History and Neorealism

October 21, 2010

The academic study of international relations has taken rather different forms in the US and the UK. It is normally classed as a branch of political science in the US, where that discipline is heavily quantitative and "scientific". In most of UK higher education, by contrast, it has acquired the status of an autonomous discipline while retaining links with law, politics, philosophy, economics and a particularly close one with history. This stimulating book tackles the question of whether two-way traffic between history and international relations (in one of its US variants) is useful or even possible.

The book, edited by a leading US international-relations specialist and two eminent historians, focuses on the relationship between historical scholarship and neorealism, a dominant American school of international-relations thinking. It distinguishes "structural" or "defensive" realism, as propounded by the veteran scholar Kenneth Waltz, from the "offensive neorealism" of John Mearsheimer, who maintains that the overriding and calculated objective of all states, in all situations, is to maximise their own power at the expense of others. The book's central agenda is to see how well the principles of neorealism tally with the facts of a number of historical case studies, and how much light these principles shed on the decisions of the national leaders concerned.

In most cases, the verdict of the specialist historians responsible for the case studies is "not very well, and not much light". The historical record, carefully examined, indicates that when rulers decide whether or not to go to war, to rearm, to seek alliances, to promote multilateral cooperation or to prefer isolation, they are motivated by a very wide range of factors: concern for national status; ideological convictions; instability or conflict in domestic politics; irrational belief in their military prowess; or the wilful misreading of other national leaders' capacities or interests. In many cases, moreover, rulers have made decisions that were woefully inconsistent with any objective measurement of their national "power line" (Richard Rosecrance's term), which neorealist principles would have required them to keep clearly in mind.

Thus, as Samuel R. Williamson shows, Austria-Hungary set out to punish Serbia for Archduke Franz Ferdinand's murder in 1914 to ensure its own survival as a multi-ethnic polity, not to enhance its power, even at Serbia's expense. As Zara Steiner's chapter shows, Neville Chamberlain's determination to avoid war in 1938 grossly underestimated the UK's objective power situation, and his decision to go to war the following year misjudged the situation in the opposite direction. Niall Ferguson's excellent analysis of Hitler's decision-making argues persuasively that he took a quite irrational risk in 1938 and some vastly more irrational ones in 1941, when he involved Germany in war with both the Soviet Union and the US. (To deviate thus from rational decision-making is, of course, a cardinal breach of the norms of neorealism.)

Imperial Japan, in Michael Barnhart's account, went to war with China from 1931, and with the Western powers from 1941, because of an unbridgeable conflict between its army and navy, which precluded any semblance of realistic decision-making. Two contributions on the US tell complementary stories: the late Ernest May, the doyen of drawing the lessons of history, shows how US policy after both world wars was much less active than its objective power line would have permitted, and Robert Litwak's account of more recent times argues that Washington's "overuse of hard power" in Iraq and elsewhere is contrary to the country's realistically judged interests.

The set of case studies is completed by accounts of one state (Mao Zedong's China at the time of the Korean War) that manifestly overestimated its real power, and two others (postwar West Germany and Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union) that deliberately renounced the maximisation of national power in favour of accepting international or even supranational obligations.

More general chapters include Jonathan Haslam's comprehensive demolition of Mearsheimer's conceptual framework and Paul W. Schroeder's fascinating survey of European power politics from 1648 to 1789. This demonstrates what a poor guide neorealism offers even for that bellicose epoch, when repeated warfare coexisted with persistent efforts to establish the ground rules for a more orderly European "society of states". The contributions by Rosecrance and John M. Owen make some telling points about the limitations of neorealism in comparison with other schools of thought. On the other hand, the chapter by Robert Keohane and Lisa Martin on the "institutionalist" approach to international relations seems too abstract and too narrowly methodological in focus to contribute much to the book's general message.

This very interesting collection, while unlikely to encourage historians to explore the possible benefits of international-relations theory, may, let us hope, help to make neorealists (and their readers) more aware of the sterility of the direction they have taken.

History and Neorealism

Edited by Ernest R. May, Richard Rosecrance and Zara Steiner. Cambridge University Press. 406pp, £60.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9780521761345 and 132244. Published 9 September 2010

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