Debating IR

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


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Jonathan Berman Appraises Neoclassical Realism

Taliaferro, in MAKING SENSE OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS THEORY, defines neoclassical realism as a theory that identifies the relative distribution of material power as the main influence of a nation's foriegn policy (38). Yet, what differentiates neoclassical realism from other realisms is that the neoclassical theory believes a leader's perceptions and beliefs about the distribution of power and prestige drive their decisions (38). According to Taliaferro, great powers intervene in inconsequential areas of the world and take risks in order to protect their state's perceived prestige and power. Often times these adventures fail yet leaders still go forward with their plans (51).

I am hesitant to discuss the example of Yugoslavia because my familiarity with the region and with Operation Allied Force are sparse. However, what I do know about is Thucydides and the Athenian invasion of Sicily. It's interesting that neoclassical realism and the theme of the History of the Peloponnesian War is so similar. If one takes the Melian Dialogue and the campaign against Syracuse together we get the stong do what they can, they are prone to misjudge their relative capabilities, take on too much, and suffer catastrophe as a result.

Sound similar to Taliaferro? Clearly, Thucydides has had some influence.

The death of Pericles left the Athenians without a voice of reason. The Athenians were overcome with confidence that they could crush the Sicilians themselves and launched a campaign that would force them to use the majority of their forces in a far away land. Of course, they never expected that Sicily was actually quite large and well populated, and that the Sicilain navy would beat them. The campaign was a disaster and Athens was conquered soon after. The History of the Peloponnesian War stands as a counter argument to anyone who says any war will be easy and if more people took the lesson to heart we wouldn't get in trouble as often as we do.

Perhaps, it is human nature though. Yet, I am not so sure. Neoclassical realism I think is a step back from Waltz's MAN, THE STATE, AND WAR which decries first image (individual level) and second image (state level) analysis for third image (the international system) analysis. That is probably a good thing because, as the adage goes, "all politics is local."

It seems to me that as realism develops more and more it seems to get closer and closer to constructivism and liberalism. Analyzing a leader's perceptions and beliefs seems to emphasize process over structure. Wendt discusses in ANARCHY IS WHAT STATES MAKE OF IT the fact that social theory tells us "that people act towards objects and other actors, on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them" (Wendt 396-7). Thus, US military dominance has different significances for the Netherlands and Iran. As a result, the Netherlands and Iran have very different policies in regards to the US.

This is a good thing because if anarchy and the distribution of capabilities were the sole source of conflict in the world then the human species would be doomed to an eternity of wars and violence because for the forseeable future there will always be strong and weak states. However, if as constructivists and liberals posit, process, namely interaction and learning, drive the international system, the possibility exists that we can "educate" ourselves to make peace. It all depends on whether we can teach ourselves to see the international system as a collective security system instead of a self-help system.


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