Power and Security

Power and Security

Propaganda he defines as ‘influence attempts relying primarily on the deliberate manipulation of verbal symbols’; diplomacy refers to ‘influence attempts relying primarily on negotiation’; economic statecraft covers ‘influence attempts relying on resources which have a reasonable semblance of a market price in terms of money’; and military statecraft refers to ‘influence attempts relying primarily on violence, weapons, or force’ (Baldwin 1985: 13). The rest of this chapter examines the questions raised (or in some cases, avoided) by this classification. A common feature of these techniques is that they are techniques of ‘influence’. The best way to think of influence is in terms of its two antonyms – authority and control – and then to ask whether influence is synonymous with power. States attempt to exert influence rather than authority because authority is something that can only emerge in legitimate relationships which do not exist between states. That is to say, it is an essential feature of the nature of authority that those over whom it is exercised acknowledge that those exercising it have a right to do so – they are authorized to act. In international relations there is no authority in this sense of the term, or at least not with respect to issues of any real political significance. The contrast between influence and control works rather differently. When control is exercised, those who are controlled have lost all autonomy; they have no decision-making capacity. From a realist perspective, states would actually like to exercise control over their environment, but if any one state ever actually was in a position to control another, the latter would cease to be a ‘state’ in any meaningful sense of the term, and if any state were able to control all other states, then the current international system would be replaced by something else, namely an empire.


Recasting these points, the exercise of influence is the characteristic way in which states relate to one another because we have neither a world government nor a world empire. In the absence of these two polar positions, only relationships of influence remain. Of course, in actual practice, there may be some relationships which approach the two poles. In an elaborate military alliance such as NATO, the governing council, the Supreme Allied Military Commander in Europe (SACEUR), and, in some circumstances, the president of the United States, could be said to exercise a degree of legitimate authority, having been authorized by the members of NATO to act on their behalf. However, this authority is tenuous and could be withdrawn at any time, albeit at some cost. Conversely, the degree of influence exercised by the former Soviet Union over some of its ‘allies’ in Eastern Europe at times came close to actual control, although even at the height of Stalinism the freedom of action of the weakest of the People’s Republics was greater than that of the Baltic States which were incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940. Sometimes freedom of action may only mean the freedom to give way to the inevitable, but even this can be meaningful; in the pre-war crises of 1938 and 1939, neither Czechoslovakia nor Poland had any real freedom, apart from that of determining the circumstances under which they would fall into Nazi control, but the way in which they exercised this final freedom had a real influence on the lives of their populations. The relationship between influence and power is more complicated. Power is one of those terms in political discourse that are so widely used as to have become almost devoid of meaning; the suggestion that its use should be banned is impracticable, but understandable. Common-sense usage of the term power suggests that it is quite closely related to influence – a ‘powerful person’ is an influential person – but there are forms of influence that do not seem to rely on power as the term is usually understood, and there are forms of power that are only indirectly connected to influence. This is a particularly important relationship for a state-centric, especially a realist, view of the world, and, unlike the distinctions between influence and authority or control, this matter is too sensitive to be determined by definition. It is only by generating a quite sophisticated understanding of power that the realist view of the world can be comprehended – but, equally, such an understanding is required if realism is to be transcended.


Dimensions of power

Power is a multi-faceted and complex notion, and it makes sense to think of the term under three headings, always bearing in mind that the three categories this will generate are closely interrelated. Power is an attribute – it is something that people or groups or states possess or have access to, have at hand to deploy in the world. Power is a relationship – it is the ability that people or groups or states have to exercise influence on others, to get their way in the world. These two dimensions of power are clearly not separable, and most realist accounts of international relations have a story to tell about them. A third dimension of power in which it is seen as a property of a structure is less easily incorporated into realist accounts of the world, at least in so far as these accounts rely on the notion that power can only be exercised by an actor or agent.


The idea that power is an attribute of states is a very familiar notion to traditional accounts of international relations. Most old textbooks, and many new ones, offer a list of the components of national power, the features of a country that entitle it to be regarded as a ‘great’ power, or a ‘middle’ power, or, more recently, a ‘superpower’. These lists generally identify a number of different kinds of attributes that a state might possess in order to entitle it to claim its position in the world power rankings. These might include: the size and quality of its armed forces; its resource base, measured in terms of raw materials; its geographical position and extent; its productive base and infrastructure; the size and skills of its population; the efficiency of its governmental institutions; and the quality of its leadership. Some of these factors are immutable – geographical position and extent would be the obvious examples (although the significance of geographical features can change quite sharply over time). Others change only slowly (size of the population, rates of economic growth) while yet others can change quite rapidly (size of the armed forces). These points allow us to make a distinction between actual power and potential or latent power – the power that a state actually possesses at any one point in time as opposed to the power it could generate in a given time period. The significance of any one of these factors as against the others will change over time. Population size and geographical extent can only add to the power of a state to the extent that the administrative, communication and transport infrastructure allows it to do so. For example, until the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the 1890s, the quickest way to get from St Petersburg or Moscow to Vladivostok was by sea via the Baltic and North Seas and the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, which meant that Russian land power in the East was at the mercy of British sea power, and in those circumstances the great size of Russia could rarely be translated into a genuine political asset. A relatively small country with a highly productive economy may be more powerful than a much larger country with a less productive economy – but there are limits. For example, no matter how economically successful Singapore is it will never be major military power in the absence of

a sufficiently large population base. A culture that gives great respect to those who bear arms may be an important factor in developing effective armed forces, but the nature of modern mechanized warfare may mean that technically skilled civilians can be more effective than old-style warriors, always presuming, that is, that such civilians are prepared to risk their own lives and take those of others. Nuclear weapons may act as the great equalizers of military power, and yet it may be that only those states which possess a very large land mass and dispersed population are actually able to threaten to use them. These sorts of propositions amount to the folk wisdom of power politics. As with most examples of folk wisdom there are alternative and contradictory versions of each proposition, and it is very difficult to think of ways of validating them short of the exchange of anecdotes. In any event, most of the time in international relations we are not actually interested in power as an attribute of states, but in power as a relational concept. Indeed, all of the attributes listed above only have meaning when placed in a relational context – thus, for an obvious example, whether a country has a ‘large’ or a ‘small’ population is a judgement that only makes sense in relation to some other country. Relational power also, of course, takes us back to the notion of influence.

The American political scientist Robert Dahl offered a classic formulation of relational power when he suggested that power is the ability to get another actor to do what it would not otherwise have done or not to do what it would otherwise have done (Dahl 1970); the first of these relationships we could call ‘compellance’, the second ‘deterrence’. Either way, on this count, power is not something that can be measured in terms of the attributes of a state but only in action, in the effect one state has on another. There is a real distinction being made here, even if the contrast between power-as-attribute and power-as-influence-in-a-relationship is somewhat obscured by the ambiguity of ordinary language, at least of the English language, where ‘power’ can be synonymous with both ‘strength’ and ‘influence’ – unlike the French language, where puissance (power, might) and pouvoir (capability) are more clearly delineated. Of course, it might be the case that what we have here are simply two different ways of looking at the same phenomenon. Some such argument lies behind the basic force model of power, which suggests that it is a reasonable assumption that the power an actor is able to exercise in a relationship is a direct reflection of the amount of power in the attribute sense possessed by that actor. In other words, we can, in effect, pass over the relational aspect of power fairly quickly, because it is the resources that are brought to the relationship that really count. The suggestion is that if we wish to know whether in any particular situation one actor will actually be able to exert power over another, the obvious method of answering this question is to compare the resources that the two actors bring to the relationship. As the folk wisdom has it, God is on the side of the big battalions.


The problem with this account of power is that it is self-evidently false – or rather can only be made true by the addition of so many qualifications that the clarity of the original idea is lost and the proposition simply becomes the tautology that the more powerful state is the state that gets its way in any relationship. To employ an oft-cited example, it is clear that by any attribute measure of power the United States was a stronger country than North Vietnam, and that even in terms of the resources devoted to the Vietnam War the United States had more men, tanks, planes and ships committed than had the North Vietnamese. If we want to explain why, nonetheless, the United States was effectively defeated by North Vietnam, we have to develop our analysis in various ways. In the first place, we have to introduce into our calculations factors such as the quality of the leadership of the two countries, and the effects of their domestic political and social structures on the conduct of the war – the role, for example, of the American media in undermining support for the war in the United States, the skill of the Vietnamese army at irregular jungle warfare, and the inability of the United States to find local allies with sufficient support in the countryside of Vietnam. Each of these factors could be assimilated to a basic force model – after all, the skill of its army and political elite has always been identified as an element of the power of a state – but only at the cost of introducing highly subjective elements into the calculation. The merit of the basic force model is that it allows us to make more or less precise calculations – this is lost if we have to start assessing the relative skills of national leaderships. However, there are two more fundamental objections to the basic force model; first, the context within which power is exercised is important, as is, second, the asymmetrical nature of many power relationships. As to context, very few relationships actually only involve two actors. Generally there are many other parties indirectly involved. In the Vietnam War numerous third parties influenced the outcome. We simply cannot say what would have happened had the United States been able to act without bearing in mind the reactions of, on the one hand, North Vietnam’s potential allies, China and the Soviet Union, or, on the other, America’s own allies in the Pacific and Europe. A pure two-actor power relationship is very unusual, and certainly was not present here.


If anything, asymmetry is even more important than context. The difference between compellance and deterrence, referred to above, is part of this. What exactly it was that the United States wanted in Vietnam was never clear (that was one of their problems), but it certainly involved a number of positive changes to the political architecture of Vietnam, such as the emergence of a government in the South capable of winning the allegiance of the people. The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, simply wanted the Americans to go away; they were confident that if they did go away they would be able to deal with any local opposition – as indeed proved to be the case. The North Vietnamese could wait; their aim was to win by surviving, rather than to bring about any positive change in their relationship with the United States. This opens up a dimension of relational power that goes well beyond the basic force model of power. One definition of power is that power is the ability to resist change, to throw the costs of adaptation on to others, and, characteristically, the ability to resist change requires fewer resources to be placed on the line than the ability to bring changes about. In international politics as in war, the assumption must be that there are tactical advantages to a defensive as opposed to an offensive posture.


What all this suggests is that it is not possible to assimilate attribute and relational power into one algorithm, or at least that such an algorithm would have to be so complicated, and hedged around with so many provisos, that it would not be able to perform the role of simplifying the analysis of power. This is unfortunate, because there are a number of circumstances where we might actually want a measure of power, and measuring the influence of a state is, in every respect, more difficult than measuring its attributes. When, for example, we move on to consider the notion of the ‘balance of power’ we will want to ask ourselves what it is that is being balanced, and how we could tell whether a balance exists. In each case it would be helpful if we were able simply to assume that power is measurable in terms of attributes. Once we are obliged to accept that power-as-influence is not directly related to power-as-attribute we are bound to encounter problems. The measurement of influence is bound to be difficult because what we are looking for are changes in the behaviour of an actor that are caused by the attempt of another to exert power, and, of course, in any practical situation there are always going to be a range of other possible reasons why an actor’s behaviour might have changed which either could have been determining even in the absence of the actions of another, or, at the very least, which reinforced the effects of the latter. There may be some cases where it is possible to identify a moment in the course of negotiations, or in the process of making a particular decision, where it can be said that such-and-such a consideration was decisive, but the standard literature on decision-making suggests that this sort of ‘essence of decision’ is rare. Moreover, even when a particular decision can be pinned down in this way, the circumstances leading up to the decisive moment are always going to have been complex and involve a number of different factors. Nonetheless, these difficulties should not be exaggerated; historians cope with this dilemma all the time – any historical narrative is obliged to confront the problem of assigning influence to particular factors and this seems to get done without too much hardship.


In any event, while power-as-influence is not directly based on the resources a state has at its disposal, indirectly these resources remain crucial. Influence rests on the ability to make threats in the event of noncompliance, and/or offer rewards for compliance – that is, on positive and negative sanctions or ‘sticks and carrots’ as the vernacular has it – and this ability is clearly related to the attributes of power possessed by a state. States that attempt to exert influence in the world, to alter the international environment in their favour, solely on the basis of reasoned argument or by relying on the skills of their representatives are likely to be disappointed. This does not mean that all influence-attempts rest on explicit threats or promises; the ability of a state to make effective threats/promises will generally be known and taken into account by interested parties without having to be made explicit. In fact, explicit threats – and even more so, action to back up threats – tend to be made when it is unclear that the message is getting across or when credibility is at stake. It should also be noted that threats and rewards need not relate directly to tangible factors – some states may have a degree of prestige such that other states wish to be associated with them.


These propositions can be illustrated by reference to a number of recent episodes in international relations. The negotiations in 1993 and 1994 which brought about real progress in relations between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization and the creation of limited self-rule in some areas of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were brokered by the good offices of a number of parties, ranging from the government of Egypt to private individuals in Norway. However, when an initial deal was struck the signing ceremony took place on the White House lawn, because it was deemed necessary by all parties that the power of the United States be associated with the outcome. Only the United States possesses the ability to reward progress and punish lack of progress – underwriting by Norway or Egypt would not do. As the peace process has unfolded, this fact has become if anything even more salient, as has the fact that the exercise of this influence is crucially related to domestic politics in the US; there is a limit to what any American politician seeking election or re-election can demand in the way of concessions from Israel. In any event the efficacy of threats and rewards offered by the US or anyone else will vary according to the issues at stake; as time has passed and a Palestinian Authority has been established, core values have come closer to the surface for both parties, and the ability of outsiders to persuade them to compromise has diminished. The failure of the Camp David talks in 2000, and the unwillingness of either side to adhere to the various ‘road maps’ with which they have been presented by third parties (such as the US, UK and EU) illustrates the point.


In the peace process in Bosnia which led in 1995 to the Dayton Accords, the movement from implicit to explicit threats, and finally to overt action can be observed. In this case the United States had stayed in the background of the process during 1993–5, but with the implicit threat that it would become involved if the Bosnian Serbs refused to compromise. This had no effect; eventually the US became involved and the threat became explicit. This also had no effect, and it was not until a short bombing campaign by the US and NATO forces in response to the fall of the town of Srebrenica and the accompanying atrocities that the Bosnian Serb leadership finally, grudgingly, moved towards a degree of compliance. Action was necessary here perhaps because intentions had been misread – although it may also have been the case that the Bosnian Serb leadership found it easier to justify to their own people giving way to actual coercion than they would have yielding even to an explicit threat. Such at least was believed by some NATO analysts in 1999 when the campaign to end Serbian oppression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo commenced, although in the event it turned out that a far more substantial military effort was necessary on this occasion before Yugoslav policy was reversed. In both instances, a continuing American presence is required – without the power of the United States at its disposal it seems unlikely that the international force in Bosnia charged with implementing the Dayton Accords could perform its mandate, even given the involvement of the major European NATO members, and, similarly, K-FOR in Kosovo can only act effectively because it is known that ultimately US military power backs up the local commanders.


Finally, it is worth noting the impact of a very different kind of power – that associated with the great prestige of a particular figure, such as Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Thus, the South African delegation played an important role in bringing about the relatively successful outcome of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference of 1995, partly through skilful diplomacy, but also because they were able to exploit the unwillingness of other delegations to find themselves in opposition to South

Africa, and, for another example, the willingness of the Libyan government to hand over for trial its nationals who were suspects in the Lockerbie bombing owed something to the good offices of by then ex-President Mandela. On both occasions the more conventional lobbying of the US government was rather less successful – partly no doubt, because the US did not have enough to offer on these particular issues. On the other hand, the limits of this sort of power are also apparent, for example in the unwillingness

of the then military rulers of Nigeria to respond favourably to South African pressure to grant a reprieve to condemned dissidents. The execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa while the 1995 Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference was under way suggests that the disapproval of Nelson Mandela took second place in the minds of these rulers to the need to preserve their power at home. Of course, the influence of individuals can also have deleterious effects – the power of Osama Bin Laden to win converts to his cause is comparable to or greater than Mandela’s in terms of impact, but is being used exclusively to bring harm.


Before moving on to consider structural power there is one further feature of relational power that needs to be addressed. Dahl’s definition of power, cited above, was formulated in the context of American debates on ‘community power’, and one of the strongest criticisms of his approach stressed the way in which his definition only allows us to see power in operation when a decision is to be made; there may be, it was argued, cases of ‘non-decision-making’ where power is more effectively exercised than in the making of decisions (Bachrach and Baratz 1970). The ability to control what gets on to the agenda is more important than the ability to determine what happens when items are actually raised in discussion. This is widely regarded as a valid criticism of Dahl’s definition of power in the context of a governmental system. Whereas much of the earlier discussion of power could apply to many versions of pluralism as well as to realist notions, we now reach a point at which paths diverge. Clearly the power of non-decision-making is crucial to the analysis of agenda-setting within regimes, and thus of great significance to all versions of pluralism, including neoliberalism. This is because, from a realist perspective, it is not possible for a state to be prevented from placing an item on the agenda, there being no agenda in any formal sense of the term. The key issues in international relations at any particular time are the issues that states with sufficient power to gain the attention of other states wish to be the key issues. No powerful state can be prevented from raising an issue; by definition, if an issue is not raised it is because the state that wished to raise it had insufficient power to do so. From a realist point of view there is no second meaning of power.


It might be that a similar point will emerge with respect to structural power – but this requires a more extensive examination. The power has been treated as though it were something that is exercised by actors whom realists presume to be states, but who might, in some circumstances, be other entities such as individuals or groups. This actor-oriented approach is a necessary feature of the way in which the consideration of power grew out of a consideration of foreign policy. We began with the state, moved on to consider how states formulate policy, took a short detour to examine the proposition that state action is determined by the international system, concluded that we had reason to doubt that this was entirely so, and then moved to the issue of foreign-policy implementation. Consideration of implementation raised the issue of techniques of statecraft and this led to a discussion of power, in which power has been seen as something that states either possess as an attribute or exercise in a relationship.


This is a natural enough way to think of power if one’s starting-point is the state – but there is another way of thinking of power which is not actor-oriented. If we think of power as something in social life that brings about states of affairs, that instigates or prevents change – if, in other words, we take as our starting-point outcomes – it rapidly becomes clear that not all states of affairs come about because of the actions of individuals or groups or states (including as ‘actions’ in this case the legitimate exercise of authority as well as the exercise of influence). Some things happen without any apparent human agency. A society or a system is structured in such a way as to bring about certain kinds of outcomes independently of the will of any of its component parts. It makes sense to talk about power existing in these circumstances – powerful forces are at work, as it were – but it is structural power that is involved.


A good way of making sense of the idea of structural power can be found in the work of the Italian Marxian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s concern was to make the revolution and overthrow capitalism, but he came to realize in the 1920s that overthrowing capitalism in Italy, a relatively-developed bourgeois state, was a different, and certainly a more difficult, task than that which had faced Lenin in 1917. In Russia, which had been a very underdeveloped capitalist state, the power of capital was embodied in particular institutions which could be identified and engaged with in struggle – once defeated, capitalism was overthrown. In Italy, on the other hand, capitalism was so well established that it permeated all aspects of society; it controlled the ‘common sense’ of society, the ways in which ordinary people thought about politics, economics and social life in general. The effect of this capitalist ‘hegemony’ is that bringing about change becomes very difficult – checking and overthrowing capitalist/bourgeois institutions such as the firm or the liberal-democratic state is only a first step; the structural power of capitalism would remain as a more formidable obstacle to revolution than the resources of the overtly capitalist institutions.


The direct application of notions of hegemony to international political economy; here the focus will remain on power understood more generally, and it will be noted that apparently similar ideas have been encountered above in the neorealist account of the international system; we now need to re-examine this account in the light of this new focus. What we find is that, somewhat contrary to first impressions, Waltz’s version of systemic power is only partly structural in the sense outlined above. As we have seen, the international system allegedly sends messages to its members which, if correctly interpreted, will tell them what courses of action they should engage in – and Waltz assumes that since states wish to survive, they will become quite skilled interpreters of the state of the system. There is obviously an element of structural power in this. The rules of the game – the ‘common-sense’ understanding of how one should

conduct international relations – stem from the imperatives of the system. It is clearly not the case that these rules, in general, reflect the power of any particular state; they are not understood as the product of the will of any state or group of states, even though they clearly do operate to the benefit of some states as opposed to others, by, for example, giving some more options than others possess.


However, Waltz’s conception does not quite capture the full idea of structural power, because the states who make up the system have an existence that seems to be independent of it, and they possess the ability not only to exploit structural power in the manner that, say, capitalist enterprises exploit the structural logic of capitalism, but also to interact with, and even change the nature of, the rules of the game. Thus, in a bipolar system, according to Waltz, the two states concerned have the ability to regulate their competition and override the systemic imperative of ‘self-help’ which, unless regulated, might otherwise be expected to lock them into an highly destructive arms race. Even in a multipolar system where such regulation is more difficult, states have the ability to misread the signals sent by the system – whereas structural power which is really part of the common sense of a society does not need to be read at all. It just is. Waltz’s system is a strange hybrid in which states are sometimes agents, sometimes automatons – too much of the latter for the foreign-policy analyst who looks for greater autonomy, too much of the former for a truly structural account of the system. Here we see, yet again, the impact of rational choice thinking on International Relations; states are rational egoists operating under conditions of anarchy and, however much Waltz wishes to deny it, his model cannot avoid being actor-oriented.


Better versions of structural power can be found elsewhere in the International Relations literature. From the realm of international political economy, Susan Strange makes a compelling case for the existence of four primary structures in world politics – the knowledge structure, the financial structure, the production structure and the political structure (Strange 1988). Each of these structures has a logic of its own, independent of its members, and structural power can be found in operation in each. The historical sociologist Michael Mann also identifies four key structures – in his case ideological, economic, military and political (Mann 1986/1993). His is a work of large-scale historical sociology and he is concerned not simply with the way in which each of these structures determines outcomes, but also with changes in the relative importance of each structure over time. What is interesting about these writers is that although both are, in some sense, providing realist accounts of the operation of international relations, neither accepts a state-centric view of the world, or a clear distinction between the domestic and the international – both of which are generally seen as key criteria for identifying realists. Neither of these two criteria is compatible with a truly structural account of the operation of power, and their determination to provide such an account takes them away from realism in the sense that the term has been used so far in this chapter and the previous one. In effect, as with the matter of non-decisional power, structural power in the full meaning of the term is a not a category which works from a realist state-centric perspective – which provides yet one more reason for going beyond this perspective. However, before taking this step there are still quite a few elements of the state-centric view of the world that need to be established and investigated.


Power, fear and insecurity

One of the defining features of realist accounts of international relations – of state-centric accounts in general – is an emphasis on the inherently dangerous nature of international relations. A level of watchfulness, if not fearfulness, which would be regarded as paranoid in other circumstances seems a necessary feature of international relations. A brief review of the story so far will clarify why this is so.

First, it is a premise of state-centric accounts of international relations that states determine their own aims and objectives in the international system, and that primary amongst these aims and objectives will be a concern for survival, both in the physical sense of a concern to preserve the territorial integrity of the state, and, more intangibly, in terms of a concern to preserve the capacity of the state to determine its own destiny, its way of life. This premise emerges from the notion that the state is sovereign and wishes to remain so, and the assumption holds independently of the nature of the state – thus, Machtstaat or Rechtstaat, absolutist monarchy or liberal democracy, it makes no difference; states wish to preserve their sovereignty, come what may. Second, it is a premise of state-centric views of international relations that, given the absence of world government – that is, of a mechanism whereby interests can be pursued in the hope of achieving authoritative decision – the pursuit of interests is conducted by attempting to exercise power in the world, and power, in this sense, means the ability to make threats and offer rewards. Moreover, coercive means are part of the repertoire of positive and negative sanctions at the disposal of states in their conduct of foreign affairs, and the decision to use coercion is one that sovereign states reserve to themselves, with any commitment not to employ coercive means being contingent on circumstances.


Taken together, these two premises – each of which is no more than an elaboration of the implications of a system of sovereign states – ensure that insecurity and fear are permanent features of international relations. The very bare bones of the basic situation point to this conclusion, and the different ways in which flesh can be added to these bare bones may make the situation more or less dangerous but they do not and cannot produce the qualitative change that would be necessary to remove danger altogether. The traditional realist account of state-centric international relations clearly makes life even more dangerous than the basic situation would suggest, because it adds to the pot the assumption that human beings have naturally aggressive tendencies that can only be constrained by the coercive force of government. The aims and objectives of states will include a desire to dominate not simply because this is a systemic imperative, but because human beings are like that. Domination is what they do. It may be that, as Carl Schmitt suggests, as between states the visceral hatreds of a ‘friend–foe’ relationship can be transformed into the political hostility of a friend–enemy relationship, and the impersonal quality of this relationship may mitigate some of the worst features of our primordial aggressiveness (Schmitt 1932/1996). As against this, the very impersonality of modern means of violence may undermine whatever natural restraints we have inherited as part of our animal nature. In any event, for a classical realist, aggression and violence are part of who we are, whether these features are perceived in theological terms or as having socio-psychological or sociobiological origins.


The neorealist emphasis on systemic imperatives as a source of conduct removes this notion of aggressiveness from the equation. It is the basic situation that is dangerous, not the nature of the human beings who are obliged to work within the international anarchy. Moreover, states are assumed to be rational in their decision-making, and not liable to be overcome by instinctual fears or hatreds. The neorealist state is a cold, impersonal entity, with no friends, but also no enemies. On the other hand, the neorealist account of the international system puts great stress on the dangers of the basic situation in which states find themselves. States are enjoined to pay constant attention to the relations of power that exist in the world; watchfulness is needed, because, in a Hobbesian sense, international relations is a state of war. For Hobbes, life in the state of nature – a clear analogy to the neorealist international system – is a state of war, not in the sense that fighting is continual, but in the sense that it is an ever-present possibility.


The state-centric view of the English School theorists of international society, and of constructivists such as Alexander Wendt, looks at first sight to be offering a rather less fear-dominated account of the world. The assumption here is that although states are sovereign and the basic situation outlined above still holds, nonetheless they are in a social relationship with one another and there are some rules and practices that work to reduce the fear and tension that otherwise might exist. The rules of international law mandate non-aggression and non-intervention, and are taken seriously by states. There are certain kinds of ‘settled norms’ in international relations which regulate conduct. Such norms are settled not in the sense that every state always obeys them, but in the sense that even when breaking them states will pay allegiance to them; that is, they will attempt to show that they are not really breaking them, or that they are doing so for wholly exceptional reasons (Frost 1996: 105). These rules are backed by diplomacy – an institution with a culture of its own oriented towards problem-solving and negotiation rather than violence and coercion. States are sovereign, but this does not stop them, most of the time, from obeying the rules; a degree of watchfulness is justified, but not the extent of fearfulness full-blown realist accounts suggest should be normal.


There are two problems with this, one fairly obvious, and one which may need more elaboration. In the first place, no theorist of international society ever suggested that all states all the time will play by the rules – the possibility that there will be dissatisfied customers in the international arena who will be prepared to use their power to damage others cannot be discounted. But there is a more serious problem here, which is that even with the best will in the world, even assuming that all states are abiding by the rules – and do not wish to employ violence and coercion in their relations with one another – there is still the possibility that this fact will not be recognized, and that insecurity will increase even if there is no ‘objective’ reason why it should. This notion – the ‘security dilemma’ – is based on the complex relationship between ‘intentions’ and ‘capabilities’, and the ways in which the system of sovereign states encourages emphasis on the latter rather than the former, with the result that a spiral of insecurity may emerge on the basis of misperception. Thus, because there is a background level of possible insecurity even in an international order where the majority of states are unaggressive and broadly satisfied with life, states feel obliged to preserve the means of self-defense and to do so in a cost-efficient but also effective way, which sometimes involves enhancing this capacity. However, the capacity to defend oneself is also, most of the time, a capacity to act offensively. On the same chain of reasoning that leads the first, peaceful, state to preserve and occasionally enhance the effectiveness of its armed forces, a second state may see this as a potentially hostile act. The defensive intentions – which cannot easily be demonstrated, much less proven – will be less important than the offensive capabilities. If the second state reacts to these capabilities by expanding its own coercive capacity this is likely to be perceived as potentially hostile, and so the spiral sets in. The US debate over National Missile Defense offers an interesting illustration of the reasoning here; a partial missile defense for the US would be purely defensive in intent, designed to deter attacks from ‘rogue’ states, but, if effective, such a system would render less credible Russian and Chinese deterrent forces and probably stimulate them to upgrade their systems, in turn increasing US anxiety, and so on.


This is a security dilemma rather than, for example, a simple mistake, because no one is behaving unreasonably or making unreasonable assumptions. It might, in fact, be a mistake to perceive hostility where there is none, but it is a reasonable mistake; better safe than sorry. There are too many historical examples of states not reacting in time, taking overt intentions as a reason for ignoring capability enhancements, and suffering as a result, for this possibility to be ignored. We do not have access to the intentions of states – we can only see their capabilities and work back from these. It is in the nature of the ‘self-help’ system in which states exist that they are likely to take a pessimistic view of the world, even in an international society. National leaders consider themselves to have a responsibility to their populations to be cautious and prudent and not to turn a blind eye to potential threats. The idea of the security dilemma can be taken too far to imply that all international insecurity stems from some such process of reaction and overreaction. There seems no reason to hold to such a view. Sometimes states do have hostile intentions towards each other, in which case reacting to a build-up of capabilities is a sensible move. But the point is that even in a world largely composed of states which do not have any hostile intent, and which make rational, calculated decisions about their place in the world, insecurity is still endemic. Anarchy is anarchy even in an anarchical society – the existential situation of sovereign states coexisting in a world without government is inherently insecure and dangerous.

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