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Liberal talk, realist thinking
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Liberalism and realism are the two bodies of theory which hold places of privilege on the theoretical menu of international relations. Most of the great intellectual battles among international relations scholars take place either across the divide between realism and liberalism, or within those paradigms.


IMAGE:  Liberal talk, realist thinking

The liberal tradition has its roots in the Enlightenment, that period in 18th-century Europe when intellectuals and political leaders had a powerful sense that reason could be employed to make the world a better place. Accordingly, liberals tend to be hopeful about the prospects of making the world safer and more peaceful. Most liberals believe that it is possible to substantially reduce the scourge of war and to increase international prosperity. For this reason, liberal theories are sometimes labeled "utopian" or "idealist."

Liberalism's optimistic view of international politics is based on three core beliefs, which are common to almost all of the theories in the paradigm. First, liberals consider states to be the main actors in international politics. Second, they emphasize that the internal characteristics of states vary considerably, and that these differences have profound effects on state behavior. Furthermore, liberal theorists often believe that some internal arrangements (e.g., democracy) are inherently preferable to others (e.g., dictatorship). For liberals, therefore, there are "good" and "bad" states in the international system. Good states pursue cooperative policies and hardly ever start wars on their own, whereas bad states cause conflicts with other states and are prone to use force to get their way. Thus, the key to peace is to populate the world with good states.

Third, liberals believe that calculations about power matter little for explaining the behavior of good states. Other kinds of political and economic calculations matter more, although the form of those calculations varies from theory to theory. Bad states might be motivated by the desire to gain power at the expense of other states, but that is only because they are misguided. In an ideal world, where there are only good states, power would be largely irrelevant.

In contrast to liberals, realists are pessimists when it comes to international politics. Realists agree that creating a peaceful world would be desirable, but they see no easy way to escape the harsh world of security competition and war. Creating a peaceful world is surely an attractive idea, but it is not a practical one. "Realism," as E. H. Carr notes, "tends to emphasize the irresistible strength of existing forces and the inevitable character of existing tendencies, and to insist that the highest wisdom lies in accepting, and adapting oneself to these forces and these tendencies."

This gloomy view of international relations is based on three core beliefs. First, realists, like liberals, treat states as the principal actors in world politics. Realists focus mainly on great powers, however, because these states dominate and shape international politics and they also cause the deadliest wars. Second, realists believe that the behavior of great powers is influenced mainly by their external environment, not by their internal characteristics. The structure of the international system, which all states must deal with, largely shapes their foreign policies. Realists tend not to draw sharp distinctions between "good" and "bad" states, because all great powers act according to the same logic regardless of their culture, political system, or who runs the government. It is therefore difficult to discriminate among states, save for differences in relative power. In essence, great powers are like billiard balls that vary only in size.

Third, realists hold that calculations about power dominate states' thinking, and that states compete for power among themselves. That competition sometimes necessitates going to war, which is considered an acceptable instrument of statecraft. To quote Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th-century military strategist, war is a continuation of politics by other means. Finally, a zero-sum quality characterizes that competition, sometimes making it intense and unforgiving. States may cooperate with each other on occasion, but at root they have conflicting interests.

Although there are many realist theories dealing with different aspects of power, two of them stand above the others: human nature realism, which is laid out in Hans Morgenthau's Politics among Nations (1948), and defensive realism, which is primarily presented in Kenneth Waltz's Theory of International Politics (1979). What sets these works apart from those of other realists and makes them both important and controversial is that they explain why states pursue power-that is, they have a story to tell about the causes of security competition-and each offers an argument about how much power a state is likely to want.

Human nature realism, which is sometimes called "classical realism," dominated the study of international relations from the late 1940s, when the writings of Morgenthau (who taught at Chicago) began attracting a large audience, until the early 1970s. It is based on the simple assumption that states are led by human beings who have a "will to power" hardwired into them at birth. That is, states have an insatiable appetite for power, or what Morgenthau calls a "limitless lust for power," which means that they constantly look for opportunities to take the offensive and dominate other states. All states come with an "animus dominandi," so there is no basis for discriminating among more aggressive and less aggressive states, and there certainly should be no room in the theory for status quo states. Human nature realists recognize that international anarchy-the absence of a governing authority over the great powers-causes states to worry about the balance of power. But that structural constraint is treated as a second-order cause of state behavior. The principal driving force in international politics is the will to power inherent in every state in the system, and it pushes them to strive for supremacy.

Defensive realism, which is frequently referred to as "structural realism," came on the scene in the late 1970s with the appearance of Waltz's Theory of International Politics. Unlike Morgenthau, Waltz does not assume that great powers are inherently aggressive because they are infused with a will to power; instead he starts by assuming that states merely aim to survive. Above all else, they seek security. Nevertheless, he maintains that the structure of the international system forces great powers to pay careful attention to the balance of power. In particular, anarchy forces security-seeking states to compete with each other for power, because power is the best means to survival. Whereas human nature is the deep cause of security competition in Morgenthau's theory, anarchy plays that role in Waltz's theory.

Waltz does not emphasize, however, that the international system provides great powers with good reasons to act offensively to gain power. Instead, he appears to make the opposite case: that anarchy encourages states to behave defensively and to maintain rather than upset the balance of power. "The first concern of states," he writes, is "to maintain their position in the system." There seems to be, as international relations theorist Randall Schweller notes, "a status quo bias" in Waltz's theory.

Waltz recognizes that states have incentives to gain power at their rivals' expense and that it makes good strategic sense to act on that motive when the time is right. But he does not develop that line of argument in any detail. On the contrary, he emphasizes that when great powers behave aggressively, the potential victims usually balance against the aggressor and thwart its efforts to gain power. For Waltz, in short, balancing checkmates offense. Furthermore, he stresses that great powers must be careful not to acquire too much power, because "excessive strength" is likely to cause other states to join forces against them, thereby leaving them worse off than they would have been had they refrained from seeking additional increments of power.

Waltz's views on the causes of war further reflect his theory's status quo bias. There are no profound or deep causes of war in his theory. In particular, he does not suggest that there might be important benefits to be gained from war. In fact, he says little about the causes of war, other than to argue that wars are largely the result of uncertainty and miscalculation. In other words, if states knew better, they would not start wars.

As with defensive realism, my theory-offensive realism-sees great powers as concerned mainly with figuring out how to survive in a world where there is no agency to protect them from each other; they quickly realize that power is the key to their survival. Offensive realism parts company with defensive realism over the question of how much power states want. For defensive realists, the international structure provides states with little incentive to seek additional increments of power; instead it pushes them to maintain the existing balance of power. Preserving power, rather than increasing it, is the main goal of states. Offensive realists, on the other hand, believe that status quo powers are rarely found in world politics, because the international system creates powerful incentives for states to look for opportunities to gain power at the expense of rivals, and to take advantage of those situations when the benefits outweigh the costs. A state's ultimate goal is to be the hegemon in the system.

It should be apparent that both offensive realism and human nature realism portray great powers as relentlessly seeking power. The key difference between the two perspectives is that offensive realists reject Morgenthau's claim that states are naturally endowed with Type A personalities. On the contrary, they believe that the international system forces great powers to maximize their relative power because that is the optimal way to maximize their security. In other words, survival mandates aggressive behavior. Great powers behave aggressively not because they want to or because they possess some inner drive to dominate, but because they have to seek more power if they want to maximize their odds of survival.

Probably the best brief for offensive realism is a short, obscure book written during World War I by G. Lowes Dickinson, a British academic who was an early advocate of the League of Nations. In The European Anarchy, he argues that the root cause of World War I "was not Germany nor any other power. The real culprit was the European anarchy," which created powerful incentives for states "to acquire supremacy over the others for motives at once of security and domination."

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