The Political Atlas (5/9) Foreign Policy Spectrum (International Relations)

[The cover image of every post in this series is an apolitical mock flag design of my own creation.The flower overlapping the star is a pansy, which represents Free Thought. I will eventually discuss political symbolism in Part 9.]

In the last section, we finally went beyond the standard Political Compass and delved into foreign integration (or lack thereof). In this essay, we will examine the nuance of foreign policy when international relations theory is factored in.

International Relations Axis

This axis pertains to the strategy a politician or country abides by when interacting with foreign nations. For this reason it is strongly related with the Z-axis in my 3D spectrum model.

International relations theory is the study of international relations (IR) from a theoretical perspective. It attempts to provide a conceptual framework upon which international relations can be analyzed. The three most prominent theories are realism, liberalism and constructivism. International relations theories can be divided into “positivist/rationalist” theories which focus on a principally state-level analysis, and “post-positivist/reflectivist” ones which incorporate expanded meanings of security, ranging from class, to gender, to postcolonial security. However, two positivist schools of thought are most prevalent: realism and liberalism. Constructivism, however, is increasingly becoming mainstream.

The Realist School of Thought

Realism: a school of thought in international relations theory, theoretically formalizing the Realpolitik statesmanship of early modern Europe. Although a highly diverse body of thought, it can be thought of as unified by the belief that world politics ultimately is always and necessarily a field of conflict among actors pursuing power. Realists think that mankind is not inherently benevolent but rather self-centered and competitive. It is also disposed of the notion that an individual’s intuitive nature is made up of anarchy. In regards to self-interest, these individuals are self-reliant and are motivated in seeking more power. This view contrasts with the approach of liberalism to international relations.

Realists believe that sovereign states are the principal actors in the international system. International institutions, non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations, individuals and other sub-state or trans-state actors are viewed as having little independent influence. Realists believe that there are no universal principles with which all states may guide their actions. Instead, a state must always be aware of the actions of the states around it and must use a pragmatic approach to resolve problems as they arise.

Realism is one of the dominant strains of thought in modern foreign policy. As an academic pursuit, realism is not tied to ideology; it does not favor any particular moral philosophy, nor does it consider ideology to be a major factor in the behavior of nations. Priorities of realists have been described as “Machiavellian”, with the primary focus being increasing the relative power of one’s own nation over others.

Classical Realism: the argument that order is fragile and created through constant tensions between state nations. Related to this argument is the theory of human reshaping. Human reshaping puts forth that the world can become a ‘better’ place through incremental changes made by humans through enlightened self-interest. Humans can change their environments only through much difficulty and slowly.

Neorealism or structural realism: is a theory of international relations that says power is the most important factor in international relations. It was first outlined by Kenneth Waltz in his 1979 book Theory of International Politics. Alongside neoliberalism, neorealism is one of the two most influential contemporary approaches to international relations; the two perspectives have dominated international relations theory for the last three decades.

Structural realism holds that the nature of the international structure is defined by its ordering principle, anarchy, and by the distribution of capabilities (measured by the number of great powers within the international system). The anarchic ordering principle of the international structure is decentralized, meaning there is no formal central authority; every sovereign state is formally equal in this system. These states act according to the logic of self-help, meaning states seek their own interest and will not subordinate their interest to the interests of other states. Because states can never be certain of other states’ future intentions, there is a lack of trust between states which requires them to be on guard against relative losses of power which could enable other states to threaten their survival. This lack of trust, based on uncertainty, is called the security dilemma. States are deemed similar in terms of needs but not in capabilities for achieving them. The positional placement of states in terms of abilities determines the distribution of capabilities.

The structural distribution of capabilities then limits cooperation among states through fears of relative gains made by other states, and the possibility of dependence on other states. The desire and relative abilities of each state to maximize relative power constrain each other, resulting in a ‘balance of power’, which shapes international relations. There are two ways in which states balance power: internal balancing and external balancing. Internal balancing occurs as states grow their own capabilities by increasing economic growth and/or increasing military spending. External balancing occurs as states enter into alliances to check the power of more powerful states or alliances.

Neoclassical Realism: the belief that actions of a state in the international system can be explained by intervening systemic variables – such as the distribution of power capabilities among states – as well as cognitive variables – such as the perception and misperception of systemic pressures, other states’ intentions, or threats – and domestic variables – such as state institutions, elites, and societal actors within society – affecting the power and freedom of action of the decision-makers in foreign policy. While holding true to the realist concept of balance of power, neoclassical realism further adds that states’ mistrust and inability to perceive one another accurately, or state leaders’ inability to mobilize state power and public support can result in an under-expansion or under-balancing behavior leading to imbalances within the international system, the rise and fall of great powers, and war.

Defensive neorealism: a structural theory derived from the school of realism in international relations theory. It finds its foundation in Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, in which Waltz argues that the anarchical structure of the international system encourages states to maintain moderate and reserved policies to attain security. Defensive neorealism asserts that aggressive expansion as promoted by offensive neorealists upsets the tendency of states to conform to the balance of power theory, thereby decreasing the primary objective of the state, which they argue is ensuring its security. While defensive realism does not deny the reality of interstate conflict, nor that incentives for state expansion do exist, it contends that these incentives are sporadic rather than endemic. Defensive neorealism points towards “structural modifiers” such as the security dilemma and geography, and elite beliefs and perceptions to explain the outbreak of conflict.

Offensive neorealism: a structural theory belonging to the neorealist school of thought first postulated by John Mearsheimer that holds that the anarchic nature of the international system is responsible for aggressive state behavior in international politics. It fundamentally differs from defensive realism, as originally put forward by Kenneth Waltz, by depicting great powers as power-maximizing revisionists privileging buck-passing over balancing strategies in their ultimate aim to dominate the international system. Like defensive neorealism, offensive realism posits an anarchic international system in which rational great powers uncertain of other states’ intentions and capable of military offensive strive to survive. Although initially developed from similar propositions than defensive neorealism, Mearsheimer’s offensive neorealism advances drastically different predictions regarding great power behavior in international politics. Mainly, it diverges from defensive neorealism in regards to the accumulation of power a state needs to possess to ensure its security and the issuing of strategy states pursue to meet this satisfactory level of security. Ultimately, Mearsheimer’s offensive neorealism draws a much more pessimistic picture of international politics characterised by dangerous inter-state security competition likely leading to conflict and war.

The Liberal School of Thought

Liberalism: a school of thought in International Relations which: rejects the power politics of Realism, accentuates the benefits of international cooperation, seeks to implement international organizations and non-government actors. Liberals believe that international institutions play a key role in cooperation among states. With the correct international institutions, and increasing interdependence (including economic and cultural exchanges) states have the opportunity to reduce conflict. Interdependence has three main components. States interact in various ways, through economic, financial, and cultural means; security tends to not be the primary goal in state-to-state interactions; and military forces are not typically used. Liberals also argue that international diplomacy can be a very effective way to get states to interact with each other honestly and support nonviolent solutions to problems. With the proper institutions and diplomacy, Liberals believe that states can work together to maximize prosperity and minimize conflict.

Liberalism is one of the main schools of international relations theory. Liberalism comes from the Latin liber meaning “free”, referred originally to the philosophy of freedom. Its roots lie in the broader liberal thought originating in the Enlightenment. The central issues that it seeks to address are the problems of achieving lasting peace and cooperation in international relations, and the various methods that could contribute to their achievement. Supporters of Liberalism often believe in the spreading of democracy through cooperation. A central tenant of Liberalism is the Democratic peace theory which is a belief that democracies are hesitant to engage in armed conflict with other identified democracies.

Idealism: holds that a state should make its internal political philosophy the goal of its foreign policy. For example, an idealist might believe that ending poverty at home should be coupled with tackling poverty abroad. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was an early advocate of idealism. Wilson’s idealism was a precursor to liberal international relations theory, which would arise among the “institution-builders” after World War II. More generally, Michael W. Doyle describes idealism as based on the belief that other nations’ stated good intentions can be relied on, whereas Realism holds that good intentions are in the long run subject to the security dilemma.

Neoliberalism: refers to a school of thought which believes that states are, or at least should be, concerned first and foremost with absolute gains rather than relative gains to other states. Neoliberalism is a revised version of liberalism. Alongside neorealism, neoliberalism is one of the two most influential contemporary approaches to international relations; the two perspectives have dominated international relations theory for the last three decades. Neoliberal international relations thinkers often employ game theory to explain why states do or do not cooperate;since their approach tends to emphasize the possibility of mutual wins, they are interested in institutions which can arrange jointly profitable arrangements and compromises. Neoliberalism is a response to neorealism; while not denying the anarchic nature of the international system, neoliberals argue that its importance and effect has been exaggerated. The neoliberal argument is focused on neorealists’ alleged underestimation of “the varieties of cooperative behavior possible within … a decentralized system.” Both theories, however, consider the state and its interests as the central subject of analysis; neoliberalism may have a wider conception of what those interests are.

Sociological liberalism: is an international relations theory that is critical of realist theory which it sees as too state-centric. Sociological liberals see international relations in terms of relationships between people, groups and organisations in different countries. Many sociological liberals believe that increased transnational relations could help create new forms of human society.

Alternate Schools of Thought

Constructivism: the claim that significant aspects of international relations are historically and socially constructed, rather than inevitable consequences of human nature or other essential characteristics of world politics. Constructivism primarily seeks to demonstrate how core aspects of international relations are, contrary to the assumptions of neorealism and neoliberalism, socially constructed, that is, they are given their form by ongoing processes of social practice and interaction. The notion that international relations are not only affected by power politics, but also by ideas, is shared by writers who describe themselves as constructivist theorists. According to this view, the fundamental structures of international politics are social rather than strictly material. This leads social constructivists to argue that changes in the nature of social interaction between states can bring a fundamental shift towards greater international security.

Rationalism: in politics is often seen as the midpoint in the three major political viewpoints of realism, rationalism, and liberalism. Whereas Realism and Liberalism are both on ends of the scale, rationalism tends to occupy the middle ground on most issues, and finds compromise between these two conflicting points of view.

Functionalism: a theory of international relations that arose during the inter-War period principally from the strong concern about the obsolescence of the State as a form of social organization. Rather than the self-interest of nation-states that realists see as a motivating factor, functionalists focus on common interests and needs shared by states (but also by non-state actors) in a process of global integration triggered by the erosion of state sovereignty and the increasing weight of knowledge and hence of scientists and experts in the process of policy-making. According to functionalism, international integration – the collective governance and ‘material interdependence’ between states – develops its own internal dynamic as states integrate in limited functional, technical, and/or economic areas. International agencies would meet human needs, aided by knowledge and expertise. The benefits rendered by the functional agencies would attract the loyalty of the populations and stimulate their participation and expand the area of integration.


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