According to Democratic Peace Theory, democracies do not go to war with each other. The most ardent and idealistic supporters of the proposition believe that democratic forms of governance cultivate a culture of political civility, promote transparency, responsible rule, and intertwine national economies to an extent that sustains nonviolent relationships between democracies.1 Although the theory is empirically reflective, its proponents are criticized for misidentifying the causes of peace between democracies. Scholars aligned with realist school of international political thought are the most ardent critics of the democratic peace hypothesis. The most common counter-argument advanced by realists attributes peace between democracies to the Cold War division of the world into democratic and communist blocs. To balance against the communist threat, as their argument goes, democracies naturally forged cooperative and amicable relationships. Based on this assessment, the democratic peace is the result of balance of power considerations inherent to anarchical structure of the international system and not the conditions produced by democracy.2 Both realist and democratic peace theorists ascribe the absence of war to supposedly enduring factors of their models: balance of power politics and democracy, respectively. While constructivism initially seems to support both explanations of the peace, it eventually undercuts both arguments by acknowledging the capacity of actors to change their behavior depending on their identity as determined by internal and external conditions.

Leading constructivist Alexander Wendt writes that the behavior of an agent is shaped by its experiences during the process of socialization with alters vis-à-vis institutions of the international system. If, on one hand, state A is perceived as cooperative by state B, then state B is likely to act cooperatively with state A. On the other hand, if state A is perceived as threatening by state B, then state B will not cooperate with state A. The process of socialization is continuously in flux, depending on changes to agents’ identities, alters’ perceptions, and, subsequently, agent interaction.3 At the systemic level, bilateral and multilateral interaction creates a set of social norms determining a system’s general inclination toward conflict or cooperation.

At first, constructivism seems to support the realist understanding of the democratic peace. The posturing of the two superpowers during the Cold War precipitated the division of the globe into two antagonistic blocs. For the most part, the zero-sum game resulting from great power competition compelled states to enter into cooperative a relationship with one of the great powers. The primary concern of the states, according to the realist and possibly the constructivist account, was the predatory inclinations of the two dominant states. The identity of democracies and their cooperation with like governments, then, can be wrapped up in pure power identities concerned with survival, which are not attributable to the social conditions created by democratic regimes. Constructivism ostensibly supports realism’s longue duree perspective of the democratic peace by temporally situating the democratic peace within a dialogical and historical context.

The constructivist approach to international politics, though, allows for a more flexible explanation of the peace than realism’s strict determinism. Some academics criticize realists for dismissing the influence of democracy on the democratic peace, asserting that the realist position cannot account for the continued lack of military confrontations between democracies since the end of the Cold War. Unlike realism, constructivism’s process-driven model offers a cogent response to the democratic peace counterargument. The endurance of democratic-oriented international institutions following the Cold War coupled with the mass identification of states with democracy and the absence of an alternative ideology have contributed to a process of socialization promoting democratic cooperation. State identities and the structural forces of the international system are ever-changing and influence the cooperative or conflictual behavior of state interaction. If the realist claim that realpolitik considerations obliged democratic cooperation, constructivists will respond that the dynamic social realities of international politics render such relations impermanent.

One may also find that constructivism appears to accommodate the idea that the democratic peace is the product of a democratic identity and not the simple balance of power politics explanation. A state’s identity is a product of the internal conditions produced by its internal order and their interaction with outside states. In other words, identity is complexly constructed at the national level when leaders must balance constituent preferences against their interpretation of other state’s intentions and strength. 4Another empirical analysis of democratic cooperation during the Cold War may help elucidate this contention. Within democratic societies, the acceptance of democratic ideas skews their leaders perception toward other democracies as ‘natural’ allies during the Cold War. Democracies generally share similar values and their process of socialization via the institution of the Cold War reinforced this notion. Abstractly, however, this claim is problematic. Forms of governance do not necessarily predicate the nature of interstate relationships. Democracies’, for example, notoriously allied with autocrats during the Cold War to counteract the communist threat due to shared, anti-communist identities. Simply, identity rather than regime type determines states’ capacity for harmonic relationships with others in the system.

The present dearth of military confrontation between democracies does not presuppose a continuation of the trend. Changes to international institutions or perceptions of international institutions can alter state behavior and intentions. If, hypothetically, the World Trade Organization came to be widely perceived as an exploitative and/or corrupt institution, democracies participating in the institution may revert to autarkic or protectionist economic policies. If Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye’s hypothesis that interdependence between states promotes peaceful interaction is correct, then war between all states – including democracies – is more likely to occur when the economic linkages are severed. 5 Neither is it difficult to imagine that competition over essential and scarce resources like potable water may force democratic states into military conflicts with other democracies. Or, if one accepts Samuel Huntington’s argument, tensions originating from intercultural schisms will be the catalyst for future interstate conflict, regardless of forms of governance. The cultural hostility between the West and Islam, he contends, increases the likelihood of conflict between democracies of each culture.6

In sum, the argument that democracies do not wage war against similar governments is currently empirically substantiated. It is qualitatively difficult, though, to explicate the links between the abstract affects of democracy and tangible product of peace. The realist explanation is too structurally deterministic and rigid, whereas the democratic peace account too idealistically applauds the benefits of democratic governance. In the end, constructivism offers a more refined model for analyzing the causes and endurance of democratic peace. On broad theoretical grounds, constructivism is generally more complementary towards liberal approaches of international relations. In the case of the democratic peace, constructivism exists independently in the space separating the democratic peace and realist positions.

1 David Plotke, Democracy and Boundaries: Themes in Contemporary American Politics, 100-102.

2 James Lee Ray, “Does Democracy Cause Peace,” Annual Review of Political Science 1 (1998): 37-38.

3 Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” International Organization 46 (1992): 405.

4 Robert Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization 42 (1988): 424.

5 Robert Keohane, “Theory of World Politics,” in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986): 197.

6 Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Policy 72 (1993): 32.

How Much Anarchy?

May 30, 2009

Realism and neorealism make five central claims about the international politics: 1) An international system exists; 2) The system is anarchic; 3) States are sovereign and the primary units of the system; 4) States seek power; and 5) States act rationally. While each claim complements the others, I believe that realism’s understanding of anarchy is the nucleus of the tradition’s analyses of interstate relations. In this essay, I explore the validity of the proposition that anarchy determines the nature of state interactions in the system. Ultimately, I determine that realism’s strict definition of anarchy is a beneficial tool for understanding international relations in a broad historical sense but deficient when analyzing the current era. Anarchy exists in degrees of intensity dependent on state behavior and the orientation of the great powers. Here, I distinguish two types of anarchy: hard and soft. I use the former label to describe a state of more anarchy and the latter to describe less anarchy. Of note, my use of the term realism in this study encompasses the neorealist approach.

For realists, anarchy is a product of the multitude of sovereign states within the international system. States are free to pursue courses of action without any structural restraints. Without a hierarchical structure providing rules for state interaction, states are situated in relationships of self-help and, consequently, are in direct competition with one another to secure their national interest defined as power. In the realist conception of international politics, power is both an ends and a means. The zero-sum game ignited by anarchy compels states to act rationally, otherwise there is a chance that a competitor will become more powerful and, therefore, threaten another’s national interest. Despite the omnipresence of rational-egoism in the system, cooperation is not absent from the realist model. In fact, anarchy compels states to cooperate – but only temporarily to enhance their interests. Kenneth Waltz’s defensive realism, which articulates the effects of anarchy on balance of power politics, explicates cooperation’s role in the realist framework. In order to protect national interest, Waltz says, states will ally to negate the ascending power of another. Once the power equilibrium is restored, the allied states pursue their interests independently, only to balance again in the future when one state disrupts the distribution of power.[1] International institutions do not play a role in softening realism’s anarchy because no international body exists to extricate states from the self-help principle. Basically, international institutions are a tool for enhancing national interest against the welfare of other states. Thus, zero-sum competition is an enduring feature of the international system.

From the Treaty of Westphalia’s establishment of the nation-state as the primary unit of international relations in 1648 to World War II, realism’s anarchy offers a compelling longe duree perspective of the motivations of states and interstate conflict. During that time, the insubstantial information flows between nation-states exacerbated the question of other states’ policy intentions. Realism’s strict interpretation of anarchy, however, seems anachronistic considering the technological advances of the mid- to late-twentieth century that connected nations and facilitated the integration of national economies into the complex global economy.

Contrary to the central assumption of neo-realism, anarchy is not the sole determinant of state behavior in the modern era. One need only open the newspaper for evidence that states are subject to formal and informal constraints. Liberal theorists like Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye agree that the international system is anarchic but contend that international economic institutions, though voluntary, reduce interstate tensions by linking economic welfare – a rational component of the national interest – to stable and contention-minimizing relationships.[2] In the liberal model, states are concerned with absolute gains instead of relative gains, thus rationalizing anarchy as an opportunity instead of a burden. Institutions need not be located in brick and mortar buildings; instead they can be norms widely accepted by the states in the international system. In today’s world, for example, virtually all states agree that war is only considered ‘just’ if waged for defensive purposes. By and large, the ‘institution’ of just war restrains states from aggressively pursuing military conquest.

The question that then arises is whether the tempered anarchy of the twentieth century is a temporary or permanent deviation from realism’s rigid interpretation of anarchy. Some liberals insist that institutions, once formed, acquire a logic and agenda separate from their constituent states; thus becoming pseudo-sovereign agents in the international system.[3] If this is the case, then a system defined by soft anarchy may be a constant. Another way to predict the degree of anarchy in the future is to question the effects of technological progress through history. From steamboats and the telegraph to television and the Internet, human innovation has created an increasingly interconnected and culturally homogenous world. As the globe becomes smaller, institutions are utilized to mediate between disputant agents and formulate responses to the ills produced by the virtual elimination of spatial barriers. Conversely, anarchy may be intensified by a myriad of factors – ranging from resource scarcity to violence perpetrated by non-state actors. In today’s world, it is not outlandish to imagine a state attempting to protect its national welfare from non-state militant groups by wantonly violating the sovereignty of weak and/or unwilling nations while disregarding formal and informal international institutions. In this case, a system marked by hard anarchy is likely to result.

As demonstrated in the paragraph above, predicting the future severity of anarchy is a tenuous task. One alternative model examines anarchy as the product of vacillating norms of international society. In “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” constructivist Alexander Wendt advises scholars of international relations to examine processes of state interaction instead of focusing on the conditions of interaction. The degree of anarchy in the system is determined, he says, by states’ identities as constructed by the interaction of an ego with alters. In other words, at any one time the system can be more or less cooperative based on the socialization process of states.[4]

The soft anarchy defining the current period of the international system can be attributed to the unipolar dominance of the Untied States and the states socialization vis-à-vis the institution of a single great power. Great powers are informal institutions that play a substantial role in creating norms in the international system either through their interaction, as in a multipolar system, or their unrivaled power, as in a unipolar system. In the former case, the system is likely to be more anarchical. Yet, if a single superpower dominates the system and promotes the idea of absolute gains, as the United States does, then a challenger or coalition of challengers is less likely to emerge. In other words, a loose, non-obligatory order built upon common norms and understandings simultaneously sustains anarchy but also provides structure. The degree of anarchy in a unipolar system, though, is contingent upon the identity of the great power. An aggressive great power with a zero-sum interpretation of interstate events will plunge system into a hard anarchy.

In sum, as long as sovereign states remain the primary actors in the international system, anarchy will remain as the structure influencing states’ action. However, the system can at times be more or less anarchic. The realist and liberal arguments concerning anarchy are both correct when situated within an appropriate context. Constructivist’s process-centric analysis of international politics reconciles these two school’s understanding of anarchy. It accepts the idea that hard and soft anarchies are variant conditions of the system dependent on states’ socialization. To understand the international system’s structure of anarchy, one must look at the dominant institutions mediating state interaction.


[1] Kenneth Waltz, “Anarchic Orders and Balances of Power” in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 129.

[2] Robert O. Keohane “Neorealism and World Politics” in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 18.

[3] Richard K. Ashley, “The Poverty of Neorealism” in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 275.

[4] Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” International Organization 46 (1992): 405.

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.

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.

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.