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Realism and Peaceful Change

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This is an excerpt from Realism in Practice: An Appraisal. An E-IR Edited Collection.
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Realism is most often depicted as a tradition or perspective on international relations explaining war and military conflict. This is not without reason as realists have focused on war as a major or even the primary mechanism of change in international relations. Thucydides, in The History of the Peloponnesian War, written in the fifth century BC, and a standard reference in textbook accounts of the realist tradition, found that ‘[t]he growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable’ (Thucydides 431 BC, 1.23). This position is echoed in realism up until today. For instance, in his modern classic, aptly entitled War and Change in World Politics, Robert Gilpin asserts that ‘a precondition for political change lies in a disjuncture between the existing social system and the redistribution of power towards those actors who would benefit most from a change in the system’, and that change in international relations typically equals war (Gilpin 1981, 9). Likewise, John Mearsheimer, in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, argues that the most war-prone regions are those characterised by unbalanced multipolarity with a potential hegemon seeking to change the established order in its favour by military means, and that the growth of China constitutes the greatest danger to world peace (Mearsheimer 2001).

This does not mean that realists are unconcerned with peace. Acting as policy advisors or foreign policy commentators, realists have often been among the most vocal critics of war. Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, arguably the two most prominent realists in the latter half of the twentieth century, were both highly critical of US military intervention in Vietnam (Rafshoon 2001; Humphreys 2013). More recently, ‘almost all realists in the United States – except for Henry Kissinger – opposed the war against Iraq’ in 2003 (Mearsheimer 2005), and realists have been highly critical of the US military interventions during the Obama administration from 2009 to 2017 (Walt 2016). However, despite this concern with peace, war remains the primary mechanism for change in realist theory, and realists have been surprisingly reluctant to explore the potential for peaceful change.

This chapter seeks to remedy this shortcoming by exploring how the logic(s) of realism may help to explain peaceful change. The intention is not to test realist hypotheses on peaceful change, but rather discuss what dynamics of peaceful change we see when we look through the realist lens (cf. Smith 2007; Sterling-Folker 2006). I develop my argument in five steps. First, I define what peaceful change is when looking through realist lenses. Second, I explain why realists should be concerned about peaceful change and explain why peaceful change has until now played a marginal role in realist analyses. Third, I challenge what is typically perceived as a mission impossible in structural realism arguing that even offensive realist logic leaves room for peaceful change and may explain why peaceful change is a useful strategy for power-maximising states. Fourth, I take this argument further by exploring how increased interaction capacity has changed the power-calculus of interest maximising states, and fifth, in the last section before the conclusion, I explore how structural incentives interact with domestic politics.

What is Peaceful Change?

Realists agree with most standard definitions that peace entails the ‘absence of war and other forms of overt violence’ (Anderson 2004, 102). However, to the realist, ‘peaceful’ does not equal power free. In contrast, realists find that the prospects for peace are conditioned on the distribution of power, although they do not provide clear guidance as to which distribution will most effectively promote peace. Highly asymmetrical distributions of power such as bipolarity and unipolarity may underpin peace understood as the absence of war, because of the clarity of signals and information when there is little doubt on which actors are the strongest and there is little chance of challenging the most powerful states (Waltz 1979; Hansen 2011).[1] However, while bipolarity is highly asymmetric when we look at the great powers vis-à-vis the rest, it is highly symmetric when we look at the balance between the two great powers.

The balance of power, in bipolar and multipolar systems, has been viewed as a major source of peace in realist theory, because the actors in this system are expected to deter each other from attacking (Doyle 1997, 167). Within any distribution of power, states may pursue various strategies for maintaining or changing the status quo by violent or peaceful means or by seeking to ‘pass the buck’, i.e. getting another state to bear the costs of maintaining or changing the status quo. Realists have typically focused on violent means of change, i.e. the use or threat of military action. To the realist, peaceful change entails the use of strategies of diplomatic or economic statecraft. Diplomatic strategies for peaceful change include soft balancing, where states seek to restrain the action of other states by institutional and diplomatic means, taking advantage of information asymmetry and the ability to shift between and act outside institutional settings in order to amend or change the actions of other states but stopping short of using military means (Paul 2017).[2] Economic strategies for peaceful change are fundamentally about changing the behaviour of other states through economic incentives such as trade agreements or economic sanctions (Lobell and Ripsman 2016).

What does ‘change’ mean in this context? Realists agree with Martin Wight that international relations is the ‘realm of recurrence and repetition’ (Wight 1960, 43). International anarchy and power politics will remain inescapable features of international relations, because any policy-maker who refuses to obey the self-help logic of anarchy runs the risk of endangering the security or even survival of the state he or she represents. As noted by Joseph Grieco: ‘states recognise that in anarchy there is no overarching authority to prevent others from using violence, or the threat of violence, to dominate or destroy them. This is in fact the core insight of realism concerning international politics’ (Grieco 1990, 38). This understanding leaves only a limited role for peaceful change as a strategy or outcome softening, but not eradicating, power politics. Thus, foreign policy decision-makers may pursue strategies of peaceful change as a prudent way of promoting change and achieving a peace in accordance with their own values and interests, but with only limited impact on transforming the international system or the nature of international relations (Gilpin 1981, 209).

War and Change: Conflating Structure with Outcome

There are two reasons why realists should be concerned with peaceful change. First, a realist focus on interstate war as the primary mechanism of change seems increasingly out of synch with the empirical record. The number of interstate wars has decreased significantly since 1946 making it one of the most profound trends in international relations in the latter half of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first century (Themnér and Wallensteen 2014). Moreover, the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of what had been one of the two dominant powers for the past 45 years, the Soviet Union, in 1991 did not trigger a great power war. The Soviet Union’s successor state Russia largely accepted the single most significant loss of power by any great power without a war in the history of the modern state system. The loss reduced Russia to the size it had had until the successful expansion by Katharina the Great in the eighteenth century and cut off access to some of the most prosperous parts of what had previously been the Soviet Union (Hansen, Toft and Wivel 2009; Wohlforth 2002). Likewise, in Europe, the reunification of Germany in 1990 was accepted by the other states in the region even though a united Germany had been a significant source of unrest and conflict on the continent in the first half of the twentieth century. More recently, the rise of China has not resulted in military confrontation with the declining US superpower despite structural realist expectations that this will almost inevitably happen (Sørensen 2013). In essence, understanding peaceful change is important if we are to understand some of the most important trends and events in international relations over the past decades.

Second, realists should be concerned with peaceful change because they have a potentially significant contribution to make. Realists remind us of the close relationship between power and politics and look for the impact of interests even when policies are couched in the language of peace, prosperity and freedom (Mearsheimer 2001, 22-7). For this reason, realists are well positioned to provide a critical perspective on liberal and constructivist explanations on peaceful change. In addition, as I will argue below, there is nothing in the realist logic that prevents realists from making a real contribution to understanding peaceful change, and, in particular, the conditions for peaceful change. Moreover, realists are proponents of a ‘practical morality’ providing a middle way between ‘moral perfection’ and ‘moral cynicism’ in order to navigate – and ideally reconcile – ‘what is morally desirable with what is politically possible’ (Lieber 2009, 19).[3] Thus, a realist perspective on peaceful change may entail important advice for foreign policy-makers.

But if realism has potentially a lot to say about peaceful change, then why have realists told us so little? This blind spot stems from an unfortunate dichotomising of potential international realms into (existing) anarchy and (utopian) hierarchy. To be sure, a distinction between international anarchy and domestic politics is a useful and necessary assumption of realist theorising on international relations. However, the structural realist stylised account of international relations as not only a state of nature but a constant state of emergency to be contrasted with rule-governed domestic politics has important, and unnecessary,........

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