Anarchy and Authority: International Structure, the Balance of Power, and Hierarchy
With Dani Nedal.
Status: Forthcoming The Journal of Global Security Studies. Read the latest draft 📄
Abstract: Do international systems tend to remain anarchic because of recurring balances of power, or do they tend toward imbalances and hierarchy? Leading structural theories posit competing predictions about systemic outcomes, and the historical record offers evidence to support both claims. This suggests the need to theorize conditions under which one tendency or another is likely to dominate, and what factors lead systems to transition from one state to another. We draw on constructivist and English School insights about international authority and legitimacy to develop such a framework. We conceive of patterns of international authority as structures independent from, and interacting with, mechanisms usually associated with international anarchy, such as the balance of power. We propose that international-authority systems vary along two dimensions: particularist-cosmopolitan and substitutable-non-substitutable. Both are emergent properties of ideas and institutions located at the unit level. We argue that certain authority systems—particularist and non-substitutable—reinforce, and are reinforced by, anarchy and balanced distributions of capabilities. Others—cosmopolitan-substitutable—facilitate roll-up and domination and are likely to emerge or be maintained in hierarchic and highly asymmetric systems. By offering a structural account of international authority, we hope to contribute to the global turn in international relations, offering a framework for comparing systems across time and space. We also aim to help make sense of contemporary struggles over norms and values, their structural causes and consequences, and their potential implications for the future of global power politics.
Beyond Anarchy: Logics of Political Organization, Hierarchy, and International Structure
With Meghan McConaughey and Paul Musgrave.
Forthcoming (2018), International Theory
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Abstract: Many scholars now argue for deemphasizing the importance of international anarchy in favor of focusing on hierarchy—patterns of super- and subordination—in world politics. We argue that only one kind of vertical stratification, governance hierarchy, actually challenges the states-under-anarchy framework. But the existence of such hierarchies overturn a number of standard ways of studying world politics. In order to theorize, and identify, variation in governance structures in world politics, we advocate a relational approach that focuses on three dimensions of hierarchy: the heterogeneity of contracting, the degree of autonomy enjoyed by central authorities, and the balance of investiture between segments and the center. This generates eight ideal-typical forms: national-states and empires, as well as symmetric and asymmetric variants of federations, confederations, and conciliar systems. We argue that political formations—governance assemblages—with elements of these ideal types are likely ubiquitous at multiple scales of world politics, including within, across, and among sovereign states. Our framework suggests that world politics is marked by a heterarchy of nested and overlapping political structures. We discuss broad implications for international-relations theory and comparative politics, and illustrate our approach through an analysis of contemporary China and the evolution of the British “Empire” in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Defending Hierarchy from the Moon to the Indian Ocean: Symbolic Capital and Political Dominance in Early Modern China and the Cold War
With Paul Musgrave.
Forthcoming (2018), International Organization
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Abstract: Why do leading actors invest in costly projects that they expect will not yield appreciable military or economic benefits? We identify a causal process in which concerns about legitimacy lead them to attempt to secure dominance in arenas of high symbolic value by investing wealth and labor into unproductive (in direct military and economic terms) goods and performances. We provide evidence for this claim through a comparative study of the American Project Apollo and the Ming Dynasty’s treasure fleets. We locate our argument within a broader constructivist and practice- theoretic understanding of hierarchy and hegemony. We build on claims that world politics is a sphere of complex social stratification by viewing constituent hierarchies in terms of social fields. Our specific theory and broader framework, we contend, provide tools for understanding the workings of power politics beyond military and economic competition.
Abstract:This article outlines a field-theoretic variation of hegemonic-order theory — one inspired primarily by the work of Pierre Bourdieu. We argue that hegemony derives from the possession of a plurality of meta-capital in world politics; hegemons exercise “a power over other species of power, and particularly over their rate of exchange.” Recasting conventional hegemonic-order theories along these lines carries with it at least three advantages: it helps bridge the differences between realist and neo-Gramscian approaches to hegemony; it provides scaffolding for exploring the workings of hegemony and hegemonic ordering across different scales; and it better addresses the fact that hegemonic powers are enabled and constrained by international order itself. After reviewing some of the major variants of hegemonic-order theory, we explore Bourdieu’s understanding of hegemony and cognate concepts. We then elaborate on our field-theoretic approach, with examples drawn from US foreign relations and the Roman Empire. Finally, we provide a longer illustrative sketch in the form of a discussion of Roman ordering and its longue durée influence on social, political, and cultural fields in world politics.
Abstract: Buzan and Lawson’s The Global Transformation establishes that many of the basic parameters of world politics originated in the ‘long 19th century’. Despite finding much to admire in their book, we are concerned that it lacks an explicit theory of change. In its drive to highlight the novelty and exceptionalism of the 19th century, it offers insufficient guidance on two key issues: first, how international relations scholars should situate Buzan and Lawson’s ‘global transformation’ in existing debates over transhistorical processes; and, second, how they should apply lessons from that transformation to understanding emergent trends in the contemporary world. We argue that a more explicit study of causal factors might help account for why the 19th century was unusual. We conclude with thoughts about how the field should proceed after The Global Transformation. In particular, it points to how concatenating changes could profoundly alter international politics – an approach we term ‘Exotic International Relations’. Buzan and Lawson’s book therefore serves as a marker for the importance of systematically theorizing how radical potentialities for transformation might rearrange existing structural assemblages in world politics.
Abstract: We call for a research program focused on the dynamics of global power politics. Rather than link realpolitik to structural-realist theoretical frameworks or the putatively anarchical character of world politics, the program treats power politics as an object of analysis in its own right. It embraces debate over the nature of global power politics among scholars working with distinctive approaches. It sees the structural contexts of power politics as highly variable and often hierarchical in character. It attenuates ex ante commitments to the centrality of states in global politics. And it takes for granted that actors deploy multiple resources and modalities of power in their pursuit of influence. What binds this diverse research program together is its focus on realpolitik as the politics of collective mobilization in the context of the struggle for influence among political communities, broadly understood. Thus, the study of the dynamics of collective mobilization—the causal and constitutive pathways linking efforts at mobilization with enhanced power—brings together approaches to security studies in a shared study of power politics.
“The Empire will Compensate You”: The Structural Dimensions of the U.S. Overseas Basing Network
With Alexander Cooley.
Perspectives on Politics 11,4 (2013): 1034-1050.
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Abstract: Many commentators refer to the U.S. overseas network of military installations as an “empire,” yet very few have examined the theoretical and practical significance of such an analogy. This article explores the similarities and differences between the basing network and imperial systems. We argue that American basing practices and relations combine elements of liberal multilateralism with “neo-imperial” hegemony. Much, but far from all, of the network shares with ideal-typical empires a hub-and-spoke system of unequal relations among the United States and its base-host country “peripheries.” But Washington rarely exercises rule over host- country leaders and their constituents. Historical examples suggest that this combination of imperial and non-imperial elements has rendered the United States vulnerable to political cross-pressures, intermediary exits, and periodic bargaining failures when dealing with overseas base hosts. Moreover, globalizing processes, especially increasing information flows and the transnational networking of anti-base movements, further erode U.S. capacity to maintain multivocal legitimation strategies and keep the terms of its indi- vidual basing bargains isolated from one another. Case studies of the rapid contestation of the terms of the U.S. basing presence in post-Soviet Central Asia and post-2003 Iraq illustrate some of these dynamics.
Introduction: We come to this forum not to advocate for actor-network theory (ANT) but to raise friendly questions about its role in International Relations (IR). As outsiders to ANT, we recognize that these issues may be addressed within that broader literature. But since we are proponents of the use of frameworks that share with ANT a commitment to the analytical priority of processes, relations, and practices, we also have a particular interest in its development within our field.
This forum arrives at an interesting moment for IR. Scholars working within a broadly social-constructionist framework increasingly draw upon relational and practice-theoretical approaches. Relational theories, ranging from those using the methodology of social network analysis (SNA) to post-structuralist modes of analysis, are recasting how we think about levels of analysis, actors, and the importance of social position. Practice theory revisits basic dichotomies that organize IR theory, including rationality….
International Theory in a Post-Paradigmatic Era: From Substantive Wagers to Scientific Ontologies
With Patrick Thaddeus Jackson.
European Journal of International Relations 19,3 (2013): 543-565.
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Abstract: Concerns about the end of International Relations theory pivot around at least three different issues: the fading of the ‘paradigm wars’ associated with the 1990s and early 2000s; the general lack of any sort of ‘great debate’ sufficient to occupy the attention of large portions of the field; and claims about the vibrancy of middle-range theorizing. None of these are terribly helpful when it comes to assessing the health of International Relations theory. We argue that international theory involves scientific ontologies of world politics: topographies of entities, processes, mechanisms, and how they relate to one another. Understood this way, the state of International Relations theory looks strong: there is arguably more out there than ever before. Ironically, this cornucopia helps explain concerns regarding the end of International Relations theory. In the absence of a ‘great debate,’ let alone ways of organizing contemporary International Relations theory, this diversity descends into cacophony. We submit that three major clusters of international theory are emerging: choice-theoretic, experience-near, and social-relational. These clusters map onto two major axes of contention: (1) the degree that actors should be treated as autonomous from their environment; and (2) the importance of thickly contextual analysis. These disputes are both field-wide and high-stakes, even if we do not always recognize them as such.
Abstract: Buzan and Lawson (2012) urge IR scholars to consider what the 19th century can teach us about the contemporary world. Although we agree that IR scholars should draw from a wider range of historical experiences in formulating and testing their theories, we disagree with Buzan and Lawson’s contentions that the lessons of the 19th century are self-evident. We argue that the 19th century may have been either an aberration in human history, during which the traditional political and economic centers of gravity were temporarily displaced by Western Europe and its offshoots, or a Singularity, in which the takeoff of the industrial revolution fundamentally changed the relationship of politics, culture, and economics. In either case, the 19th century may have less to tell us about contemporary IR than Buzan and Lawson suggest.
Abstract: American scholars routinely characterize the study of international relations as divided between various Kuhnian “paradigms” or Lakatosian “research programmes.” Although most international relations scholars have abandoned Kuhn’s account of scientific continuity and change, many utilize Lakatosian criteria to assess the “progressive” or “degenerative” character of various theories and approaches in the field. We argue that neither specific areas of inquiry (such as the “democratic peace”) nor broader approaches to world politics (such as realism, liberalism, and constructivism) deserve the label of “paradigms” or “research programmes.” As an alternative, we propose mapping the field through Weberian techniques of ideal-typification.
Abstract: This article reviews four recent books on balancing and the balance of power. Both in isolation and when taken together, they provide strong analytical and empirical warrants against the proposition that balance of power equilibria represent the “normal condition” or “natural tendency” of international relations. They also reflect the growing dissensus among realists concerning how to conceptualize and operationalize the key concept of “balancing.”
The author argues that their analysis implies a tripartite distinction between balance of power theory, theories of power balances, and theories of balancing. Recognizing this distinction undermines many objections to expanding the concept of balancing to include “nontraditional” variants, but it also helps elucidate why we should eschew describing nontraditional balancing through the language of hard and soft balancing.
Even a more expansive conception of balancing, however, fails to insulate balance of power theory against mounting disconfirming evidence. While one might be able to salvage a “weak” variant of balance of power theory, realists are probably better off adopting a more nuanced and comprehensive approach to power-political competition. The entire field would benefit from treating “balancing” and the “balance of power” as objects of inquiry in their own right, rather than as the province of realist theory.
What’s This, Then? “Romanes Eunt Domus”?
International Studies Perspectives 9,3 (2008): 300-308.
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Abstract: This article cautions against a number of errors endemic to recent attempts to derive “lessons of empire” for United States foreign policy and grand strategy: (1) justifying the comparison between the United States and past imperial polities based on shared characteristics unrelated to the analytic category of empire, (2) failing to offer recommendations specific to imperial dynamics, (3) assuming that “empire” serves as an “analytic box” composed of otherwise indistinguishable entities, and (4) assessing the question of American Empire in categorical, rather than relational, terms. I next offer an ideal-typical account of the structure and dynamics of empires and discuss how such attention to patterns of domination and resistance—which I term the “micropolitics of hierarchy”—might provide better analytic leverage over key contemporary challenges than the traditional states-under-anarchy framework.
Abstract: Scholars of world politics enjoy well-developed theories of the consequences of unipolarity or hegemony, but have little to say about what happens when a state’s foreign relations take on imperial properties. Empires, we argue, are characterized by rule through intermediaries and the existence of distinctive contractual relations between cores and their peripheries. These features endow them with a distinctive network-structure from those associated with unipolar and hegemonic orders. The existence of imperial relations alters the dynamics of international politics: processes of divide and rule supplant the balance-of-power mechanism; the major axis of relations shift from interstate to those among imperial authorities, local intermediaries, and other peripheral actors; and preeminent powers face special problems of legitimating their bargains across heterogeneous audiences. We conclude with some observations about the American empire debate, including that the United States is, overall, less of an imperial power than it was during the Cold War.
Zeitgeist? The New Idealism in the Study of International Change
Review of International Political Economy 12,4 (2005): 700-719.
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Introduction: Why do the underlying dynamics of international systems undergo fundamental transformation? What processes operate in international-political change? Answers to these questions generally fall into one of three intellectual traditions: bellocentrism, econocentrism, and ideationalism….
Abstract: Constructivists attack the social theory of Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics (TIP), arguing its positions on change, agent-structure interaction and culture are irrevocably flawed. We argue that many of these criticisms are mispecified, as they overlook the structural-functionalist assumptions of Waltz’s theory. Seen in this light, structural realism specifies mechanisms of change, provides a plausible account of agent-structure interaction; and is less ‘materialist’ and ‘rationalist’ than its critics suppose. Most fundamentally, recognizing Waltz’s sociological commitments reinforces his insight that reductionist theories cannot account for international order. An appreciation of TIP’s structural-functionalist sensibilities also helps us to understand the flaws of the theory, and provides constructivists with a clearer departure point for a reformulated systems theory of international politics.
Introduction: In his article “Realist Constructivism,” Barkin (2003:338) described constructivism as a cluster of research methods and analytical tools: a “set of assumptions about how to study world politics” rather than a “set of assumptions about how politics work.” As such, constructivism is subject to E.H. Carr’s dialectic between realism and utopianism. Barkin also argued that the problem with contemporary constructivism is that it has been dominated by liberalism and idealism; it would therefore benefit from a healthy infusion of realism. Much of Barkin’s essay is aimed at showing that mainstream constructivism is, or can be, broadly compatible with classical realist theory.
Barkin is right that mainstream US constructivism is liberal and idealist. In this respect, his article serves as an important overarching statement of a position implicitly taken by a growing number of constructivist scholars. However, Barkin underplays the real and substantial differences between….
Introduction: In “Whence American Internationalism” Jeffrey W. Legro makes three important contributions to the study of international relations in general and to the development of constructivist theory in particular. First, Legro convincingly shows that the shift in American foreign policy from unilateralism to internationalism after World War II cannot be understood without reference to collective understandings about foreign policy. Second, he demonstrates that the interaction between prior intersubjective beliefs, external events, and heterodox views is an essential component of any study of ideational change. Third, Legro lucidly identifies a major problem in mainstream constructivist literature: how to theorize the translation between individual beliefs and cultural structures. This “collective ideation problem,” as Legro calls it, has undermined the explanatory force of normative, ideational, and identity-based explanations for some time….
Which Historical Sociology? A Response to Stephen Hobden’s ‘Theorising the International System’
Review of International Studies 27,2 (2001): 273-280.
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Introduction: In a recent article in the Review of International Studies, Stephen Hobden does a great service by initiating a critical evaluation of the potential for historical sociology in international relations theory. Hobden considers seminal studies by Michael Mann, Theda Skocpol, Charles Tilly, and Immanuel Wallerstein, and concludes that each is inadequate for building an historical sociology of the international system. Articles such as Hobden’s are particularly important in international relations, where many major theories are dependent upon the assumptions and methods of other disciplines. From time to time, we need to ask, in a comparative manner, just how useful such methods and assumptions really are….
Abstract: In recent years, paradigmatic debates in International Relations (IR) have focused on questions of epistemology and methodology. While important in their own right, these differences have obscured the basic divide in the discipline between substantialism, which takes entities as primitives, and relationalism, which takes processes of social transaction as the basic building blocks of theory. We argue that while both approaches can be fruitful, theories of processes and relations are better suited to address certain questions, most notably those involving change in global politics. Drawing on work in International Relations, sociology and philosophy, we examine what such theories entail and discuss areas of research for which they are especially suited.