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Realism and Liberalism in Contemporary International Relations


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Title: Realism and Liberalism in Contemporary International Relations

Realism and Liberalism in Contemporary
International Relations
  • PO 201 Introduction to International Studies and
    Political Science

Modern Variants on the Traditional Views
  • We have seen that the two traditional theoretical
    frameworks of IR differ mainly on three points
    human nature, the ways in which humans overcome
    the state of nature in the domestic realm, and
    the capacity of states to overcome the state of
    nature in the international realm
  • Today, we expand our discussion to include the
    intricate ways in which more modern takes on
    realism and liberalism theorize about IR

The Neorealist Refinement
  • In Theory of International Politics, Kenneth
    Waltz constructs a strictly structural view of
    action and reaction in the international system
  • Centers on the classical realist state goal of
  • Since survival is the ultimate goal, Waltz
    contends (unlike Morgenthau) that the quest for
    power is a means to an end, and not an end unto
    itself (what changes does this conceptualization
    result in?)
  • Power is thus necessary and sufficient for
    survival it is the nature of the self-help
    system that makes this so (Hobbesian)

The Neorealist Refinement
  • Waltzs structural formulation treats all action
    (in any system) as resulting from the necessities
    of the system
  • All systems are defined by the principles
    according to which they are ordered and the
    differentiation of the composite units
  • When the ordering principle of any system
    changes, so too does the system
  • If there is any differentiation amongst composite
    units, there must be a hierarchy
  • These last considerations, when taken together,
    are extremely important to the neorealist (or
    structural realist) study of IR
  • The initial ordering principle of the
    international system is anarchy
  • However, since the only important means of
    differentiation in the self-help system is
    power capabilities, anarchy is unlikely to
    persist for long
  • Thus, the international system is hierarchically
    structured based on the distribution of
    capabilities when the interstate distribution of
    capabilities changes, so does the hierarchy and,
    therefore, so does the system itself

The Neorealist Refinement
  • How does this view differ from the traditional
    realist formulation?
  • Individual and national level explanations of IR
    are intriguing, but unnecessary (streamlining
  • Why would human nature matter? How would a study
    of the foreign policies of states since their
    goals are always the same lend additional power
    to a structural theory? Since the only important
    differentiation is capabilities, the nature of
    individuals (e.g., good or evil) and the nature
    of polities (e.g., democratic or autocratic) are
    not important determinants of state action in IR
  • Anarchy is never truly the international state of
  • Hierarchy prevails based on capability
    distribution hierarchies can change, changing
    with it both the system and the necessities of
    surviving in it
  • This means that no state seeks a unipolar,
    bipolar, or multipolar system of balanced
    capabilities such structures just emerge as a
    result of efforts to survive in a self-help
    system. The balance of power is thus not a goal
    of states, but an outcome
  • Waltzs reductionist formulation leads to some
    interesting conclusions about which international
    structures are safest
  • An important way by which to ensure survival is
    to use external means to acquire power
  • However, since others are concerned only about
    their own survival, alliances can be risky (loss
    of sovereigntydiminished capacity to survive)
  • Structures that reduce the necessity of alliance
    are therefore safest since a bipolar system
    involving two very powerful states minimizes the
    need for alliances, it is safer (at least in
    terms of major power conflict) than all others

The Neoliberal Refinement
  • Keohane and Nye begin by focusing on the role of
    complex interdependence in world affairs
  • No state in the international system is truly
    independent every state has some set of
    transaction-based relationships with every other
  • Power who gets what is determined by relative
    degrees of dependence and interdependence within
    relationships and the nature of what is
  • Control over outcomes is determined by a form of
    asymmetrical interdependence, based in part on
    the relative importance of what kind of
    transactions constitute the relationship (e.g.,
    if State A is dependent upon State B for oil
    imports, and State B is dependent upon State A
    for perfume imports, it is likely that State B
    enjoys a measure of power of State A Why?)
  • There are also more nuanced considerations of how
    dependent and interdependent states actually are
  • Sensitivity interdependence A dependent state is
    sensitive to adverse changes in the
    relationship, but is likely able to cope despite
    disruptions (e.g., State A being able to replace
    oil exports with domestic production)
  • Vulnerability interdependence A dependent state
    is wholly vulnerable to adverse changes in the
    relationship (e.g., State A being unable to
    replace oil exports with domestic production)

The Neoliberal Refinement
  • This formulation allows both for conflicts of
    interest even in mutually beneficial
    relationships (unlike classical liberalisms
    simplistic focus on the good by-products of
    trade) and the likelihood that asymmetric
    vulnerability leads to conflict would seem to
    be somewhat pro-realist
  • However, Keohane and Nyes thesis of
    interdependence stipulates that the assumptions
    of realism do not stand up to scrutiny in the
    post-World War II era

The Neoliberal Refinement
  • Realist Assumption 1 States are the dominant
    actors in world affairs
  • KN Wrong! There are multiple channels of
    contact other than the state (firms, bureaucrats,
    terrorists, etc.) each has their own interests,
    and make policies in one state sensitive to
    policies in others
  • Realist Assumption 2 Force is a consistently
    useable instrument in world affairs
  • KN Wrong again! Social and economic forces,
    concerns of appropriateness in achieving goals,
    nuclear weapons have all diminished the
    employability of force
  • Realist Assumption 3 There exists an
    international hierarchy of issues, dominated by
    security concerns
  • KN Nope! There are many issues on countries
    agendas, many of which cannot today be
    subordinated to military security. This
    situation is exacerbated in democratic societies,
    where the definition of a national interest is
    made difficult by pluralism, economic concerns,
    and sensitivities to the domestic policies of
    other states

The Neoliberal Refinement
  • Thus, interdependence, by making states
    vulnerable or sensitive to others, combines with
    the decline of traditional security concerns to
    construct an interesting IR scenario
  • State goals vary by issue and are effected by
    non-state actors
  • Issue-specific agendas are set by states/actors
    that have resource advantages within the issue
    the inapplicability of force usage means that
    militarily strong states will sometimes lose
    (unable to link issues to power hierarchy)
    Example US and OPEC
  • International organizations benefit this setup
    they are arenas for political action by
    militarily weaker states/actors, who use them to
    set agendas and reinforce their power in specific
    issue areas

The Neos Recapped
  • Waltz structural realism is similar in many ways
    to the classical realist view, but differs in
  • It renders human nature and how polities are
    formed irrelevant (contra Machiavelli and Hobbes)
  • It systematically challenges the assumption of
  • It reduces state action to an inherently
    individualistic attempt to survive (balance of
    power as a result, not a plan)
  • It determines the relative safety and danger of
    particular structures
  • Keohane and Nyes complex interdependence is
    similar to the classical liberal view in that it
    directly challenges the realist notions of state
    independence and the role of force, but differs
    in that
  • It vastly refines the classical view of how
    anarchy can be overcome (more nuanced view of the
    effects of democracy)
  • It systematically shows that non-violent
    interactions like trade are not simply beneficial
    to both parties they are also the basis for
    power asymmetries
  • It provides an interdependence-based explanation
    for how international organizations impact
    international dealings

International Politics Conclusion
  • Major differences in classical theoretical
  • Realism Human nature (bad) and state of nature
    (anarchy) ? mistrust and importance of power ?
    security dilemma ? war
  • Liberalism Human nature (good) overcomes state
    of nature (anarchy) in social contract
    international collection of social contracts ?
    peace (reinforcing role of trade and IOs)
  • Major refinements of neo theories