Posted by: captainfalcon | December 29, 2011

IR Realism and Its Discontents

Brian Leiter points to two good articles lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union (Cohen on its domestic effects; Gorbachev on its international ramifications), and one excellent essay by John Mearsheimer on the same topic. The real value of Mearsheimer’s piece is that it’s a nine page seminar on realism. I will trace its argument and then raise two questions.

Mearsheimer’s Argument

Mearsheimer argues that the Soviet Union’s collapse makes (specifically) European war more likely because it increases the likelihood of a return to a multipolar Europe. Multipolarity breeds conflict for three reasons: (1) “Geometrically,” there are more “dyads which war might break out;” (2) decision-making under certainty is no longer as likely to result in peace: “deterrence is more difficult to maintain in a multipolar state, because power imbalances are commonplace, and when power asymmetries develop, the stronger become hard to deter;” and (3) there is more decision-making under uncertainty: “The resolve of opposing states and also the size and strength of opposing coalitions are hard to calculate in this geometry of power, because the shape of the international order tends to remain in flux, owing to the tendency of coalitions to gain and lose partners.”

Assuming these three factors are the strongest determinants of war, Mearsheimer infers that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is the best way to maintain peace in a multipolar system like post-Soviet Europe. The proliferation of nuclear weapons equalize power imbalances, and so shifts the decision-making under certainty calculus, by giving all state actors the capacity to totally annihilate their fellows. Because nuclear weapons are highly visible “talismans” of power (this is in part due to their cultural significance, though that’s an observation hostile to Mearsheimer’s realism), there is also less decision-making under uncertainty.

Mearsheimer then addresses the usual array of realist bogeymen: (1) “the obsolescence of war theory;” (2) “prosperity breeds peace;” and, Chris’s favorite, (3) democracies don’t fight each other.

The first theory — tastes like straw to me — says that war won’t happen even in a multipolar Europe because Europeans understand in their bones that war is catastrophic. Mearsheimer makes the irresistible point that the density of bone-distribution around Normandy — not twenty years after Versailles — suggests European bones are too dense to get the joke, before observing, more seriously, that (a) there is no evidence that European public opinion is implacably opposed to war and (b) what evidence there is has limited value because “[p]ublic opinion on national-security issues is notoriously fickle and responsive to manipulation by elites as well as to changes in the international environment.”

The second theory holds that European economic integration will lead to peace by (1) “requiring significant political cooperation to make the trading system work,” which states are incentivized to keep up because it results in their mutual prosperity, and, the obverse, (2) causing deep economic interdependence such that the system’s disruption will plunge all participating states into economic misery. Mearsheimer argues that this theory is only as good as the assumption that states are primarily motivated to achieve prosperity. If, as (Mearsheimer’s) realism posits, “survival in an anarchic international political system is the highest goal a state can have” then states will cooperate economically only as long as they don’t perceive such cooperation as a security threat.

But economic integration is threatening whenever security is scarce, and so the tendency in a multipolar world will be toward its breakdown. First, “[w]hen security is scarce, states become more concerned about relative than about absolute gains . . . They reject cooperation that will yield an absolute economic gain if the other state will gain more, from fear that the other might convert its gain to military strength, and then use this strength to win by coercion in later rounds.” Second, “[i]interdependence . . . is as likely to lead to conflict as to cooperation, because states will struggle to escape the vulnerability that interdependence creates, in order to bolster their national security.”

Third, there’s little theoretical reason to think democracies won’t fight other democracies. The thought is either that democracies are averse to war (but then the theory would be that they don’t fight wars period) or that they are averse to war with other democracies (but this is to deny without evidence the power of nationalism and other jingoistic forces on the democratic psyche).


(1) A minor quibble (but symptomatic): can’t “prosperity breeds peace” be accommodated by the realist? Surely heightened political cooperation results in greater communication between states, which reduces uncertainty? Maybe it’s not a major factor — maybe state fears about relative power outweighs it — but it’s there.

(2) More fundamentally: Mearsheimer’s theory only has power if its decision-procedure for assigning polarity to a system has integrity. But the decision-procedure seems multiply manipulable. It’s manipulable, first, in its definition of the system (why Europe as opposed to America-Europe, or North-Africa-Europe, etc.?). It’s also manipulable in attributing polarity to a system once it has been defined. When America and the Soviet Union were at loggerheads we were said to be in a bipolar world.  Why weren’t we in a multipolar world with two stronger powers and an array of weaker powers (but each, themselves, with varying degrees of strength) all pursuing their own security strategies (which sometimes eventuated in bloodshed). The broader worry is that Mearsheimer surveys history, sees a place where peace has persisted, defines it as a “system” and adjusts its polarity, accordingly.


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