Domestic Factors and Structure: Competing Approaches to International Politics

December 11, 2008

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.

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