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Realism and the Present Great Power System: Growth

and Positional Conflict Over Scarce Resources 1

Randall L. Schweller

There is no “theory” of political realism; instead there are many
competing and complementary realist theories derived from the same first
principles and basic set of assumptions. Though richly diverse in their
theoretical and empirical concerns, all self-described realists share a political
philosophy or worldview that is profoundly pessimistic about the human
condition, moral progress, and the capacity of human reason to create a world
of peace and harmony. This pessimism derives from the realist view of
international politics as a perpetual struggle among groups for security,
prestige, and power and influence, viz., control over territory, scarce resources
and the distribution of those resources, the behavior of other groups, and the
world economy. In more technical terms, realists see a world of constant
positional competition among groups under conditions of scarcity. By positional
I mean that what counts is not the players’ absolute skills or capabilities but
how they perform relative to their opponents. A change in the absolute
capability of any actor (holding constant the remaining actors’ capabilities) has
important consequences not only for that player but also for the other players.1
By competition I mean that the primary goal of the players is to win or, at a
minimum, to avoid relative losses.2

Neorealism’s assumption that states seek to maximize their security (not
power or influence) transforms classical realism from a game of pure positional
competition to one of collaboration with mixed motives. This is because, among
security-seeking states, there is no inherent competition—no state seeks to win
at the others’ expense.3 This is not to suggest that security is never a positional
good. The familiar concept of the security dilemma explains how one state’s
gain in security necessarily makes others less secure. But the security dilemma
operates only under very specific conditions: (1) when security is scarce
(offense has the advantage over defense), (2) states cannot signal their true
intentions (offensive weapons and doctrines are indistinguishable from
defensive ones), and (3) there is no true aggressor (otherwise, states are
arming to defend themselves against a real threat). In theory and under most
real-world conditions, security is a positive-sum value; it can be both commonly
desired and commonly shared without diminishing its enjoyment for any
individual actor.4 The same cannot be said for positional goods, such as

1 En Ethan B. Kapstein y Michael Mastanduno (eds.), Unipolar Politics. Realism and state
strategies after the Cold War, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Cap. 2. pp. 28-68.

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prestige, status, political influence, leadership, political leverage, or market
shares.5 All states cannot simultaneously enjoy a positive trade balance; and if
everyone has status, then no one does. Indeed scarcity confers status.6
Positional competition is therefore zero-sum, in that a gain (loss) for one player
becomes a corresponding loss (gain) for the opponent(s).

Positional conflict is an especially virulent subset of positional
competition, in which at least one of the parties, and usually both, seeks the
total destruction or subjugation of the other: for example, civil wars and many
ethnic and religious conflicts. In these “winner takes all” struggles, bargaining is
impossible; there is no cooperative solution. In Waltz’s words, “the parties
contend not simply over the difficult issue of who shall gain or lose. They
struggle instead with the calamitous question: Who shall dominate whom? The
answer to that question can satisfy only one of the parties.”7 Likewise, Richard
Betts points out that the root issue of all wars is always the same: “Who rules
when the fighting stops.”8 This is the essence of positional conflict.

All realists share the conviction that anarchy is a persistent condition that
cannot be transcended, and so states will continue to struggle, as they always
have, for scarce resources, whether material or social in nature. Seen in this
light, political realism supports a set of theories about the competitive state:
how it can best advance its national interests (economic, territorial, security,
diplomatic, etc.) in a self-help competition against other states. To generate
prudent policy prescriptions, realists have been preoccupied with causal
theorizing about the timeless “is” and “was” of external conduct; about the
primacy of “state necessity” over moral obligation. Where traditional liberalism
conceives of politics in terms of ideas, history as progress, universal ethics, and
the voice of reason, classical realism views the political process as a succession
of phenomena governed by mechanical laws of causation. Nowhere is this
scientific, moral relativist conception of history and international relations more
apparent than in E. H. Carr’s three tenets of realism: (1) the course of history
can be understood as a cause-and-effect sequence; (2) theory does not create
practice, but practice theory; and (3) politics are not a function of ethics;
morality is the product of power.9 Carr might have added two more realist
foundations: (4) humankind’s “tribal nature” ineluctably leads to group conflict
and competition; and so (5) humankind cannot transcend conflict through the
progressive power of reason to discover a science of peace.10

This contrast between, on the one hand, realism’s cyclical and generally
pessimistic view of history and its emphasis on the imperative of raison d’état
and, on the other, traditional liberalism’s conviction that ideas shape history,
that history is progress, and that states are relatively free to make ethical and
moral choices stems partly from geography: the great Continental realist
thinkers experienced constant insecurity and war, while their liberal
counterparts in the English-speaking world enjoyed insular security.11 This has
led to the common, but I believe incorrect, view that political realism best
explains state behavior when security is scarce, conquest pays, and global
economic growth is stagnant or declining; conversely, the liberal paradigm

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Western influences. Permanent membership in the United Nations Security
Council has also become a source of status and prestige. And, somewhat
paradoxically, while the distribution of capabilities in the bipolar system was
highly concentrated at the top, the zero-sum nature of the Soviet-American
rivalry temporarily elevated the status of many weak states such as Cuba, El
Salvador, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, North and South Vietnam, Angola, and

Today, many other factors aside from military strength and ideological
appeal have become the means of achieving international status and winning
respect: political development, technological and scientific achievement, cultural
level, environmental responsibility and leadership, market shares of national
firms, amount of foreign direct investment, generousness of foreign aid,
strength and dominance of the national currency and financial institutions,
competitiveness of the global high-tech sector, etc. Status is also being defined
more on a regional than a global basis. Germany, Japan, and the United States,
for instance, see themselves as “captains” of their respective superblocs,
particularly in terms of the regional dominance of their currencies.

Among the present great powers, the rivalry for status is no longer being
fought on battlefields for the purpose of establishing a preferred political,
religious, or ideological order. These kinds of conflicts have been replaced by a
far less dangerous but equally brutal global competition among the developed
countries to attract investment, to strengthen the global competitiveness of
their national firms and workers in key high-tech sectors,85 and, most
noticeably, to assist (by any means necessary) domestic firms competing for a
share of the more than one trillion dollars in infrastructure megaprojects (e.g.,
power plants, airports, and telecommunications systems) in Asia, Latin America,
and the Middle East.86 While economic might has supplanted military strength
as the primary currency of national power and prestige, trade talks have
replaced arms control as the most contentious form of diplomacy, and
economic espionage—which aims to obtain high-tech secrets with commercial
applications—has replaced military spying as the top priority of intelligence

Status, however, is by no means limited to economic and technological
prowess. The majority of German experts and policymakers, for instance, view
their country as a model of international “civility” and responsibility in its
dedication to multilateral cooperation and peaceful solutions to international
conflicts.88 Some go so far as to suggest that Germany should be “aiming at a
national policy in the international interest” and that “in this regard the values
of peace-maintenance, safeguarding of nature, human rights, and the
elimination of poverty have priority.”89 Former foreign minister Hans Genscher

Germany’s power has certainly increased since unification because
the country has shed the limitations on its sovereignty and room
for maneuver that accompanied the division of Germany. Still, the
increased responsibility for our foreign policy is not so much the
result of German unification as it is the consequence of the
changes in Europe and the world; the understanding of German

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foreign policy as policy based on responsibility
(“Verantwortungspolitick”) rather than policy based on power
(“Machpolitik”) has remained unaffected by unification. It is only
through the continued adherence to these principles that a
European Germany can secure the kind of influence in the future
that it had acquired in the years up to 1989.90

To be sure, it is a decidedly anti-realist, “seraphic vision of a Germany
diligently exercising its new found responsibilities in pursuit of universal
brotherhood.”91 It is consistent, however, with the notion of different types of
stratification among states as opposed to a single hierarchical structure—poles
and nonpoles.

Germany’s image of itself suggests that prestige need not always be a
positional good: if everyone defines prestige differently, it can be commonly
enjoyed; actors can feel “good about themselves” without bringing others down
in the process. In theory, it is possible to imagine a world in which states create
unique roles and images for themselves without harming others’ sense of self.
In practice, however, it is extremely unlikely that such a highly specialized
world will emerge. As Waltz points out, the pressures and dynamics of a
competitive self-help system produce a tendency toward the sameness of
competitors.92 Returning to the case of Germany, it seeks respect as the model
of a responsible civilian state; but without traditional military and political power
to back up that role, it will continue to be a political dwarf, e.g., relying on the
United States to clean up the mess it caused in Bosnia.


Positional goods “are either (1) scarce in some absolute or socially
imposed sense or (2) subject to congestion or crowding through more extensive
use.”93 Scarcities, in terms of absolute limitations on consumption opportunities,
may arise for three different reasons. First and most familiar is physical scarcity
(e.g., Rembrandts, antiques, colonies, or certain raw materials). The causal
connection between scarce physical resources and interstate conflict is perhaps
the oldest theme in international relations theory, especially among realist
works. In this tradition, Gilpin writes: “With the aging of an international system
and the expansion of states, the distance between states decreases, thereby
causing them increasingly to come into conflict with one another. The once-
empty space around the centers of power in the system is appropriated. The
exploitable resources begin to be used up, and opportunities for economic
growth decline. . . .Interstate relations become more and more a zero-sum
game in which one state’s gain is another’s loss.”94 More recently, the
environment-qua-security literature finds, to no one’s surprise, “significant
causal links between scarcities of renewable resources and violence.”95

The other two types of scarcity arise not from physical but social limits
on the absolute supply of particular goods. “Such social limits exist,” Hirsch
notes, “in the sense that an increase in physical availability of these goods or
facilities, either in absolute terms or in relation to dimensions such as

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Note 117: Consistent with this argument, Samuel Huntington observes: “The external
expansion of the UK and France, Germany and Japan, the Soviet Union and the United
States coincided with phases of intense industrialization and economic development.”
Huntington, “America’s Changing Strategic Interests,” 12.
Note 118: Nazli Choucri and Robert C. North, Nations In Conflict: National Growth and
International Violence (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1975). Also see Nazli Choucri,
Robert C. North, and Susumu Yamakage, The Challenge of Japan Before WWII and
After: A Study of National Growth and Expansion (London: Routledge, 1992).
Note 119: Choucri and North, Nations In Conflict, 28.
Note 120: The relationship between status inconsistency and international, as opposed
to ethnic, conflict has yet to be established. See Thomas J. Volgy and Stacy Mayhall,
“Status Inconsistency and International War: Exploring the Effects of Systemic
Change,” International Studies Quarterly 39(1) (March 1995): 67–84.
Note 121: Jack A. Goldstone, “An Analytic Framework,” in Jack A. Goldstone, Ted
Robert Gurr, and Farrokh Moshiri, eds., Revolutions of the Late Twentieth Century
(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991), 39.
Note 122: Gilpin, War and Change, p. 48.
Note 123: Lucian W. Pye, “China’s Quest for Respect,” New York Times (February 19,
1996), A11.
Note 124: Arnold Wolfers, “The Actors in International Politics,” in Wolfers, Discord and
Collaboration: Essays on International Politics (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1962): 14–15.
Note 125: E. J. Mishan, Growth: The Price We Pay (London: Staples Press, 1969), 100.
Note 126: Ibid., 101.
Note 127: For the connection between political realism and mercantilism–economic
nationalism, see Robert Gilpin, The Political Economy of International Relations
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), esp. chap. 2; and more recently Gregory
P. Nowell, Mercantile States and the World Oil Cartel, 1900–1939 (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1994): 23–25.
Note 128: See Robert Jervis, “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma, World Politics
30(2) (January 1978): 167–214; Charles l. Glaser, “Realists as Optimists: Cooperation
as Self-Help,” International Security 19(3) (Winter 1994–95): 50–90; Thomas J.
Christensen and Jack Snyder,”Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks: Predicting Alliance
Patterns in Multipolarity,” International Organization 44(1) (Spring 1990): 137–68; Ted
Hopf, “Polarity, the Offense-Defense Balance and War,” American Political Science
Review 85(2) (June 1991): 475–94; Glenn H. Snyder, “The Security Dilemma in
Alliance Politics,” World Politics 36(4) (July 1984): 461–95; Stephen Van Evera, “The
Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War,” International Security
9(1) (Summer 1984): 58–107.
Note 129: See Peter Liberman, “The Spoils of Conquest,” International Security 18(2)
(Fall 1993): 125–53; Choucri and North, Nations In Conflict; Manus I. Midlarsky, The
Onset of World War (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988); Spykman, America’s Strategy in
World Politics; Sir Halford J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the
Politics of Reconstruction (New York: Henry Holt, 1919); idem., “The Geographical
Pivot of History,” Geographic Journal 23(4) (April 1904), esp. p. 495.
Note 130: See Ludwig Dehio, The Precarious Balance: Four Centuries of the European
Power Struggle (New York: Knopf, 1962); Gilpin, War and Change; George Modelski,
Long Cycles in World Politics (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press,
1987); A. F. K. Organski, World Politics, 2d ed. (New York: Knopf, 1968); A. F. K.
Organski and Jacek Kugler, The War Ledger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1980); George Modelski and William R. Thompson, Seapower in Global Politics, 1494–
1993 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988); William R. Thompson, On Global

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War: Historical-Structural Approaches to World Politics (Columbia: University of South
Carolina Press, 1988); Thompson, “Dehio, Long Cycles, and the Geohistorical Context
of Structural Transition,” World Politics 45(1) (October 1992): 127–52; Charles F.
Doran, Systems in Crisis: New Imperatives of High Politics at Century’s End
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Robert Gilpin, War and Change in
World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); David P. Rapkin, ed.,
World Leadership and Hegemony (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1990); Joshua S.
Goldstein, Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1988); Fareed R. Zakaria, “The Rise of a Great Power: National
Strength, State Structure, and American Foreign Policy, 1865–1908” (Ph.D.
dissertation, Harvard University, 1993); and Zakaria, “Realism and Domestic Politics: A
Review Essay,” International Security 17 (1) (Summer 1992): 177–98.
Note 131: Quoted in Gerhard Ritter, Frederick the Great (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1968), 66.

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