Realism and the Balancing of Power: A New Debate

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9780130908667: Realism and the Balancing of Power: A New Debate

This book explores all aspects of an important scholarly debate that has widespread implications for the political world, including the making of foreign policy--i.e., a debate over whether the contemporary theory of the balance of power as presented by Kenneth Waltz is a scientifically acceptable theory. It allows readers to examine and analyze the different views (in their original form) by all those in the debate and to come to their own conclusions. An Introduction gives an overview of the debate, defines and clarifies in simple language some of the major concepts used in philosophy of science, sets the historical context of the debate, and explains why it is important for both international relations theory and foreign policy making. An editorial commentary for each article highlights areas of agreement and disagreement with the other authors. First presents the original articles in the initial debate with responses from several of the leading international relations theorists in the field--Kenneth Waltz, Thomas Christensen, Jack Snyder, Colin Elman, Miriam Fendius Elman, Randall Schweller, and Stephen Walt. Then features response from scholars who take differing methodological approaches and who have disparate views on realism and balancing of power (e.g., Jack S. Levy, Paul W. Schroeder, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Zeev Maoz, Richard Rosecrance, Charles L. Glaser, William C. Wohlforth, Michael Barnett). For anyone interested in the philosophical underpinnings of international relations.

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About the Author:

JOHN A. VASQUEZ is professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He has published eleven books, including The Power of Power Politics: From Classical Realism to Neotraditionalism; The War Puzzle; and, most recently, What Do We Know about War? (editor). His scholarly articles have appeared in International Studies Quarterly, World Politics, Security Studies, American Political Science Review, Journal of Peace Research, IO, Journal of Politics, International Political Science Review, Millennium, and British Journal of Political Science, among others. He has been president of the Peace Science Society (International) and the International Studies Association.

COLIN ELMAN is assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. His work has appeared in American Political Science Review, International Security, Security Studies, International History Review, and International Studies Quarterly, and he is the co-editor (with Miriam Fendius Elman) of Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists, and the Study of International Relations (2001) and Progress in International Relations Theory: An Appraisal of the Field (forthcoming). Elman is currently executive director of the Consortium for Qualitative Research Methods.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Realism and the Balance of Power: A New Debate presents a conversation about the merits of the most recent phase of realist research on international relations. For at least sixty years, realists and nonrealists alike have been occupied with defining, defending, and defeating different versions of realist theory. On the one hand, successive groups of realist scholars have presented their own preferred interpretation, always on the bones of preceding accounts. Classical realists, for example, were critiqued by structural realists, who were in turn opposed by neotraditionalists. On the other hand, while nonrealist scholars offered radically different views of how the international system works and of what drives state behavior, they, too, juxtaposed their accounts with the then prevailing version of the realist canon. In short, although differing on what they wanted to replace it with, both realist's and their critics have largely taken realist theory as their target of choice. The bull's-eye in that mark has often been the subset of realist theory that might loosely be described as "balance of power theory"-the various arguments that realists have offered about why and how great powers respond to their threatening external environment, especially the accumulation of a threatening concentration of power by another state—and associated observations about the implications of those responses for the international system.

The editors position themselves on different sides of this conversation. John Vasquez is a longstanding and trenchant critic of realism. Colin Elman, by contrast, has been characterized as a "defender of the faith." While acknowledging these differences, however, the editors concur on the importance of IR theorists engaging in a sustained dialogue on the different standards by which research, including realism, can be judged. Scholars need to explicate what frameworks they will use to evaluate and appraise a theory. In philosophy of science such frameworks are referred to as metatheories (i.e., theories about the nature of theory). Thus, scholars should add a prefix to their appraisals of realism: "According to metatheory x, how well is realism doing?

IR scholars describe and judge their theories in terms of the larger theoretical groupings with which they identify or disagree. Members of the subfield often categorize groups of scholars with loyalties to particular theoretical aggregates and seek to make judgments about the trajectory of those aggregates. They rarely make explicit statements of the metatheory on which they are relying, or the grounds on which they calculate the comparative merits of competing theories.

This book is structured around the argument that scholarly judgments about theories should be based on consciously chosen metrics, and that those selections should be made with due consideration of the different standards' strengths and limitations. The book takes as its starting point an essay by John Vasquez (1997) contending that, when judged using a particular metatheory's criteria, recent realist research is problematic. Vasquez applies Imre Lakatos's Methodology of Scientific Research Programs (MSRP) to a succession of recent variants of realist theory and finds them wanting. In a series of articles responding to that claim, seven realists questioned Vasquez's choice and use of MSRP, as well as his conclusions. Several additional essays (commissioned for this book) follow, further expanding the discussion. Thus, the book is intended to be read and used in at least four different ways:

  • First, the book is the most recent iteration in the long running dialogue between realists and their critics. While pursuing a usefully different approach from previous accounts, the book builds upon this distinguished academic tradition.
  • Second, while taking realism as their substantive focus, more generally the essays investigate how political scientists decide that they know what they think they know. The essays provide a series of different perspectives on how the field should be described and on how theories should be appraised. In particular, several essays discuss the use of Lakatos's MSRP for conducting theory appraisal in international relations. In laying out their disagreements about Lakatos's metatheory, the contributing authors provide an in-depth analysis by political scientists of the possibility for rational and objective choices among different theories. Although framed here in terms of realism and balance of power theory, the conversation on how scholars should group and appraise theories can be applied to any research in political science.
  • Third, while each of the essays addresses a series of common questions, they can also be read as stand-alone pieces. In particular, the contributions in Part II of the book represent the latest word on their subject from leading scholars in the field.
  • Fourth, by presenting an important debate in its entirety, the book provides an unparalleled pedagogical device. Much of the introduction and the "Editors' Commentary" following each succeeding chapter are written to help students learn how to read scholarly articles. In an age in which undergraduate education has become increasingly pablumized, we believe that it is important that majors leave a course being able to digest material that they may not have been able to read before they took the course. Learning how to read and evaluate scholarly debates is not always easy, but to leave college without gaining those skills is to miss the core of the discipline in which one is majoring.

PLAN OF THE BOOK

Part I of the book reprints John Vasquez's (1997) essay from the American Political Science Review, and the subsequent multiauthor forum. In Chapter 2, Vasquez suggests that successive versions of realist theory have demonstrated serious problems. Vasquez argues that contemporary research on balancing of power constitutes a degenerative realist research program. Utilizing Imre Lakatos's criterion that research programs should be progressive rather than degenerating in the way they reformulate theories, Vasquez maintains that neotraditional research investigating Kenneth Waltz's proposition on balancing of power fails to satisfy this criterion. He suggests that the research program can be seen as degenerating because of (1) the protean character of its theoretical development, (2) an unwillingness to specify what constitutes the true theory, which if falsified would lead to a rejection of realism, (3) a continual adoption of auxiliary propositions to explain away flaws, and (4) a general dearth of strong research findings.

Vasquez's article provoked vigorous responses, reprinted as Chapters 3 through 7. These responses, published with Vasquez's article as an APSR Forum, engaged the larger philosophical and theoretical issues raised by Vasquez's critique and took issue with his substantive findings. In his essay "Evaluating Theories," Kenneth Waltz suggests that Vasquez's argument is flawed by both epistemological and substantive errors. Waltz charges that Vasquez misunderstands the nature of theories (which Waltz defines as pictures, mentally formed, of bounded realms or domains of activity) and how they should be tested. While Vasquez cites MSRP, Waltz claims that he actually distorts Lakatos's criteria by trying to falsify neorealism. Noting that facts and theory are interdependent, Waltz suggests that a theory can be validated only by working back and forth between its implications and an uncertain state of affairs that observers take to be the reality against which theory is tested. Because of that uncertainty, the results of such tests are always problematic. Waltz also suggests that Vasquez (in part because of epistemological errors) mistakenly conflates different theories, in particular by placing structural and classical realists within the same paradigm.

In Chapter 4, arguing for "The Progressive Power of Realism," Stephen Walt contends that Vasquezs assessment of realism is flawed by its reliance on MSRP, its underestimation of realist research, and its limited sampling of relevant literature. Walt suggests that Vasquez's reliance on Imre Lakatos's (1970) model of scientific progress is problematic because the Lakatosian model has been largely rejected by contemporary historians and philosophers of science. Second, Vasquez understates the range and diversity of the realist research program and mistakenly sees disagreements among realists as evidence of theoretical degeneration. Finally, Walt argues that Vasquez overlooks the progressive character of contemporary realist theory, largely because he does not consider all the relevant literature. Disagreements within and across competing research programs are essential to progress and should be welcomed, but criticism will be most helpful when it seeks to do more than merely delegitimate a particular research tradition, which seems to be Vasquez's intent.

Chapter 5 presents Thomas Christensen and Jack Snyder's "Progressive Research on Degenerate Alliances." Christensen and Snyder grant that Vasquez was right to use Lakatosian criteria to judge realist research. They disagree, however, with the conclusions Vasquez reaches. Christensen and Snyder acknowledge that their 1990 article on alliance dynamics in multipolarity differs from some neorealist approaches by incorporating variables from the theory of the security dilemma, including perceptual factors. But they insist that their argument meets Imre Lakatos's criteria for a progressive problemshift insofar as it explains more than the original theory, does so parsimoniously, has been successfully applied to new domains, and does not introduce new assumptions that contradict the core of the original theory.

In Chapter 6, Randall Schweller's "New Realist Research on Alliances: Refining, Not Refuting, Waltz's Balancing Proposition" suggests that realism is both a scientific research program and, more traditionally, a political philosophy. Schweller argues that all realists share a pessimistic world view that posits perpetual struggle among groups for security, prestige, and power, and that denies the capacity of human reason to create a world of peace and harmony. Schweller disputes Vasquez's conclusion that recent realist research disconfirms Waltz's balancing proposition. Instead, these works have tended to add unit-level variables in order to transform Waltz's theory of international politics into one of foreign policy. Schweller argues that history clearly shows that states both balance and bandwagon, and that realism's task is to determine under what conditions states choose one strategy or the other.

In Chapter 7, Colin Elman and Miriam Fendius Elman's "Lakatos and Neorealism" takes issue with Vasquez's characterization of their response to an article by Paul Schroeder in International Security. Elman and Elman (1995) argued that Schroeder's reading of European history was not necessarily inconsistent with realism. Schroeder may be right that balancing is not ubiquitous in the historical record of European international relations, but contrary to Schroeder and Vasquez's assertions, neorealist theories do not invariably predict that states will balance, that they will always balance effectively (they are less likely to under multipolarity when structural pathologies are present), or that balances will always form. Vasquez's conclusion is based on a mistaken conflation of the neorealist research program with the proposition that balancing is a common foreign policy. In addition, while welcoming Vasquez's use of MSRP, Elman and Elman suggest that he misstates Lakatos's criteria.

Part I closes with Chapter 8, which presents a new essay by Vasquez. In "The New Debate on Balancing Power," Vasquez responds to the criticisms made in Chapters 3 through 7. While Vasquez addresses each of his critics, indicating where he agrees and disagrees, he focuses on three areas. First, he finds it remarkable that many of his critics do not focus on the question of whether neotraditional reformulations of Waltz are degenerating, but rather seek, in various ways, to deny that there is much wrong with Waltz's balancing proposition in the first place. He therefore specifies a set of tests—historical and quantitative—that would resolve this prior question of whether the proposition is empirically accurate. Second, he points out that the debate illustrates the need to develop more precise rules for distinguishing degenerative from progressive research programs with an emphasis on how to handle discrepant evidence, how to tell when specifying the domain of a proposition is potentially degenerative (and when it is not), and how to determine what are "novel facts." Third, the debate raises the question of what are legitimate criteria for appraising theory. He defends the utility of using Lakatos against Walt's criticisms, and he addresses the points raised by Elman and Elman that his use of Lakatos has been incomplete, indicating where he agrees and disagrees.

In Chapter 9, Paul Schroeder leads off Part II of the book by picking up Vasquez's challenge to see if Waltz's claim—that the major hegemonic threats posed by Charles I of Spain (Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor), Louis XIV, Napoleon Bonaparte, Wilhelm II, and Adolph Hitler were met by a balancing of power—actually conforms to the historical record. He maintains that a close examination of historical research raises serious questions about this claim. With the possible exception of Louis XIV, Schroeder does not see balancing as a response to hegemonic threats. More often than not, states are willing to make a deal, and in the end go to war primarily because they are attacked.

In Chapter 10, Jack Levy addresses the same question as Schroeder: Do great powers balance against hegemonic threats? Levy, however, takes a different approach. Rather than attempting to provide an empirical answer in light of the historical record, Levy delineates some of the terminological and conceptual ambiguities that must be resolved before such a question can be answered. He provides some valuable insights about how we can determine when balancing and nonbalancing occur, a key question that must be answered if the theory is to be tested. After pointing out that there are a variety of balance of power theories, he identifies two key propositions that most of them share and that can provide a test of this family of theories—states will balance in the face of serious hegemonic threats and (because of this) hegemonies will rarely if ever occur. He proposes that the debate can move forward by investigating whether these propositions hold for the European continental system. If the theory does not hold there then it probably will not hold anywhere and it will be seriously damaged.

Richard Rosecrance examines, in Chapter 11, some of the analytical problems associated with defining the balance of power and therefore identifying its presence in history. In particular, he points out that there is a danger of making the concept so broad that it could include a variety of actions, thus ensuring that one could always find some sort of balance of power. As a result, the analytical rigor and theoretical insights that attract us to the concept in the first place would be lost. Given some reasonable definitions, Rosecrance questions the frequency with which balancing can be found. This does not mean that hegemonies are common, however. He points out that there are other mechanisms that prevent hegemonies from forming.

In Chapter 12, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita moves aw...

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