The Development of International Relations Theory in the Twentieth Century

The Development of International Relations Theory in the Twentieth Century

International Relations Theory in the Twentieth Century

Wherever different territorially-based political orders coexist in the same social world some form of international relations is to be found – even though the term itself was not coined until the end of the eighteenth century (Bentham 1789/1960: 426). The academic study of International Relations, on the other hand, existed only in embryo before the First World War. In the second half of the nineteenth century when the social sciences as we know them today began to be differentiated, when ‘Economics’ emerged out of Political Economy as an allegedly scientific field of study, and when ‘Sociology’ and ‘Politics’ and ‘Social Theory’ came to be seen as addressing different agendas – a position that would have surprised Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith or Immanuel Kant – ‘International Relations’ remained unidentified as a discrete focus for study. Instead, what we nowadays think of as International Relations was for the most part seen as simply one facet of a number of other disciplines (History, International Law, Economics, Political Theory) although, as Brian Schmidt has demonstrated, political scientists addressed the field rather more systematically than had previously been thought to be the case (Schmidt 1998). Pace Schmidt, it was not until the slaughter of 1914–18 persuaded a number of influential thinkers and philanthropists that new ways of thinking about international relations were required that the field of IR emerged. These philanthropists saw it as essential to theorize international relations, to move our level of understanding of the subject above that provided by an education in ‘current affairs’, and in setting this goal they established a concern with theory that has dominated the new discipline – perhaps to its disadvantage – ever since. Certainly, IR has always been a theoretically conscious social science, although this is often denied by the purveyors of new learning, which is, it might well be argued, a little too concerned with its own history, a little too self-referential. It has become customary to write of the history of IR theory in terms of a series of rather grandly titled ‘Great Debates’ between meta-theoretical positions such as realism and idealism, or positivism and constructivism, but it is by no means clear that this is a helpful way of characterizing the past of the discipline – rather it may

encourage a tendency to navel-gazing.


There is a broader issue here, which concerns the origins of IR theory. To simplify matters, has theory developed in response to events/changes in the real world (as has been the conventional belief), or is the process of theory development internal to the discourse, a product of the dynamics within a particular community, as revisionist disciplinary historians such as Schmidt suggest? Common sense suggests that both processes are involved. It is certainly the case that theories are never abandoned until a replacement is available, but, equally, it would go against the record to suggest that the international history of the twentieth century was not implicated in theory development – perhaps more to the point, the separation between a real world and a world of theory is, a little artificial. In any event, in this and the next chapter the story of attempts to understand IR will be told with only a minimal number of references to the great debates, and the question of the origins of theory will be left open, with references made to both the above positions where appropriate; instead, in this chapter, an historical sketch of the conceptual development of the subject will be offered, while in the next the currently dominant approach and its main critics will be examined.


International Relations Liberal internationalism and the origins of the discipline

The destruction on the battlefields of 1914–18 produced a sequence of reactions. The first response of many was to assign personal responsibility for the carnage – in Britain and France the Kaiser was widely blamed and ‘Hang the Kaiser’ became a popular cry, although after the war no serious attempt was made to reclaim him from his exile in the Netherlands. Even during the conflict, more thoughtful people quickly came to the conclusion that this was an inadequate response to the causes of war. While Germany might bear a greater responsibility than some other countries, there was something about the system of international relations that was culpable, and a variety of different thinkers, politicians and philanthropists gave thought as to how to change the system to prevent a recurrence. Most of these individuals were American or British (and, in fact, the discipline of International Relations remains to this day largely a product of the English speaking world, although, happily, this may not be the case for much longer). The dominant mood in France was for revenge against Germany, while in Russia the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 posed a challenge to the very idea of international relations. In Germany the ideas of British and American thinkers were eagerly adopted at the hour of her defeat, which led to widespread disillusion when these ideas were only imperfectly realized at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. Britain and America were the homes of the new thought, partly because these two countries were less devastated by the war than others, and thereby, perhaps, more willing to look beyond the immediate issues, but also because the anarchic nature of world politics seemed particularly unfortunate to those nurtured by the liberal traditions of the two English-speaking powers. Given this latter point, the new thinking that was produced in Britain and America is conveniently summarized as ‘liberal internationalism’ – the adaptation of broadly liberal political principles to the management of the international system.

International Relations  liberal internationalist ideas were developed

In Britain, liberal internationalist ideas were developed by Fabians and radical liberals through bodies such as the Union for Democratic Control; although there was some sympathy for these ideas in the government of the day, the general Foreign Office line was a more traditionalist one. Their account of what went wrong in 1914 stressed the failure of diplomacy, and in particular the slowness of the great powers in mobilizing an international conference on the problems of the Balkans, rather than any systemic failure. However, if British liberal internationalism was largely unofficial, in the United States these ideas were espoused by the President himself, Woodrow Wilson, and set out in the Fourteen Points speech of January 1918, in which America’s war aims were specified. Liberal internationalism offered a two part diagnosis of what went wrong in 1914 and a corresponding two-part prescription for avoiding similar disasters in the future.


The first element of this diagnosis and prescription concerned domestic politics. A firm liberal belief was that the ‘people’ do not want war; war comes about because the people are led into it by militarists or autocrats, or because their legitimate aspirations to nationhood are blocked by undemocratic, multinational, imperial systems. An obvious answer here is to promote democratic political systems, that is, liberal-democratic, constitutional regimes, and the principle of national self-determination. The rationale is that if all regimes were national and liberal-democratic, there would be no war.


This belief links to the second component of liberal internationalism, its critique of pre-1914 international institutional structures. The basic thesis here was that the anarchic pre-1914 system of international relations undermined the prospects for peace. Secret diplomacy led to an alliance system that committed nations to courses of action that had not been sanctioned by Parliaments or Assemblies (hence the title of the Union for Democratic Control). There was no mechanism in 1914 to prevent war, except for the ‘balance of power’ – a notion which was associated with unprincipled power politics. What was deemed necessary was the establishment of new principles of international relations, such as ‘open covenants openly arrived at’, but, most of all, a new institutional structure for

international relations – a League of Nations.

The aim of a League of Nations would be to provide the security that nations attempted, unsuccessfully, to find under the old, balance of power, system. The balance of power was based on private commitments of assistance made by specific parties; the League would provide public assurances of security backed by the collective will of all nations – hence the term ‘collective security’. The basic principle would be ‘one for all and all for one’. Each country would guarantee the security of every other country, and thus there would be no need for nations to resort to expedients such as military alliances or the balance of power. Law would replace war as the underlying principle of the system.


These two packages of reforms – to domestic and institutional structures – were liberal in two senses of the word. In political terms, they were liberal in so far as they embodied the belief that constitutional government and the rule of law were principles of universal applicability both to all domestic regimes and to the international system as such. But they were also liberal in a more philosophical sense, in so far as they relied quite heavily on the assumption of an underlying harmony of real interests. The basic premise of virtually all this thought was that although it might sometimes appear that there were circumstances where interests clashed, in fact, once the real interests of the people were made manifest it would be clear that such circumstances were the product of distortions introduced either by the malice of special interests, or by simple ignorance. Thus, although liberal internationalists could hardly deny that in 1914 war was popular with the people, they could, and did, deny that this popularity was based on a rational appraisal of the situation. On the liberal view, international politics are no more based on a ‘zero-sum’ game than are international economics; national interests are always reconcilable.


The liberal belief in a natural harmony of interests led as a matter of course to a belief in the value of education. Education was seen as a means of combating the ignorance that is the main cause of a failure to see interests as harmonious, and thereby can be found one of the origins of International Relations as an academic discipline. Thus, in Britain, philanthropists such as David Davies, founder of the Woodrow Wilson Chair of International Politics at University College Wales, Aberystwyth – the first such chair to be established in the world – and Montague Burton, whose eponymous chairs of International Relations are to be found at Oxford and the London School of Economics, believed that by promoting the study of international relations they would also be promoting the cause of peace. Systematic study of international relations would lead to increased support for international law and the League of Nations. Thus it was that liberal internationalism became the first orthodoxy of the new discipline although, even then, by no means all scholars of International Relations subscribed to it – international historians, for example, were particularly sceptical.


The peace settlement of 1919 represented a partial embodiment of liberal internationalist thinking. The principle of national self-determination was promoted, but only in Europe – and even there it was rather too frequently abused when it was the rights of Germans or Hungarians that were in question. The Versailles Treaty was dictated to the Germans, rather than negotiated with them, even though the Kaiser had been overthrown at the end of the war and a liberal-democratic republic established in Germany. Germany was held responsible for the war and deemed liable to meet its costs; the allies very sensibly did not put a figure on this notional sum, hoping to decide the matter in a calmer atmosphere later, but the issue of German reparations was to be a running sore of the inter-war years. A League of Nations was established, incorporating the principle of collective security, but it was tied to the Versailles Treaty and thus associated with what the Germans regarded as an unjust status quo – a judgement soon shared by much liberal opinion after the publication of John Maynard Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of The Peace which attacked the motives of the allies and portrayed the new Germany as the victim of outmoded thinking (Keynes 1919). The United States Senate refused to join the League as constituted by the Treaty, and, initially, neither Germany nor Russia were allowed to join. The unfortunate truth was that liberal internationalist ideas were not dominant in the minds of any statesmen other than Wilson, and Wilson – by then a sick man – was unable to sell these ideas to his fellow-countrymen, partly because he had allowed opposition leaders of the Senate no part in the negotiation of the peace. This was a mistake that Franklin Roosevelt learnt from and did not repeat a generation later.


For all that, the 1919 peace settlement was by no means as harsh as might have been expected, and in the 1920s it seemed quite plausible that the undoubted defects of Versailles would be corrected by the harmonious actions of the major powers. The Locarno Treaties of 1926 symbolically confirmed the western borders of Germany, and, more importantly, re-established more or less amicable relationships between the leading powers, a process helped by changes of personnel at the top. Gustav Stresemann in Germany, Aristide Briand in France, and Austen Chamberlain (followed by Arthur Henderson) in Britain seemed committed to peaceful solutions to Europe’s problems. A symbolic high tide was reached at the Treaty of Paris in 1928 – the so-called Kellogg–Briand Pact, in which a proposal to mark 150 years of

US–French friendship by the signature of a non-aggression pact somehow became transformed into a general treaty to abolish war, thereby closing the legal loopholes that the sharp-eyed found in the Covenant of the League of Nations. Virtually all countries signed this Treaty – albeit usually with legal

reservations – which, a cynic might remark, is one of the reasons why virtually all wars started since 1928 have been wars of ‘self-defence’. In short, as the 1930s dawned it seemed at least possible that a new and better system of international relations might be emerging. As no one needs to be told, this possibility did not materialize: the 1930s saw economic collapse, the rise of the dictators, a series of acts of aggression in Asia, Africa and Europe, an inability of the League powers led by Britain and France to

develop a coherent policy in response to these events, and, finally, the global war that the peace settlement of 1919 had been designed to prevent. Clearly these events were catastrophic in the ‘real world’ but they were equally damaging in the world of ideas. Indeed, the two worlds, as always, were

interwoven together – it was the inability of decision-makers and intellectuals to think sensibly about these events which, at least in part, explained their inability to produce effective policy.


The ‘realist’ critique of liberal internationalism

Returning to the root ideas of liberal internationalism, it is easy to identify the problems this approach faced in the 1930s. In 1919 liberal internationalists believed that ‘the people’ had a real interest in and desire for peace and that democratic regimes would, if given the chance, allow these interests and desires to dominate. The enemy of peace, on this account, was the kind of militarist, authoritarian, autocratic, anti-democratic regime which had, allegedly, dominated Germany, Austria–Hungary and Russia in 1914. Now, some of the crises of the 1930s were caused by this kind of regime – Japanese militarism in Manchuria and China and ‘Francoism’ in the Spanish Civil War fit the bill quite well – but most were not. Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy were not traditional military autocracies; rather, they were regimes which had come to power by quasi-democratic means and remained in power by the mobilization of popular support. There were no elections in Germany after 1933, but what evidence exists suggests that the National Socialists had clear majority support well into the war, perhaps even to its very end.


Moreover, these regimes, although popularly supported, actually glorified war. The rhetoric of fascism and national socialism stressed the virtues of armed struggle and its importance in building the nation. And, of course, the stated ends of these regimes – turning the Mediterranean into an Italian lake, depopulating Eastern Europe of Slavs, Jews and other alleged inferiors and repopulating it with ‘Aryans’ – could not be achieved by any means other than war. Although Hitler still maintained in his public orations that he was forced to resort to force by the obstinate and malicious behaviour of the enemies of the Volk, it was quite clear that this was nonsense – unless a reluctance to commit suicide be deemed a sign of obstinacy. The fact that Nazism remained a popular force in spite of this posture – perhaps, in some cases, because of it – dealt a terrible blow to liberal thinking.


The consequences of this blow were felt in particular with respect to support for the League of Nations and the rule of law. The basic premise of liberal internationalism was that the force of world opinion would buttress the League of Nations and that no state would be able to act against this force. The point of collective security under the League was to prevent wars, not to fight them. The League’s cumbersome procedures would act as a brake to prevent a nation that had, as it were, temporarily taken leave of its senses from acting rashly – international disputes would be solved peacefully because that was what the people really wanted. The behaviour of Hitler and Mussolini made it clear that, in this context at least, these ideas were simply wrong. The liberal internationalist slogan was ‘law not war’ – but it became clear, as the 1930s progressed, that the only way in which ‘law’ could be maintained was by ‘war’.


An inability to understand this basic point bedevilled liberal thought in the 1930s. Well-meaning people simultaneously pledged full support for the League and never again to fight a war, without any apparent awareness that the second pledge undermined the first. When the British and French governments attempted to resolve the crisis caused by Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia by the Hoare–Laval Pact which was seen as rewarding the aggressor, public opinion was outraged, Hoare was forced to resign, and the last real chance to prevent Mussolini from falling under Hitler’s influence was lost. The public wanted the League to act, but the British government held, almost certainly correctly, that the public would not support a war, and therefore ensured that the sanctions that were introduced would not bring Italy to its knees. The ‘appeasement’ policy of Britain and France (and, as is often forgotten, of the United States and the USSR) posed a real dilemma for many liberal internationalists. They did not know whether to praise figures like Chamberlain for avoiding war, or condemn them for condoning breaches of international legality and betraying the weak. Usually they resolved this dilemma by doing both.


What this seemed to suggest to many was that there were flaws in the root ideas of liberal internationalism, its account of how the world worked, and, in particular, its account of the mainsprings of human conduct. Gradually, new ideas emerged – or, perhaps more accurately, re-emerged, since many of them would have been familiar to pre-1914 thinkers. Perhaps the deepest thinker on these matters in the 1930s was the radical American theologian and critic Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr’s message is conveyed in shorthand in the title of his 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society; his point was that liberals wildly exaggerated the capacity of collectivities of humans to behave in ways that were truly moral (Niebuhr 1932). Niebuhr held that ‘men’ had the capacity to be good, but that this capacity was always in conflict with the sinful, acquisitive and aggressive drives that are also present in human nature. These drives are given full scope in society and it is unrealistic to think that they can be harnessed to the goal of international peace and understanding in bodies such as the League of Nations.


These are powerful ideas which resonate later, but the intense Christian spirit with which they are infused – and the pacifism to which, initially at least, they gave rise in Niebuhr – limited their influence in the 1930s. Instead, the most influential critique of liberal internationalism came from a very different source, E. H. Carr, the quasi-Marxist historian, journalist and, in the late 1930s, Woodrow Wilson Professor of International Politics. Carr produced a number of studies in the 1930s, the most famous of which was published in 1939 – The Twenty Years Crisis (Carr 1939/2001). This book performed the crucial task of providing a new vocabulary for International Relations theory. Liberal internationalism is renamed ‘utopianism’ (later writers sometimes use ‘idealism’) and contrasted with Carr’s approach which is termed ‘realism’. Carr’s central point is that the liberal doctrine of the harmony of interests glosses over the real conflict that is to be found in international relations, which is between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. A central feature of the world is scarcity – there are not enough of the good things of life to go around. Those who have them want to keep them, and therefore promote ‘law and order’ policies, attempting to outlaw the use of violence. The ‘have-nots’, on the other hand, have no such respect for the law, and neither is it reasonable that they should, because it is the law that keeps them where they are, which is under the thumb of the ‘haves’. Politics has to be based on an understanding of this situation. It is utopian to suggest that the have-nots can be brought to realize that they ought to behave legally and morally. It is realistic to recognize that the essential conflict between haves and have-nots must be managed rather than wished away. It is utopian to imagine that international bodies such as the League of Nations can have real power. Realists work with the world as it really is, utopians as they wish it to be. In fact, as Ken Booth has demonstrated, Carr wished to preserve some element of utopian thought, but, nonetheless, realism was his dominant mode (Booth 1991b). The power of words here is very great – the way in which ‘realism’, a political doctrine which might be right or wrong, becomes associated with ‘realistic’, which is a quality of judgement most people want to possess, is critically important in its success. Carr’s position reveals its quasi-Marxist origins, and its debt to Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, in its stress on material scarcity and its insistence that law and morality serve the interests of dominant groups (Mannheim 1936/1960). On the other hand, the fact that the ‘have-nots’ of the 1930s were, on his account, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy suggests that Carr’s Marxism was laced with a degree of power-worship – an impression also conveyed by his monumental A History of Soviet Russia (1978), which is often regarded as being rather too generous in its judgement of Stalin. The first edition of The Twenty Years Crisis contained favourable judgements of appeasement that Carr thought prudent to tone down in the second edition (Fox 1985). Nonetheless, Carr made a number of effective points. It was indeed the case that the League of Nations and the idea of collective security was tied up with the peace settlement of 1919 and therefore could be seen as defending the status quo. Equally, the leading status-quo nations, Britain and France, had not built up their position in the world by strict adherence to the rule of law, however much the British might wish to tell themselves that they had acquired their empire in a fit of absentmindedness. But, above all, it was the policy failure of liberal internationalism as outlined above which gave Carr’s ideas such salience and credence. As is often the way, a new theory is called into being by the failure of an old theory.


In any event, realism seemed to offer a more coherent and accurate account of the world than the liberal ideas it critiqued, and it formed the basis for the ‘post-war synthesis’ which is the subject of the next section of this chapter. However, before leaving the original version of liberal internationalism behind, there are a few general points that can be made. First, it is becoming clear that the liberal account of the origins of the First World War was faulty at a number of points, two of which still have considerable significance. The modern historiography of the origins of the war suggests that the gut feeling of Allied public opinion at the time (that Germany started the war as a deliberate act of policy) was rather more to the point than the more refined view of liberal intellectuals to the effect that no one was to blame. Of greater significance is the second point, which is that Germany in 1914 was not the militarist autocracy that some liberals took it to be. In reality, it was a constitutional state, governed by the rule of law, and with a government which was responsible to Parliament as well as to the Emperor. Certainly, it was not a ‘democracy’ – but then no country was in 1914; even the widest franchises (in the United States and France) excluded women from the vote. What this suggested was that the liberal view that constitutional, liberal-democratic regimes are less likely to engage in war than other types of regime required a great deal of refinement.

A second point that is worth making here is that some of the criticisms of liberal internationalism – including some made above – take too little notice of the unique quality of the threat posed to international order in the 1930s. To put the matter bluntly, we must hope that it was rather unusual for the leaders of two of the most powerful countries in the world – Germany and the USSR – to be certifiable madmen. The lunatic nature of Hitler’s plans to replant the world with true Aryans makes him an exceptional character to be a leader of any kind of state, let alone a Great Power – it is this latter point which makes comparison with figures such as Saddam Hussein misleading. The Munich analogy has been applied repeatedly since 1945, and ‘appeaser’ is still one of the worst insults that can be thrown at a diplomat, but all the dictators the world has thrown up since then – Nasser, Castro, Hussein – have been mere shadows of the real thing, not so much because of their personalities but because of their lack of access to the sinews of world power. Judging a set of ideas by their capacity to cope with a Hitler or a Stalin seems to set far too high a standard.


In a similar vein, it is striking how much of liberal internationalism has survived its defeat at the hands of realism. The ‘settled norms’ of the contemporary international order are still essentially those of 1919 – national self-determination, non-aggression and respect for international law combined with support for the principles of sovereignty. The United Nations is, in effect, a revision of the League of Nations, even if it was convenient to gloss over this in 1945. Liberal internationalism is, without doubt, an incoherent and flawed doctrine and we are still attempting to cope with its contradictions – in particular its belief that nationalism and democracy are compatible notions – but it is, nonetheless, a remarkably resilient doctrine, possibly because the values it represents seem to be widely shared by the peoples of the world.


The post-war synthesis

After 1945, realism became the dominant theory of International Relations, offering a conception of the world which seemed to define the ‘common sense’ of the subject. Most practicing diplomats had always held views on international relations which were more or less realist; they were now joined by academics, as the discipline of International Relations expanded on broadly realist lines, and by opinion-makers more generally, as the leader writers and columnists of influential newspapers and journals came increasingly

to work from the same general perspective. To a striking extent, realism remains to this day the dominant theory of International Relations. Most of the rest of this book will be an account of the struggles between

realism and its critics, and if the latter have been increasingly effective over the years, it is difficult to deny the fact that realism still, in one form or another, provides the dominant mode of discourse in the discipline.


Although Carr remained influential, the post-war dominance of realism owed more to the work of other writers – Carr himself was switching his attention at this time, from International Relations towards Soviet history. In Britain, Martin Wight was an important figure, although his Chatham House pamphlet on Power Politics (1946/1978) is, despite its title, only dubiously realist in inspiration. In the United States, Niebuhr remained influential, as did the geopolitician Nicholas Spykman (Spykman 1942) and the diplomat George Kennan (Kennan 1952). However, the key realist of the period was Hans J. Morgenthau, a German-Jewish émigré to the United States in the 1930s who published a series of books in the 1940s and 1950s, the most influential of which was Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, a book which was to become the standard textbook on International Relations for a generation or more (Morgenthau 1948).


There were two major differences between Morgenthau and Carr. In the first place, Morgenthau, influenced partly by figures such as Niebuhr, and partly by his own experiences in the 1930s, saw the mainspring of realism as lying not in scarcity, a product of the human condition, but in sin, a product

of human nature. The aggressive, power-seeking nature of states stems from the imperfect human material of which they are constructed. It could well be argued that this shift was a mistake. Unless explicitly defended on theological grounds, themselves dubious to many theorists, it leads towards psycho-sociological explanations for social behaviour, which are rarely satisfactory (although the renewed interest in socio-biology in the last few years may yet provide some support for Morgenthau). Even amongst theologians there would be a reluctance to defend the version of original sin which seems to underlie much of Morgenthau’s work – a strange foundation, since Morgenthau’s Judaic heritage did not commit him to this stance.


Morgenthau’s second difference from Carr was equally suspect on intellectual grounds, but, nonetheless, was the key to the success of Politics Among Nations. Morgenthau systematized realism. His book is full of lists – the six principles of political realism, the three foreign policy strategies open to states and so on. This made it a very successful textbook, but at the cost of a significant coarsening of the realist position. By contrast, Carr’s The Twenty Years Crisis is a complex, nuanced book, open to a variety of different readings. The same is true of some of Morgenthau’s other works, but most of the complexity in Politics Among Nations is provided by accident, as a result of some rather loose formulations, rather than by design. However, a simple guide to realism was what was required in 1948. Twenty years later, Hedley Bull commented that the United States had become the dominant power in the world without needing to develop a deep knowledge of the kind of statecraft practised in Europe; now they had this need, and American realism provided them with a ‘crib to the European diplomatic tradition’ (Bull in Porter 1969: 39). This is patronizing, but broadly true. Morgenthau’s account of realism can be boiled down to one basic proposition about international relations, which is that international relations is about states pursuing interests defined in terms of power. This simple formula opens up in all sorts of ways and the different component terms will be discussed at length below. A few comments to situate these later discussions may be helpful here. First, according to Morgenthau, the state is the key actor in international relations. Other bodies such as international organizations (governmental and non-governmental), economic enterprises, pressure groups, even individuals, may, in certain circumstances, exercise influence and act independently of states, but the state is the key actor because the state is the institution through which all these other bodies operate, the institution which regulates these other bodies and decides the terms under which they can act. As we will see in later chapters, it is a moot point whether this position will hold in the twenty-first century, but, for the moment, it should simply be noted that the claim is not that the state is the only actor but that it is the most significant actor; it is important not to ‘win’ arguments against realism by burning straw people.


Stress on interests conveys two notions: first that states have interests, second that state interests dominate state behaviour. The idea that states (nations) have interests could be problematic – can an institution rather than a person have interests in any meaningful sense? The realist position is that states are like ‘persons’, capable of possessing interests, and thus that the ‘national interest’ is not simply a shorthand term for the interests of whatever group controls the administrative structure of the state. States behave in accordance with these interests and not in response to abstract principles (such as collective security) or a desire to act altruistically. States never sacrifice themselves; they are essentially egoists. This seems straightforward, but could actually easily become tautological. Suppose states define a system of collective security as in their interest and act to support such a system even when their own material interests are not directly threatened by an aggressor – would this be egoistic behaviour? Clearly pinning down the idea of the national interest and using it in the analysis of foreign policy poses real problems.

National interests

National interests may be complex and difficult to identify in concrete terms, but the realist proposition is that a degree of simplicity can be introduced by assuming that whatever else states seek, they seek power in order to achieve other goals. The need for power stems from the anarchical nature of the international system. There is no authoritative system of decision making in international relations; states are obliged to look after themselves in what has become known as a ‘self-help’ system. Power is a complex notion; we can think of power as ‘capability’ – the physical force necessary to achieve a particular goal – but capability is always cashed out in a behavioural relationship. The actual possession of assets has political meaning only in relation to the assets possessed by others – although skill in deploying one’s assets counts for something. One of the problems here is that while measuring assets is not too difficult, measuring power in a relationship can be very tricky indeed.


We will return to each of these points in the chapters that follow. For the moment, one further general point is worth making, namely that it is not always clear what kind of theory realism is. Morgenthau obviously thinks of it as descriptive and explanatory – describing how the world is, explaining how it works; but there are also clear prescriptive elements here – he is telling statesmen how they should behave, what they should do. Moreover, there is a critical edge to his doctrines. One of the points about the notion of the ‘national interest’ is that it can be employed to criticize the behavior of a particular government. These different kinds of theory sit uneasily together. When Morgenthau attended ‘teach-ins’ at American universities in the early 1960s in order to protest that the Vietnam War was against the national interests of the United States, he was highly irritated by the tactics of State Department spokespersons who would quote back at him citations from his writings of the 1940s. Of course, he was right to think that they were missing the point – that the reasons why the national interest might call for engagement in European security in the 1940s had little bearing on the reasons why the national interest might call for disengagement in Vietnam in the 1960s. However, the young men and women from the State Department also had a point – Politics Among Nations is, at times, a very confusing text, purporting, inaccurately, to be simply an account of how things are, while actually, and inevitably, containing a very strong lead on how they should be.


International Relations and the behavioural sciences

Morgenthau’s text contains a great many ‘laws of politics’, that is to say generalizations that are held to apply very widely, perhaps universally. This seems to imply endorsement of the ‘covering law’ model of explanation, whereby something is deemed to have been explained when its occurrence can be accounted for under some general law. Such theorizing is in keeping with the aspiration of realism to make a scientific study of international relations. Second, and perhaps more important, the ways in which Morgenthau generates and establishes his laws seem highly unscientific. A key text here is in the Preface to the second edition of Politics Among Nations, where Morgenthau quotes with approval a sentence of Montesquieu to the effect that the reader should not judge the product of a lifetime’s reflection on the basis of a few hours’ reading. This seems to run against the scientific ethos, which holds that seniority and breadth of experience must always take second place to the logic and quality of an argument. If a smart undergraduate spots a genuine flaw in the lifetime’s work of a distinguished scholar this is a matter for congratulation, not rebuke.


In short, the scientific claims of realism are seemingly belied by its apparently unscientific methods – a point that was seized on in the 1950s and 1960s by the comparatively large number of ex-natural scientists who were attracted to the field, especially in the United States. These people were either former physicist with a guilty conscience over nuclear weapons, or systems analysts employed by bodies such as the RAND Corporation to improve the quality of United States policy-making, especially in the area of defense. These figures were joined by imports from the behavioural sciences, who were attuned to a version of the social sciences that involved an attempt to study the actual behaviour of actors rather than the meanings they assigned to this behaviour.


The aim of the behaviouralists was to replace the ‘wisdom literature’ and ‘anecdotal’ use of history represented by Morgenthau and the traditional realists with rigorous, systematic, scientific concepts and reasoning. There were various dimensions to this. It might involve casting old theories in new, rigorous forms – as with Morton Kaplan’s ‘balance of power’ models in System and Process in International Politics (Kaplan 1957).


In the mid-1960s, this work generated a fierce counter-attack on behalf of traditional, or, as they called it, classical International Relations, led by British scholars, in particular Hedley Bull (Bull in Knorr and Rosenau 1969); however, unlike the contest between utopianism and realism, this debate only engaged the interests of a minority of scholars, except, perhaps, in the United Kingdom, where an educational system still divided into two cultures meant that the majority of International Relations scholars were more amenable to attacks on ‘scientism’ than their North American cousins. In practice, by the 1960s the majority of US graduate students in International Relations (which means the majority of the future members of the profession) were receiving training in the methods of the behavioural sciences, and a methodology which essentially reflected this training took hold and has not yet weakened its grip. Moreover, the traditionalists/classicists had little to offer by way of an alternative to the behavioural revolution, largely because their own ideas of science and reliable knowledge were, in practice, very close to those of the scientists. The aspirations to science of Morgenthau and Carr have been noted, and any doctrine which claims to be based on how things really are is obviously open to those who claim to have a better grasp of this reality. Positivism – the belief that the facts are out there to be discovered and that there is only one way to do this, only one form of reliable knowledge, that generated by methods based on the natural sciences – reigned in both camps, and the differences were largely of style rather than substance. Indeed the most effective critiques of behaviouralism – until, that is, the post-positivist revolution of the late 1980s – came from the so-called ‘post-behaviouralists’, scholars who accepted the goal of science, but who were critical of the behaviouralists for their unwillingness to engage with the pressing political issues of the day.


The so-called ‘behavioural revolution’ did, however, generate a number of new ideas, and these, combined with changes in the real world, brought about quite striking changes to International Relations theory in the 1970s.


Challenges to the realist synthesis

For the most part, the behaviouralists were realists – their aim was to fulfill the realist claim to scientific status rather than to undermine it. However, in the 1960s and the early 1970s major challenges to realism did emerge, driven not by developments in the academy, but by events in the real world. Two sets of events were of particular significance, one set focusing on changes in the world of Great Power diplomacy (‘high’ politics), the other pointing to the significance of less dramatic socio-economic changes (‘low’ politics). Taken together these changes produced the dominant theories of the 1980s and 1990s – ‘neorealism’ and ‘neoliberal institutionalism’ (neoliberalism for short) – as well as fuelling challenges to this new orthodoxy such as ‘structuralism’, ‘constructivism’ and ‘globalization’ theory, and assisting in the revival of the English School theory of international society. The final section of this chapter will set the scene for these contemporary notions. The first set of changes reflect the shift in the nature of ‘high’ politics in this period. Realism as a doctrine originated in the troubled years of the 1930s and was established as orthodoxy at the height of the Cold War, not be denied, or the dangers underestimated. By the beginning of the 1960s, and especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the Cold War took a new turn, and relations between the superpowers became markedly less fraught – having looked over the brink in 1962, both sides decided that nothing was worth fighting a nuclear war for. This new mood – which led eventually to the process of ‘détente’ – was accompanied by a new focus of attention in the United States, namely the developing disaster of the Vietnam War, the most striking feature of which, from the point of view of realist theory, was the inability of the US to turn its obvious advantages in terms of power into results on the ground or at the conference table. Perceptions and psychology are important here. In point of fact, it is not too difficult to explain either the lessening of tension in Great Power relations or the failure of US policy in Vietnam using sophisticated realist categories, but, in superficial terms, it did look as if power politics were becoming less important in this period. This dovetailed with the second, more significant set of changes that led to a reassessment of the post-war synthesis, the changes in the area of ‘low’ politics.


The post-war realist synthesis was based on the assumption that the state is the key actor in international relations (and a unitary actor at that) and that the diplomatic–strategic relations of states are the core of actual international relations. Gradually, through the 1960s and 1970s, both of these assumptions seemed less plausible. Studies of foreign policy decision-making revealed that the unitary nature of, at least Western pluralist, states was illusory. Whereas bodies such as the United Nations could plausibly be seen as no more than arenas wherein states acted, new international organizations such as the European Economic Community (the then title of the European Union) or the functional agencies of the United Nations seemed less obviously tools of the states who brought them into being. Business enterprises had always traded across state boundaries, but a new kind of firm (rather confusingly termed the ‘multinational corporation’ or MNC) emerged, engaging in production on a world scale, and, allegedly, qualitatively different from the old firms in its behaviour. International diplomatic strategic relations are of central importance when the stakes really are matters of life and death, but as the possibility of the Cold War turning into a ‘Hot War’ declined, so the significance of international social and, especially, economic relations increased. All told, the feel of international relations seemed to be changing quite rapidly.


The changes were nicely caught in the title of a book, Transnational Relations and World Politics (1971), edited by figures who would be almost as significant for the next generation of IR theory as Morgenthau had been for the previous generation, Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye. This collection did not develop a theory as such, but its description of the world posed an interesting theoretical challenge. Conventional, realist, state-centric International Relations assumes that the significant relations between different societies are those which take place via the institutions of the state. Everyone acknowledges that there are a myriad of ways in which the peoples of one country might relate to the peoples of another, a great number of cross-border transactions, movements of money, people, goods and information, but the conventional assumption is, first, that the relations that really matter are interstate relations and, second, that the state regulates, or could regulate if it wished, all these other relations. The model suggested by Keohane and Nye relaxes both parts of this assumption. First, it can no longer be assumed that interstate relations are always the most important; in the modern world, the decisions and actions of non-state actors can affect our lives as much as, if not more than, the decisions and actions of states (the decision taken by Al Qaeda to attack the US on 9/11 being just the most obvious recent example). Second, it can no longer be assumed that states have the power to regulate effectively these actors; in principle, some states may have this capacity but, in practice, they are loath to exercise it given the potential costs of so doing in economic, social and political terms.


Pluralism and complex interdependence

Keohane and Nye’s transnational relations collection espoused no theory of the new IR; their Power and Interdependence (1977/2000) went some way towards meeting this need. In this classic work they proposed complex interdependence as a new account of international relations to run alongside realism, and set out three key differences between the two approaches.


First, complex interdependence assumes that there are multiple channels of access between societies, including different branches of the state apparatus as well as non-state actors, as opposed to the unitary state assumption characteristic of realism. Second, complex interdependence assumes that for most international relationships force will be of low salience, as opposed to the central role that force is given in realist accounts of the world. Finally, under complex interdependence there is no hierarchy of issues; any ‘issue-area’ might be at the top of the international agenda at any particular time, whereas realism assumes that security is everywhere and always the most important issue as between states (Keohane and Nye 1977/2000). These latter two points are, of course, related; it is largely because of the low salience of force in these relationships that there is no hierarchy of issues. The complex interdependence model does not assume that these three features exist everywhere – there may be, indeed are, relations where realism still holds. The point is to challenge realism’s claim to be the only theory of international relations, holding for all relationships. States have always been interdependent; what is new about pluralism is that rather than seeing relationships as a whole, they are seen as disaggregated. Different issue-areas – such as security, trade or finance – display different modes of mutual dependence. The politics of complex interdependence stems from these differences. The sensitivity of actors varies according to circumstances, as does their vulnerability. By sensitivity is meant the degree to which actors are sensitive to changes in a given issue-area, and by vulnerability is meant the extent to which they are able to control their responses to this sensitivity – thus, for example, all advanced industrial nations in the early 1970s were very sensitive to the price of oil, but they varied considerably in their vulnerability to price changes; some had options to deal with the situation (such as developing their own resources, or increasing industrial exports) which others did not. This opens up the possibility of actors employing strengths in one area to compensate for weaknesses in another. A favourite case study for this process was the ‘Smithsonian Crisis’ of 1971, which revolved around the decision of the US government to attempt to force a change in the rate at which dollars were changed into gold. Under the rules of the Bretton Woods system, finance was supposed to be kept separate from trade, and both were to be isolated from military– security concerns – but in 1971 the US employed trade sanctions as a means of forcing parity changes, and US diplomatic heavyweights such as Henry Kissinger were wheeled on to back up the American stance by making scarcely veiled threats about a re-evaluation of US security guarantees to Germany and Japan if these countries failed to respond positively. Since the US was not reliant on foreign trade, and was a clear provider of security, it was able to use its comparative invulnerability and insensitivity in these areas in order to compensate for its greater sensitivity and vulnerability in the realm of international finance (Gowa 1983).


Another feature of the world as seen by pluralists is that ‘agenda-setting’ is a matter of some significance. In the realist world of power politics, the agenda sets itself – what is or is not significant is easy to determine in advance, because only the big issues of war and peace are truly significant. Not so for pluralism, where, in principle, any issue could be at the top of the international agenda – here the ways in which actors are able to promote issues in international organizations and elsewhere becomes a significant subject for study. In some issue areas there may actually be a quite clear-cut route for promoting items to the top of the agenda – such issue-areas may actually be characterized by quite a high degree of international order; they may constitute regimes. A regime is to be found where there are clearly understood principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures around which decision-makers’ expectations converge in a given area of international relations (Krasner 1983: 2). The politics of regimes is an interesting feature of pluralist analysis which will be explored in greater detail in


In the mid-1970s pluralism seemed to be in the process of establishing itself as the dominant approach to the theory of International Relations. Traditional realism looked decidedly passé. Pluralism had preserved some of the more convincing insights of realism, for example about the importance of power, while offering a far more complex and nuanced account of how these insights might be operationalized in international political analysis. Indeed, some of the most convincing critiques of pluralism came from the so-called ‘structuralists’ who stressed the extent to which the pluralists were modeling a rich man’s world – their account stressed the dependence of one group of countries upon another rather than their interdependence, and argued that the poverty of the poor was directly caused by the wealth of the rich. The alleged chain of exploitation that linked rich and poor, the development of underdevelopment that had over the centuries created present-day inequalities, was the focus of these writers. However, pluralists were able to respond that on their account of the world ‘mutual dependence’ did not amount to equal dependence and the structuralists were simply describing a special case that could be subsumed under the complex interdependence model. All told, in the mid-to-late 1970s pluralism looked like a research programme that was in pretty good shape.

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