Thinking About Thinking About Foreign Policy

By Xander Snyder

At Reconsider one of our principles is stating upfront any potential biases Erik or I think we may have. This is because we both believe that most research on cognitive biases show that no one is capable of true objectivity. Recognizing this, the best we can do to contribute to the search for a better understanding of reality is to be honest about how we think about things. This way, others can scrutinize our the way we think to see if there’s something we’re missing. We don’t claim that we’ll catch all or even most of these, but we reason that when we do you deserve to understand these systematic tendencies in our thought processes.

My day job requires analysis of international affairs and geopolitics. As an analyst my professional responsibility is to inform and not advocate. I spend more time thinking about how things are rather than how things should be. The other day a friend of mine pointed out that this is a refrain all journalists use and that even with a true commitment to objectivity people think about things through a lens colored by their own experiences. In other words, he was telling me to fess up.

When it comes to foreign policy analysis I believe I have awareness of how I think about how things work. Again, this is not a reflection on my thoughts about how things should work, let alone what’s right or wrong, but rather which systems of thought best describe and predict world events.

The way I think about international events is most clearly outlined by the discussion of neoclassical realism in Gideon Rose’s 1998 paper Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy. Neoclassical realism is distinct from other forms of realism, which are sometimes lumped incorrectly into a single category and pejoratively referred to as realpolitik.

Much of this article will be a summary of and reflection on themes discussed in greater length in Rose’s paper.

Classical, Offensive, and Defensive realism

Comprehending neoclassical realism requires having a general idea of other realist schools of thought. In a general sense, what distinguishes all versions of realism from other schools of foreign policy thought is their focus on relative power between states and how it impacts their interactions. This is distinct from liberalism, for example, which claims that the primary determinant of state behavior is its form of government.

The first school of realist thought is classical realism. Generally this refers to the concepts outlined in Thucydides' The History of the Peloponnesian War, a piece that remains a pillar in the neoclassical school. However, classical realism has also come to refer to a large number of authors throughout history, such that many people’s definition of classical realism varies substantially. This lack of clarity is why nowadays classical realism is a less-frequently-used term.

Offensive realism assumes that in the international system security is scarce and anarchy is “Hobbesian,” which means that actors provide for their own safety solely by augmenting their ability to control others. Without a sovereign in charge to moderate interactions of those who lack the power to challenge him, mankind falls into a state of nature:

“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short(Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan)

“In offensive realism systematic incentives are both the primary drivers of and directly linked to state behavior. Differences in domestic systems matter little, and therefore 'To understand why a state is behaving in a particular way, offensive realists suggest, one should examine its relative capabilities and its external environment, because those factors will be translated relatively smoothly into foreign policy and shape how the state chooses to advance its interests' (Rose, p. 149, emphasis added by me).

Defensive realism, on the other hand, says that in reality security exists naturally in the international system. It is not scarce but instead relatively abundant. States only mobilize for war when they are confronted by unusual threats. Major conflicts arise when “...certain situations lead security-seeking states to fear each other, such as when prevailing modes of warfare favor the offensive” (Rose, p. 150). Defensive realism interprets the international system as generally stable, upset only when irrational actors misread the true nature of power relations, misstep and force other countries to react. Note that this theory somewhat discounts the importance of power imbalances as a causal factor since it assumes that states tend towards relatively peaceful relations regardless of their wealth and strength.

Neoclassical Realism

Neoclassical realism doesn’t strike a balance so much as it challenges tenets from both offensive and defensive realism. Neoclassical realism objects to offensive realism’s assumption that there is a clearly interpretable link between systemic incentives and state action, arguing instead that all situations must first be filtered through a leader’s perception of reality and are therefore constrained by their understanding of it. This inserts an intervening variable between systemic incentives and state action: internal factors that stem from the domestic political environment.

From Rose p. 154

Inserting domestic politics and internal factors as an intermediate variable distinguishes neoclassical realism from other schools. It forces analysts to attempt to understand how leaders interpret the world around them while at the same time recognizing that the difficulty of such a project will result in a certain degree of ambiguity. The linkage between international incentives and action is therefore murkier than offensive realism posits and difficult to detail in great clarity. This makes short-term forecasts problematic, as leaders proceed in fits and starts constantly attempting to better understand the world around them. Medium to longer-term forecasts, however, are still possible based on an analysis of each state’s capabilities and restraints.

Neoclassical realism also challenges defensive realism’s model of a stable status quo that gets infrequently disrupted by irrational states. Neoclassical realism emphasizes the importance of relative power analysis and how changes in power over time can alter a country’s perception of its security interests. As countries become more powerful their ability to influence their environment increases, which causes them to interpret events that are in their power to control, but that are not at the moment proceeding in their favor, as security threats. This is why we expect to see powerful countries expand their security imperatives as their military and economic capacities grow.

At the same time, as a superpower expands the likelihood of peripheral threats destroying it decreases, since there are no other states that can pose serious threats. This lets states with greater resources and geographical reach plan for their security interests further into the future. For this reason neoclassical realists argue that an analysis of the international order must begin with an understanding of power imbalances, since over the long run this is what constrains states’ capabilities and, therefore, their menu of actions. The relatively stable status quo assumed by defensive realism is therefore flawed since it does not account for the modification of state behavior as access to resource changes over time. From Rose:

“Instead of assuming that states seek security, neoclassical realists assume that states respond to the uncertainties of international anarchy by seeking to control and shape their external environment. Regardless of the myriad ways that states may define their interests, this school argues, they are likely to want more rather than less external influence, and pursue such influence to the extent that they are able to do so. The central empirical prediction of neoclassical realism is thus that over the long term the relative amount of material power resources countries possess will shape the magnitude and ambition - the envelope, as it were - of their foreign policies: as their relative power rises states will seek more influence abroad, and as it falls their actions and ambitions will be scaled back accordingly.” (Rose, P. 152)

Uncertainty creates a grey area in which leaders must constantly grapple to better understand their present reality. Intelligence is never perfect and decisions must be made with incomplete information. This search for understanding proceeds in fits and starts, which can cause “perceptual shocks.” In these moments, leaders quickly become aware of the “cumulative effects of gradual long-term power trends,” (Rose, p. 160), resulting in a rapid re-interpretation of their country’s capabilities.

Neoclassical realism is a useful conceptual framework since it lays out what must be understood before state action can be analyzed and forecasted. First, relative power must be determined by studying nations’ political, economic, and military resources. Analysts must then understand, to the best of their abilities, how leaders perceive this balance. This renders shorter term predictions challenging but medium and long term forecasts possible.

Does this constitute a bias? I don’t think so, since it focuses more on understanding reality rather than advocating for how things ought to be. However, now that you know how I think about world events you’re free to make that judgment yourself.


Erik Fogg

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