Neoliberalism’s Fill of Realism’s Gaps

Liberal theories of international relations have a more “realistic” understanding of cooperation than realism. The gap in the realist understanding of international relations is best articulated by Karen Mingst when she writes “each state acts in a unitary way in pursuit of its own national interest” (Mingst, 65). This brief statement includes two faults: that states act in a unitary way and that states can rely only on themselves (Ibid, 66). Implicit in the realist argument is the third assumption that, since states only work in their own national interest (which is self-preservation), then military power is the most important component of foreign policy (Keohane. 514). In these three misunderstandings of international relations and undervaluing of cooperation, realists made themselves vulnerable to the rise of neoliberalism.

All neoliberal theories have their roots in the Anglo-liberal theories of John Locke and Adam Smith. Both thinkers believed in the notion of rights, microcosmically for the individual and macrocosmically for the nation-state. Locke believed that all people have natural rights; that governments are created to protect these rights (Mingst, 28). Smith, the father of capitalism, went further and said that among the natural rights is free-enterprise. Thus, Smith believed war was not the first option because war is bad for business (Mingst, 238). While Smith does not discuss cooperation per se his line of thinking suggests that there must be an alternative to war. This flies in the face of the realist argument that “military force is always the central component of national power” (Kaufman, 514).

In these forefathers of neoliberalism, the outline of cooperation is already laid out. One of the cornerstones of liberalism is the “faith in international law and legal instruments” (Mingst, 63). Collective Security Theory is one branch of neoliberalism that took classical liberal theory and retooled it to fix the international system left broken by classical realism. Collective Security is a mix of ideas from Immanuel Kant and Woodrow Wilson. Collective Security theorists believe that cooperation is both practical and probable. Even if states are only interested in security and self-preservation as realists claim, then collective security theory still works. Indeed, Wilsonian idealism even believed that war is preventable (Mingst, 63). While his idealism was tarnished by the failed Kellogg-Brandt Treaty and League of Nations, Collective Security Theory still exists today in the mutual-protection pact of NATO as well as similar bilateral pacts such as the US-Japan agreement.

Moreover, “the principle of collective security requires that states identify their national interest completely with the preservation of total world order that they stand ready to join in collective action to put down any aggressive threat by any state, against any other state anywhere” and for any reason (Kaufman, 373). This basic call for cooperation is the operating guideline for the United Nations. In its sixty years, the United Nations has only sanction military force twice (the Korean Police Action and the Persian Gulf War). In both of those conflicts, the goal was to put down the aggressive threat of the North Koreans and Iraqis toward the South Koreans and Kuwaitis, respectively. In Collective Security, “peace and security are indivisible” (Kaufman, 373).

Democratic Peace Theory (DPT) has also shown how cooperation among nation-states is practical and probable in the international system. Like neoliberal theories before it, DPT also attacks key assumptions of realism. Democratic Peace theorists laugh at the naïve simplicity of realism’s “us against the world” view on international relations. Led by researchers of democratic peace, “scholars are near [to a] consensus that democratically governed states rarely go to war with each other” (Kaufman 378 & Mingst 64). This “Zone of Peace” has created an international system in which there appears to be at least two sets of international relations. One the one hand is the state-to-state system of international relations among liberal democracies and, on the other hand, the relations between non-liberal democracies and all other states (Kaufman, 375). Even without an agreed upon theory of why this is true, the veracity of the paradigm exposes the faults of realism. If there is no war among democracies, then military force must not be the only exhibit of foreign policy strength. How do democracies affect each others policy if not through force? Negotiation, cooperation, policy coordination as well as adaptive and manipulative adjustment.

Thus, cooperation is extremely attractive and likely among at least some states, even if it is only the liberal democracies. These liberal democracies share many common interests, institutions (Ibid, 378), and may even share enemies. Many of the Western liberal democracies are all part of the same NATO security pact. Why would a country choose to wage war against an ally instead of negotiation and compromise? Democratic Peace theorists also point the cost/benefit analysis of any prospective war. As Bruce Russett says in Grasping at the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World, “the value of acquiring as war booty the territory of an advanced industrial [liberal democratic] country would rarely compensate for the costs of wartime destruction and the problems of pacifying newly incorporated peoples” (Kaufman, 381). [In addition to Russett’s point, there is little attractiveness in switching the domestic, peacetime economy, into a war machine.] Even against a non-liberal democracy, acquiring territory might be painful. The United States learned this best in the fallout from the Spanish-American War. While giving a small amount of self-government to the Cubans (except for the Platt Amendment), the U.S. tried futilely to placate the Philippines for forty years. Anther war booty, Puerto Rico, had been seized for forty years before its residents were given American citizenship. More than a hundred years later, there is still no universal understanding of the island’s relationship with the mainland. Russett also points out that liberal democracies are extremely sensitive to long wars and unwelcomed occupations due to the danger of eroding public support (Kaufman, 383). The point is that, knowing all this, “to use or threaten to use force is not usually normatively acceptable behavior in disputes” and thus “disputes are routinely settled without recourse to threat and military deterrence” (Kaufman, 394). Without military force, then cooperation and/or negotiation is probable.

Theorists Graham Allison, Alexander George, Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye all weave together a tapestry of neoliberalism that illustrates the importance of cooperation in international relations. First, in his decision-making studies, Graham T. Allison exhibits the short-comings of realism and the practicality of cooperation. Allison outlines the realists’ belief in rationality by using the Realist icon Hans Morgenthau’s own words, imposing a rational outline “provides for rational discipline in action and creates astounding continuity in foreign policy which makes Americans, British, or Russian foreign policy appear as an intelligent, rational continuum…regardless of the different motives, preferences, and intellectual and moral qualities of successive statesmen.” (Kaufman, 656). That is, Allison accuses realists of using ex post facto logic and taking the easy way out. One of the major gaps in the realist argument is the assumption that the nation-state is led by a unified, principled actor. Retroactively, such a belief makes history look inevitable, but Allison highlights the variables of decision-making; there are many uncontrollable and unpredictable factors in decision-making.

Adding to the variables that Allison covered, Alexander L. George says that, “it is a central thesis that a policymaker often experiences decisional conflicts in attempting to deal with the value complexity and uncertainty imbedded in a problem and that the resulting psychological stress, depending on how the decision-maker copes with it, can impair adaptive responses to policy issues.” Simply put, nation-state actors get pulled in so many different directions that they can not be expected to act rationally at all times. Furthermore, George work found that, while small amounts of stress improved performance, as stress increases performance worsens. George’s solution is to deal with the problem by “by utilizing analytical modes of coping” (Kaufman, 677). In other words use psychological mechanisms to optimize one’s performance. When dealing with nation-states that are lead by actors who are not always rational, though, there are times that cooperation becomes more practical. In North Korea, for example, Kim Il Jong’s questionable rationality makes military force untenable. If North Korea responds to conventional military threat with a nuclear attack on South Korea or Japan, then the U.S. has lost. It is more important to understand how nation-states make decisions and manipulate that decision-making, rather than force a direct confrontation.

After taking Allison and George into consideration, Keohane and Nye nail the lid on the coffin with their neoliberal theory of Complex Interdependence (C/I). Traditional Realists hold that state security is the paramount issue and thus the military, which is a state tool, is important component of foreign policy. Thus the principle actor is instrumental because the state security is his/her upmost goal and he/she controls the military. Traditional Realists are wrong. Keohane and Nye’s Complex Interdependence has such a broader and more “realistic” view of state actors. Keohane and Nye argue that there are multiple channels and multiple issues have greater influence (Kaufman, 512 & 518). Instead of just looking at the unitary actor, Complex Interdependence values transgovernmental (other government people besides principle actors) and transnational (non-state actors) actors (Kaufman, 512). Cultural exchanges, such as sports competitions and student exchanges, as well as increased trade and business relationships create these multiple channels that connect societies. With all these multiple channels, there are then multiple issues and a blurring of domestic and foreign issues. Such a system of international relations creates an environment in which military force is not necessarily in the ‘national interest’ (certainly not unanimously) and “political bargaining is greatly increased” (Kaufman, 518).

Keohane further discusses cooperation in his piece on “Cooperation and International Regimes.” His point is that, when countries are not in “pre-existent harmony” they can be “brought into conformity with one another through a process of negotiation, which is often referred to as policy coordination” (Kaufman, 491). This cooperation is the preferred reaction to conflict, not military force. Without a clear hierarchy of issues, countries look for bargains that benefit all parties without resorting to military conflict. Simply put, Keohane shows how “regimes can exert an effect on the behavior… [of] self interested-states and corporations engaging in a process of mutual adjustment (Kaufman, 500). Thus, cooperation is probable. Indeed, if realists are as interested in self-interest as they purport, then cooperation should be as attractive to them as to neoliberalists.

In these three misunderstandings of international relations, realists exposed the gap in their knowledge of cooperation and thus found them selves in a credibility gap. Neoliberalism, in its many branches, have explored, outlined, and applied how cooperation is a key part of international relations. Cooperation is in the self-interest of both realists for whom self-serving behavior is a value as well as for neoliberals who believe that cooperation is an intrinsic value.

Kaufman, Daniael. Parker, Jay. Howell, Patrick & Doty, Grant (2004). Understanding International Relations: The Value of Alternative Lenses. New York: United States Military Academy.
Mingst, Karen A. (2004). Essential of International Relations. New York: W.W. Norton.

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