinct cultures, cooperating in an attempt to balance China in the event that Japan defects. The adage “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” has remained resilient in the face of repeated arguments that ideological, cultural, or religious divides will hinder the ability of differentiated states to cooperate. One need only point to the US-China alliance during the Cold War or the Iran-Israel relationship during the Iran-Iraq conflict for evidence. Moreover, Huntington’s prediction of inter-civilizational conflict ignores the normative acceptance of international law by the units of the system and states emphasis on routine diplomatic contacts. Culture may determine state policies, but the structure of the system will determine the outcome of the unit’s actions. Balance of power politics will quash any attempt for domination and general recognition of international law and diplomacy will impede attempts to engage in active military conflict.

The Logic of Political Survival suffers from a similar inattention to structural factors. Policy elites need not be aware of concepts such as balance of power or international law to be effected by them. The relationship between the leader, winning coalition, and selectorate is a compelling model for explicating state (in)action at the international level but not as a predictor of states’ reactions. The structure strongly influences how other states will respond to the singular state. It may be true that democracies are more victorious in conflicts against authoritarian governments because they are large coalition systems, but their victory can only occur if permitted by the structure’s institutions. In other words, accurate examinations of international relations cannot be achieved through the abstraction of a state from the system. At the present time, the majority of states in the system are large coalition systems and, in accordance with Bueno de Mesquita’s logic, large coalition systems are unlikely to engage in military conflict because they have much to lose if they do not win. If the regime types were more equitably split between large coalition system’s and small coalition systems, the latter can be expected to ally in order to balance against a large coalition system at a reduced cost. Bueno de Mesquita’s hypothesis is empirically valid today but vulnerable if regimes trend away from large coalition systems. Structural examinations are more likely than selectorate theory to provide an enduring model for deciding the outcome of international politics.

In sum, many scholars view the domestic and structural modes of analysis as incongruous and, consequently, fail to grasp the legitimate contributes of each approach. The fact that each approach has utility necessitates a convergence of the two. Domestic factors undoubtedly have a considerable influence on states’ actions in the international system. The final result of international politics, though, is best predicted through a consideration of the system’s structural forces and not domestic policymaking processes.


[1] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of World Order (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 130.