Realism tradition and the degree to which
Realism hasbeen one of most central and prominent theory of international relations sincethe formal development of the discipline. Its core is based on an ancienttradition of thought which includes thinkers such as Thucydides, Machiavelliand Hobbes. Even though there are various and differentiated branches of modernrealist thinking, the main principles of the theory (such as statism, survival,and self-help) remain a commonality among all the realist variations. Thisessay aims at comparing two prominent authors of the field, Kenneth Waltz andRobert Gilpin and two of their most important works, Theory of International Politics1and War and Change in World Politics2,in order to allow for their most important contributions to be highlighted. Howare they similar? How do they differ? And most importantly, how did they contributeto the International Relations field? These are some of the questions whichought to be answered.
When RobertGilpin published War and Change in WorldPolitics almost four decades ago, Realism was headed for a major revival.Given the importance of this scholarly tradition and the degree to which otherschools of thought developed in response to it, how realism ended uprevivifying and modernizing itself would have profound consequences for theInternational Relations discipline as a whole3. Robert Gilpin was one of the influentialthinkers of the international relations scholarship of the past half century.
However, he remains less important and renowned than his contemporary KennethWaltz, due to many reasons. In a nutshell, it can be argued that the internationalrelations ‘paradigms’ got defined in a manner that obscured Gilpin’scontribution4.Following and boosting an already established trend, Robert Keohane’s work Neorealism and its Critics portrayed Waltz, not Gilpin, as definitive of contemporary realismand as the preferred base for the development of scholarship5.Thus, Waltz’s work thus came to trump all others as the definitive modernrestatement of realism. And because realism plays such a large role in IR ? ifonly as foil for others’ work ? whoever came to be seen as definitive of thatapproach and whoever came to be seen as offering the main alternatives to itwould have an outsized influence on scholarship6. And so it happened. But,why did Waltz’s Theory of InternationalPolitics come to be seen as the ultimate work of modern realism, ratherthan Gilpin’s War andChange?7On one hand, bothauthors are undeniably realist, since their theorizing is based and reflect thecore beliefs of the realist school (even though Waltz’s theory was actuallyneo-Realism). Besides, both are grounded in classical and modern works and arefirm within the state-centric tradition8.
Gilpin’s view, like that of Waltz, also seeks an accommodation with structuraltheory9.It is interesting to think how at first, both titles are actually misleading.Waltz’s book is not really a theory of international politics. It does notaddress in an explicit way most of the phenomena that are encompassed by thatterm. Rather, Waltz presented a theory that intended to help answer a fewimportant but highly general questions about international politics, such aswhy the modern states system has persisted in the face of attempts by certain states at dominance; therecurrence of balances of power; why war among great powers recurred overcenturies; and why states often find cooperation hard. In addition, the bookforwarded one more specific theory: that great-power war would tend to be morefrequent in multipolarity than bipolarity. Gilpin’s book is no lessall-encompassing and addresses a set of questions no less central to both therealist tradition and IR more generally: how to explain change in internationalpolitics; why defined international orders rise and decline; the causes ofgreat wars and long periods of peace; and the rise and decline of hegemonicgreat powers. It could be argued that Warand Change actually yields more relevant, testable middle-range theoriesthan Waltz’s book10.
On the otherhand, there are several differences between the theorizing of both authors. Theapparent relevance of the books to the events of the day can be considered asan important one11. At thetime of Gilpin’s book release, neither ‘war’ nor ‘change’ seemed to reflectwhat seemed like a stable Cold War stalemate. By contrast, Theory of International Politics stressed the enduring verities ofinternational relations in general and the Cold War in particular12.He argued that the main change in the international system over severalcenturies was a shift to bipolarity after WWII, and stressed “unit-level”processes. To him, the “units” in question are states “whose interactions form the structure of international politicalsystems”, and which are, in his opinion, functionally identical13.The deep anarchic structure of world politics meant that rivalry andcooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union would remain thecentral issue.
Another important difference between both authors is the factthat Waltz presented his arguments in a way that best fitted the particularconception of social science that was just becoming fashionable among Americanpolitical scientists14.This was the idea that the great scholarly traditions of IR such as Realism andLiberalism should be refashioned as internally coherent scientific researchprograms comprising a hard core of assumptions and a related set of scopeconditions and specific propositions15.In other words, Waltz’s book seemed tailor-made for it while Gilpin’s did not16.
The books’ very titles give a hint: one is about the specific problem of changeand how to cope with it, while the other intents to be a comprehensive ‘theoryof international politics’. Thus, the latter is more likely to be seen as thereformulation of realism into a scientific research program17. In regard to the historical backgroundanalyzed, it can be said that War andChange has an advantage over Waltz’s Theory.
While Waltz’s empiricalreferences were almost solely focused in the post 17th centuryEuropean international system and its global successor, Gilpin’s analysisincluded pre- and non-European international systems stretching back toantiquity18.Gilpin’s book was also more comprehensive than Waltz’s in its focus and more indepth study of the interaction between economics and politics. He claimed ‘to provide a framework for thinking aboutthe problem of war and change in word politics’ 19, trying to provide abetter theoretical framework for understanding war and change. But, Waltz’s Theory provided a more attractive andconvenient complement for other scholars because it possessed many attractivefeatures that War and Change lacked. Theory was more thoroughly ‘structural’,operating solely at the systemic level. Warand Change created a platform which allowed for interaction between thedomestic and systemic levels.
Theoryappeared to understand structure as material, while War and Change appeared to give an important role for ideas. Thus,Waltz’s neo-Realism is arguably less concerned with change than that Gilpin’sRealist framework of analysis20.It might besaid that Theory of InternationalRelations was written in such a way as to make many things aboutinternational relations seem to be major theoretical puzzles in need of furtherscholarly explanations.
The theory could be understood as saying, for example,that domestic institutions do not matter in explaining large-scale patterns ofwar and peace. Any theoretical or empirical demonstration that the nature ofdomestic institutions in fact do matter in accounting for these patterns couldbe considered as a major finding. The same phenomenon does not happen toGilpin’s writings. He is able to say new things about international politicswithout seeming to deny the possibility of such a large number of easilyobservable facts of international life. Gilpin’s work does not rule out acausal role for ideas, institutions and domestic politics, but rather stresstheir interaction with material power21.
Even thoughthey are both clearly realist works, the two books are built on very differentfoundational assumptions. Waltz’s theoretical edificerests on the assumption that states are conditioned by the mere possibility ofconflict, while Gilpin assumes ? more in keeping with expected utility theoryand most mainstream social science ? that states make decisions based on theprobability of conflict12. Waltz’s worst-case,possibilistic assumption was the key link between the condition of anarchy andall the strong and counterintuitive implications about state behavior.
InGilpin’s probabilistic world, however, states may well choose a wide variety ofstrategies depending on their assessment of the probability and severity ofsecurity threats22. In other words, theymight choose to pursue economic gain instead of security if the probability ofconflict is low, or they may choose to pursue power and prestige in the nearterm in order to be more secure in the long term. Thus, for Gilpin, states donot always ‘maximize security’ at all times and under all conditions, as Waltzbelieved. Theories that ‘assume that one can speakof a hierarchy of state objectives … misrepresent the behavior and decision-making of states’, he insists. Rather, ‘it is the mix and tradeoffs of objectives rather than their orderingthat are critical to an understanding of foreign policy’ 23. A last considerabledifference between both, concerns the balance-of-power theory. Waltz’s work isbuilt upon a thorough interpretation of this theory, which he conceived as the’realist’ explanation for the ‘recurrence of balance’ through internationalhistory, by which he meant the failure of repeated bids for European or globalhegemony24. Gilpinpresented a different theory to explain the same phenomenon as Waltz.
Examininga far broader part of history, Gilpin argued that the balance of power played anoticeably secondary role in limiting hegemonic expansion when compared toother countervailing forces such as natural barriers and the loss-of-strengthgradient, economic and technological limits to optimal size, and domesticinstitutions25.Unlike the “apples vs oranges” criticisms of Waltz’s balancing theory,which tended to focus on short periods of time or fewer cases, this was aproposition which directly contradicted Waltz, since it was able to explain asimilarly general empirical regularity over a very broad sweep of history. In conclusion,had IR not been tricked by the idea that grand traditions of scholarship likeRealism and Liberalism had to be translated into single theoretical ‘researchprogrammes’, there is every likelihood that Gilpin’s seminal treatment of warand change would have been recognized as being every bit as definitive a reaffirmationof realist theory as Waltz’s treatment of balance-of-power theory26.And had that occurred, international relations research might have developed quitedifferently.
It might be argued that Warand Change never directly addressed the future scenario that was about tounfold: the decline of the weaker superpower to a given hegemonic order. Instead,the book treated the Soviet Union as the main and most dangerous challenge tothe United States, which is portrayed as in serious relative decline. It ishard to read the book today and avoid to think that, at the time it was theSoviet Union, not the United States, that was in steep decline and that apeaceful change was about to happen. Would the scholarly field of internationalrelations be the same today if Robert Gilpin had become the main carrier of Realisminstead of Kenneth Waltz? This is a question worth asking. But,Waltz importance, even considering all the critique and controversies, cannotgo overlooked.
“Even when you disagree,he moves your thinking ahead”27.Both authors greatly contributed to the IR field. Instead of solely praisingone or the other, a deep understanding of both are a necessity for all of thosewho wish to better understand the academic field and the reality ofinternational relations.1 KENNETH, W.; “Theory of InternationalPolitics”, Reading; MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979.2 GILPIN, R.
; “War and Change in World Politics, Cambridge UniversityPress, Cambridge, 1981.3 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism andInternational Relations”, DartmouthCollege, International Relations 25(4),2011, p. 500.4 Idem.
5 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism andInternational Relations”, DartmouthCollege, International Relations 25(4),2011, p. 500.6 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism andInternational Relations”, DartmouthCollege, p. 500.
7 Idem.8 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism andInternational Relations”, DartmouthCollege, p. 500.
9 DARK, K.; “The Waves of Time: Long-TermChange and International Relations”, BloomsburyAcademic Collections (History and Politics in the 20th century:Multidisciplinary approaches), 2016, Great Britain, p.11.10 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism andInternational Relations”, DartmouthCollege, p. 501.11 Idem.12 WOHLFORTH, W.
; “Gilpian Realism andInternational Relations”, p. 501.13 DARK, K.; “The Waves of Time: Long-TermChange and International Relations”, p.
11.14 Idem.15 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism andInternational Relations”, p. 501.16 Idem.17 WOHLFORTH, W.
; “Gilpian Realism andInternational Relations”, p. 501.18 Ibdem, p. 502.19 GILPIN, R.
; “War and Change in World Politics, Cambridge UniversityPress, Cambridge, 1981, p. 2.20 WOHLFORTH, W.
; “Gilpian Realism andInternational Relations”, p. 501.21 Ibdem, pp. 502 and 503.22 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism andInternational Relations”, p.
503.23GILPIN, R.; War and Change, pp. 19 and 22.24 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism and InternationalRelations”, p.
506.25 WOLFORTH, W.; ‘The Balance of Power in WorldHistory’, European Journal of International Relations, 13(6), 2007, pp. 44?60& and LITTLE, R.
; KAUFMAN, S. & WOLFORTH, W.; “The Balance of Power inWorld History”, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
26 WOHLFORTH, W.; “Gilpian Realism andInternational Relations”, p. 509.27 MARTIN, D.; Kenneth Waltz, Foreign Relations Expert, Dies at 88″, TheNew York Times, May 18 2013, consulted on the 01/21/18, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/us/kenneth-n-waltz-who-helped-shape-international-relations-as-a-discipline-dies-at-88.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 .