Why do certain countries go to war, where others don't? How do the domestic policies and the personalities of leaders get involved?
In this episode you'll learn the most widely-used lens for understanding the causes behind international affairs: realism. In one hour you'll be able to view the international order with greater structure than ever before.
- (Erik's Thesis): "Generalizing Power Transitions as a Cause of War"
- Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War
- Machiavelli, The Prince
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
- Richard Ferrone, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides' Trap?
- John J Mearscheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics
- Mearscheimer, Why Leaders Lie
- Mearscheimer, Conventional Deterrence
- Kenneth N Waltz, Man, The State, and War
- Waltz, Theory of International Politics
- Waltz, Realism and International Politics
- Douglas Lemke, Regions of War and Peace
- A Hanami, Perspectives on Structural Realism
- Stephen M Walt, The Origins of Alliances
- Walt, Revolution and War
Erik: All right, everyone, welcome to Reconsider where we don't do the thinking for you. Today we're going to be doing a toolbox talk episode that's actually an implied request by a lot of listeners. Nobody said, "Hey, talk to us about foreign policy theory," but a lot of people have asked us, "Why do we look at the world a certain way?" A lot of people challenged on how we present different constraints that different states and different leaders face, so a lot of people challenged us and say, "Well, aren't Trump and Kim Jong-un's personalities really relevant? Isn't Putin's personality really relevant in shaping foreign policy?" We tend to say probably not, and this is based on a lot of historical analysis by people way smarter than we are with a foreign policy framework called realism, and we're going to be talking about that today.
Xander: This will be a two-part series-
Xander: I don't know if you can call it two episodes a series, but we're going to have a second episode after we dig into some of the detail about what realism is on this show, on this episode. We're going to have Zack Twamley, who has a podcast called When Diplomacy Fails, and he's like 200 episodes in. As the name implies, he talks about different wars throughout history, oftentimes in great detail, 10 episode series on wars that you haven't heard of before.
Erik: But that are very important.
Xander: Yeah, exactly. I mean, just because you haven't heard of the second English-Dutch war doesn't mean that it didn't shape the course of Europe, which is important. After we lay out some of these ideas, we'll be talking with Zack on the next show about how to apply some of them to specific wars.
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Now, the last thing I want say about realism or about foreign policy theory in general before we dive into the details of what is realism, is you might hear realism and think, "Well that's a bit of a pretentious name, realism. Everyone else must be un-realism." You're going to hear some words that you are familiar with, for example, realism or liberalism, that actually inform policy theory mean things that are very different from what you normally here, so don't bring any baggage about the names with them. Like all things academia, it's got its own jargon. We're going to use as little of it as possible, but the names of the theories are important.
Xander: Realism is a school of thought that tries to explain how the world works or why it works in certain ways. In this sense, it is not prescriptive. All that means is realism does not say you should do X because X is good, it says X causes Y because of some event. Unlike some schools of thought that suggest that you should pursue one policy or another, realism is just trying to explain why things work a certain way they do.
Erik: Realism is probably the dominant school of thought in the foreign-policy wonk world, and specifically, what it was originally designed to do, where it was designed after World War II, was to explain why do states go to war? There must be some structural reasons why. It was essentially trying to use the same kind of rigor that is used for economics or other social behavioral theory to explain what are the forces about the international order that cause states to want to go to war versus states that will probably never go to war. For example, Canada and the United States, probably not going to war anytime soon and there are good reasons why.
If it's correct, it's actually a very useful framework to understand what's happening and can provide a lot of deeper insights about what forces are shaping state actions, or at the very least provide different perspective with which to challenge your current interpretation of what's going on in the world and why.
What are the core ideas of realism?
Xander: Yeah. There's a lot of different types of realism, and we'll get into some of that, but there's a couple of core ideas that are shared by all of them. One is that power relations, so how much power one state has versus another, these relative power relations between states, influence the way they act, both with one another and within the international system. However, you must analyze not only the power they have, but the constraints they face in exercising that power, but, well, how they acquire the power and how they exercise it.
In this framework, states are usually the central actors in international politics, especially in the modern world when we talk about countries, we're talking about nationalities, we're talking about nation-states. Sometimes that's not true, you look at nonstate actors and that plays a greater role in the Middle East, but some of the idea of relative power relations still applies.
Erik: One of the core assumptions behind realism is that the international systems is anarchic. That is, nobody can enforce rules over other states. For example, if we think of most ... Within most countries there is police forces, they enforce the law. If you break the law, there's a certain probability that you're going to get arrested, and this allows the state to not be in a state of anarchy. But in the international system, even though there are laws there's no police force that has the power and authority to keep other states in line. What that means is ultimately, at the end of the day, states are in anarchy and they behave as if they are in anarchy and they can ultimately only depend on themselves for their security and prosperity.
There is some debate within the world of realism of the degree to which anarchy prevails totally or only partially in their international order, but this assumption is one of the things that sets it apart from other foreign-policy approaches. For example, liberalism.
Xander: Another core tenant is that states tend to follow their interests. There's some debate within the world of realism how leaders of states interpret those interests and whether or not those perceptions influence the final outcome being observed, which is how that state acts, but essentially the idea that the behavior that we end up witnessing our states attempting to achieve some sort of interest or imperatives.
Erik: If you believe that this is true, what it means is that the rhetoric you hear from leaders that is often very moral, very highfalutin and typically not about the state's self-interest rate. We don't say, "Oh, we're going to Iraq because we have the self-interest to do blah," it's like, "Oh, for freedom," and stuff like that. You hear that all the time when states initiate conflict on each other or attempt to use threats of conflict to control each other, but, ultimately, they're pursuing their self-interest within this anarchic system.
What that also means is that when powerful states create institutions, such as the United Nations or the WTO, what they're doing is they're actually trying to create institutions that better further their own self-interests, and what they will do is they will attempt to use those institutions to change the behaviors of other states without having to explicitly threaten them. Free trade and other things are carrots that are used to try to control other states to act within the interests of the state that's providing the carrots or creating the institutions.
But at the end of the day, states are fundamentally insecure. People could do bad things to them because there's no police force protecting you. So the key foreign-policy aim at the end of the day for a state is to accumulate power in order to more effectively pursue their interest, the base of which is not getting blown out of existence. These are called security imperatives. States, based on their position in the world, have different imperatives that are all based around preserving their security.
The other really interesting thing about this is that it means that as states develop the ability to project their power and better protect their interests, they develop a greater sphere of security concerns that stretches over more territory. This actually causes them to seek even greater power to influence those events favorably, and this ultimately means that these states' attempts to expand their power, to pursue their self-interests, run up against the interests of other states and run up against their attempts to secure themselves by developing power. If you look back on our episode on North Korea, our episodes on Russia, you're going to see us implicitly talking about this framework of mutual insecurity, and clashes of security imperatives, and clashes of behavior that each states to improve its security. At the end of day, realists says this is the basis for why there is conflict between states.
Xander: Right. Although, different kinds of realists will draw different conclusions based on pursuit of security interests and the constraints that they face. Again, we'll come to that in a little bit.
Now, as we mentioned, this core concept is the idea of anarchy. If you live in it, if you live in a country ... There really isn't anarchy usually in most places. It certainly isn't in the US because if you do something wrong, your neighbor isn't going to come at you with a gun and, usually, seek retaliation. Usually, the violence that is imposed as punishment for certain types of actions is carried out by the state, by the sovereign.
Now, in an international system, as Eric mentioned, there is no supra-sovereign. After World War II, the UN was created with the idea that this could be a venue in which different states could work together, but ultimately, there's really no enforcement mechanism at the UN. There are peacekeepers and they get deployed here and there, but usually they're not particularly effective. The predecessor of the UN, the League of Nations, essentially failed when Japan became very aggressive in the 1930s and everyone said, "Okay, Japan, you can't do this," and they said, "All right, what are you going to do?" No one did anything because each country didn't feel that they were being threatened enough to actually put their own people at stake.
Now, you can do a thought exercises and think about why this concept of anarchy is important. Now, if you're a state or if you're just a person, and there is no sovereign, and you know that someone else can come and commit some sort of violence against you and there will be no punishment, then all of a sudden it starts to make sense for you to try to make yourself more powerful, either to protect yourself, if you are attacked, or to deter that attack in the first place. Maybe you start hoarding guns and maybe your neighbor sees you start hoarding guns, you start building up a greater, greater cache of guns, and the situation begins to look a little bit more intense.
Now, this idea of anarchy has been sketched by different philosophers. Thomas Hobbes who was a 17th century British philosopher talks about anarchy in a really critical way, he describes it in very highfalutin eloquent terms and says, "It's the state of nature." But, basically, what he's talking bout is anarchy, a state in which there is no hierarchy, there is no structure. If you look at places in the world that are like this today, and there are in a ton of them, but one is Papua New Guinea, and there is a state but it's really effectively impotent in enforcing its rules. You still have a lot of tribal raids where one tribe or one small town will go to another and kill five people and then they'll retaliate, and this will go back and forth for generations, and there's no way to stop it. You can map this individual perception of anarchy onto the international system.
Erik: One of the key assumptions in realism is that the tribe that is the central organizing body of the international system is the state, and the psychological principle underlying this is in-group, out-group theory.
In our neighborly example, your family is your in-group, and neighborly families are out-groups that could be threatening. When you are in a tribe, and this is a evolutionary psychology thing, you join this tribe for safety, they're typically clan members, they have some genetic likeness, and that's your in-group and other tribes are the out-group. Realism assumes that when people are in states, those states become the in-group, and you agree, "This is our group. We're Americans, and other people are other people and they're fundamentally threatening to us." Realism subscribes very much to this in-group, out-group theory, and thereby believes that some idea of perpetual world peace where everyone gets along and everyone's just going be brothers in a global stage is actually impossible, or at least very, very unlikely. It thinks that this state of tension between states is going to be constant.
Now, this starts to change when one state becomes really, really superpowerful in relation to other states. Remember we talked about there is no police force, but what if one state is so powerful that it could be the police force? Why would it be the police force? Well, because its security interest becomes so broad from its power that it actually wants to prevent other wars elsewhere because it doesn't want other countries taking over other countries and getting powerful. When this occurs, you have a state that becomes the hegemon or the leviathan, so it acts like that supranational state and it can actually preserve the peace to a relative extent for a limited amount of time as long as it remains preponderant.
One of the things that happened after World War II, and in particular after the end of the Cold War, is that after World War II, you had two hegemons that preserved peace in their spheres of influence, so you didn't have Europeans ... You dint have NATO members going to war with each other, you didn't have Warsaw Pact members going to war each other, and then after the Soviet Union fell, the United States became this hegemon and was able to maintain a certain level of peace because it had the interest and it had the power.
Xander: Yeah. You hear these phrases sometimes called the Pox Americana, and before that it was the Pox Britannica and Pox Romana, and all of the ... This expression applied to different nations throughout history. Is this idea that a country has become so globally powerful within a circumscribed region of the world, like with the Roman Empire, that it's effectively able to decrease the rate and the scale of warfare. It does mean war doesn't happen, because in 1991, fall of the Soviet Union, there's still the Iraq war, there's still the dissolution of Yugoslavia later in the '90s, but we didn't have any major wars that we saw in the mid of the 20th century, middle of the 20th century, and some of the decades that followed.
Eric, you mentioned this in-group, out-group theory, and I think that that is pretty important to realism in a way that's not necessarily obvious because a lot of people think realism, realpolitik, and we'll be talking ... They think about analyzing resources, and power, and military strength and economic capability, and we'll talk a lot about that too, but a fundamental aspect of realism is who the in-group is. I mean, you talked about family and then state and so on and so forth, but that means you can't really approach analysis of power between entities without understanding the identity of the states that are potentially going to go into conflict. In this sense, identity actually begins to matter a lot. I mean, if you identify as an American you can be almost any race, but there have been times in history where your identity is very circumscribed to an ethnicity or a nationality that has hundreds of years of history, so that adds a certain qualitative aspect to any sort of realist analysis, I think.
Erik: Indeed, because you never really know what identities people feel most strongly about. Most Americans feel like they're sort of Americans first, and we tend to think, "Oh, it's other parts of the world where people identify first with their religion and fight over that or identify with their ethnicity and fight over that," and it could happen here, maybe, however, the core idea is that you don't really know when someone's ethnicity, their ethnic identity or their religious identity, is going to become stronger for them than their state identity until it actually happens. This is possibly one of the limitations of realism is that it tends not to see ethnic conflict within a single nation coming until it already occurs, and because people have different identities at the same time that are not just their nation state it actually means that the waters get muddied a little bit. However, a realist would say, "Yes, we don't model it as well as it could be modeled, but the principles are the same. This is still a realist world that we're dealing with."
Xander: We're talking about realism as one form of international relations theory, but what else is there?
Erik: The most popular opposition to realism came about after the second world war, and in particular after the Cold War, and it's called liberalism, and it's a pretty popular these days. What it says is basically, "Hey, realists, the world is not just a zero-sum game where every time one state takes an action to further its self-interest it must be fighting against the self-interest of other states. States can work together to further both of their self-interests at the same time." These international structures and these international laws and forms of cooperation come about is that they're good for everyone, and once they get developed, once these structures get developed because they're good for everyone, there's an incentive for states not want to disrupt these cooperations or structures because they'll lose the benefits.
They say in these kinds of environments, most state behavior is actually not driven by military power and not dependent primarily on just increasing security, damn everything else, and so they say realism doesn't explain the whole picture. There's a few subcategories of realism that are pretty popular that can be a little more nuanced, so one of them is Democratic peace theory. It essentially says, "his is ideology based, democracies don't go to war with each other. We understand that democracy is good and that everyone has human value. Everyone is equal. We're not going to go to war with other countries that believe that, that treat their people the right way and that respect other nations the way that we would."
One of them is commercial peace theory, and so when there's lots of trade states don't want to fight because they'll lose that trade. It would be bad for them. The third one is institutional peace theory, and it says when state structures create mutual benefit, so think perhaps the Word Trade Organization, and absolute gains for everyone, states won't want to upset them and so they won't go to war or they won't get into conflict because if that happens, these beneficial structures get messed up for them. Also, not only will they not mess with them, but they will also defend these structures and actually put themselves out there to do it, which is not the same as simply looking out for their own security interest.
Xander: In a nutshell, liberalism says liberal democracies go to war with each other less or less frequently. After the Soviet Union fell, there was this school of thought that developed out of liberalism and said, "Okay, well, if liberal democracies are going to go to war with each other less and now the US is this global hegemon and no one can challenge us, then we have a moral obligation to go out and attempt to convert as many countries as possible to liberal democracy as quickly as we can. We won't be able to do it with everyone, but the more countries that institute a system of governance that looks like liberal democracy, the less war there is going to be," and that is called neoconservatism. If you've ever heard about neoconservatives, they kind of developed out of this school of thought, liberalism, but of course, if you are ascribing moral imperatives to state action, it is no longer just prescriptive. Neoconservatism actually was a school of foreign policy thought. It said you should do X.
Erik: Yeah. What's interesting is neoconservatism got a lot less popular after the Iraq war because we looked at that and went, "Holy smokes our ability to institute democracy and influence the world in this way is severely limited," and we've probably learned that lesson again in Syria and again in Libya, and pretty much everywhere we've mucked around since then, Afghanistan ... That form of neoconservatism, of which Barack Obama was also a kind of adherent, if you think arid spring, it became a lot less popular and the United States has gone on this retreat since then, where it said, "You know what? We're not going to run around trying to be the world police, trying to be the humanitarian democracy spreading, heroes of the world. We're going to entrench ourselves," and that is exemplified by Donald Trump's America First/Fortress America approach. Some would argue that that means that the neoconservative approach has failed entirely. Others would say that, "Look, it's just not been done well. We used our power poorly because we misinterpreted how powerful we were and our ability to influence the world."
Xander: A lot of times this debate gets framed in a very black-and-white way, interventionist versus isolationists, and I think that is entirely the wrong way to look at it because it doesn't allow for any nuance because it basically says, "Either you are for America sending its military out in the world or you're against it." I don't actually think that what we're seeing right now is a retrenchment of America from the world. I don't think that what we're seeing is America becoming increasingly isolationist, I think what's happening right now is America has realized that while it is very powerful, it has a preponderance of power relative to other countries in the world. It is not supremely powerful, it cannot enact whatever change it wants in any corner of the world simply by applying military strength.
With that lesson being learned from Iraq and Syria, to a lesser degree, America's saying, "All right, so we can't get everything we want, our resources are limited, there are domestic political constraints that will restrict us from deploying force in certain ways, how then do we define what interests are critical that we must pursue in the world and for which we will be willing to expend resources economic, military, and people's lives, and which will we be less likely to intervene in? This comes back to understanding what America's imperatives are. The US will likely be willing to intervene when it feels that its core security interests are threatened and it will be less likely to intervene if they aren't. The country's going through this process of reflection in a way to see that this is the development that's happening and recognizing what those interests really are.
Erik: Yeah, and also recognizing what its power constraints are. The United States is not as militarily predominate as it used to be, even though its military is probably stronger than it was ... Certainly stronger than it was in the early 1990s, of course other countries are beefing up their military expenditure and strength relative to the United States.
One of the things that's going to be a litmus test for whether the realists have it more right or whether the liberals have it more right, is probably going to be the next 30 to 50 years as the relative power of the United States starts to decline a sufficient amount that we become a multipolar world again, which means that there are multiple strong states rather than a hegemonic world, which has existed since the fall of the Soviet Union where the United States was the predominant state. Because the debate between realists and liberals right now is whether the relative peace that we've seen on the world stage, especially in Europe because until the Cold War Europe was constantly at war since the fall of the Roman Empire, whether that relative peace, especially in Europe, is due to liberal institutions or whether it's due to the preponderance of power that the United States has keeping a lid on everything and saying, "Look, nobody's going to war with anyone. We'll come in and defend whoever the underdog is so just don't even bother," and as that relative power starts to decline, we'll see whether Europe sticks to its institutions or whether Europe starts to become fractured, polarized, and even in potential conflict again.
Xander: What are some other schools of thought just before we dig down more into realism? We've mentioned liberalism, we've discussed that, there's a school of thought called constructivism and what constructivists say is that a society constructs its identity in certain ways and how it constructs its identity will influence how it acts in the world because identity impacts how a society perceives risks, how it perceives the nature of the global order and, therefore, how it will act within that global order.
I think that constructivism and realism are both entirely compatible and actually complementary because, as I mentioned earlier, this issue of identity, understanding how a nation sees itself falls squarely within the realm of constructivism, and that is part and parcel with an analysis of relative power. Once you know what resources two countries have with one another, if you can better understand how they perceive their own identity in relation to the other state, you'll have a better sense of how they will perceive access to their own resources.
Erik: Where did realism come from? Well, it's probably the oldest foreign-policy theory ever, and it was actually exemplified as a foreign-policy before there was any formal study of foreign-policy in a theoretical way.
The first realist thinker that we're aware of, who actually wrote stuff down, is this guy called Thucydides, and he wrote this book called the History of the Peloponnesian War. It's absolutely my favorite book ever, and some people would say that it's very dry and I would argue that it's actually a brilliantly emotional narrative of a war between Sparta and Athens and their allies. This war, the Peloponnesian war, was actually the war that crippled the Hellenic states, the Greek states, so much that their age of dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean ended, Macedonia was able to come take them over and then the age of Alexander the Great happened and then that collapsed and there was some anarchy and the Romans came by. This was actually a very impactful war for the whole world, even though the number of people involved was tiny compared to what we normally expect, it was like, "Oh, there was this giant battle, 300 people died." You're like, "What? Giant?" Yeah, it was giant for them.
Anyway, Thucydides was a commander in this 30-year long war between Sparta and Athens, and after he was done, he wrote a history explaining the geopolitical clauses of that war. He actually died before he finished it, possibly murdered, so the book just ends abruptly and it's very sad. You're like, "Oh, God!" Thucydides made the claim that the war between Athens and Sparta, who had been allies against the Persians for so long, was fundamentally caused by Sparta's fear of the growing strength of the Athenian Empire. Sparta was worried that Athens had become so powerful that it would be able to dominate Sparta, in particular because Athens' Navy was so powerful they thought it could isolate Sparta. Thucydides claimed that the proximate causes, the things that immediately preceded the individual escalations, could have occurred a number of ways, but it ultimately didn't matter because the deeper cause was the shift in relative power relations. This is an example of what's commonly called the security spiral in international relations, which we described earlier without saying. It's the one where one state expands its power to further its self-interest and it ultimately makes another state insecure, and that state increases its power to defend itself, and this downward spiral occurs.
One thing that people came up with later is this idea called the Thucydides trap, which is essentially the same thing as the security spiral, and what's interesting is it's become vogue in places like politico, applying it to the situation, for example, between the United States and China.
Xander: Yeah. I don't actually think that the analogy with the US and China is accurate. The idea with this Thucydides trap is that like Sparta and Athens, this rising power is coming and it's going to challenge and entrench interests, and that's going to lead to this massive war. Places like politico are saying, "Oh my gosh, China's a rising power. That's going to threaten the established power, the United States, and we're going to see something like the Peloponnesian war of the modern-day," but there's aspects of this analogy that don't really hold up.
For example, in the Peloponnesian war, Athens was the rising power and had become so rich and had developed military capabilities that could cripple Sparta. It had this really powerful navy, it could blockade Sparta, and if Athens was able to block off this really narrow point of Greece called the Corinthian Isthmus, could basically trap Sparta to this part of Greece called the Peloponnesian peninsula, which is basically where Sparta was, and then blockade them. Athens had basically acquired the military power to really hurt Sparta bad, and today it's just not the case with China. The US military is far, far, far more powerful than China in a number of different ways, certainly in its ability to project power over oceans. China has a Navy but is not really a blue water navy, they don't have the ability to bring aircraft carriers out and launch a massive attack in the way that the US does, and this is both due to institutional knowledge, access to actual resources and weapons and also logistic support.
If this analogy were perfect, then the US would be Sparta and China would be Athens, and China would've already developed capability to hurt the US greatly and block us off in some sort of strategic way at a geographical location, and that's just not the case.
Erik: The last part about Thucydides is that it contains what's called the million dialogue, which it's apocryphal but it sums up the most core classical idea of realism in a nugget. Within the foreign-policy school realism, we joke about how realist are you? Are you a million dialogue realist?
The million dialogue goes like this, Athenian delegates are talking to the delegates of this island called Milos, which is in rebellion, and Athens basically says, "Look, if you continue the rebellion and we defeat you, we're going to kill all of you. You're just all going to die because we're going to make a point to everyone else that rebellion means death to everyone." The Milians were like, "Oh, we appeal to the Gods. What you're doing is wrong. It's immoral. It's horrible," and the Fenians says, "Ah, the Gods look favorably upon those who have the power to do for themselves what they want." The quote that is most famous, as they say, "the strong take what they can, the weak suffer what they must." Again, this is not moral guidance, nor is it prescriptive, but Thucydides believed that this was a cold fact of reality and no matter how you dressed up what you did, no matter what highfalutin moral terminology you applied to it, that rule in the international world is involatile, and that's influenced realism ever since.
Xander: Yeah. A lot of people will invoke morality when talking about realism and saying, "Ah, you subscribe to realpolitik and that means that you just don't believe that there is any morality and it's okay to do whatever you want," and I don't think that's an accurate characterization of realism. Again, realism is descriptive, it's trying to understand why things happen, and in the process of trying to understand why things happen, it recognizes that in interstate actions, morality just doesn't apply, certainly not the same way as it does in day-to-day circumstances, again, because in day-to-day circumstances, there is a sovereign with a monopoly on violence that can force people to behave certain ways and protect them in ways that actually allow for better relations with your neighbors, and so on and so forth.
Erik: Yeah. This expedition, Xander, sounds like it's relevant to another very famous book about realism.
Xander: Which one are you talking about, Eric?
Erik: I'm talking about The Prince by Machiavelli. People often hear Machiavelli and they think, "Ooh, being Machiavellian, that's really bad," but the thing is what Machiavelli was making recommendations to the Prince ... What's interesting is Machiavelli was also a Republican and didn't like the autocracy that he saw in his home, but he was trying to advise his Prince.
One of the things he was telling the Prince about was essentially realism, and he said that there are situations where proper state action would seem immoral by day-to-day standards, but it would actually end up being a better outcome for society, possibly even within the rival city state or the rival country that the state was acting against. He claimed, therefore, that Princes should not be judged by the same guidelines that we judge normal people who don't live in anarchy where the Prince does, the Prince's behavior is within an anarchic world. Instead, the Prince should be judged by how effectively they provide for prosperous and secure society, recognizing that achieving those goals require doing things that would cause chaos if everyone within the society practiced it. What he essentially said is that, "Look, you act by different rules than normal people, and the reason you act by these different rules is because you're commanding a state that lives in anarchy as opposed to trying to get along in society that wants to preserve order and liberty for everyone within it."
Xander: Yeah, and the reason that some of this was prescriptive, so he was actually giving policy advice in The Prince, was in part because ... Well, one interpretation it was a job application, he was trying to get back into the civil service basically, but also because the Italian states at that point had really descended into a state of anarchy within themselves, or among themselves, and Machiavelli lamented this. He believed that the best form of government was Republicanism but did not believe that Republicanism can come about directly from the state of anarchy. First, stability and order needs to be implemented, and the only way to do that from the state of anarchy is with a Prince.
One example of what would seem like an immoral recommendation for Machiavelli he says is, "If a Prince comes to power," in a state of an ongoing civil war for example, "then he may have to use violence, and there are some guidelines to how he should use violence." Now, if he needs to quickly put down the rebellion that violence should be implemented very, very quickly and all at once in great force because that will basically quell the rebellion and the opposition, and some degree of stability will come about from fear of the Prince. He says, "This is actually better than not killing all those people up front and running the risk of the rebellion simmering and building back up and the opposition gaining momentum and then being able to challenge the princes government and then bring the whole state back into civil war where far more people would die." These are the calculations that he's thinking about when he's offering advice to the Prince, but it comes from a realist perspective of, "Yeah, well, big oppositions tend to come back and hit at the state if they're not eliminated quickly," and that would be the realist analysis.
In my mind, this term Machiavellian has come to represent "just forsaking morals and the ends justify the means, and you need to do what ever you need to do to accomplish these goals," and I actually don't think that that characterizes Machiavelli's writing at all, especially not in the broader opus of his works because The Prince is just one very small sliver compared to other things that he wrote, so I've come to have this expression, which is Machiavelli was not a Machiavellian. I just don't think that's an accurate description for what's actually in his writings.
Erik: The next big player that we've already mentioned in the history of realism was Thomas Hobbes who introduced the idea of leviathans in, da, da, da, The leviathan- he said that leviathans allowED for peace and without them either in society or in the international system, life is, and you might know this quote, "Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," and it's because without a leviathan, you can get your stuff taken and get clunked overhead by people who are nasty, brutish and tall.
Xander: Eric, what's a leviathan, though?
Erik: A leviathan ... It comes from the mythical Leviathan who's this giant beast who lives in the ocean in a certain part, and the Leviathan is so powerful compared to everyone else that you don't mess with him. He could do whatever he wants. He has a massive preponderance of power. Hobbes purposefully used the term leviathan to invoke this thing that people might think is horrible but that he would say that the leviathan ... If that power is used wisely, actually makes life much better for everyone because what it does is it uses its power to stamp out bad actors and keep those nasty, brutish, tall people from clunking you overhead and taking all of your stuff.
Hobbes believed that the leviathan justified the existence of a state with a police force and a monopoly on power within a single state to be able to act for the good of everyone because without it, life is nasty, brutish and short.
Xander: Yes. You can think of leviathan as just a synonym for sovereign or government that has control over some sort of country. The phrase solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short is meant to describe man in the state of nature, in a state of anarchy where there is no greater power.
Erik: Fast forwarding a bit, 1850, Columbia University in the United States launches the first school of international relations with the explicit aim to end war. The academic world starts to develop foreign-policy theory explicitly and after World War II scholars start talking about realism with that word, as we first see it come up, and it proliferates greatly within academia and now papers are being written about it all the time, including mine.
Xander: Yeah. Eric wrote his masters thesis at MIT on power transition war, so he analyzed a large data set of different wars that occurred and then came up with metrics to measure the amount of power that each state had and then the rate of change of that power and said, "Okay, is there some sort of relationship between the imbalance in power between states and the rate of war?" Then, he went deeper and said, "Okay, is there some sort of relationship between the rate of change of that imbalance of power and the incidence of war?" The answer is yes. If there are two countries, especially if they're geographically close by, and the imbalance between power is changing very, very quickly, they are more likely to go to war.
Erik: If you're looking for something riveting because you're bored by, I don't know, Game of Thrones, or whatever, and you're looking for some more of the real stuff, I will post a link to the thesis and our show notes.
Xander: It's actually really worth reading. It's a great read. We had mentioned earlier that there are different types of realism, and now we want to break apart what those categories are.
The first is called classical realism, and as the name implies, it's referring to this classical period. We talked about Thucydides, classical realism is kind of really hearkening back to the original writers, the ancients, and maybe to a lesser degree, Hobbes. The problem with the term is that it came to include so many different authors that there wasn't really a coherent definition anymore, so the term classical realism isn't really used much anymore today and it's been replaced with neoclassical realism, which we'll get to in a minute.
Erik: One of other popular sub-schools is liberal realism or the English school, and it says that the world is anarchical but people are able to find means other than direct course of power to ensure their security. This includes setting up agreed-to norms and using collective power to hold others accountable, so it says, "Yeah, still anarchy, still security issues, but sometimes states will figure out that they can work together in order to further their joint security interests," and this is actually more sophisticated a nuance than merely having alliances, which is something that all schools of realism attempt to account for, nobody pretends they don't exist but that states, for example, will develop things like the WTO or international law, which they will defend in order to further their self interests.
One of the big ones is neorealism or structural realism, and so it was an attempt to evolve classical realism to focus on this greater international system, that there's this dynamic system going on with states bumping around and interacting with each other, and it says much like Machiavelli's The Prince, that states act very differently from individuals and thus sovereign leaders act differently from how they would act as regular citizens. It specifically talks about many of the constraints that the international system puts on different countries, and so it says, "Look, you're within the system, all these other states are doing these other things, you therefore have tons of constraints on how you can actually apply your power and expand it." Russia might be running into that right now where it's very insecure for a lot of reasons, and it wants to expand that security but because it's bumping up against the security needs of other states that have a lot more power than it does collectively, that if it were to severely threaten their security imperatives, they would fight back. Russia has these constraints where it's like, "Oh, God, I feel bad but I feel insecure, but there's only so much that I can do about it." That's where you start to see structural realism come to play.
Xander: Then, are these two called offensive realism and defensive realism, and the key difference and assumptions is how severe anarchy is assumed to be in the international system, and offensive realism it assumes that anarchy is very severe in the international system, and they call it Hobbesian, so referring to Thomas Hobbes and the idea of leviathan. This makes security scarce in the international world and it drives nations to develop military and economic power to defend themselves, but that this makes them prone to conflict with other states because other states see the mobilization of their arms and the accumulation of their power not in a defensive way, but as a threat to them. While that accumulation of power may often start with a defensive motive, it often turns into an offensive campaign waged in the name of defending themselves, and this happens because anarchy is severe.
Defensive realism says that anarchy exists but is not really that extreme. Security actually exists between states, it's fairly abundant and this make states less prone to conflict. States will go to war then when the prevailing methods of waging war favor this offensive approach. If you don't really want to go to war but the only way that you can defend yourself if your enemy develops some sort of military capability is striking first, defensive realists will say, "This is the case in which we will see states go to war."
Erik: Those depend a lot on technology, and so one of the things they say is ... For example, let's say developed how build a stonewall but nobody's developed how to build a really good catapult to take down the stonewall, then security is preponderant because you just have to build these walls and people can't really get through. Think, for example, the Great Wall of China. But then someone develops the catapult, you can just smash through them, and they've also developed these light troops who can run through the wall really fast and throw some missiles and take out your soft-chewy people inside, then it becomes more offenses because your walls don't work anymore. You can think, for example, of World War I, everyone thought it was going to be offensive and fast, but then trench warfare took over because the technology of the time favored it so it became very defensive and that's why it dragged on so long. You're going to have scholars debating this stuff left and right forever.
This is actually a good opportunity for a disclaimer, for those scholars who are listening going, "What? That doesn't doesn't fully explain it," I must say, we can't fully explain any of these in a few sentences, and there's also the [inaudible 00:50:26] Scotsman problem where a bunch of people say, "Well, true offensive realism would say," blah, blah, blah, but there is [inaudible 00:50:33] Scotsman scholars debating what is the right way at the world through each of these lenses all the time, they're not a unified front. We're just estimating what they say here.
Xander: Yeah, and there's a lot of criticism of offensive and defensive realism that we won't get into, but this other school of thought, neoclassical realism, tries to answer some of those critiques. This is a newer wave, it's very much predicated on the classical realism but it tries to be a little bit more specific and doesn't depend on this very body of historical work that can be kind of vague, a precise predictive model.
Neoclassical realism tries to bacon the effects of domestic politics and domestic identity and say that, "Okay, the imbalance of power in the international system is the first thing that you need to look at. Understand the resources and capabilities that states have at their disposal and the constraints they face because that'll take a lot of options off the table. However, the next thing you need to know is how a particular country perceives those constraints," so this is where I think constructivism fits into the neoclassical realist model really well because if you're going to try to understand how leaders perceive their own country's capabilities and constraints, you need to understand that the nature of that country's identity, how that society sees itself. So there's this intervening variable, which is a bunch of domestic stuff, and if you bacon the constraints and capabilities that you take from the international system and everything with power and then you look at identity and how people perceive things domestically, then you can get a better sense of the outcome, which is state action.
Erik: Yeah. I think it brings up the really interesting point that you can predict how states will behave and you can predict outcomes, and states will always act with the hope that they're going to be successful, but in any conflict, 50% of the time you fail. Now, sometimes you just get conflict thrust on you and you don't really have a choice, think of Poland in World War II, but often states will launch wars or attempt conflict and they would just fail miserably, and you might think "What the heck were they thinking?" That's where we talk about miscalculations where states are within these constraints, but the state ... Either just the leader or more likely the leader plus all of their advisors and people like that, grossly miscalculate the capabilities of other states or miscalculate the other state's security imperatives, so they'll do something that provokes a state by mistake.
For example in the Korean War. General MacArthur didn't think that moving close to the Yalu river would provoke the Chinese and didn't think the Chinese were all that powerful anyway. Whereas, Eisenhower was pretty sure, "Yeah. No, don't do that," and was actually really ticked when he did it. MacArthur personally did have a miscalculation about how the Chinese would react, and then the United States got its butt kicked and didn't win the Korean War, just brought it back to antebellum status quo. Those miscalculations are legitimate and important parts of world history and looking to the future that are important and can't be ignored.
If you end up going back to some of our previous episodes about what's going on with this country or between these two countries, you'll hear much of this framework implied within how we're talking about it. Hopefully, hearing a little bit more about realism helps you understand the way that we're looking at the world because while it isn't a bias of ours in the sense of a cognitive bias, it is the lens through which we look at it, and it informs how we anticipate things are going to happen or explain why we believe things happen the way that they did.
There are a few other key takeaways that you can use when you go beyond the podcast and look at events throughout the world. When you see a country acting a certain way and you think it's strange, or frightening, or problematic, and when you're trying to understand why that country is acting the way it is, here's a question you can ask first, what are its core security objectives? What are its security imperatives, things that it must secure in order to feel like it's not going to be obliterated? Then ask, once you've defined these, what are the constraints that they face in achieving those objectives that don't allow them to do whatever they want in order to try to get them?
Xander: I think this is one way to have a reconsider moment the next time you get into a discussion about foreign policy. Take a pause when the next someone says to you, "Oh, leader X said this thing, and that is going to impact everything in the world," and think, "Is what they're saying lining up with what that state must achieve in order to be secure?" Because if it's not, there is a good chance that that rhetoric might not be predictive of how that state might act. What does a state's capabilities, their economic, their military resources, and the constraints they will run into attempting to deploy and implement those, what does that mean? What does that mean for the future?
Erik: I think the other interesting question that we can ask ourselves about the long-term is that people are going to give you predictions about whether certain countries are going to go to war and whether peace is going to be something that prevails in the long-term. Some people are really big into predicting doom and gloom, whereas other people are big into predicting that there's going to be a relative peace with a very long-term, and to break down these different addictions and decide who's on to something and who seems full of it, we can use theoretical frameworks just like we do anything else. What would the realist versus liberal frameworks mean for the future? Should we expect relative peace to continue to prevail or to break down? This is we would love to get your input and comments either in the comment section of the show notes or on Facebook or twitter. Let us know what you think because this is something that we think about a lot and really enjoy talking about.
That wraps up the theory. Next time, get ready to join us with Zack Twamley of When Diplomacy Fails. We're really looking forward to this conversation. What we'll be doing is taking this theory and putting it to the test with a lot of historical examples and saying, "Okay, this is what happened, Zack, why do you think it happened?" The three of us are going to talk about, "Okay, what might be the drivers of conflict and war in some of the most important conflicts in history that have really shaped the world?" We might even get around to talking, "Hey, what if it were different? Could it have prevented this conflict from occurring?" We're really looking forward to that and hope you are as well.
Xander: With that, remember, don't let the pundits do the thinking for you, pause and reconsider. This is Xander signing off.
Erik: This is Erik signing off. See you next time with Zack.