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IR Theory Blogging

The moment seems to call for a SOTU post, but instead I'm going to offer a post about international relations theory. The next post, however, should build on this one and relate to the SOTU. Having read the four chapters of A Theory of International Politics excerpted in Neorealism and Its Critics along with Kenneth Waltz's reply to critics, an intriguing point has dawned on me. Waltz's official view seems to be that his theory explains the behavior of great powers in terms of the structure the international situation, defined as the number of great powers and their comparative situation. At the time of writing (i.e., the 1970s), Waltz believed that the world had moved from traditional multipolarity to Cold War bipolarity and seemed to be shifting toward multipolarity due to the Sino-Soviet split and the purported decline of US power that many people believed to be taking place at the time. In fact, since the time of writing, we moved to a unipolar situation where the US is the only great power.

The parts of the book that I've been able to read don't directly address the point, but on one reading of what Watlz says he's doing, the upshot of this is that his theory no longer has an upshot. A world with only one great power is a world in which there are no bilateral (or multilateral) relations between great powers. Since there are no other great powers, all of America's conflicts are with non-great powers (say, Iran) and his theory has nothing to say about these situations. Now I don't know if this is what Waltz would actually say (I suspect he wouldn't) but it seems to me to be what his theory seems to imply. Google indicates that in more recent years he's moved away from these broad theoretical concerns toward arguing the rather narrow point that nuclear proliferation increases stability which is a rather different kind of argument.

February 3, 2005 | Permalink


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» Getting theoretical from Doubly Sure
But the really important question is whether or not the United States counts as the sole pole in the world or if we are in a multipolar world. We need to draw a distinction between terms that are often conflated: empire, unipolarity, and hegemony. [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 3, 2005 9:36:55 AM


Oh boy, IR theory. Hark, listen to my tale.

The Waltz book lays out his theory of IR. The salient points are:
1) The proper way to analyze international politics is to look at it at the systemic level. Look at the system as a whole - is it stable or unstable? - and not the behavior or structure of individual states.
2) The key independent variable is the number of Great Power states there are in the international system.
3) Some values for number_of_states are inherently stable (like 2), while some are inherently unstable (like 1 or 3).
4) Ya gotta be careful when the number of Great Powers in the system changes.
5) All the other possible things that might drive international relations - economics, internal politics, type of regime, ideology, stage of development, international organizations, technological changes, bureaucratic processes, core/periphery relations, the psychology of leaders, the framing of risk/reward payoffs - are unimportant.

Essentially, Waltz's theory applies only to answering the question "Given a certain configuration of Great Power states, is international system stable and peaceful (like 1815-1914) or unstable and conflict-prone (like 1914-1945)?"

The most useful part of Waltz's theory is the set of assumptions he makes at the start.
- The international arena is an anarchic one. It's a "self-help" environment - if state A invades state B, state B has no legal recourse to remedy its problem (it has to fight back or build its own alliance system). This marks the strongest contrast between domestic politics (in which a legitimate state entity mediates internal conflicts and guarantees certain rights, with laws, taxes, courts, etc.) and international politics.
- States have to provide for their own security, which they will do by themselves (if they can), or in alliance with other states (if they can't go it alone).
- When states form security alliances (usually a number of client states tying their fortunes to a Great Power), this creates power blocs that balance against one another.
- These balancing blocs are the building blocks of the international system, and the stability of the system they create is determined by their number and configuration.
- What is important to states' security is their relative power, which makes international politics a nasty, Hobbesian, beggar-thy-neighbor kind of affair. State A, when presented with a policy that would enrich both itself and its rival State B, may forego the gains of the policy if State B would gain more than State A, even though both states would be better off in absolute terms.

IR theorists (of the NeoRealist school) like Waltz's theory because it is complete, well-specified, simple ("parsimonious"), easy-to-explain, and full of testable and expandable hypotheses. I'm not a fan of realist models, but the assumptions that the theory are based on make a very strong case for this very dreary theory.

IMHO, Waltz's first book (Man, the State, and War) was a better effort.

You are right, though, about unipolarity. A system with only one real actor isn't actually a system at all, and Waltz's theory doesn't apply to it. Similar unipolar moments occurred in 1st. Century AD Europe/Mediterranean (when Rome ruled its Empire alone and supreme) and at various times in China (when the Middle Kingdom was united and at peace), when the international system was completely subsumed by the hegemonic monopole.

Posted by: FMguru | Feb 3, 2005 2:59:16 AM

Good points all raised in this discussion. I agree that Man, State, and War is a better book than the 1979 effort. The latter is like reading cement and costs way too much for me to be able to like it. (That being said, he does correctly predict how the cold war will end.)

One of the failings that Waltz's theory has is that he doesn't assume states are rational actors which means he needs a theory of foreign policy to provide a complete picture of how states act. But he doesn't provide that theory of foreign policy (the book is, after all, called A Theory of International Politics) which means that anytime states don't act the way that he predicts, he can wiggle off the hook by saying that it was an incorrect foreign policy decision which he knows he needs to explain and doesn't. The big question, of course, is how much of international relations is explained by the nature of the system and how much by the nature of the states? Waltz's theory may be sound but it may turn out to explain only a small part of the action.

I think we need to be a bit clearer on the use of the terms unipolar, hegemony, and empire. They do not refer to the same thing and only one, hegemony, accurately reflects the current state of our international order.

Great discussion, though. It's good to see IR theory in the blogosphere.

Posted by: Jesse Zink | Feb 3, 2005 9:43:42 AM

A couple more points:
1) I screwed up my numbers above. Waltz thinks that 2 powers is unstable, while 3 is stable - in a 3-way, any two weakest powers can stylmie the third power if it gets out of line, and a 2-way creates a single axis of conflict that is prone to have pressure put on it and break down. Waltz's interest in arguing the stability of nuclear weapons grew out trying to explain the stability of the bipolar Cold War, which I think kinda weakens his theory ("my theory explains international politics across space and time - except for the present moment, which requires bringing in some sort of X-factor").

2) Waltz's theory also suffers from some wiggliness about the defintion of "great power". Was China a Great Power in the 50s? 60s? 70s? 80s? 90s? Were the 1970s and 1980s tripolar or bipolar? In a lot of ways, it boils down to "multipolarity stable, bipolarity unstable".

3) Neo-realism is distinct from realism. Realism is a set of beliefs about the behavior of states - namely, that they act in their own best interest and seek security and power. International relations, to realists, is a form of physics - given a certain configuration of powers and resources, this is how they'll act. The grandfather of modern realism is Hans Morgenthau, but he was building on work done by people like E.H. Carr, Clausewitz, Machiavelli, Thucydides, and the makers of the game DIPLOMACY. Neo-realism refers to Waltz and his offshoots, which defines a formal model of state and system behavior (detailed in the previous post) and teases implications from it. Realims was more of a vague set of axioms ("you can't trust no-one", "it's all about power", "we have no friends, only interests", and so on), while neo-realism took those axioms and forged a theory out of them. It's possible to be a realist without necessarily buying into neo-realism, but the assumptions of Neo-realism are based on realism.

4) Realism and neo-realism have quite a bit of explanatory power sometimes. How else to explain the Nazi-Soviet pact, or the US-China rapprochement of the 1970s, or the centuries-long British-French conflict becoming a British/French alliance in the late 19th century? Those sure weren't driven by ideology, or domestic demands, or individual leaders' psychology.

5) Waltz's theory isn't the first system-level explanation of international politics - that award goes to V.I. Lenin, who (in the middle of WWI) wrote a short and readable treatise arguing that the international system was run a handful of imperial powers (dominated and operated by small upper classes) who exploited the rest of world and engaged in unending conflict with each other to win complete dominance. In 1915, it made a helluva lotta sense.

6) See also:
and (for fun)

Posted by: FMguru | Feb 3, 2005 10:55:52 AM

My understanding is that Waltz saw bipolarity as the most stable system. He didn't give a three great power system a chance because he thought two would gang up the third and reduce it to bipolarity really quickly. Bipolarity is stable because it forces all the countries to choose and a side and raises the stakes of conflict, which reduces the chance of conflict. Like I said, though, reading Waltz is like reading cement so I might be wrong on this point.

Lenin is actually not a system level explanation, at least according to Waltz who critiques Lenin as a "reductionist" or one with a unit-level theory. (Plus, Lenin's isn't really a theory. Despite it being a fun read, it's just a non-falsifiable polemic that confuses correlation and casuality.)

The great value of Waltz is that he takes realism and puts into a specific social scientific theoretical context. Carr certainly doesn't do that and Morgenthau hints at it but doesn't do it as rigorously as Waltz. Waltz marks the beginning of structural realism (which is now further subdivided into defensive realism [a la Waltz] and offensive realism [a la Mearsheimer]) as opposed to Morgenthau's realism which is rooted in the nature of human beings and our alleged animus dominandi. Your distinction is a good one but there is still a lot of confusion and conflation in the discouse more generally about Machiavellian realpolitik and realism as a social scientific theory of international relations.

Posted by: Jesse Zink | Feb 3, 2005 5:35:46 PM

I'm more than willing to conceded the point. It's been a dozen years since I read ToIP. And you're right, Waltz is oftentimes concrete-clear in his writing (which is odd, because his theory is actually pretty simple and well specified).

And you're also right that ToIP doesn't tell you how a country will react to a particular development in international politics, nor does it tell you what the best choice is for a nation confronted with a policy dilemma. It is a good first step, and it did allow for the development of additional models on top of his theoretical framework (cue lots of microeconomics and game-theory charts), but as a useful real-world analytical tool, it fails pretty badly.

It is kind of the embarassing truth of the IR theory field - that its crown jewel doesn't actually explain or predict much of anything. "Well, sometimes the world is at war, and sometimes it's at peace - we think it has to do with the number of great powers, but it's not clear" is pretty weak.

IR is full of cool little tinkertoy parts (Hegemonic Stability Theory, the Democratic Peace, Core-Periphery relationships, Prospect [Framing] Theory, Groupthink theory, iterated Prisoner's Dilemma games leading to cooperation, long-lun cycle theories and the rise and decline of powers, bandwagon-vs-deterence models, and so on and so on) but no one has managed to assemble them into an overarching theory that's particularly useful. Yet.

Posted by: FMguru | Feb 3, 2005 6:48:08 PM

"A world with only one great power is a world in which there are no bilateral (or multilateral) relations between great powers. Since there are no other great powers, all of America's conflicts are with non-great powers (say, Iran) and his theory has nothing to say about these situations."

Actually, he does have something to say about this, but first I want to clarify some conceptual issues: instability for Waltz does not equal war. And a large number of wars does not equal instability. Rather, unstable systems are those whose polarity flucuates with some regularity (i.e., tripolar systems). And stable systems are those with relatively constant polarity (i.e., bipolar systems).

Now, to Matt's remark that Walt's theory does not say anything about the contemporary system, this is not quite right. Waltz has said many times -- most recently in a 2000 IS article, as well as in person that -- "As nature abhors a vacuum, so international politics abhors unbalanced power." That is, unipolar systems are inherently unstable; the unipole will inevitably provoke rising challengers. In fact, Waltz is in many ways instructive in his response to unipolarity:

"Balance-of-power theory leads one to expect that states, if they are free to do so, will flock to
the weaker side. The stronger, not the weaker side, threatens them, if only by pressing its
preferred policies on other states." (Waltz IS 1993)

For Waltz, then, the systen structure affects the behavior of states, compelling them to balance and thwart even a 'benign hegemon'. Despite Paul Kennedy’s assertion that, "it simply has not been given to any one state to remain permanently ahead of all other states," the real question is how long will international politics
remain unipolar? Walt prediction is suffiently vague: "Systems tend toward balance."

So, in short, Waltz does have something to say about the stability of the current system structure. However, because it is so obscure and ill-specified it is not very helpful in any practical way.

Posted by: Zach | Feb 4, 2005 9:43:08 AM

I have a fairly long, reasonably dense excavation of Ken Waltz's theory coming out in the next issue - or so they tell me - of the European Journal of International Relations. His theory does not predict very much about what he calls "foreign policy" - the actual behavior of actual states - but does say a great deal about systemic tendencies and, if correct, tells policy makers what they should not do in formulating those policies. Simply put, Bush's foreign policy is a bad idea.

There is a fairly interesting debate going on in realist theory (structural and otherwise) about the sustainability of unipolarity. Best reads on the subject, in addition to Waltz's more recent writings:

Bill Wohlforth's International Security article on the stability of unipolarity. Short version: balance-of-power dynamics don't apply under conditions of unipolarity. His Foreign Affairs version, with Steve Brooks, leaves out important aspects of the argument and I only recommend it as a supplement.

G. John Ikenberry's After Victory. Short version: post-1945 multilateral architecture diminishes the chances that other states will have incentives to balance against the US. John has a nice piece in Prospect (no, not that one, the other one) summarizing what he believes is wrong with the Bush administration's foreign policy.


Posted by: Dan Nexon | Feb 5, 2005 7:15:20 PM

John Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Mearsheimer does not believe the world is unipolar, and argues that our main strategy should be to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon outside of the Americas (i.e., China) capable of challenging US interests.

I've been meaning for a while to write on the issue of what IR theory suggests about US grand strategy - how it does and does not support Bush foreign policy, on my semi-anonymous weblog. Since it is semi-anonymous, I guess it would be a bad idea to provide a link :-).

Posted by: Dan Nexon | Feb 5, 2005 7:15:47 PM


John Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Mearsheimer does not believe the world is unipolar, and argues that our main strategy should be to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon outside of the Americas (i.e., China) capable of challenging US interests.

I've been meaning for a while to write on the issue of what IR theory suggests about US grand strategy - how it does and does not support Bush foreign policy, on my semi-anonymous weblog. Since it is semi-anonymous, I guess it would be a bad idea to provide a link :-).

Posted by: Dan Nexon | Feb 5, 2005 7:16:28 PM

Ken Waltz was what drove me out of I.R. and into the arms of sweet, sweet comparative politics. The trouble with the idea that regime type is meaningless is that it does not square with any available evidence. According to his theory, all states should feel equally threatened by U.S. hegemony, and should be busy with internal and external balancing. The reality is that only a few regimes are truly seeking to protect themselves against the U.S. (North Korea and Iran chasing nukes), while other states that should be threatened (Canada, Mexico, etc.) leave themselves utterly vulnerable. Stephen Walt, a much more readable and reasonable fellow, coined the phrase "balance of threat" to describe why some states don't feel threatened by U.S. power. What the U.S. has done over the past few years has not been to alter the balance of power, but rather to alter the balance of threat.

Posted by: David Faris | Feb 6, 2005 1:29:26 AM


If that were Waltz's argument, you'd have been right to run screaming to comparative politics. It isn't. Check out my article with Stacie Goddard when it comes out - probably in about a month.

Posted by: Dan Nexon | Feb 7, 2005 10:52:11 AM

here's what im tellin u guys

state behavior in the system will never behave rationally, why does everyone think that even if state does rational and then that state will act on behalf of his own rationality? if this is so, take alook -carefully!!- at mearsheimer's writings, it is not about how a state become another's adversaries in the system, but how the judgement that great powers do will make them realize the situation within the system. about balance of threat, its a non-sense phrase.
how do we measure threat?? what make we sure that it is threat that we balance, not the power? even if we knew that those adversaries (states) threatening another state, how do we measure capability of one state can make another state feels threatened? take alook at US action on Iraq, do Iraq Really threat US or it is just an indirect action of great power in order to intimidate next adversaries, so that other great power realize that one Great Power (i.e US) really have such capability of hegemonic action?
even if we make historical track as an assumtion
to judge a theory, in the future we will never have one anymore if we do not appreciate it as an working explanatory which has each purposed for each situations, not as a god.

Posted by: Raka | Mar 13, 2006 6:30:30 AM

what level of analysis would you choose to analyze the explanations for the end of the cold war? Systemic, Domestic, or individual? I think Soviet Domestic politics played the major role.

Posted by: Matthew | Jun 12, 2006 1:05:00 PM

So, what are the conditions for multipolarity???

Posted by: Xuanthuy | Jun 14, 2006 12:56:15 PM

So here's my question: what is wrong with "Grand Theory" of the Systems Approach as it applies to the soft science of International Relations?

The problem, as I assume is true with all theories in fields of soft science, is that those great thinkers/writers (Morgantheau, Waltz, Friedman, Machiavelli, Mearsheimer, ect) whom attempt to explain the system invariably fall short of the cohesive argument mark effectively describing the system and its tendencies. The system applies directly to IR as it is marked by a particular approach to determining/predicting actions of the global relations interdependent model, however, the word system does equally well in any area of socio-economic interest to describe a larger structure of power and resource management that shapes the outcome of events social, racial, cultural, economic, or otherwise.

That the systems approach within International Relations is one in a series of competing grand theory models, requires one to note why this approach, and its subsequent polar models, play an important role in the happenings of the modern world of international relations, and thus requires debate.

The answer to that has been on the peripheral of each of the precursory entries, though not formally noted. It is unarguably true that western political thought and, therefore, foreign policy has had a significant, if not overwhelming, impact on international affairs since the end of WWII. A bi-polar model defined that political thought process during the years of the Cold War. So long and so heavily did the actions of the Cold-War era define the US, the USSR, and the world as a whole, that at the decline of the Soviet Union, it was easy and natural for the western world to accept the position of the United States as the sole, if not almost ordained, superpower. US administrations have been stating the "fact" that the US found itself on the "right side of history" at the end of the Cold-War and, therefore, would pursue the enforcement of democratic principles around the world, a notion marking the foreign policy initiatives of the Reagan administration through that of the current administration. The US would, in effect, arbitrate and set the rules of the game. It is interesting to note how US policy shifts have been reflective of a system ushering in what is proposed to be a new "Uni-polar" power structure, where the US finds itself on top. Uni-polarity, and its characteristics, has been the backbone of the Neo-Conservative movement, and in great part, the single influence on the American foreign policy agenda since the end of the Cold War. Notions of America as the superpower in the new Uni-polar system fathered such doctrines, by the US and its allies, as Pre-emptive strike and humanitarian interventionism, as military strategies to enforce and maintain the US role in foreign affairs around the globe. American actions, within the system, marked by these doctrines have, in large part, been met with nationalistic resistance, although the US has played a critical role in promoting of capitalistic democracy through-out eastern Europe and parts of South-East Asia since the end of the Cold War.

The issue the precursory entries are grappling with stems from the reaction of the international world to America's (benevolent) hegemony as one that is not inline with the characteristics of a uni-polar system. Are we, therefore, in a multilateral system as the happenings of the international system seem to suggest, or in an, as of yet, un-described transitional period of uni-polarity? How does uni-polarity work exactly, then, if we see a continued rise in nationalistic tendencies of states around the globe, as one might see in a multi-polar system, where power is begging to be grabbed?

Simple. Uni-polarity does not exist. The system is either in a state of multi-polarity where individual nation-states are attempting to further there own ends in a constant power struggle. (Note: Tri-polarity is part of the multi-polar construct, as it possesses many of the same characteristics of a multi-polar system, although power within the tri-polar system is relegated to the Nash equilibrium like that of the Bi-polar model.) Or, the system is in a state of Bi-polarity, where characteristics marking decision making in areas of foreign and domestic affairs becomes more acutely aligned, giving way to a time where cohesive socio-economic identity within the individual states is stressed. Ergo, the rise of absolute Nationalism.

The approach of the west, basing its foreign affairs policies around characteristics of the uni-polar model, is wrong and it is why the west is encountering so much resistance internationally to its initiatives. Which then forces us to refine the problem of systems "grand theory". It is not the failures of great western IR thinkers to accurately describe uni-polarity and the stages of its existence, but rather that uni-polarity is accepted as a possible model within the system at all. Subtracting uni-polarity from the systems equation allows us to more accurately employ systems theory as a predictor of International Relations.

More to come about balance of power vs. balance of threat arguments as ones which support the notion of a system where uni-polarity is an unnatural model...if anyone is acutally interested in this line of thought.

Posted by: Prospicio | Sep 23, 2006 7:32:50 PM

Friedman, being an economic reference, rather than a journalist one.

Posted by: prospicio | Sep 23, 2006 7:37:10 PM

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