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ESSAY / Roberto Ramírez and Albert Vidal
During the Cold War, Offensive Realism, a theory elaborated by John Mearsheimer, appeared to fit perfectly the international system (Pashakhanlou, 2018). Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, this does not seem to be the case anymore. From the constructivist point of view, Offensive Realism makes certain assumptions about the international system which deserve to be questioned (Wendt, 2008).The purpose of this paper is thus to make a critique of Mearsheimer’s concept of anarchy in the international system. The development of this idea by Mearsheimer can be found in the second chapter of his book ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics’.
The essay will begin with a brief summary of the core tenets of the said chapter and how they relate to Offensive Realism more generally. Afterwards, the constructivist theory proposed by Alexander Wendt will be presented. Then, it will be argued from a constructivist approach that the international sphere is the result of a construction and it does not necessarily lead to war. Next, the different types of anarchies that Wendt presents will be described, as an argument against the single and uniform international system that is presented by Neorealists. Lastly, the essay will make a case for the importance of shared values and ideologies, and how this is oftentimes underestimated by offensive realists.
Mearsheimer’s work and Offensive Realism
‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics’ has become one of the most decisive books in the field of International Relations after the Cold War and has developed the theory of offensive realism to an unprecedented extent. In this work, Mearsheimer enumerates the five assumptions on which offensive realism rests (Mearsheimer, 2014):
1. The international system is anarchic. Mearsheimer understand anarchy as an ordering principle that comprises independent states which have no central authority above them. There is no “government over governments”.
2. Great powers inherently possess offensive military capabilities; which means that there will always be a possibility of mutual destruction. Thus, every state could be a potential enemy.
3. States are never certain of other states’ intentions. All states may be benign, but states could never be sure about that, since their intention could change all of a sudden.
4. Survival is the primary goal of great powers and it dominates other motives. Once a state is conquered, any chances to achieve other goals disappear.
5. Great powers are rational actors, because when it comes to international policies, they consider how their behavior could affect other’s behavior and vice versa.
The problem is, according to Mearsheimer, that when those five assumptions come together, they create strong motivations for great powers to behave offensively, and three patterns of behavior originate (Mearsheimer, 2007).
First, great powers fear each other, which is a motivating force in world politics. States look with suspicion to each other in a system with little room for trust. Second, states aim to self-help actions, as they tend to see themselves as vulnerable and lonely. Thus, the best way to survive in this self-help world is to be selfish. Alliances are only temporary marriages of convenience because states are not willing to subordinate their interest to international community. Lastly, power maximization is the best way to ensure survival. The stronger a state is compared to their enemies, the less likely it is to be attacked by them. But, how much power is it necessary to amass, so that a state will not be attacked by others? As that is something very difficult to know, the only goal can be to achieve hegemony.
A Glimpse of Constructivism, by Alexander Wendt
According to Alexander Wendt, one of the main constructivist authors, there are two main tenets that will help understand this approach:
The first one goes as follows: “The identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature” (Wendt, 2014). Constructivism has two main referent objects: the individual and the state. This theory looks into the identity of the individuals of a nation to understand the interests of a state. That is why there is a need to understand what identity and interests are, according to constructivism, and what are they used for.
i. Identity is understood by constructivism as the social interactions that people of a nation have with each other, which shape their ideas. Constructivism tries to understand the identity of a group or a nation through its historical record, cultural things and sociology. (McDonald, 2012).
ii. A state’s interest is a cultural construction and it has to do with the cultural identity of its citizens. For example, when we see that a state is attacking our state’s liberal values, we consider it a major threat; however, when it comes to buglers or thieves, we don’t get alarmed that much because they are part of our culture. Therefore, when it comes to international security, what may seem as a threat for a state may not be considered such for another (McDonald, 2012).
The second tenet says that “the structures of human association are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than material forces”. Once that constructivism has analyzed the individuals of a nation and knows the interest of the state, it is able to examine how interests can reshape the international system (Wendt, 2014). But, is the international system dynamic? This may be answered by dividing the international system in three elements:
a) States, according to constructivism, are composed by a material structure and an idealist structure. Any modification in the material structure changes the ideal one, and vice versa. Thus, the interest of a state will differ from those of other states, according to their identity (Theys, 2018).
b) Power, understood as military capabilities, is totally variable. Such variation may occur in quantitative terms or in the meaning given to such military capabilities by the idealist structure (Finnemore, 2017). For instance, the friendly relationship between the United States (US) and the United Kingdom is different from the one between the US and North Korea, because there is an intersubjectivity factor to be considered (Theys, 2018).
c) International anarchy, according to Wendt, does not exist as an “ordering principle” but it is “what states make of it” (Wendt, 1995). Therefore, the anarchical system is mutable.
The international system and power competition: a wrong assumption?
The first argument will revolve around the following neorealist assumption: the international system is anarchic by nature and leads to power competition, and this cannot be changed. To this we add the fact that states are understood as units without content, being qualitatively equal.
What would constructivists answer to those statements? Let’s begin with an example that illustrates the weakness of the neorealist argument: to think of states as blank units is problematic. North Korea spends around $10 billion in its military (Craw, 2019), and a similar amount is spent by Taiwan. But the former is perceived as a dangerous threat while the latter isn’t. According to Mearsheimer, we should consider both countries equally powerful and thus equally dangerous, and we should assume that both will do whatever necessary to increase their power. But in reality, we do not think as such: there is a strong consensus on the threat that North Korea represents, while Taiwan isn’t considered a serious threat to anyone (it might have tense relations with China, but that is another issue).
The key to this puzzle is identity. And constructivism looks on culture, traditions and identity to better understand what goes on. The history of North Korea, the wars it has suffered, the Japanese attitude during the Second World War, the Juche ideology, and the way they have been educated enlightens us, and helps us grasp why North Korea’s attitude in the international arena is aggressive according to our standards. One could scrutinize Taiwan’s past in the same manner, to see why has it evolved in such way and is now a flourishing and open society; a world leader in technology and good governance. Nobody would see Taiwan as a serious threat to its national security (with the exception of China, but that is different).
This example could be brought to a bigger scale and it could be said that International Relations are historically and socially constructed, instead of being the inevitable consequence of human nature. It is the states the ones that decide how to behave, and whether to be a good ally or a traitor. And thus the maxim ‘anarchy is what states make of it’, which is better understood in the following fragment (Copeland, 2000; p.188):
‘Anarchy has no determinant "logic," only different cultural instantiations. Because each actor's conception of self (its interests and identity) is a product of the others' diplomatic gestures, states can reshape structure by process; through new gestures, they can reconstitute interests and identities toward more other-regarding and peaceful means and ends.’
We have seen Europe succumb under bloody wars for centuries, but we have also witnessed more than 70 years of peace in that same region, after a serious commitment of certain states to pursue a different goal. Europe has decided to do something else with the anarchy that it was given: it has constructed a completely different ecosystem, which could potentially expand to the rest of the international system and change the way we understand international relations. This could obviously change for the better or for the worse, but what matters is that it has been proven how the cycle of inter-state conflict and mutual distrust is not inevitable. States can decide to behave otherwise and trust in their neighbors; by altering the culture that constitutes the system, they can set the foundations for non-egoistic mind-sets that will bring peace (Copeland, 2000). It will certainly not be easy to change, but it is perfectly possible.
As it was said before, constructivism does not deny an initial state of anarchy in the international system; it simply affirms that it is an empty vessel which does not inevitably lead to power competition. Wendt affirms that whether a system is conflictive or peaceful is not decided by anarchy and power, but by the shared culture that is created through interaction (Copeland, 2000).
Three different ‘anarchies’
Alexander Wendt describes in his book ‘Social Theory of International Politics’ the three cultures of anarchy that have embedded the international system for the past centuries (Wendt, 1999). Each of these cultures has been constructed by the states, thanks to their interaction and acceptance of behavioral norms. Such norms continuously shape states’ interests and identities.
Firstly, the Hobbesian culture dominated the international system until the 17th century; where the states saw each other as dangerous enemies that competed for the acquisition of power. Violence was used as a common tool to resolve disputes. Then, the Lockean culture emerged with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648): here states became rivals, and violence was still used, but with certain restrains. Lastly, the Kantian culture has appeared with the spread of democracies. In this culture of anarchy, states cooperate and avoid using force to solve disputes (Copeland, 2000). The three examples that have been presented show how the Neorealist assumption that anarchy is of one sort, and that it drives toward power competition cannot be sustained. According to Copeland (2000; p.198-199), ‘[…] if states fall into such conflicts, it is a result of their own social practices, which reproduce egoistic and military mind-sets. If states can transcend their past realpolitik mindset, hope for the future can be restored.’
Ideal structures are more relevant than what you think
One of the common assertions of Offensive Realism is that “[…] the desire for security and fear of betrayal will always override shared values and ideologies” (Seitz, 2016). Constructivism opposes such assertion, and brands it as too simplistic. In reality, it has been repeatedly proven wrong. A common history, shared values, and even friendship among states are some things that Offensive Realism purposefully ignores and does not contemplate.
Let’s illustrate it with an example. Country A has presumed power strength of 7. Country B has a power strength of 15. Offensive Realism would say that country A is under the threat of an attack by country B, which is much more powerful and if it has the chance, it will conquer country A. No other variables or structures are taken into account, and that will happen inexorably. Such assertion, under today’s dynamics is considered quite absurd. Let’s put a counter-example: who in earth thinks that the US is dying to conquer Canada and will do so when the first opportunity comes up? Why doesn’t France invade Luxembourg, if one take into account how easy and lucrative this enterprise might be? Certainly, there are other aspects such as identities and interests that offensive realism has ignored, but are key in shaping states’ behavior in the international system.
That is how shared values (an ideal structure) oftentimes overrides power concerns (a material structure) when two countries that are asymmetrically powerful become allies and decide to cooperate.
After deepening into the understanding that offensive realists have of anarchy in the international system, this essay has covered the different arguments that constructivists employ to face such conception. To put it briefly, it has been argued that the international system is the result of a construction, and it is shared culture that decides whether anarchy will lead to conflict or peace. To prove such argument, the three different types of anarchies that have existed in the relatively recent times have been described. Finally, a case has been made for the importance of shared values and ideologies over material structures, which is generally dismissed by offensive realists.
Although this has not been an exhaustive critique of Offensive Realism, the previous insights may have provided certain key ideas that will contribute to the conversation. Our understanding of the theory of constructivism will certainly shape the way we tackle crisis and the way we conceive international relations. It is then tremendously important that one knows in which cases it ought to be applied, so that we do not rely completely on a particular theory which becomes our new object of veneration; since this may have dreadful consequences.
Copeland, D. C. (2000). The Constructivist Challenge to Structural Realism: A Review Essay. The MIT Press, 25, 287–212. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2626757
Craw, V. (2019). North Korea military spending: Country spends 22 per cent of GDP. Retrieved from https://www.news.com.au/world/asia/north-korea-spends-whopping-22-per-cent-of-gdp-on-military-despite-blackouts-and-starving-population/news-story/c09c12d43700f28d389997ee733286d2
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