Contending Perspectives: How To Think About International
I. THINKING THEORETICALLY
• A theory is a set of propositions and concepts that seeks to explain phenomena by specifying the
relationships among the concepts; theory’s ultimate purpose is to predict phenomena.
• Good theory generates groups of testable hypotheses: specific statements positing a particular
relationship between two or more variables.
• As more and more data are collected, one must be tolerant of ambiguity, concerned about probabilities,
and distrustful of absolutes.
• International relations theories come in a variety of forms, and this chapter will introduce three
general theories and one newer perspective.
II. THEORY AND THE LEVELS OF ANALYSIS
• In a categorization first used by Kenneth Waltz, three different sources of explanations are offered.
o If the individual level is the focus, then the personality, perceptions, choices, and activities of
individual decision makers and individual participants provide the explanation.
o If the statelevel, or domestic, factors are the focus, then the explanation is derived from
characteristics of the state: the type of government, the type of economic system, or interest
o If the international system level is the focus, then the explanation rests with the anarchic
characteristics of that system or with international and regional organizations and their
strengths and weaknesses.
• The purpose of theory is to guide us toward an understanding of which of these various explanations
are the necessary and sufficient explanations for the invasion.
• Good theory should be able to explain phenomena at a particular level of analysis; better theory should
also offer explanations across different levels of analysis.
III. REALISM AND NEOREALISM
Realism is based on a view of the individual as primarily selfish and power seeking. Individuals are
organized in states, each of which acts in a unitary way in pursuit of its own national interest, defined in
terms of power.
• Power is primarily thought of in terms of material resources necessary to physically harm or coerce
• States exist in an anarchic international system, characterized by the absence of an authoritative
• States’ most important concern is to manage their insecurity, and they rely primarily on balancing the
power of other states and deterrence to keep the international system intact.
• Four of the essential assumptions of realism are found in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian
War. 1. The state is the principal actor in war and politics in general.
2. The state is assumed to be a unitary actor: once a decision is made to go to war or capitulate,
the state speaks and acts with one voice.
3. Decision makers acting in the name of the state are assumed to be rational actors. Rational
decision making leads to the advance of the national interest.
4. A state’s need to protect itself from enemies both foreign and domestic. A state augments its
security by building up its economic prowess and forming alliances with other states.
• St. Augustine (354430) added an assumption, arguing that humanity is flawed, egoistic, and
selfish, although not predetermined to be so. He blames war on this basic characteristic of
• Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) argued that a leader needs to be ever mindful of threats to his
personal security and the security of the state
• The central tenet accepted by virtually all realists is that states exist in an anarchic international
system. Thomas Hobbes originally articulated this tenet, and maintained that each state has the
right to preserve themselves.
• Hans Morgenthau (190480), whose textbook, Politics among Nations, became the realist bible
following World War II, argued that international politics is a struggle for power that can be
explained at three levels of analysis:
1. The flawed individual in the state of nature struggles for selfpreservation.
2. The autonomous and unitary state is constantly involved in power struggles, balancing
power with power and preserving the national interest.
3. Because the international system is anarchic—there is no higher power to put the
competition to an end—the struggle is continuous.
• Not all realists agree on the correct policy. Defensive realists argue that all states should pursue
policies of restraint. Offensive realists argue that under conditions of international anarchy, all
states should seek opportunities to improve their relative positions and that states should strive for
• Neorealism, as delineated by Kenneth Waltz’s theory of international politics, gives precedence
to the structure of the international system as an explanatory factor, over states.
o The most important unit to study is the structure of the international system, and that
structure is determined by the ordering principle (the distribution of capabilities among
o The international structure is a force in itself; it constrains state behavior and states may
not be able to control it. This structure determines outcomes.
o Like classical realism, balance of power is a core principle of neorealism. However,
neorealists believe that the balance of power is largely determined by the structure of the
o In a neorealist’s balanceofpower world, a state’s survival depends on having more
power than other states, thus all power are viewed in relative terms.
o Neorealists are also concerned with cheating. The awareness that such possibilities exist,
combined with states’ rational desire to protect their own interests, tends to preclude
cooperation among states
• Robert Gilpin offers another interpretation of realism. Gilpin adds the notion of dynamism:
history as a series of cycles—cycles of birth, expansion, and demise of dominant powers.
1. Whereas classical realism offers no satisfactory rationale for the decline of powers,
Gilpin does, on the basis of the importance of economic power.
2. Hegemons decline because of three processes:
The increasingly marginal returns of controlling an empire, a statelevel
phenomenon The tendency for economic hegemons to consume over time and invest less, also
a statelevel phenomenon
The diffusion of technology, a systemlevel phenomenon through which new
powers challenge the hegemon.
• Ann Tickner adds gender to realism. She argues that human nature is not fixed and inalterable,
but multidimensional and contextual.
o Power cannot be equated exclusively with control and domination, but must be reoriented
toward a more inclusive notion of power, where power is the ability to act in concert (not
just conflict) or to be in a symbiotic relationship (instead of outright competition).
IV. LIBERALISM AND NEOLIBERAL INSTITUTIONALISM
• Liberalism holds that human nature is basically good and that people can improve their moral and
material conditions, making societal progress possible. Bad or evil behavior is the product of
inadequate social institutions and misunderstandings among leaders.
o One origin of liberal theory is found in Enlightenment optimism:
1. French philosopher Montesquieu argued that it is not human nature that is
defective, but problems arise as man enters civil society. War is a product of
society. To overcome defects in society, education is imperative.
2. According to Immanuel Kant, international anarchy can be overcome through
some kind of collective action—a federation of states in which sovereignties
would be left intact.
o Another origin, nineteenthcentury liberalism, reformulated the Enlightenment by adding
a preference for democracy over aristocracy and for free trade over national economic
1. This liberalism saw man as capable of satisfying his natural needs and wants in
2. Individual freedom and autonomy can best be realized in a democratic states
unfettered by excessive governmental restrictions
3. Free markets must be allowed to flourish and governments must permit the free
flow of trade and commerce. This will create interdependencies between states,
thus raising the cost of war.
o Twentiethcentury idealism is also termed Wilsonian idealism (its greatest adherent was
Woodrow Wilson, author of the League of Nations).
1. War is preventable; more than half of the League covenant’s provisions focused
on preventing war.
2. The covenant also included a provision legitimizing the notion of collective
security, wherein aggression by one state would be countered by collective
action, embodied in a league of nations.
3. Liberals also place faith in international law and legal instruments mediation,
arbitration, and international courts.
o The basis of liberalism remai