Debating IR

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


Thursday, February 02, 2006


You know how you read something and sometimes it just feels like something is missing? That was how I felt after reading Taliaferro's article on Neoclassical realism. And, after reading Jonathon's post, I think I figured out the missing link. Rationality. If neoclassical realism, at least Taliaferro's, is based on loss of prestige as a motivating factor, I find a problem with his three propositions.

Taliaferro proposes that 1) officials will initiate action in the periphery to avoid losses in prestige, 2) officials will "gravitate toward the more risk-acceptant of available options", and 3) they will "continue and even escalate their commitment to risky, and often failing, intervention strategies in the periphery." The first two don't bother me too much, because they seem more like set-up for the third. In addition they seem more rational. If you want to avoid risk, while preserving prestige, then you would take your action against less-important, less-powerful states. The second propostion, that they will choose the more risk-acceptant outcome is rational insofar as Taliaferro explains that states are aware of the possible negative outcomes. To me this is because possible and probable are different, and I will assume that most high-level actors in great powers, have relatively high confidence in the ability of their diplomats and/or military to succeed in any mission given to them.

So finally I come to the third, and for me, problematic proposition. States will "continue and even escalate their commitment to risky, and often failing, intervention strategies in the periphery." Where is the the rationality in this? If a state continues or escalates risky strategies, which in theory could compromise the success of an intervention, they stand to lose more prestige by failing. Example: Vietnam. Continued escalation of a bad idea, which results in the loss of prestige, which in neoclassical realism would seem to be one of the main causes for Vietnam (loss of prestige due to violation of containment policy (Yay, George Kennan!)). I was always taught, and just reconfirmed through looking it up in Goldstein's International Relations Sixth Edition, that one of the principle assumptions of realism is that states act as rational actors in pursuing self-interest. Continuing to escalate an unsuccessful campaign is just irrational if it can completely defeat the purposes for which you started a war. Maybe I'm oversimplifying things, but I just cannot see how rationalism fits in with the third proposition of Taliaferro's neoclassical realism.


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