Before demonstrating why accounts of war and peace within the international system must take a neorealist analysis, one has to acknowledge the key fundamentals of the theory itself. Neorealism evolved from classical realism, yet the two are undoubtedly different. Both theories understand that the international system is characterized by anarchy which is defined as “a condition in which there exists no centralised authority above nation-states that enforces the rule of law” (Steans, et. al, 2010: 18). Neorealist rationale dictates that the absence of guaranteed peace, or more accurately nation-state survival, forces nation-states to increase their power. This is in contrast to classical realism, which illustrates that the quest for power is rooted within human nature. The systemic pressure of anarchy, according to Neorealism, forces nation-states to embark upon the attainment of power within the international arena.
Throughout this essay, I shall demonstrate that neorealist rationale shows that this effect of anarchy is rigid within the international system. However, Neorealism demonstrates that nation-states are not fixed within their maneuverability to anarchy, and I label this realisation as the “Fluid Response Mechanism”. Moments of war and peace within the international system are products of the structuring of the international system, yet nation-states can overcome this rigidity through the flexibility that nation-states have in-response to this very condition. The realization of such realities makes a neorealist analysis of war and peace, within the international system, unavoidable.
Nature of Anarchy
Firstly, constructivism challenges neorealist rationale that anarchy has a fixed determination that forces nation-states into security competitions with one another. According to constructivists, the effects of anarchy upon the international system is generated by the definition that nation-states themselves place upon it. This indicates that anarchy is fluid in nature and its effects are prone to change.
Indeed, this has led to claim that “Anarchy is what states make of it” (Wendt, 1992: 391). According to Wendt, the definition that we prescribe to anarchy is what generates anarchy’s effect upon the international system as “people act towards objects, including other actors, on the basis of meanings objects have for them” (Wendt: 1992: 396). This fluidity within anarchy can be used to account for moments of peace within the international system. As identity and interests evolve over time, traditional foes can become close allies. For example, Germany has been viewed as an enemy within the past but now Germany is a key ally within the European Union. Germany is now labeled as “the good European par excellence” (Hellmann, 2006:98). The identity of Germany is reconstructed through their membership within the EU moving them away from being viewed as an aggressive Nation-State to becoming a “friendly” nation-state. This example demonstrates the understanding that anarchy has no fixed determination but is fluid in its definition, and this fluidity occurs due to the intersubjective nature of the condition.
However, it is my argument that the fluidity that Constructivists attribute to anarchy is misplaced. The fluidity does not reside within anarchy but within the manner in which nation-states can respond to the condition. The systemic pressure of anarchy, and the threat to a nation-states survival, is always a constant within the international system, but nation-states are fluid within their response to it. I label this as the “Fluid Response Mechanism.” This realization demonstrates how only a neorealist account for war and peace within the international system is suitable.
For example, with the fall of the Soviet Union the newly formed Russian Federation had reconstructed its identity away from the traditional adversary it once was to the West. As a result, one should have seen NATO, the security alliance generated in-response to the potential of Soviet threats, rendered obsolete. Yet “NATO intends to continue as the military alliance against an eventual re-emergence of threat emanating from Russia.” (Baranovsky, 2000: 446). This continuation of NATO is due to there being no guarantee for peace within the International System. Evidently, regardless of the construction of identities, the overbearing effects of anarchy plague the minds of nation-state. Neorealist rationale allows for fluidity in-response to anarchy whilst also realising that the effects of anarchy is a constant. Throughout this essay my “Fluid Response Mechanism” becomes clear, ultimately demonstrating that neorealist rationale is the most suitable to account for moments of war and peace within the International System.
Offensive and Defensive Realism
Indeed, the “Fluid Response Mechanism” becomes apparent when exploring offensive and defensive realism. These two modes of action further illustrate how moments of war and peace are products of the international system. Nation-states merely manoeuvre themselves to negate the effects of anarchy, meaning that a neorealist account is unavoidable when explaining war and peace within the international arena.
Offensive Realism dictates that the effects of anarchy can be alleviated through policies where “states attempt to maximize relative power” (Rudloff, 2013: 51). Essentially, as nation-states are rational actors, the most appropriate way of securing their own survival within an anarchic system is through increasing their power relative to other nation-states.
Indeed, “Offensive realists argue that states should always be looking for opportunities to gain more power and should do so whenever it seems feasible” (Mearsheimer, 2006: 75). Power maximization can occur through a variety of means ranging from increasing the size of the nation-state’s military to obtaining weapons with greater lethality. The implementation of offensive realism can account for periods of peace within the International System. As nation-states are rational actors they are less likely to attack nation-states which are more powerful than themselves as this would undermine their own chances of survival. This understanding has been labeled as the “best guarantee of both national security and world peace” (Miller, 2010: 145). This understanding is what caused to the bipolar distribution of power during the Cold War era. The nuclear capabilities of the ideological blocs, and the promise of mutual response that were secured through NATO and the Warsaw Pact, meant that the demise of each side would be confirmed ultimately ensuring peace. Nation-states are rational actors so embarking upon paths that would cause their own destruction would not be initiated.
However, neorealist understanding of power maximization can also be used to account for war within the international system. If nation-states embark upon power maximisation then this can lead to multipolar systems. It has been noted that multipolar systems are extremely unstable. Indeed, “multipolar systems composed of states with nearly equal powers are unstable in that they tend to be most prone to violence.” (Gilpin, 1983: 91) This instability is due to the effects of anarchy, and the lack of guaranteed security for nation-states, coupled with a new existence of a plurality of potential adversaries within the international arena. This plurality of adversaries can cause grave miscalculations by nation-states thus causing conflicts to occur. For example, one only has to view that the two world conflicts that occurred within the early 20th century were products of a multipolar system.
Furthermore, power maximization can lead the international system to descend into conflict due to the “security dilemma” (Booth and Wheeler, 2007). This condition occurs when “the buildup of military capacity for defensive reasons by one state is always liable to be interpreted as aggressive by another state” (Heywood, 2014: 63). These buildups of forces plague the minds of nation-states as it causes them to worry for their own survival. This is due to the reduction of their own power in relation to the nation-state that has increased its power. This dilemma is a product of anarchy. “Understood correctly, security dilemma theory and the broader spiral model constitute a powerful theory of war and peace via interaction” (Tang, 2009: 588), and the anarchic nature of the international system forces nation-states to respond to the security dilemma to ensure their own survival.
There are a variety of examples that demonstrates this to be true ranging from the First World War to the Crimean Crisis of 2014. Focusing upon the Crimean crisis, the potential admittance of Ukraine into NATO plagued Russian security concerns and it has been noted that “preventing Ukraine’s membership of NATO remains a key foreign policy goal” (Özgöker and Yilmaz, 2016: 652) for Russia. NATO, an institution with military capabilities whose inception was anti-Soviet in nature, would border Russia. The absence of guaranteed survival that anarchy entails forced Russia to annex the Crimean peninsula to secure their own security. This is not an isolated event within the international system as the security dilemma has propelled Russia into conflict, (the 2008 Georgian War demonstrates this), numerous times. Clearly, what it is evident from neorealist accounts for war, and peace, is that they are products of an international system that is characterised by anarchy.
Also, it is clear that nation-states are fluid within their response to anarchy further justifying my “Fluid response Mechanism”. This ability to adapt to anarchy whilst also understanding that the systemic pressure of anarchy forces nation-states to continually focus upon their survival means that when accounting for moments of peace, and war, then a neorealist account is unavoidable.
Compounding upon this, defensive realism also demonstrates the fluidity that nation-states have in-response to anarchy. Defensive Realism acknowledges the need for nation-states to secure their own security, due to anarchy, whilst also acknowledging the potential detrimental effects that excessive power maximization can have upon their own survival. Disrupting the balance of power within the international arena can undermine a nation-state’s prospects for survival as hegemonic powers, and insecure nation-states, could potentially act negatively to such policies of power maxismization. This is because the absence of guaranteed peace within the international system continually plagues nation-state’s mindsets. This understanding informs defensive realist rationale as it dictates that nations will then seek to increase their relative power to a palatable level that will not be deemed as “offensive” by other nation-states. Such actions can include a variety of policy pathways such as alliance building.
Indeed, the bipolar distribution of power during the Cold War perfectly demonstrates this. The systemic pressure of anarchy forced weaker nation-states to align with the two superpowers of the time through either the Warsaw Pact or NATO. This means that this defensive realist approach had the effect of maintaining a “balance of power between at least two great powers...so that the attention and energy of these powers will be absorbed in defending against each other” (Synder, 2001: 152). This further illustrates my “Fluid Response Mechanism” in action as nation-states can either embark upon offensive or defensive means to secure their security. The two aforementioned security alliances enabled nation-states to alleviate their security concerns that is caused by anarchy. The clause of mutual response laid the foundations for the bipolar system. This means that moments of peace can clearly be visible through a defensive realist lens.
Interestingly, “the bipolar world is stable and therefore preferable to a multipolar world” (Kegley and Raymond, 1992: 575) as there is a reduction in the likelihood of conflict within a bipolar system. This reduction in the likelihood of conflict is due to the clear visibility of adversaries within the international system. “Miscalculation by some or all of the great powers is a source of danger in a multipolar world” (Waltz, 1998: 623), and due to the reduction in the number of potential adversaries the likelihood of miscalculation, thus engaging within acts that can cause the system to descend into conflict, is greatly reduced. Due to the ease of adversary identification, “who is a danger to whom is never in doubt” (Waltz, 1998: 662). This means that the stability of bipolar systems is increased. The bipolar system of the Cold War and the peace that it entailed is easily explained through a defensive realist lens. The alliances formed, and the power of mutual response to threats, cemented the foundations of peace during this period within the International system.
Clearly, offensive and defensive realism demonstrate that moments of war, and peace, are products of the international system. The presence of uncertainty that anarchy breeds forces nation-states to adapt to this condition. My “Fluid Response Mechanism” gains further legitimacy as nation-states can either adopt offensive or defensive means to overcome this very systemic pressure. Neorealism acknowledges the maneuverability that nation-states have whilst also acknowledging that the effects of anarchy has a fixed determination and such realizations means that one has to adopt a neorealist analysis to account for moments of peace, and war, within the International System.
A key critique of Neorealism is that it ignores the role of institutions within the International System. Neoliberal institutionalists claim that institutions can reduce the systemic pressures of anarchy. However, it is my argument that this understanding further legitimizes my “Fluid Response Mechanism”. Nation-States will utilize institutions as long as their security concerns, and strategic interests are being realised.
Nation-states are rational actors and understand that “international politics remains a self-help arena” (Waltz, 2000: 5) meaning that they must actively ensure their own security. Institutions are only relevant as long as they are able to complete the aims that resulted in its creation. Indeed, security alliances come and go within the International arena.
For example, the Western Union Defence Organisation has been labeled as a precursor to NATO. Institutions are only relevant during moments of peace, as their aims are being achieved, but there exists a variety of examples that demonstrate their inability to guarantee peace. The systemic pressure of anarchy forces nation-states to secure their own security. If an institution is no longer fit for its purpose, nation-states can bypass these alliances to alleviate their own insecurities.
This further legitimizes my “Fluid Response Mechanism” as nation-states can adapt to anarchy through institutional means or through their own actions. There is flexibility in the response to anarchy but not to the condition itself. This flexibility is demonstrated by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The US is the largest contributor to the United Nations budgets giving “the highest with a share of 22%” (Dubuddu, 2016). Following 9/11, the US felt that the institutions, in-which they are a major power within, could no longer appease American security concerns. This resulted in the US invading Iraq without the required UN mandate.
This action led the former secretary general of the UN, Kofi Annan, to state that the invasion of Iraq was “from our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal" (MacAskill and Borger, 2004). This example has a duality of purpose. Not only does it further justify my “Fluid Response Mechanism”, but it also diminishes the Neoliberal institutionalist argument. The fluidity is evident as the US could have pursued institutional means to alleviate their security concerns but chose to enact their own policy. As “international institutions affect the behavior of states only marginally” (Hellmann and Wolf, 1993: 7), the condition of anarchy had a greater effect upon US actions leading to the invasion of Iraq.
Ultimately, the condition of anarchy dictates nation-states actions and the insecurities that nation-states feel can never, truly, be remedied by institutions that neoliberal institutionalists champion. neorealist rationale demonstrate how nation-states are fluid within their response to anarchy. They have the option of securing their own security or by using institutional means. This acknowledgement further justifies my “Fluid Response Mechanism” whilst also appreciating that the systemic pressures of anarchy are a constant throughout the international system. This understanding of the fluidity in response to anarchy, whilst maintaining that the pressure of anarchy is rigid, means that neorealist accounts for war and peace within the international system is unavoidable.
Overall, when accounting for moments of war and peace within the international system Neorealism is the most suitable analysis to partake. The strength of neorealist rationale resides within two key areas. Firstly, that the systemic pressures of anarchy, or the lack of guaranteed nation-state survival, is continually exerted upon nation-states. The manner in which nation-states interact with each other and the continual primacy of security as their main motivation behind their acts clearly demonstrates this to be true. Neorealism, through offensive and defensive realism, also allows for nation-states to be fluid within their response to anarchy. The acknowledgement of this reality enabled me to formulate the “Fluid Response Mechanism.” The formulation of this understanding means that when accounting for war and peace within the international system then a neorealist analysis is, indeed, unavoidable as it appreciates two key understandings. These two key notions is the fixed condition of anarchy continually motivates nation-state actions, but nation-states are fluid in their maneuverability to this very condition.
Maneesh Mishra holds a BA in International Relations and Political Science and an MA in International Security. His work has been utilized by a variety of Think Tanks that have focused, primarily on terrorism.
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