The next theory to be presented and used in this thesis will be that of neorealism. In theories of international relations, realism has the most longstanding tradition going back to the likes of Thucydides and Machiavelli which first developed from the observation of statecraft and diplomatic conduct. (Gilpin 1986: 307) The scope of this presentation will be that of Neorealism though, which is – as the name implies – a newer branch of realism which is more scientifically minded compared to its older counterpart and has a wider scope than solely security policy as it also takes in aspects such as economic factors or social theory. (Ashley 1986: 260-261)
The theorist mainly used in this section will be Kenneth N. Waltz (1924-) who is the founder and most prominent proponent of the Neorealist approach. His works primarily centres around nuclear deterrence and the causes of conflict within the international system – a field he has been occupied with for the past five decades. He has been active in teaching in Columbia University, Berkeley, Brandeis and Swarthmore as well as visiting positions at London School of Economics, Harvard and Peking University. He has controversially maintained his realist standpoint during his career and has put forth controversial remarks regarding the positive impacts of the gradual proliferation of nuclear weaponry. (Columbia University News)
In his earlier work Man, the State and War – a theoretical analysis originally from 1959 he examines the causes of war between states which forms the foundation of his entire theoretical structure. He divides the main explanatory models of the causes of war into three so called images – (a) human behavior, (b) the internal structure of states and (c) international anarchy. A short introduction of these three explanatory models will follow here, before the wider implications of this fundamental view will be explored. (Waltz 2001: 1-15)
The first image Waltz presents in his work is human behavior – that is the thought that the reason for the existence of conflict and war lies within human nature itself. The reason springs from the evil and sometimes irrational behavior of human beings. Among the supporters of this strand there are pessimists and optimists. The optimists believe that it is possible to create a peaceful world by changing human behavior. Depending on which theorist or philosopher this could be through education, religious awakening or political indoctrination. The pessimists on the other hand are more skeptical as to how much it is possible to create a peaceful world as it can be impossible to change human nature itself. (Waltz 2001: 39-41)
Both the pessimists and especially the optimists are quite incorrect according to Waltz – as they focus too much on individual itself instead of its setting. They disregard the arena in which the actors are found and how big a role this is playing – whether it can be the structure of states or the entire system of international relations. Interestingly enough by optimists it is generally suggested that to change the individuals in order to create a more harmonious world it would take some changing of the setting the individual acts within – this in itself proves the human behaviorists wrong as they themselves partly suggests that the causal effects are to be found in the system and not in the agent as such. (Waltz 2001: 75-79)
The second image Waltz presents as the explanation for how conflict and war come into existence in international relations is the internal structure of states. This means the thought that the cause of conflict for example lies in the form of government a state has. Some believe if all countries were democracies the cause of armed conflict would disappear, some think the same about communist countries and still others has thought enlightened absolutism has been the right way to go. The list can go on in infinity but all share the same fundamental thought that it’s the wrong kind of governance which causes the misery in the world.
Waltz stresses in his presentation of the second image that conflict still has existed between democracies or between communist states contrary to the ideas of the supporters of the second image. Furthermore it is underlined that even if the internal structure of the state will have a big say in how the state is acting, it cannot be assessed as if it wasn’t part of the international environment of states. It is, so to speak, a matter of looking at the international environment more than at the internal structure of the state itself which is the important factor in the search for the causes of conflict – this will therefore lead us on to the third image in Waltz’ analysis. (Waltz 2001: 120-123)
The third image Waltz presents as the cause of conflict in international relations is international anarchy. The international anarchy of states exists because there is no world government or supreme entity which can control the behavior of state actors. This entails states will do what’s in their power to ensure their interests such as survival and increasing power – including the possible use of force. With the following decrease in the common perception of security an anarchical environment will not end until a superior power keep state actions in check. This is not too different from anarchy on the national level which Waltz assumes will exist if there was no state to control the people. In this view it is a common superior entity which will prevent the use of force between actors. Where the actors are individuals it is the state where the actors are state it will be a world government. (Waltz 2001: 159-161, 173)
As a concluding remark in Man, the State and War Waltz sums up his position as follows:
“Each state pursues its own interests, however defined, in ways it judges best. Force is a means of achieving the external ends of states because there exists no consistent, reliable process of reconciling the conflicts of interest that inevitably arise among similar units in a condition of anarchy. A foreign policy based on this image of international relations is neither moral nor immoral, but embodies merely a reasoned response to the world about us. The third image describes the framework of world politics, but without the first and second images there can be no knowledge of the forces that determine policy; the first and the second images describe the forces in world politics, but without the third image it is impossible to assess their importance or predict their results.” (Waltz 2001: 238)
So in this early work of Waltz he does not discard the first and second images completely in favor of the third image. Rather the first and second images resemble the contents which will require action and reaction among the states – whether this is the nature of a head of state or the changes in the domestic political setup of a state. The third image does constitute the machinery of the theory though and it is within this area the real theoretical analysis comes into place. No matter what the ideas of a Napoleon or a Bismarck are or what political party wins an election or brings about a revolution it is the international context of anarchy and self-help which must be the real subject for analysis.
The international political system
To clarify the neorealist view of international relations it will be helpful to use a few graphs. The first one shows how most people view international relations/politics. Here N1, 2, 3 represents what is happening in the states domestically which will create an impact on its international behavior. The international behavior of the states is shown in X1, 2, 3 which represents their external actions towards each other and how this influence the other actors.
(Waltz 1986a: 95)
This graph is a good visualization of how a supporter of the above mentioned images 1 and 2 would view the world – seeing the main importance in for example either state leaders or domestic structures.
(Waltz 1986a: 96)
The second graph shows how Neorealists see international relations and exemplifies the third image. Here the main difference is the role of the international political system as an entity in itself – shown in the graph as the big circle which affects the external behavior of states as well as influencing the decision-making process domestically in the states. It thereby gives the highest significance to the environment in which the states act.
As the importance of the concept of anarchy in international relations has been established, it is necessary to elaborate some further on this notion as well as its opposite – hierarchy. Where anarchy is signified by the absence of government, hierarchy is signified by the organized presence of government. Two points are important to mention in relation to these concepts: (a) anarchy and hierarchy or the outer points of a spectrum of organized order and there are a multitude of shades of gray between the two extremes, and (b) anarchy does not necessarily entail complete chaos and barbarism – just the absence of organized order.4
Since anarchy only means the absence of government and nothing more; claims stating that international relations is signified by a modified anarchy due to the presence of alliances, international organizations, civil society etc. will be rejected by the neorealists. Even though these institutions are a reality, they will not alter the basic fact that anarchy is the foundation of international relations – even if they seem to alter. (Waltz 1986b: 113)
A question still left unanswered in relation to why it is the third image which is so determining for how international relations play out is how this system of international anarchy not only was created but also remains unchanged. According to Neorealists such as Waltz, the system will not change because rule-breakers will be punished automatically and forced to conform or perish in the process. Even if the anarchical international environment is as old as the state system itself it would not be unthinkable that this could possibly change in time as some actors vanish throughout history and others appear newly on the stage. To this Neorealism would argue: as the international anarchy signifies a kill or get killed system, states trying to reinvent their approach to their neighbors would ultimately suffer as they would not be prepared to defend themselves properly against the states still trying to survive and increase their power.
The exception to this automatic prevention of rule-breakers is states which are outside the competitive struggle for survival or dominance. This could for example be states that are quite isolated from the communications with other states – whatever the reason might be. Examples of this could be the United States in the 19th century or Japan in the 17th and 18th centuries. (Waltz 1986b: 128-129)
A way this unchanging anarchical system is explained further is through the tyranny of small decisions. This means that the states will act to what is in their immediate best interest in the short term even though the reality created through such action is not what the state would prefer if it could choose. Waltz exemplifies this as follows:
“If one expects others to make a run on the bank, one’s prudent course is to run faster than they do even while knowing that if few others run, the bank will remain solvent, and if many run, it will fail. In such cases, pursuit of individual interest produces collective results that nobody wants, yet individuals by behaving differently will hurt themselves without altering outcomes.” (Waltz 1986b: 104)
The same thing is the case of the state acting in its environment amongst other states. The state will make the decision which secures itself and is in its short term interest, even if they know that the culture developing from these actions will not be in the best interest of any of the states. Several rational decisions will add up and create one irrational culture of state behavior. (Waltz 1986b: 105)
A recent illustrative example of this idea could be the Kyoto Protocol or other summits and agreements aiming at reducing emissions to decrease global warming. Even if the states know that it is in everyone’s best interest to secure the environment, they will be very watchful about not losing any relative competitive edge compared to their fellow states – primarily in the economic/industrial realm.