April 23, 2015

Neo-realism and Current International Relations Or
Why Kenneth Waltz Was Right (Only Partially)

The Independent Analytical Center for Geopolitical Studies “Borysfen Intel” affords ground to the analysts generation for expressing their point of view regarding the political, economic, security, information situation in Ukraine and in the world in general, according to their personal geopolitical studies and analyses.


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Mykola Beleskov

Born in 1993; a first year student of Magistracy of the Institute of International Relations of Kyiv Taras Shevchenko National University, specialty "International Relations", specialization "Strategic Research".


After the Cold War, all the schools of international political studies had to answer the question: what will the international relations be like after the end of the bipolar confrontation? Actually, prediction of the logic of further developments and is one of the tasks of science, and the Theory of International Relations (TIR) — is no exception. The main place in the TIR belongs to the school of neo-realism, or as it is also called — of structural realism.

This direction of political realism is called structural political realism, because representatives of this school put configuration of forces in this system (number of poles) that form its structure into the basis for interpretation of the logic of international relations. Besides, neo-realists believe that only the level of international relations can influence the leading actors of the system — great states — and shape their behavior. That is why it can be stated that after 1991 the school of structural realism came prepared methodologically and conceptually to studying the problem of possible evolution of international relations. It is therefore not surprising that in 1993 the Coryphaeus of the school of neo-realism — Kenneth Waltz — offered his vision of how, based on the basic tenets of this school, international relations will soon develop.

Kenneth Waltz outlined his ideas in the article “The Emerging Structure of International Politics” (International Security, Vol. 18, No.2, autumn 1993, pp. 44-79). Like any other representative of a realistic paradigm, he concentrates on large states which could potentially compete with the USA for dominance in the system of international relations. Among them, the author identifies three such potential competitors — Germany (or Western Europe as potentially a single state), Japan and China. At this, Kenneth Waltz focuses on the trends of economic and political development of Japan, and to a lesser extent — of Germany. It is interesting that already then, Kenneth Waltz doubted that the Russian Federation's future status would be that of a great state. After all, without taking into account its great enough military capacity (both, in 1993, and today the Russian Federation is the only country in the world that can physically destroy the United States), the Russian Federation simply will not keep pace with the rapid progress of technology. Therefore, it can be argued that the analysis of the prospects of the Russian Federation in the system of international relations has proved to be quite accurate. Indeed, during Vladimir Putin's being in power, the share of products with high added value in the Russian Federation's export has fallen from 10 % to 4 %, at this, Russia has completely turned into as a raw material addition to the developed countries of Western Europe, and in the near future — to East Asia.

Francois FenelonAnalyzing the growth of economic power of these countries (Japan and Germany), the author concludes that they will try to convert it into a military and political dominance in their regions. In the past, it was on this trajectory that other contenders for the status of a large state developed. Here is what Kenneth Waltz writes on this in his article: “Countries have always waged a struggle for wealth and security, and this often results in conflicts. Then why should the future be different from the past? Taking into account the possibility of a conflict and the need to defend its own interests, one can only wonder why an economically powerful state may refuse to possess weapons that so wonderfully manifested itself as an instrument of deterrence”. However, the main factors that will encourage the Federal Republic of Germany or Japan will be systematic factors, the main of which is the USA's domination. Here is what Kenneth Waltz writes on this: “As the USSR is getting weaker, now the United States is not reined by any other country or their union. According to Herbert Butterfield, Francois Fenelon (French theologian and political adviser, who died in 1715) was the first person to understand that the balance of power is a recurring phenomenon, not some special and ephemeral condition. He argued that from a country which has an irresistible force, one cannot expect restrained behavior over a long period of time. Coming out of the postulates of the theory of balance of powers, we can forecast that other countries, either each on its own or in alliance, will try to balance the power of the United States”. Now let's try to compare these findings with the way international relations have evolved over the past 25 years. After all, as we know, practice is the best measure of the truth of a particular theoretical concept.

Specific implementation of Kenneth Waltz' ideas concerning the reaction of other countries to the USA's power in the form of all sorts of coalitions and unions can be regarded the emergence of the phenomenon of “soft balancing”. This concept means coordination of behavior of other states in order to increase the cost to the hegemon-state professing an active foreign policy. However, soft balancing occurs without the use or threat of force, without mobilization of material resources, but mainly by voting in the relevant international organizations. It is primarily due to the desire to deprive the foreign policies of the hegemonic state of legitimacy. Legitimacy allows the hegemonic state to pursue a foreign policy with a much lower cost. A classic example of soft balancing is considered in, Germany, France and Russia's refusal in 2002-2003 to legitimize the USA's war against Iraq within the framework of the UN Security Council. At this, the fact that the USA's actions against Iraq were not, for various reasons, a direct threat to any of the above listed countries, became the determining factor in that soft balancing having not turned into an alliance Paris-Berlin-Moscow, as Washington feared and Moscow expected.

John EikenberryAs for me, Germany and France's sticking to soft balancing in the case of Iraq, is best of all explained by the concept of “the USA's liberal hegemony”, proposed by John Eikenberry in the book “Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order”. The official Paris and Berlin's desire in 2003 to join the situational coalition with the Kremlin in order to counteract the official Washington, has been explained by John Eikenberry by the USA's actual violation of an informal agreement with Western Europe, existing since 1945. Germany and France in 2003 got frightened not so much by the military power of the United States, as by Washington's desire to use it unilaterally, ignoring the warning of its NATO allies. This is, in fact, an example of the so-called “paradox of American power, as it was formulated by Joseph Nye Junior: the threat is created not by a force itself as such, but rather by how it is used, especially in a country with such a democratic system, as the United States.

At the end of studying of the situation in 2003, it should be pointed out that Japan's position is absolutely opposite to what it should be according to Kenneth Waltz' logics. At that time the Japanese government headed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi supported the USA's war against Iraq. Japan was not only almost the only developed country that directly supported the US aggression against Iraq, but it also sent 600 military servicemen there. It was the first time after the defeat in World War II, when the official Tokyo agreed to send its soldiers abroad. Therefore, according to Kenneth Waltz, such strengthening of Tokyo's foreign policy activity was the result of Japan's positive rather than negative, response to the USA's foreign policy in the situation of unipolarity.

Michael PillsburyThe rise of the PRC can be considered almost the best example of implementation of Kenneth Waltz' assumptions of 1993 that countries are trying to convert their economic success into military and political dominance in the region. However, in this case it's not so simple. Indeed, China's building -up the military component of its national power can be seen as a reaction to the United States' dominance. Michael Pillsbury states in his book “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower” that creation and quantitative build-up of asymmetric means of warfare is the result of the official Beijing's fear of a possible preventive war, by which the official Washington will try to put an end to the implementation of the “Chinese dream” which means, in practice, resumption of China's dominance in Asia, and, hence, indirectly — in the world. Interestingly, the Chinese in such behavior are not guided by the precepts of Western School of International and Political Studies, but by their own thousands-year-old history, especially by lessons of the so-called “Warring States Period”. However, on the other hand, Michael Pillsbury states that military power, compared with the economic power, plays a secondary role in China's strategy regarding the victory in the century-old marathon. It was a lesson that the Chinese borrowed from the Soviet Union. After all, as we know, the first-class armed forces did not rescue the Soviet state from the internal collapse.

Is it possible in this case to state that neo-realism in general has poorly coped with the task of prediction the logics of evolution of international relations and foreign policy behavior of individual states? The conclusion, again, is not unmistakable, if you pay attention to changes in those countries' — Japan and Germany's — behavior in the international arena. Kenneth Waltz, by the way, considered these two countries the best applicants for an active independent foreign policy.

Shinzo AbeThus, Shinzo Abe's Cabinet's coming to power in Japan at the end of 2012 became a turning point in the evolution of the foreign policy of this country since 1945. In his article on the problems of Japan's foreign policy, the Head of its government set a task to create “Asia's Democratic Security Diamond”. This metaphoric phrase means the idea of ​​ a broad alliance of democratic states of the Indo-Pacific region in order to maintain order, based on the principles of international law, in the first place — of the law of the sea. In reality, this means counteracting China's policy to change the status quo in its favor in the South China and East China Seas, and to establish its full control over their waters. In fact, this would mean that the official Beijing can impose its will on countries such as Japan, that, as an island nation, is critically dependent on imports of raw materials and exports of finished products. In his foreign policy, which Shinzo Abe so much likes to compare with the Meiji Revolution, the Prime Minister of Japan is trying to actually cancel Article 9 of the Constitution of 1947. This way, the Land of the Rising Sun will regain the right to collective self-defense, strengthening its position in the confrontation with China.

Based on the early conclusion, the reason for Japan's leadership's giving up the above-mentioned behaviors, is the factors of the system level of international relations, but they are not connected to the mightiness of the United States. Problems of guaranteeing Japan's national security have been clearly defined by Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell: “Japan's geostrategic position makes it the most vulnerable country of all today's leading states. Its four main islands, long, narrow, densely populated, spread out for over 1,400 miles along the mainland Asia. They are situated at a distance of only 200 miles from the Russian Federation, 155 miles from the Korean Peninsula and 500 miles from China. It was enough in pre-modern conditions to protect Japan and mainland Asia one from the other, except for the case when the Mongols in the XIII century for a short time had been trying to conquer Japan. However, after the two countries (Japan and China) have created a steam Navy, their security interests began to overlap and mutually exclude each other”.

Stephen WaltTherefore, the transition from a reactive to a practical foreign policy was Japan's response to the rise of China, and in no way to the power of the United States. It should be recognized that Kenneth Waltz in his article predicted this development of events exactly in the relationship between China and Japan. He wrote: “Strengthening of the armed forces of the USSR in the Far East in the late 1970s led to Japan's reassessment of the Soviet threat. Now it is concerned with China's military budget having nearly doubled during 1988-1993. The three million Chinese army is in the process of modernization, and growth of the naval and air power to project the strength, sharpens the sense of fear among all the neighbors of China, and enhances the feeling of instability in the region, rich in unresolved territorial conflicts.” However, in this case we can clearly see some contradiction in the views of the famous theorist-neo-realist. First Kenneth Waltz believes that the driving force in the foreign policy behavior of other large countries will be the power of the United States, and then he still admits that foreign policy can be significantly affected by the regional balance of power. This, in its turn, is more like the postulates of the concept of “balance of threat” developed by other well-known representative of the school of neo-realism — Stephen Walt. This concept is based on the assumption that states in their external behavior are guided by the assessment of how in the majority of cases is changed the regional rather than global balance of power.

Ulrich SpeckA similar situation exists in the foreign policy of Germany, now playing a leading role in efforts to peacefully put an end to the Russian Federation's war against Ukraine. This war is now a major challenge for the EU and Germany in the field of security. As the expert of the European cell of the Carnegie Center for International Peace Ulrich Speck points out in his article, the Russian Federation's aggression against Ukraine was the first such international crisis, where the Federal Republic of Germany takes a leading role among Western states seeking to find a political solution. Such a change in the role and place of Germany in settling problems of European security was caused by the fact that the official Berlin is clearly aware of the danger that arises due to the actions of the Russian Federation. Here's a thought Shpek Ulrich's thought about this: “After 1990, Germany has stopped being the forefront of the West's defense, and has become a country, surrounded on all sides by friends. If Russia will try to change and return to the policy of imperialism, thus throwing a challenge to the current reached at the end of the Cold War status quo, the whole geopolitical configuration to the east of Germany will be risky”. Actually, everything just mentioned has occurred, as the RF's war against Ukraine is a part of the Kremlin's extended plan to undermine the entire Euro-Atlantic security architecture, formed after 1989-1991. Therefore, the official Berlin has moved from the reaction to stimuli of the international political environment to active forming this environment. Again, as in the case of Japan, the main reason for FRG's switching to active foreign policy was not the power of the United States, but the revanchist policy of the neighboring country. In this case — of the RF.

At this, it should be noted that Germany and Japan also have two other important common features. The first is that the development and maintenance of foreign policy is influenced by the general mood of the population. Residents of both, Germany and Japan, based on the opinion polls, often are against both, an active foreign policy, and that foreign policy, which is based on military might. Thus, according to the survey of Körber Foundation, published in May 2014, 60 % of Germans are against increasing of the activity of German policy in the world arena. At the same time, the studies carried out in February 2015 by Pew Research Center showed that 68 % of Japanese people do not want growing of the role of the military component in the foreign policy of their country, and only 23 % — are “for” it. In other words, to develop an appropriate foreign policy both, Berlin and Tokyo will need to take into account not only the influence of the international political environment which today requires a more active policy, but also the mood of the population. So, the neo-realists' position that the level of international relations is decisive in the development and implementation of foreign policy, does not find (at least where it comes to Germany and Japan) empirical confirmation. Moreover, the reluctance of the aforementioned countries to strengthen the military component in the implementation of foreign policy under the influence of domestic political discourse suggests that these countries cannot go to a fully autonomous from the USA foreign policy, as forecasted by Kenneth Waltz. On this basis, the union of Germany and the United States within the framework of NATO and the USA-Japan Agreement of 1960 will continue to play a fundamental role in guaranteeing the security of Germany and Japan, respectively.

William WohlforthSecondly, Germany and Japan's reactions to the international political environment have an important thing in common: to the active foreign policy, they have been pushed by the USA's reluctance to play the primary role in maintaining the status quo in the Euro-Atlantic region and East Asia, respectively. Indeed, the Obama administration implements the so-called strategy of “Leading from behind”, meaning that responsibility for security in the region is on leading regional states. That is, in this case we can say that more accurate in his forecasts was William Wohlforth who in the article “Stability of a Unipolar World” (International Security, Vol. 24, No.1, summer 1999, pp. 5-41) suggested that it was the official Washington's reluctance to play a leading role in maintaining the stability of the international system, will end in its crisis and transformation. Here's what he wrote about this: “The main criticism of the Pax Americana is not that Washington is leading a too interventionist policy. You cannot blame the government for responding to positive impulses of the system level of international relations. The problem is Washington's reluctance to bear all the financial and economic costs associated with active foreign policy”. So in this case we can say that neo-realists were wrong, arguing that the USA's active foreign policy would revive Germany and Japan's international political activity. The reality shows that in the case of American allies it is Washington's refusal to play the first violin in countering the aggressive policy is an incentive for a proactive foreign policy.



As you can see from the just said, the assumption of neo-realists, including Kenneth Waltz, about how the system of international relations will develop, has proved quite ambiguous because of the prism of events of the past 25 years.

  1. The period of unipolarity really provoked large states' counteracting. However, they were not so-called long-term alliances but alliances of convenience like that of France, Germany and the Russian Federation in 2003 that were engaged in soft balancing the USA's power. The liberal paradigm of interpretation of international relations also managed to offer its own consistent concept about the causes of the phenomenon of soft balancing.
  2. The level of the system of international relations significantly affects behavior of the leading states, but development of an appropriate foreign policy strategy is influenced by a range of factors, including domestic ones, such as the population's attitude.
  3. The change of the behavior of large states such as Japan and Germany is mainly caused, in most cases, not by the dynamics of the global balance of power, but by the dynamics of the regional balance of power.
  4. Japan and Germany's foreign policy activity has got activated due to the official Washington's inactive policy towards the desire of countries such as China and the Russian Federation to change the regional status quo.