Reconciling theory and policy
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 1: Insecurity in the New World Order
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by William Tow
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William Tow's biography and other articles by this writer
The world has changed, provoking heated discussion among international relations observers. The contending theories may seem obscure but the ideas that flow from academic conferences and learned journals represent one of the few systematic attempts to make sense of the new "world order", which harbours international terrorism, global pandemics and weapons of mass destruction.
Like the forces they seek to explain, schools of thinking in international relations represent sharply competing world views. Competition between such schools of thought matters because it generates contending approaches to sound public policy. Theory does not just explain the world – it justifies actions. What follows is a brief summary of some recent theories of international relations vying for legitimacy.
The end of the Cold War
INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS THEORY FAILED TO PREDICT THE END OF THE COLD WAR. The failure to anticipate the biggest change in the international order in half a century generated widespread embarrassment and self-consciousness. But it also inspired some brave observers to advance new predictions.
Two major theoretical statements initially emerged from this renewed quest for understanding – Francis Fukuyama's thesis on the "End of History", which appeared in the National Interest magazine during 1989, and Harvard University's Samuel P. Huntington's provocative argument predicting a "clash of civilisations", published in Foreign Affairs four years later.
Fukuyama, now at John Hopkins University and formerly at the RAND Corporation, focused on democratisation during the last years of the Cold War. His provocative article, eventually expanded as the book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), argued liberal democracy is the culmination of thinking about political organisation. The triumph of capitalism at the end of the Cold War and the rise of the United States as the world's sole superpower follows a logic begun with the French Revolution. Because democracy was deemed superior to other forms of governance, the ideological disputes of the past have inevitably culminated with its victory; future political contest will occur only within a democratic, capitalist-driven consensus about the best way to govern modern societies.
This argument was quickly contested by Huntington. Not accepting the triumph of democracy as inevitable, Huntington argued that violence remains a fact of international life because strongly contending cultures continue to endure around the world. Globalisation and modernisation were not accepted by large numbers of people living in the developing world; indeed, they were often regarded as the West attempting to impose its will on every other culture and highly resented by those adopting this view.
For Fukuyama, the world had moved past a time when individual states, ethnicities or theologies can stake out separate identities. Instead, the natural human inclination to pursue free will has prevailed and this was embodied by the prevalence of democratisation. For Huntington, any such conclusion is misplaced and premature; ethnic nationalism had become more powerful than any ideology. His policy prescription: the West should not impose its will on every other culture but develop co-existence and a mutually acceptable balance of power.
Both writers subsequently moved in new directions – Fukuyama to consider the role of technology in unleashing human potential, Huntington in developing more traditional international relations thinking about military power and geopolitics. But their legacies established the fundamental context for future international relations debates. Is history being supplanted by ideological consensus or fracturing around irreducible cultural fault lines?
Even his critics acknowledge Fukuyama has drawn important attention to the goals that shape human goals when allowed expression through political freedom. Yet such desires may run as much to fundamentalism as to peace. The political agenda implied in Fukuyama's work – free markets to support democracy – inevitably attract harsh words from those who believe unregulated markets entrench inequality. It could also be tested sharply by what now happens in a "liberated" Iraq as Shiite factions struggle for power with their more secular Sunni brethren under the tutelage of Western military occupation.
Osama bin Laden would probably agree with many of Huntington's views, albeit from a different cultural framework, while scorning most of Fukuyama's propositions. Yet Fukuyama's harshest critics are Western leftists who disdain what they see as his failure to acknowledge that corporate globalisation since the USSR's demise has exacerbated already appalling gaps in wealth, rather than advancing a politics of humanity and hope.
Detractors of Huntington worry his apocalyptic vision might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Conflicts, they point out, are more likely to erupt within states and civilisations. Yet September demonstrated the frightening consequences when even a small minority of self-appointed cultural dissidents set out to create conflict between civilisations. Huntington has observed that Osama bin Laden and his ilk see a perpetual war as inevitable. The West should refute that premise, but not force its values onto other nations. Soon after the tragedy of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, Huntington was quoted in The Atlantic Monthly suggesting that " ... in the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilisational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false, it is immoral and it is dangerous".
Fukuyama took a different position after September 11. During a lecture at Australia's Centre for Independent Studies last year, Fukuyama reasserted his belief that the project of modernisation – meaning "liberal democracy and market-orientated economics" – would prevail, even in the Muslim world. "Thus," he concluded, "while fanatical Islamists armed with weapons of mass destruction pose a severe threat in the short run, the longer-term challenge in the battle of ideas is not going to come from this quarter. September 11 represents a serious detour but in the end, modernisation and globalisation will remain the central structuring principles of world politics".
Realism and its variants
THOUGH FUKUYAMA AND HUNTINGTON DISAGREE ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE WORLD that is now emerging, they share one important perception: a refusal to see international relations exclusively through the prism of the nation state. Yet the dominant academic approach to international relations, realism, has always been state-centric. The realist school of thought projects a dour view of world politics and the key actors who mould relations between nations. Faced with what they consider an anarchical international system, realists prize power. Survival is the only game in town and "community-building" a pipedream. War can only be avoided by dominance or by achieving equilibriums between rival states or blocs of states. Power constantly threatens global stability.
No one has spearheaded the realist cause more forcefully in recent years than John Mearsheimer, professor at the University of Chicago and a rising celebrity on the American talk-show circuit. Mearsheimer has labelled his theoretical approach "offensive realism", arguing that great powers inevitably compete to become dominant in their own region or even globally. Only by attaining hegemonic status can the great powers attain true security. At any moment, the number of great powers vying for hegemony determines the structural composition of the international system. When several states compete for supremacy, that system is multipolar. When only two states struggle, the world is bipolar; should one prevail and achieve uncontested power, the world becomes unipolar. In his latest book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), Mearsheimer anticipates a new era of competition between China and the US replacing the American-dominated unipolar world of today.
Mearsheimer's theory has been acclaimed for describing contemporary geopolitics with clear-sighted and jargon-free vision. It is criticised for a preoccupation with states yearning for power and security. Other realists suggest nations are more concerned with survival than with acquiring power as an end in itself. In the words of Glenn Snyder, an author and analyst who stresses the impossible costs of pursuing and sustaining domination, it is far better to "balance power rather than maximise it".
Given current challenges for the US, realists are debating the costs of maintaining a unipolar world. In his book Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (2003), University of California Berkeley Professor Robert Kagan addresses the widening historical and strategic differences between a hegemonic US and a taciturn Europe. Americans resent the reluctance of Europe to take strategic risks in defence of Western values. Europeans, in turn, are anxious about what they regard as Washington's excessive reliance on military force and its assumption America can intervene on any significant question of international security. Kagan concludes that comparing the world views of the US and Europe is not unlike discerning between Mars and Venus. The Americans tend to view today's world as brutal and uncompromising, requiring military strength and strategic vigilance to secure those Western values that the Atlantic community holds most dear. The Europeans perceive such reasoning as crude and simplistic, opting instead for the application of intricate diplomacy and economic incentives to cultivate great affinity for Western values beyond the Eurocentric domain. But he offers no real policy prescription for reconciling these increasingly divergent understandings of what constitutes world politics and how to shape it.
For realists in general, the search for security carries risks. Mearsheimer is not alone in arguing that geopolitical rivalries and conflicts will increase in the Asia-Pacific region as a result of American global hegemony. For some, the best policy response is yet more vigilance, more strength for the US. For others, the way forward rests in supporting precarious regional power equilibriums to counter inevitable challenges to American supremacy.
The liberal rejoinder
AGAINST THE PESSIMISM OF REALIST THOUGHT, a liberal school of international relations advocates security through international institutions and interdependence. For liberals as for realists, the nation state is still central to international relations. But liberals believe nations can overcome their obsession with survival and power to seek stability through co-operation.
History has not been kind to those who would safeguard peace through international institutions. The League of Nations failed and was abandoned, while the United Nations could not temper competition between states during the Cold War. Yet some liberal theorists see the unipolar world of US hegemony as an opportunity to create and impose rules that curb power politics.
This is the thesis of Georgetown University Professor G. John Ikenberry in his much-discussed work, After Victory (2001), which examines the rebuilding of order after major wars. Ikenberry argues the ascent of America following the end of the Cold War provides a significant opportunity to convert geopolitical success into a benign and sustainable international order. While Ikenberry's analysis of diplomatic practice deservedly garnered much praise, there is a whiff of Fukuyama's triumphalist message. Whether an enduring world order can be built on globalisation, predicated on the materialism and technology fuelling American hegemony, remains unclear. Optimists, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman in The Lexus and the Olive Tree (2000), believe the rise of individuals who benefit from global trends bodes well for future generations. Others worry globalisation may work the opposite way, alienating those who fear their identity and cultures will be swamped by the forces of modernity.
In a provocative recent challenge to the state-centric position adopted by both realists and liberals, Alexander Wendt, a professor of international relations at the University of Chicago, has advanced a "constructivist" theory of international relations. This approach embodies some elements of realism but rejects that theory's obsession with anarchy and power. Wendt argues that shared ideas and interests accumulated by policy elites lead to "collective meanings" and common world views that, in turn, can prevent war. Such "intersubjective understandings" break down feelings of "otherness" or alienation between states otherwise prone to mistrust and compete with each other. Over time, Wendt argues, elites and the states they manage will coalesce to ensure organisation emerges spontaneously from what they perceive as a chaotic world. Their "shared knowledge" or understanding of how the world is will lead to greater socialisation and encourage more international co-operation.
Such a case turns on how readily individuals and groups in a given culture respond to substantial amounts of information that can be transformed into shared values or norms that command their collective loyalty. Critics of constructivism accuse Wendt and his supporters of defining states' interests and identities just as narrowly as the state-centric camps he is allegedly attacking. They are also sceptical that culturally and socially derived beliefs of different states can be readily converted into universal principles of behaviour at the international level. Wendt, however, does provide a clear link to initial theoretical explanations for understanding the post-Cold War world. He reflects Fukuyama's optimism that universal values can be derived from historical experience and thus, at least tacitly, rejects Huntington's gloomier take on culture as a sources of protracted conflict.
The value of theory?
WHEN GEORGE W. BUSH CAME TO OFFICE IN EARLY 2001 he made clear a view that American "exceptionalism" justified a foreign policy based on the realist pursuit of national interest. In this sense, Bush followed in a long tradition of American chief executives. Yet a genuine realist reading of national interest does not make war inevitable. On the contrary, the US endured and prevailed through the long decades of the Cold War using regional containment to deter its enemies, humanitarian aid to win allies and judicious military force only when it judged necessary.
September 11 did not change this calculation of means and ends but, following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, President Bush chose to project US power internationally to a far greater extent than he ever envisioned as a presidential candidate. Collaborating with other states and international organisations to structure a world order has not traditionally been a policy priority for an America that views its place in international society as separate from the vortex of global power competition and its role as providing a "citadel on the hill" for idealists to pursue their identities and visions democratically and largely unencumbered by the outside world.
Events since al-Qaeda became a household name have shattered this self-appointed American image. Emerging trends and forces can increasingly be read against the contending schools of thought in international relations discussed above. These theories offer glimpses but far from complete explanations of world developments. Does President Bush accept a clash of civilisations as inevitable or should his actions be read as commitment to a universal set of values he believes can prevail? Will globalisation ultimately undermine the foundations for nation states but create communities of interest around the globe? Can stability flow from acceptance of "difference" or is incessant and grinding diplomacy to reconcile diverse cultures and norms the only real hope for reducing global tensions? Is a unipolar world viable in the long run or will a new set of power blocs and players recreate the turbulent international systems of previous centuries?
International relations theorists aspire to make sense of these choices. Each highlights a particular interplay of interests, values and identity even if they differ on how that interplay is best interpreted and assimilated. Theories help us understand the world but also justify actions. Hence there has been much talk in recent times of realism ascending to dominance once more as an American-led "coalition of the willing" has prevailed over UN prescriptions for independence and military restraint in dealing with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But even larger, more comprehensive challenges loom that may still require the reinvigoration of collaboration along multi-dimensional paths. Should the world's focus shift to become increasingly consumed with demographic pressures, resource depletion, international crime, pandemics or economic deprivation then liberal paradigms might command majority support. Yet even here the evidence is equivocal. At the height of east Asia's recent SARS crisis, when sharing medical knowledge might be at a premium, China still opposed Taiwanese membership of the World Health Organisation on the grounds of sovereign prerogative. From a realist standpoint, it was business as usual.
In the final analysis, those theorists committed to finding a more stable and just world order have one critical asset: knowing the history of international relations from studying the records of states, their interactions and attempts to build international institutions, yields a rich and varied menu of past successes and failures. History is the intersection between theory and practice. It is the testing ground for the theories already being debated and those yet to come. No single explanation may ever unlock the puzzle of how global stability and order is best achieved. However, debate about how the past has unfolded and how the present should be interpreted yields some hope for the future. ♦
Barber, Benjamin R. and Schulz, Andrea, eds, Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World, New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.
Burns, Timothy, ed, After History: Francis Fukuyama and His Critics, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.
Buzan, Barry and Segal, Gerald, "Rethinking East Asian Security", Survival 36, no. 2 (summer 1994), pp. 3-21.
Dupont, Alan, East Asia Imperiled: Transnational Challenges to Security, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Friedberg, Aaron, "Ripe for Rivalry: Prospects for Peace in a Multipolar Asia", International Security 18, no. 3 (winter 1993), pp. 5-33.
Friedman, Thomas, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, New York: Anchor Books, 2000.
Fukuyama, Francis, "End of History", no. 16, The National Interest (summer 1989), pp. 3-18.
Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man, New York/Toronto: Free Press/Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1992.
Fukuyama, Francis, "Has History Restarted Since September 11?' 19th annual John Barython lecture, the Centre for Independent Studies, Melbourne, August 8, 2002. Internet version is at http://www.cis.org.au/Events/JBL/JBL02.htm Accessed May 2003.
Gaddis, John Lewis, "International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War", International Security, vol. 17, no. 3 (winter 1992-93), pp. 5-58.
Gordon-Newspost, "thoughtful, closely argued criticism of social constructivism", May 18, 2001, at https://mail.1sit.ucsb.edu/pipermail/gordon-newspost/2001-May/001264.html
Huntington, Samuel, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (summer 1993), pp. 22-49.
Ikenberry, John, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Kagan, Robert, Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, New York: Knopf, 2003.
Kaplan, Robert D., "Looking the World in the Eye", The Atlantic Monthly 288, no. 5 (December 2001). Internet edition is at http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/12/kaplan.htm Accessed May 2003.
Kennedy, Paul, "The Modern Machiavelli", The New York Review of Books, November 7, 2002, pp. 52-55.
Keohane, Robert and Nye, Joseph, Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.
Lebow, Richard Ned and Risse-Kappen, Thomas, eds, International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Mearsheimer, John, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Morgenthau, Hans. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, fourth edn, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1967.
Ruggie, John Gerard, Constructing the World Polity: Essays on International Institutionalization, London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
Skidmore, David, "Huntington's Clash Revisited", Pacifica Review: Peace, Security and Global Change 11, no. 1 (February 1999), pp. 63-74.
Smith, Steve, "Reflectivist and Constructivist Approaches", in John Baylis and Steve Smith, eds, The Globalization of World Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Snyder, Glenn H., "Mearsheimer's World – Offensive Realism and the Struggle for Security: A Review Essay", International Security 27, no. 1 (summer 2002), pp. 149-173.
Walt, Stephen M., International Relations: One World, Many Theories", Foreign Policy, no. 110 (spring 1998), pp. 29-46.
Waltz, Kenneth, Theory of International Politics, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979.
Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Wendt, Alexander, "The Agent-Structure Problem in International Relations Theory", International Organization 41, no.3 (summer 1987), pp. 335-370.
Wroe, Nicholas, "History's Pallbearer", The Guardian, May 11, 2002.
The seminal article lamenting this trend is by John Lewis Gaddis, "International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War", International Security, vol. 17, no. 3 (winter 1992-93), pp. 5-58. A comprehensive survey is also offered by Richard Ned Lebow and Thomas Risse-Kappen, eds, International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Robert D. Kaplan, "Looking the World in the Eye", The Atlantic Monthly 288, no. 5 (December 2001). Internet edition is at http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/12/kaplan.htm Accessed May 2003.
Francis Fukuyama, "Has History Restarted Since September 11?", 19th annualJohn Bonython lecture, the Centre for Independent Studies, Melbourne, August 8, 2002. Internet version is at http://www.cis.org.au/Events/JBL/JBL02.htm Accessed May 2003.
Two works that are most frequently cited as espousing this view are Hans Morgenthau's "classical realist" tome, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, fourth edn, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1967, and Kenneth Waltz's "neo-realist" variant, Theory of International Politics, Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979.
Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, p. 127, and Glenn H.Snyder, "Mearsheimer's World – Offensive Realism and the Struggle for Security: A Review Essay", International Security 27, no. 1 (summer 2002), p.154.
Aaron Friedberg, "Ripe for Rivalry: Prospects for Peace in a Multipolar Asia", International Security 18, no. 3 (winter 1993), pp. 5-33, and Barry Buzan and Gerald Segal, "Rethinking East Asian Security", Survival 36, no. 2 (summer 1994), pp. 3-21, are both illustrative of the trend.
Perhaps the best-known "neo-liberal" or postwar liberal statement of these views is Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977. An updated statement of this perspective is by John Gerard Ruggie, Constructing the World Polity: Essays on International Institutionalization, London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999, and Wendt, "The Agent-Structure Problem in International Relations Theory", International Organization 41, no. 3 (summer 1987), pp. 335-370.
[Gordon-Newspost] "thoughtful, closely argued criticism of social constructivism", May 18, 2001, at https://mail.1sit.ucsb.edu/pipermail/gordon-newspost/2001-May/001264.html and Steve Smith, "Reflectivist and Constructivist Approaches", in John Baylis and Steve Smith, eds, The Globalization of World Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 245.