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Wednesday, February 12, 2003


These theoretical observations have been prompted by a brief reply from an Oxford faculty member, who will be replying at greater length in the future.


I understand, S. Take your time in replying. I've also a fair number of competing claimants on my time.

Remember, the purpose of the web site isn't just for me to comment ex cathedral about the world, rather to get some provocative analysis out and engage in exchanges with savvy people. Right now, I know of no online site that does this for IR; and of course, the more informed people know about it, the better.

Right now, I'm leaving open free access to comments. If I start getting silly stuff or insults, then I'll have to ask that the comments be sent to me for a preview. The last thing I'll do is eliminate intelligent criticisms.


Agreed: Exciting things going on in NATO, the EU, and the UN, no? . . . all pointing to major disputes of systemic consequences. It's here where realism --- Kenneth Waltz's structural kind -- is by far the
most useful of theoretical approaches in analyzing these disputes: above all else, its key premise that in a self-help system of anarchy (defined as the absence of legitimate, effective global government), security is at a premium, and security dilemmas thrive --- differing views about threats, how to cope with them, and the spiraling mistrust, worry, and, possibly, fear among contending states with conflicts that divide them if this leads to arms racing. On a more systemic level, the upshot is this: once a common threat has been removed and the distribution of power changes drastically as it has since 1990, IF different major state actors DISAGREE on the nature and priorities of threats, then previous alignments based on earlier threats and agreement will tend to buckle and maybe breakdown.

Realism, of course, can't explain WHY different major states will disagree, and Waltz isn't wrong when he says that it need not --- only trace out the consequences and see which ones adapt most successfully to power and security imperatives and challenges . . . the less successful being punished one way or another. Only examining the perceptual basis of these disagreements among policymaking elites across different states can explain the particular origins and development of these growing security differences among former allies or new ones . . . a point we'll return to monetarily.


Waltz's realism, of course, also predicts inevitable counter-balancing against superior power --- in this case, balancing by others against the US. Maybe. We also know others bandwagon to the most powerful state or states. And balancing might be restricted to diplomacy of a non-coercive sort, as is the case with the French and Germans seeking to entangle the US, each for its own reasons that overlap, in multilateral institutions where the they have vetoes (in NATO, which operates by consensus; and in the French case, with its veto power in the UN Security Council).

Steve Walt's view that states balance against threats is useful here as a realist refinment. Threats, remember, are defined

[1] as a another state (or states) that increases military power, with the threat taken more seriously if [2] that state is geographically closer (most wars have been between neighboring states) [3] the increased military power involves offensive weapons, [4]and other states' policymakers decide that the state or states with rising offensive power have hostile intentions. The latter --- attributing intents or motives to other states' policymakers --- is the key here.

The Empirical Payoff

In NATO Europe, for instance, 12 of the 15 member states --- plus the US and Canada and Turkey --- have been arrayed against France, Germany, and Belgium on either war with Iraq or support right now for Turkey. Another 7 or so in East Europe that will be joining NATO this year --- together with 3 other East European countries (Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia not yet slated for membership) --- have also signed a declaration in the last two weeks supporting the Bush administration in the Iraqi conflict. Essentially, that means that 19 of the 22 NATO European members this year do NOT see the US as a threat with its superior power and are bandwagoning --- for whatever reasons --- to the US position.

Leave aside Nato's future for the moment, the better to probe more deeply the theoretical reasons of a structural sort that realism stresses at work in dividing European NATO along lines of support for or against Bush's Iraqi policies . . . and more generally, in the German, French, and Belgian cases, in trying to block and counter US power. Note: power, not unilateralism. Contrary to all the complaints, the Bush administration has not used major military force once since it took over two years ago in Washington in a unilateral way: the only major use, the war in Afghanistan, had full NATO support in 2001. Over Iraq, likewise, the Bush administration has wisely tried to win over both the UN Security Council and NATO --- so far, half successfully for the Security Council, and even more for NATO without fully achieving its goals . . . yet.


Briefly, the alternative theoretical approaches to international relations don't have the same explanatory power here as realism.


Contrary to what lots of graduate students in IR and even theorists think, constructivism is not a theoretical approach that stresses the impact of ideas in shaping a state's alleged "identity" (whatever that means apart from a political revolution, like the collapse of Communism in Russia in 1991), national interests, priorities, and the means for pursuing them . . . foreign policy instruments, military, economic, diplomatic, or cultural --- including rewards, deterrent threats, coercive diplomacy, sanctions, the actual use of force and so on. Constructivism stresses SHARED ideas and norms among states, presumably in a regional grouping like the EU or globally among at least the major powers . . . with only only one great power today, the US on the global scene; but a half dozen second-tier countries like Britain, France, Japan, India, China, Russia, and --- as the Germans seem to hope --- Germany through its mighty moral influence --- wielding influence too. And right now, SHARED norms and ideas are not evident either in US relations with Germany and France, possibly also Russia, or --- no less important --- within the EU or in NATO Europe.

By contrast, classical realists and others have always been concerned with the impact of national style and shared mind-sets among policymakers WITHIN any state in shaping its national interests, priorities, and the instruments for pursuing them. That needs to be done in the present case if we want to explain WHY, specifically, in early 2003 --- 12 or 13 years after the cold war ended --- there are major differences that separate Germany and France from their allies in NATO or within the EU . . . and not only to explain the perceptual and cognitive influences here, but also use them to try predicting what will happen to these regional and global institutions in the future.

Waltz's structural realism, note, wouldn't be at odds with this fact-laden and inference-charged exercise --- only indifferent. He and his followers would content themselves with looking at the CONSEQUENCES over time of clashing national interests and priorities and means for pursuing them . . . among allies in NATO or inside the EU.

This brings us back to structural realism's main theme: either states will adapt to the realities and constraints (as well as opportunities) created by a combination of threats and differential power among state actors, as defined by the major distribution of power across them, or they will suffer severely in the long run. In particular, they will overreach and lose major wars and maybe independence (the fate of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, militarist Japan in WWII) or undergo both collapse and political revolution --- the fate of the Soviet Union by 1991 after losing the cold war.

Oppositely, structural realism would explain the overwhelming success since 1800 or so of the two great liberal powers --- Britain and the US --- by a combination of superior power and more accurate perceptions and effective policymaking on the part of their leaders. Hence the destruction and collapse or political revolution of their major enemies, all non-liberal and authoritarian or totalitarian: Napoleonic France in 1815, militarist Germany in 1918 (followed by the Weimar half-revolution), Nazism and fascism and militarism in 1945 (Germany and Japan occupied after unconditional surrender), and Communism in 1991.

Brief sidebar note regarding Russia.

Putin is playing a skillful game of moving between the German-French camp and a close bilateral relationship with the US. Nothing surprising here. He's been criticized at home for not having reaped any economic or noticeable diplomatic gains from his opening to the West and especially his close alliance with Washington of an implicit sort since 2001; and so he now sees opportunities for extracting concessions, heaps of them --- trade, investment, maybe military assistance, maybe full membership in NATO or the EU --- by wooing Paris and Berlin on one side and Washington on the other. That's skillful opportunistic diplomacy, nothing less. In the end, though, it's hard to believe he won't opt for supporting the US if it comes to a vote in the Security Council.