International anarchy and its implications

From the 1970s onwards, new thinking within the realist tradition started to emerge, which was critical of ‘early’ or ‘traditional’ realism. The key text in this process was Kenneth Waltz’s The Theory of International Politics (1979). For Waltz (see p. 60), theories about international politics could be developed on ‘three levels of analysis – the human individual, the state and the international system’. In this light, the defect of classical realism was that it could not explain behaviour at a level above the state, which is a limitation of any endogenous, or ‘inside-out’, theory (one which explains behaviour in terms of ‘the inside’, the intentions or inclinations of key actors) (see Structure or agency? p. 72). Using systems theory, neorealism, or, more specifically, ‘structural realism’ explains the behaviour of states in terms of the structure of the international system. As such, neorealism is an exogenous, or ‘outside-in’, theory (one in which the behaviour of actors is explained in terms of ‘the outside’, the context or structure in which they operate) of global politics. In shifting attention from the state to the international system, it places an emphasis on the implications of anarchy. The characteristics of international life stem from the fact that states (and other international actors) operate within a domain which has no formal central authority. But how does this shape behaviour? And why, according to neorealists, does international anarchy tend towards conflict rather than cooperation? Neorealists argue that international anarchy necessarily tends towards tension, conflict and the unavoidable possibility of war for three main reasons. In the first place, as states are separate, autonomous and formally equal political units, they must ultimately rely on their own resources to realise their interests. International anarchy therefore results in a system of ‘self-help’, because states cannot count on anyone else to ‘take care of them’. Second, relationships between and amongst states are always characterized by uncertainty and suspicion. This is best explained through the security dilemma (Booth and Wheeler 2008). Although self-help forces states to ensure security and survival by building up sufficient military capacity to deter other states from attacking them, such actions are always liable to be interpreted as hostile or aggressive. Uncertainty about motives therefore forces states to treat all other states as enemies, meaning that permanent insecurity is the inescapable consequence of living in conditions of anarchy. Third, conflict is also encouraged by the fact that states are primarily concerned about maintaining or improving their position relative to other states; that is, with making relative gains. Apart from anything else, this discourages cooperation and reduces the effectiveness of international organizations (see p. 433), because, although all states may benefit from a particular action or policy, each state is actually more worried about whether other states benefit more that it does. Although such neorealist thinking had a profound impact both within and beyond the realist tradition, since the 1990s realist theories have often attempted to fuse systems analysis with a unit-level approach, giving rise to what has been called ‘neoclassical realism’ or ‘post-neorealism’ (Wohlforth 1993; Zakaria 1998).