International Relations Theory: Changes In The Hierarchy Of International Politics

1786 words - 7 pages

"Should international relations theory be held accountable for explaining fundamental changes in the hierarchy of international politics and the emergence of new actors?" It seems absurd to answer that international relations theory should not be in the business of explaining fundamental changes in international politics. However, this response paper will argue on both edges of the question. First, it actually does make sense to attempt to hold as many things as possible constant, or as "givens" in attempting to craft explanations for events in international politics. Jumping to an explanation that involves a fundamental shift in the structure of the international system or nature of the actors, should be a last resort, rather than the first. This is a major component of Waltz's neorealism. On the other hand, this paper will demonstrate that although it is desirable to hold some variables constant in attempts to explain great variation with few premises, one must take a broad view (to either expand scope, or break the previous "givens," of neorealism) to create better explanations. Several alternative schools of thought are in fact pursuing this goal, to include rational choice, liberalism, and regime theory. These approaches attempt to craft explanations of change, while holding different elements constant. Finally, a brief word on constructivism must be considered.

Before answering this question further, we must first identify what is meant by "theories of international relations." We might initially remark that there is no unifying theory of international relations that everyone agrees upon, but instead several families / schools of thought, that may or may not form cogent explanations of observable phenomena. It is obvious from the question, however, that the one in contention is Waltz's neorealism. The notion of a "given" structure and hence consistent nature of actors can very much be linked to his thought. Ever since Waltz's book in 1979, almost all international relations literature has revolved around either confirming, adapting, or refuting his work.

Much of the motivation behind Waltz's neorealist thinking is his observation of recurring patterns in international politics. Despite what might be termed as "change," such as swings in the distribution of capabilities, as well as great power wars and their outcomes, his work emphasized the fact that these occurred in recurring and predictable patterns. His endeavor was to systematize the so-called balance of power. To his credit, his desire was to also systematize the study of international relations into a science, obtaining characteristics like what Stephen van Evera would call "parsimony." His core premise was that international politics could be explained by the structure of the system. The ordering principle of that structure was anarchy, which left states to act in a self-help manner. "They are unitary actors who... seek their own preservation and... drive for universal...

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