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Understanding structural realism

By: Saed Kakei, Ph.D. Student (No1144759), Theories of Conflict and Conflict Resolution I (CARD 7040-DL2) Professor Dustin Berna, Ph.D. Nova Southeastern University Department of Conflict Analysis & Resolution PhD Program

March 16, 2012

Page |2 Understanding 1structural realism Introduction Fundamentally, Structural Realismalso known as Neorealism, argues that the struggle for power in international politics is the main key to survival. However, unlike classical realists, structural realists take some ethical considerations into their power-politics maintaining that rather than connecting the quest for power to human nature, it is the structure or architecture of the international system that forces states to pursue power (Mearsheimer in Dunne et al., 2010, p. 78). In other words, the struggle for power and international conflict are attributed to the lack of an overarching authority above states and the distribution of power in the international system (Dunne and Schmidt in Kaufman et al., 2005, p. 169). This causes us to ask a few questions such as: what is the theoretical construction of structural realism? What are the assumptions of this theory? What are the variations of structural realism and how do they differ from each other? And finally, what do the critics say about this theory? To answer these and other related questions, I will follow a descriptive analytical method to demonstrate the nature of this diverse and multifaceted school of thought and explain the major ideas of its most prominent pioneers.

Theoretical construction of structural realism Structural realism derives from classical realism except that instead of human nature, its focus is mainly on the international politics with greater emphasis put on the struggle for power. According to Dunne and Schmidt, the key idea in J. J. Rousseaus book of The State of War, stipulates that it is not human nature, but the anarchical system which fosters fear, jealousy, suspicion, and insecurity (2005, p. 166).

Kakei |3 Redefining Hans J. Morgenthaus Balance of Power theory, Kenneth N. Waltz takes the key thoughts of the classical realism into his Theory of International Politics. Like classical realists, Waltz asserts that anarchy is the nature of international politics which leads states to embrace the common sense of self-help in pursuit of their vital security needed for survival. In contrast to classical realism, Waltz argues that while states remain the main actors playing essential roles in the international system, greater reflection must be given to the non-states actors through a level of analysis or structure-agency debate. He sees the international system as a structure whereby the state with individuals below the level of the state act as unitary agency for the state. Moreover, unlike classical realists, Waltz advocates bipolarity by stating that the great powers of a bipolar world are more self-sufficient, and interdependence loosens between them (Waltz in Kaufman et al., 2004, p. 327). When applying his abstract theory to foreign policy, especially security issues, Waltz argues that nuclear proliferation would increase global stability. In other words, the greater the numbers of nuclear powers would result in a lesser international aggression. With this very reason, Waltz demonstrated why his notion was not viable at least for the policy professionals in the U.S. government. John J. Mearsheimer is probably the most ardent of the structural realists to criticize and oppose Waltzs concept of nuclear proliferation, among other things. Branding him as a Defensive Realist Mearsheimer explains that Waltz, and alike, maintain that it is unwise for states to try to maximize their share of world power, because the system will punish them if they attempt to gain too much power. The pursuit of hegemony, they argue, is especially foolhardy (2010, p. 78). Instead, Mearsheimer proposes his own theory of Offensive Realism which

Page |4 discloses that states in the anarchical system are inherently aggressive and that there is no status quo or satisfied states with the amount of power in their possessions. However, critics of Mearsheimers aggressive build-up of power, known as modern realists, argue that aggressive status will create a security dilemma since the maximization of power by any one state will perpetuate greater power competition (2005, p. 176).


The ontological aspect During the Cold War era, the world has seen an increasing number of new actors playing

significant roles in the international system. These new actors were and still are made of international governmental organizations, multinational corporations, and transnational nongovernmental organization which, collectively and without evaluating what impact they may have, play a role in the international system that is impossible to ignore. As such, a process is needed to construct a systemic theory with which the defects of the classical realism, among other theories, could be remedied (Waltz, 1979, p. 1). Additionally, benefiting from the three levels of analysis used by social scientists to explain state behaviour and the causes of war, Waltz perceives that the struggle for power and the interaction between these actors, including the state actors, require a new theory with independent variables which he termed as Theory of International Politics (2005, p. 169). Ontologically, we understand therefore that structural realism not only keeps the main principles of traditional realism regarding the states as essential actors, but also adds to them the new international non-state actors as necessities which are foolhardy be ignored in any analysis.


The epistemological aspect:

Kakei |5 Structural realism attempts to effectively respond to the wide criticism which classical realism has received for not been able to understand and absorb the true nature of international politics. On the one hand, while affirms anarchy to be the ordering principle of international relations because of the lack a single authority, structural realists explain however that national interest and the quest for power must not be exaggerated. In so doing, structural realists are trying to connect their theories to the other fields of social sciences so that their gained knowledge could contribute to the needed comprehensive picture of the study of international politics, on the other hand.


The methodological aspect In 1954, his now classic book titled Man, the State, and War, Waltz states that after

studying the realist literature, he discovered that scholars came up with a different interpretation for state behaviour and the causes of War because they were using various levels of analyses. He adds that some of them had focused on the Man and others had focused on the State. Yet, only a few were pointing to the importance of analysing the system. Accordingly, he wrote his book as a necessity to contain all those trends. In the book, Waltz argues that the best possible way to analyse international politics is to use a systemic methodology. He adds that instead of focussing on the state level which will not be sufficient to predict the outcome of the overall system; and, instead of focussing on human behaviour which will not provide sufficient analysis, he reached the conclusion that the true causes of war is the international system itself due to its chaotic structure. Therefore, metaphysical debates should be replaced by a systematic theory which remedies the defects of present theories such as Morgenthaus Balance of Power theory (1979, p. 8). In chapter five of his 1979 book titled Theory of International Politics and under the

Page |6 rubric of Political Structures, Waltz, like most social scientists who apply systemic theories to their work, isolates structure from the rest of the other sub-systemic variables such as individuals, institutions, agencies within a state. He does that rigorously believing that the domestic political structure is the most important factor in the development of international relations. In chapter eight titled Structural Causes and Military Effects of the same book, Waltz focuses on the relationships between the cause (independent variable) and the effect (dependent variable). In so doing, he challenges the conventional wisdom regarding the dimensions of distributions of power. Waltz, methodologically, argues that a bipolar system with two great powers is more stable and peaceful than a multipolar system with three or more great powers for at least three reasons. First, a multipolar system increases instability and prone to miscalculation. Second, multipolar systems suffer from buck-passing. In other words, when the risk-seeking allies fail to honour their commitments, the possibility of quickly containing revisionist states greatly decreases. Third, multipolar systems are more dangerous because reluctant allies are dragged into a conflict they would otherwise like to avoid. Additionally, tight alliances would leave all members subject to the sudden desires of the most powerful and or radical member which may rapidly increase the spread of ignited war (1979, pp. 161-193).

The most important assumptions of structural realism 1. The main international actors interact in an anarchic system. This means that there is no central international government to enforce rules and regulations or protect the interests of the larger international community. 2. Because the structure of the international system is a major determinant of actor behaviour, states therefore are self-interest oriented. The anarchic competitive system pushes states to

Kakei |7 favour self-help over cooperative behaviour. 3. States are rational actors, selecting strategies to maximize benefits and minimize losses. 4. States see all other states as potential enemies and threats to their national security. This distrust and fear creates a security dilemma, and this motivates the policies of most states. 5. The most critical challenge presented by anarchy is survival (Mearsheimer in Dunne et al., 2010, p. 79-80).

For structural realists, threats are a variable function of power asymmetries. If a state has more power than another state, then the feelings of facing risks are legitimate because nothing in the anarchical system prevents states from using their power against each other to resolve a conflict. Waltz acknowledges that although power is a complex combination of economic, social, and geopolitical factors, it can simply be used to rank states by their capacities (1979, p. 131). This acceptance implies that the distribution of power, and consequently power asymmetries, are distinctive attributes of the system. Waltz's systemic theory treats system stability and therefore state identity as symmetric. In fact, Waltz claims that when it comes to security, all states behave in similar manner because their leaders reside in an anarchic system in which they value survival, estimate power in the same way, and they balance against threats according to their similar sensitivities toward power asymmetries (1979, p. 127). Waltz also argues that competition will remove states that are resistant to socialization because the latter, in the long run, will force all leaders to share the same core values and beliefs. When revisionist states emerge at random intervals to alter the balance of power, they will either be eliminated from the system or held in check (1979, p. 127).

Page |8 Variations of structural realism Although Waltz is accused of being an academic eccentric, he has led about two dozen younger academic specialists in international relations and security studies. His academic students have developed their own theories relating to such topics as the dynamics of multipolar systems, offensive versus defensive theories, supplementary unit-level variables, and stable versus unstable deterrence factors. Rather than providing an exhaustive analysis of these variations of structural realism, I will very briefly underline only three of their most important here. A. Defensive vs. offensive theory: while Waltz argues that anarchy leads to the logic of selfhelp in which states seek to maximize their security, Mearsheimer disputes this claim stating that the anarchical self-help system compels states to maximize their relative power position. Waltz reasons his argument providing that because power is a possibly useful means, sensible statesmen try to have an appropriate amount of it. He adds that in crucial situations, however, the ultimate concern of states in not for power but for security (1979, p. 80). In his theory of offensive realism, Mearsheimer calls Waltzs above argument as defensive realism stating that offensive realism parts company with defensive realism over the question of how much power states want (2010, p. 21). He argues that since all states have some offensive power, there is a considerable level of uncertainty associated with their intentions. Therefore, no one should believe in satisfied or status quo states; rather all states have to search persistently to gain power at the expense of other states. In other words, peace could be achieved by accumulating power more than any other states. B. Neoclassical realism: with the end of cold war, realist scholars such as Randall Schweller, Fareed Zakaria, and Gideon Rose decided to move beyond the rigid assumptions of

Kakei |9 structural realism arguing that the systemic theory of international politics provided by structural realism is incomplete. It needs to be augmented with better accounts of unit-level variables such as how power is perceived by state leaders and their respective societies and how state-society relationships motivated by the exercised leadership (Dunne and Schmidt, 2005, p. 170). C. Rational choice realists: while these thinkers accept the basic assumptions of structural realism, they are advocating the use of advance social science methodologies such as game theory in order to examine realist hypotheses. Also, this rational choice group claim that since anarchy does not prevent strong patterns of cooperation from occurring under certain conditions, therefore, international institutions matter. By that, the problem of relative gains means that they use less of instrumental force than neo-liberals contend. In other words, rational choice realists share some common values with the neo-liberals.

Criticisms of structural realism Despite structural realisms ability to articulate the realist theory in new directions, it is not surprising that it has attracted a great deal of criticism. In fact, some post-cold war era scholars argue that structural realism has still not only failed to produce accurate explanations of international politics, but also failed to provide a theoretically complete explanation of war. Again, without providing detail discussions, I will summarize only the main critiques facing structural realism in two categories: critiques made by other realists, and critiques made by non-realists.

Realists critiques structural realism First, classical realists such as John G. Ruggie (1983) criticized Waltz arguing that

P a g e | 10 structural realism assumes an unchanging structure and an eternal regularity of behaviour in international politics, adding that this assumption goes back to Morgenthau. For Ruggie, Waltzs systemic theory obfuscates real the structural differences between the modern industrialized period and the medieval feudal period (1983, Pp. 273-276). More significantly, it uncovers the main lacuna in structural realism - the lack of a theory of change. First, Rational choice realists argue that Waltz restricts his definition of structure (i.e., the distribution of power per say) as the most important systemic variable. Theoretically, this definition is problematic. Because, if any variable gets utilized in the distribution of power, then such a variable could be a systemic variable. Second, neoclassical realists argue that Waltzs structural realism refuses to recognize state level tests. According to Waltz, his Theory of International Politics "explains why states similarly placed behave similarly despite their internal differences. The explanation of states' behaviour is found at the international, and not at the national level" (Waltz, 1996, 54). Neoclassical realists are contesting this asserting that the state-level behaviour, in fact, accounts for the systemic level patterns that Waltz expects them to observe. Third, offensive realists, especially Mearsheimer, argue that contrary to Waltzs claim, multipolarity is less war-prone and that the more great powers there are in the system, the better prospects for peace (2010, p. 86). Mearsheimer provides two reasons for this: First, deterrence of the revisionist states is much easier in multipolarity. Second, the amount of hostility in a multipolar system is much less than that of bipolarity because states pay less attention to each other in a multipolar system. Forth, structural realist theory does not predict the distribution of power in the international

K a k e i | 11 system. Rather, it predicts the behaviour of states and the stability of the system given a particular distribution of power.

Non-realists critiques structural realism One of the major early criticism of structural realism that has been of lasting note came from Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye in their 1977 book entitled Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition. Both of these liberalist scholars feel that the realist assumptions define an ideal type of world politics and if they were challenged simultaneously, a world could be imagined in which actors other than states participate directly in world politics, in which a clear hierarchy of issues does not exist, and in which force in an ineffective instrument of policy (In Kaufman et al., 2005, p. 511). Another early criticism came from Richard K. Ashley, a post-structuralist, who in his 1984 article titled The Poverty of Neorealism brands structural realism as a structuralism that treats the given order as the natural order and blasts neorealism for its economism and scientism (1984, p. 228). Liberalists such as Jack Snyder and Robert Jervis argue that attempting to be parsimonious, Waltz has produced a theory too incomplete to account for the complexities of the international system. They look at factors other than anarchy and the distribution of power to explain international behaviour. In particular, they see the need to examine the role of internal politics (1993, p. 4). This leads us to point out some major problems with Waltz's systemic theory and the way in which he conceptualizes the level of analysis problems in general terms leaving out the interaction factor which is considered to be the most important factor in international politics. For those who are not realists or those who have taken a conflict resolution approach, not all interstate

P a g e | 12 relationships are the same nor do states need to be dominated by a power-politics relationship. The structure of the international system does not appear to be dominated by the logic of anarchy which, according to realists, compels great powers to play power politics, behave in a self-help manner, and seek hegemony. Aspects of structural realism that I contend with include how the international system is described as well as the behavior of the hegemon. With the end of cold-war and the advent of globalization, the current international structure can be said flourishing with multilateral organizations and rapidly spreading of liberal ideas and values. However, structural realists have yet to provide convincing account for how these change the structure of the international system and in particular, how this affects structural realist theory.

Conclusion Structural realism has been an extremely influential theory in international relations, particularly in the United States. Since the publication of Waltzs Theory of International Politics in 1979, structural realism, invigorating debates revitalized the realist paradigm, just as the intensification of the Cold War under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s created a receptive audience for a new scientific version of realism. Although Waltzs work carries a systemic focus, it has shown to have both strengths and weaknessesits particular strength lies in pointing out and explaining important continuities in world politics. However, it cannot be considered part of the rational choice revolution in political science. Consequently, variations of realism with emphasis on structural constraints and strategic action made Waltz theory appealing to those thinking about structural models of international politics. Still, there are important unresolved issues within the realist theory of international

K a k e i | 13 politics. Among the most important of these are whether states are security or power maximizers, and whether this makes a difference for their behavior toward one another. As this paper provided, structural realism has several problems, and it has certainly not yet reached acceptable answers.

References: Ashley, R. K. (1984). The poverty of neorealism, International Organization 38 (Spring): pp. 225-286 Dunne, T. and Schmidt, B. C. (2005). Realism. In Baylis, J, and Smith, S. The globalization of world politics. (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

P a g e | 14 Ruggie, J. G. (1983). Continuity and Transformation in the World Polity: Toward a Neorealist Synthesis. World Politics 35/2 (January): pp.261-285. Mearsheimer, J. J. (2010). Structural realism. In Dunne, T., Kurki, M. and Smith, S. (2010). International relations theories: Discipline and diversity. (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Keohane, R. O. and Nye, J. S. (2004). Complex interdependence. In Kaufman, D., Parker, J., Howell, P., and Doty, G. Understanding international relations: The value of alternative lenses. (5th ed.). Boston: Custom Publishing - McGraw-Hill. Snyder, J. and Jervis, R. (1993). Coping with complexity in the international system. (Eds.) Boulder: Westview. Waltz, K. N. (2004). In Kaufman, D., Parker, J., Howell, P., and Doty, G. Understanding international relations: The value of alternative lenses. (5th ed.). Boston: Custom Publishing - McGraw-Hill. Waltz, K. N. (1979). Theory of international politics. New York: Random House. Waltz, K. N. (1996). "International politics is not foreign policy." Security Studies 6/1 (Autumn): pp. 54-57.