Beyond Realism: Values, Interests, Levels, and Spheres in International Relations Theory
Introduction to IJWP, June 2014
From Kant’s influential Perpetual Peace to the social scientific studies of society in the twentieth century many writers argued that cultural values and economic interests needed to be satisfied to achieve a lasting peace. However, Hans Morgenthau, a highly influential professor of international politics disagreed. He wrote in 1948:
The main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power.1
This issue of IJWP challenges this political realism in several ways, arguing that it fails to hold state actors within the bounds of legitimate and moral use of power, that it fails to integrate economic and cultural “soft power” interests in its simplistic, black and white analyses, and that it fails to address levels of governance other than the state that are integrally tied to subsystems and international systems.
It is more important than ever to advance a more integral understanding of international relations that sees human society in terms of a set of interconnected social systems, beginning at the level of individuals, and moving through family systems and face-to-face community systems to state political economies, and finally to international organization.
There are three major spheres of influence, the political, economic, and cultural. Of these three, the political, which is the sphere of legal power and force, should be the servant of the economic and cultural spheres, rather than their master. But, power corrupts, and elites in any sphere whose powers are unchecked, will abuse that power and, like a cancer, feed off of those they are in a position to serve, creating unhappiness, inequality, and violence. This reversal of dominion is often cited as the difference between a “politician” and a “statesman.” It is what distinguishes a Nelson Mandela from the average power broker.
Our first article, by Terry Beitzel, is on legitimate governance, defined as the free assent of a people to their government. Legitimate governance is moral governance.
Beitzel addresses this topic through an analysis of Max Weber’s “ethics of responsibility.” Max Weber was a giant in the advance of social processes because he saw that, in order to understand the success of a modern state, one had to understand its component processes. He was the first social scientist to analyze the relationship between social values and economic prosperity. He attempted to describe why Protestant religious values contributed to entrepreneurship and the success of the capitalist economic system in the creation of wealth. Weber also was an analyst of bureaucracy, and understood that the naive faith in modern bureaucracy (a subsystem of state governance) was spawning uncontrollable state growth.
It would be wise for modern Western states to learn from Weber’s insights into economic development and sustainable governance. An “ethics of responsibility” coupled with an understanding of the “principle of subsidiarity”2 would enable the creation of legal and political systems that would promote non-violence, prosperity, and sustainability.
Beitzel ties an ethic of responsibility to the concept of “agency.” In 1937, social scientist Talcott Parsons published a major work titled The Structure of Social Action3 that rejected the dominant institutional view of economics as being guilty of what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead had called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” One could not simply improve economic welfare by restructuring society, but had to examine the nature and motives of the agents in a social system. Parsons, who linked successful agency to volunteerism, was also largely responsible for introducing Max Weber to an American audience.
As Beitzel describes, Weber readily dismissed realpolitik as being based on fear. He argued that an “ethics of responsibility is the only orientation that properly connects the continuum of motivations-means-ends in the service of legitimate and civil social action that promotes self-governance.” The proper role of any action is thus not only self-interest, but also interest in others. In the second part of his article, Beitzel connects this type of action to that of Gandhi and King, as opposed to that of the normal politician.
Our second article, by Leon Miller, looks at the specific case of the legitimacy of the European Union in his article “Why European Liberalism Continues to Falter.” His main thesis is that political realism in Europe has been displaced by economic realism, causing structural violence, even though outright physical violence has been reduced. He notes that individual states in Europe hesitate to sign on to the grand visions for a European Union because it continues to rely on an economic realism and does little to promote shared values and social justice. He argues that the “soft power” now promoted in the political sphere, needs its counterpart in the economic and cultural spheres before a genuine European Union can succeed.
This follows nicely from the first article, by Beitzel, because Miller discusses the evolution of peace research theory that favors soft power over traditional political realism. He argues for what Kenneth Boulding called more sophisticated cosmopolitan images in international relations theory.
This leads to our third article, by our senior editor Morton A. Kaplan, on “Values, National Interests, and Other Interests.” Building on systems theory and concepts of agency, Kaplan was a pioneer in distinguishing interests and values, and their relationship to a scientific and systematic study of international relations in System and Process in International Politics (1957).4
The title of Chapter 8 of System and Process, “The National Interest and Other Interests,” makes it clear that, contrary to Morgenthau’s position, Kaplan did not restrict the concept of interest to what is valuable to the nation. The dense content of the chapter takes into account how group and individual interests are among the values that national leaders need to consider when designing foreign policy. However, most readers of System and Process assigned to Kaplan the type of realism that Morgenthau advocated. They may never have got beyond the words “national interest” in the title and incorrectly assumed a conclusion that is not in the actual content of the chapter.
As a student of choice theory, Kaplan also knew that Stanley Hoffmann displayed his ignorance of bargaining theory when he argued that international politics was a zero-sum game. If that were the case no peace agreement could end a war and no oligopolists could engage in collusion. A note about zero-sum that Kaplan sent for clarification follows:
Because many writers, following Stanley Hoffmann, incorrectly believe international politics is zero sum, it may be useful to clarify what a zero sum case may be. Let me start with the concept of a bargain. If I purchase an object from someone, I prefer the object to the money I paid for it and the seller prefers the money to the object. Because we both gain from the transaction, it is a bargain. A bargain is an agreement the terms of which cannot be zero sum because both parties gain from an agreement that replaces an undesirable state of affairs with terms that improve both of the contending sides.
Consider the Russian seizure of Crimea. Russia gains the same geographic area that Ukraine lost. I suspect this is what Stanley Hoffmann means by zero sum, although he is not clear on the subject. This is not zero sum unless the value of what Ukraine lost is equal to the value of what Russia gained. However, there is no method for determining what an equal outcome is. The actors do not have common utility schedules.
On the other hand, if by zero sum one means only the absence of a bargain, this does not distinguish international relations from other areas of activity. Conflicts and bargains occur in all types of system.
All formations of coalitions and settlements of wars are bargains in which the actors jointly prefer this outcome to other possible outcomes. Cooperative games are games in which bargains are possible. These occur in both balance of power, as ordinarily considered, and bipolar systems. Hoffmann employed a term from bargaining theory without first learning what a bargain is.
I concluded that a republication of a portion of Part Three of System and Process would make a valuable contribution to the expansion of an international relations framework as called for in the first two articles. A systems approach to politics enables the international relations professional to transcend the problems often encountered by the subjective use of raw power for perceived national interests that fail to accurately anticipate very likely unintended consequences. Rather than accepting the value relativism behind much political rhetoric, interests of states, subsystems, and suprasystems can be scientifically understood by an analysis of their structure. In turn these can be related to the interests of other systems in the development of a better understanding of moral judgments in complex society.
We are grateful to the European Consortium for Political Research Press who reprinted System and Process in its Classics Series for allowing us to republish a section from this text and encourage those international relations students who have not read it to do so.
The application of systems theory to a real-world event can be seen in Morton Kaplan’s recent letter sent to me “Why Putin may have been More Right than Wrong on Crimea”:
In my theories, the essential rules are crucial to the equilibrium conditions of the system. Following them, if the initial conditions permit this, is relevant to maintaining the possibility of bargains. And these rules differ from type of system to type of system. That is why they are crucial to the formation of theories.5
When I wrote The Political Foundations of International Law with Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, subsequently Attorney General of the United States, I argued that international law was as much an area to which legal analysis applied as was municipal law. However, its content was closely related to norms that could be sustained within extant systems of international politics. Thus, whether norms or agreements among nations had continued effect depended on whether the conditions that supported them were still in effect.
I used my systems theory of international politics to show that the norms of international law differed with the characteristics of systems, for instance whether they were “balance of power” or bipolar, and depending on boundary conditions. Moreover, given the close relationship between capabilities and norms, agreements could be sustained only to the extent that the conditions that gave rise to them still had applicability. This condition is not unknown in municipal law but its impact is much greater in international law where the resort to force is often relevant to state security.
When Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine, Ukraine was an integral part of the Soviet Empire in which its armed forces could freely operate. And it was crucial to Russian security. When the empire collapsed this special relationship was recognized in the long-term lease of the Crimean naval base to Russia.
Bill Clinton has subsequently stated that the Russians had told him that incorporation of Ukraine into Europe would be unacceptable to Russia because it would be inconsistent with Russian security requirements. Putin tried an alternative economic relationship to Ukraine that was unacceptable to Ukraine. This produced a crisis and a Russian solution that led to Russian incorporation of Crimea.
Although I think Putin’s seizure of Crimea has unsettling consequences, I deplore the inability of the leaders of our world to understand the relationship of legal norms to the conditions of systems. This lack of understanding would be much reduced if Putin made it clear that Russia recognized the territorial integrity of Ukraine minus Crimea.
Putin’s claim that an agreement to hold an election in Ukraine was violated is invalid. This agreement was superseded by the loss of support of the former government. The former supporters of the previous president rescinded their support when it became clear they would have no electoral future unless they did so. Putin recognized this when he called them “crooks.”
Discussion of our fourth article, “Defensive Imperialism: The Evolution of Russia’s Regional Foreign Policy” by Matthew Luxmoore, follows nicely from Kaplan’s letter because it relates to an examination of Russia’s foreign policy, particularly with respect to the Ukraine. Luxmoore argues that Russian foreign policy, like Stanley Hoffman, incorrectly believed international politics to be a zero-sum game.
Further, Luxmoore argues that a genuine understanding of Russia’s foreign policy needs to consider the domestic security, economic, and cultural situations. Examining the impact of all three social spheres on foreign policy is a more complex model that understand many systemic forces are at work.
Putin took over a Russia that had become disillusioned with liberal democratic values as oligarchs controlled the government under Yeltsin. He also served a population that feared NATO as a threat to Russian security. While “soft power” has been Putin’s preferred form of influence in international relations, Russia will resort to “hard power” if necessary. Luxmoore notes that Russia abandoned the use of hard power military intervention in Georgia after it was clear that the country had precluded membership in NATO. Securing a free flow of energy in the former Soviet space has also been a priority for Russia. This means that Ukraine, which is essential for Russia’s delivery of energy to Europe, posed a threat to the perceived stability of Russia when it sought an alliance with NATO.
Luxmoore argues that Russia miscalculated how it was perceived in the Ukraine, and the West’s interest in the Ukraine. When the pro-Russian regime of Yushchenko collapsed, conditions were ripe for direct conflict. Russian leadership, to maintain stability at home, accused the West of aggression and conspiracy. Also, because Russia has failed to maintain the pace of living improvements the people demand, it has sought to garner ideological prestige as a great power with international events like the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
Perhaps the ongoing push by peace researchers for greater interdisciplinary studies, the greater adoption of systems analysis, and greater uses of the lessons of history can contribute to a better sense of our identity as both individuals and groups in complex societies and a complex world where issues are not black and white and international relations do not have zero-sum outcomes. The emergence of a postmodern or post-postmodern consciousness should acknowledge that viewing the world through the narrow lenses of the past needs to be transcended if we are to see a world of peace and prosperity.
Gordon L. Anderson
1. Han Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2006), p. 5.
2. Gordon L. Anderson, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Version 4.0 (St. Paul, Paragon House, 2009), Chapter 3.
3. Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1937). In 1998, the International Sociological Association listed this book the ninth most important sociological book of the twentieth century.
4. Morton A. Kaplan, System and Process in International Politics (U.K: ECPR Classics, 2008).
5. To understand how and why Kaplan’s systems theories differ from the type of general theory common in physics, see Morton A. Kaplan and Inanna Hamati-Ataya Transcending Postmodernism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, Chapters 6–8.
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