Debating IR

Probing the philosophical underpinnings of the international system and anything else of interest.


Sunday, January 22, 2006

Jonathan B. Reacts to Sterling-Folker 2.1, 3.1, and the Grieco Article

The readings for 1/24 were a basic recap of the first two weeks of every introductory IR course that I have taken at American. I have probably received some sort of chart in the past four years that neatly goes over the basic assumptions of each theory and if I ever stumble across it I should probably paste it to my wall for easy reference.

Nothing in Sterling-Folker chapters and the Grieco article, is anything that I haven't encountered before.

I take issue with the focus of liberalism and realism on the state as the most important actor in international relations. States play an important role for sure but the growth of MNE's and NGO's show that other actors are having an effect on the international system. If these other actors did not matter how come some NGO's now have observer status at the UN? How can some corporations bully countries into giving them incentives for keeping their factories in the country? Why do some private security companies have larger armies than many states in Africa? It is clear that power is no longer just the states' domain. Maybe the IMF/World Bank protests haven't changed their policy approaches but the growth of protests have ensured that they maintain strong public relations departments. Thus, in the last half a century we have seen the growth of the individual as a powerful actor on the international stage.

Realists tend to imagine states as independent actors while liberals believe that states, along with individuals, NGO's, MNE's, and IO's, are all important actors and can affect the international system. Thus, the argument between the two philosophies is whether these actors can alter state behavior. Realists say no, liberals say yes.

I tend to agree more with the liberals than the realists. I think realists miss many of the institutions that exist in international relations. Institutions are not just buildings in Geneva, Switzerland. I like the definition of an institution that Alexander Wendt provides. He says that an institution is "a relatively stable set or 'structure' of identities and interests" that does not "exist apart from actors' ideas about how the world works" (Wendt 399). An institution can be something like the UN but an institution can also be an intangible concept like sovereignty, diplomacy, or a bilateral relationship between two states. In either case, an institution creates rules and norms that inform actors participating in institutions about what is expected of them and others, as well as the consequences of noncompliance (Narine).

What this means is that even in a state of hostilities, like between the US and the USSR during the Cold War, there is a manner in which each state expects the other to act. Just think about the way "mutually assured destruction" became an institution. Each side knew that if they launched nuclear weapons the other would do the same, ensuring MAD. As long as each side obeyed the mutually agreed upon rules the world avoided nuclear winter. My point is that no matter what the relationship states have with each other there is always some sort of institution monitoring their behavior. Thus, states cannot escape institutions, they are inexorabely caught in institutions, even with their most hated enemies.


Grieco, Joseph. “Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation: A Realist Critique of the Newest Liberal Institutionalism,” International Organization 42 (1988), pp. 485-508.

Narine, Shaun. "Economics and Security in the Asia Pacific: A Constructivist Analysis." International Studies Association. 41st Annual Convention 14-18 March 2000.

Sterling-Folker, chapters 2.1, and 3.1; courtesy of PTJ

Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization Vol. 46, No. 2 (Spring, 1992): 391-425.

---. “Constructing International Politics.” International Security Vol 20, No. 1 (Summer, 1995): 71-81.


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