Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The International System: Realist or Liberal?

This is based on an assignment for my International Conflict class. The assignment was to choose from our selected articles on realism and liberalism, and decide which most accurately describes the international system, and which least accurately describes the international system. First and foremost, I find that realist nor liberals accurately describe the international system. My theoretical grounding is in constructivism. However, in comparing the two schools of theoretical thought, I will look at Thucydides, as the "father of realism," and compare his view of the international system to that of Doyle and other liberals.

In “The Peloponnesian War,” Thucydides discusses how Athens wants to take over the Melians, mainly to prove her power to her own people. Thucydides implies that those with power do not deserve power if they are unwilling to exercise it. The international system of today is one that is typically less likely to exercise its power. This is evident in most of Europe’s hesitance to use force to solve conflicts (i.e. Iraq).

Thucydides also expresses ideas of classic realism, when he shares the idea that all states, including weaker ones, have interest in using force to either sustain or obtain power. He shares the idea that submission equals despair, even for weaker states, because even weaker states have the chance of beating the strong. Not only this, but fighting also preserves the hope of winning. I may grant some leeway to Thucydides here, because even today, weaker states are not likely to submit to larger ones (i.e. Cuba, Iran, Iraq, or Venezuela to United State’s pressure). However, Thucydides goes on to state that the law of nature is to rule, and that neutral, yet independent people, are a danger to those in power—or at least a threat to the power structure. One reason for WWI and WWII, was to grant independence to states such as Poland and Serbia, partly to prevent the spread of empire. The international system has shifted to being more accepting of independent peoples. Even neutrality is more accepted by the system, with the tolerance of states such as Switzerland and Sweden, which were neutral during both of these and subsequent wars.

Doyle seems to come closest to accurately describing the international system with his theory on liberal internationalism. Doyle points out that while liberals have not avoided wars, there has been a “separate peace” among liberals. It is true that modern democracies have not gone to war with other democracies. Doyle proceeds to invoke Kant when he says that after one state adopts liberalism in the name of peace (as has already happened), gradually, an un-ending chain of alliances will form leading to perpetual peace. Doyle points out that backsliding and wars will happen, but over time this process will educate nations as to why peace is so important. This has come to fruition in various ways, via the proliferation of trade agreements and customs unions, including the prime example: the European Union. It is important to note Cobden’s suggestion of arbitration pacts, which have also become a reality under this “separate peace.”

Again, I must state that there are flaws in realist, and even liberal ideology, such as the devaluation or complete exclusion of non-state actors. Non-state actors are primary actors in the international system. It can be argued that not only are non-state actors prevalent now, but that they were also prevalent a century ago. Some call what happened in Sarajevo, in 1914, a terrorist act by a non-state actor. This exclusion, as well as the basic assumption that there is structured chaos and anarchy within the system (as opposed to Wendt: "Anarchy is what States Make of It"), are the main problems with realist thought. Liberals, on the other hand, fail to account for the negative consequences of assuming that what is good at the aggregate is also good at the unit level (i.e. the invisible hand benefits the system as a whole—when it has historically been shown to disproportionately benefit those already in power). To pick one of only these two theories (ignoring constructivism and other critical theories), I would have to narrow my choice to interventionist liberalism as the most accurate theory of the international system—one that accepts the notions of a "separate peace," but realizes and confronts the disproportionate and negative consequences of orthodox liberalism.

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