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Neoclassical Realist Strategic Analysis: A Statement

Paper presented by Thomas Juneau Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) European Consortium on Political Research Graduate Student Conference Dublin, Ireland, 30 August-1 September 2010

This paper proposes a comprehensive statement for a certain variant of neoclassical realism, which it labels neoclassical realist strategic analysis . Neoclassical realism is a relatively new version of realism, which focuses on the development of rich accounts of foreign policy. It situates the chief determinant of state external behaviour at the level of the international system, by arguing that relative power shapes a state s overall intentions. It adds, however, that to obtain more specific and detailed explanations of foreign policy, one must open the black box of the state and incorporate in the causal chain domestic-level variables which act as filters between systemic pressures and actual policy choices. Neoclassical realism suffers from two weaknesses, however. First, the development of its internal logic remains embryonic. Even though a rapidly growing number of innovative case studies have been published under its label in recent years, few efforts have been made to flesh out its foundations. Furthermore, despite its self-ascribed focus on detailed case studies of the foreign policy of a given state under given circumstances, many neoclassical realist works remain at the same level of relatively high generalizability as what is routinely done in other variants of realism. There is, in sum, a niche for neoclassical realist strategic analysis to fill: to provide a ready-made but flexible, theoretically-inspired framework which can be applied to current or recent cases of foreign policy analysis. The result would be even more detailed analyses, but which locate themselves closer the border between theory and practice and are more directly relevant and useful to those readers who seek to better understand current phenomena of international politics. This paper therefore begins by providing a typology of neoclassical realism, followed by an outline of the five foundational assumptions its strategic analysis variant. The third section proposes a discussion of some of the key characteristics of neoclassical realist strategic analysis, with the underlying objective of better fleshing out its internal logic.1 1- A typology of neoclassical realism Neoclassical realism provides a theoretically-inspired framework allowing for the construction of a detailed account of a country s foreign policy, at a given time or under given circumstances. This framework can be conceptualized on the basis of two continua: Rosian-Rathbunian and generalizability-specificity. Neoclassical realism agrees with structural realism that the most important determinant of a state s behaviour is its relative power, or its place in the anarchic international system. Neoclassical realists, however, are left wanting by the general and parsimonious accounts of structural realism; in order to gain greater accuracy and specificity, they introduce domestic-level intervening variables that act as filters between the independent (relative power) and dependent variables (the foreign policy outcome). In doing this, they open up the black-box of the state, arguing that the intervention of internal factors, such as domestic interest groups, state interests, or elite perceptions can contribute to shaping foreign policy. Gideon Rose argues that because neorealism is a theory of international politics, as Kenneth Waltz emphasizes, much of the daily stuff of international relations is left to be accounted for by theories of foreign policy . Whereas theories of international politics take as

This paper corresponds roughly to the first third of the theoretical framework I seek to elaborate in my doctoral thesis. The second third proposes a neoclassical realist framework for power analysis the independent variable while the last section discusses the intervening and dependent variables (the domestic filters and the foreign policy outcome). The rest of the thesis then applies this framework to the case of recent Iranian foreign policy.

their dependent variable patterns of outcomes of state interaction, theories of foreign policy seek to explain what states try to achieve in the external realm and when they try to achieve it (1998, 145). Such theories, according to Rose, have been neglected by realists. In response, neoclassical realism draws upon the rigor and theoretical insights of the neorealism... of Waltz, Gilpin, and others without sacrificing the practical insights about foreign policy and the complexity of statecraft found in the classical realism of Morgenthau, Kissinger, Wolfers, and others (Taliaferro, et al. 2009, 4). As Fareed Zakaria argues, a good account of a nation s foreign policy should include systemic, domestic, and other influences, specifying what aspects of policy can be explained by what factors (1992, 198). In other words, neoclassical realism proposes a clear causal chain with three steps: the independent variable (the country s relative power in the anarchic international system), the intervening variable (the domestic-level transmission belt , through which systemic pressures are filtered), and the dependent variable, or the foreign policy outcome. Neoclassical realists indeed are left wanting by the assumption that states are unitary actors, whereby systemic pressures are the principal determinants of outcomes. According to this assumption, structure encourages certain actions and discourages others , that is, systemic pressures are directly translated into state actions (Keohane 1986, 166-7). In the long term, a state s behaviour will most likely converge with predictions based solely or mostly on structural factors. In the short term, however, divergences must be expected, and are accounted for by the integration of domestic-level variables. The intervening, domestic-level variables which channel, mediate and (re)direct systemic pressures (Schweller 2004, 164) represent one of the main, and most controversial, innovations of neoclassical realism. They allow for an exploration of the internal processes by which states arrive at policies and decide on actions in response to systemic pressures (Sterling-Folker 1997, 17). As Thomas Christensen explains, given the insufficient determinacy of Waltz s original approach for analyzing foreign policy, additional assumptions... are necessary if we are to argue from the international distribution of capabilities to the security strategies of particular nation-states (1996, 12). The results, neoclassical realists claim, are more accurate, though more restricted in scope and less parsimonious, accounts of state behaviour. A debate has emerged in recent years over whether neoclassical realism should be viewed as a standard foreign policy theory or as a theory of mistakes , a term first proposed by Randall Schweller (2006, 10). For Waltz, states are free to do any fool thing they care to, but they are likely to be rewarded for behaviour that is responsive to structural pressures and punished for behaviour that is not (2003, 53). The system, in other words, points states in the direction of an ideal foreign policy yet, in practice, states regularly deviate from this ideal, pushed in other directions by domestic pathologies (a term proposed in Snyder 1991). Brian Rathbun has thus argued that neoclassical realism should be viewed as a logical and necessary extension of structural realism. It is a theory of mistakes : it explains how domestic factors distract from ideal foreign policy as understood by neorealism (2008, 312), which provides a baseline of what an ideal rational unitary state would do (319). Neoclassical realism begins with the premise that ideal state behaviour is that which conforms with the unitary actor and objectivity premises of neorealism but shows that when these conditions are not met empirically, domestic politics and ideas are the culprits (312). States that stray too much from ideal behaviour, then, suffer severe consequences (317). Christopher Layne s study of U.S. foreign policy exemplifies this approach (2006). He argues that U.S. foreign policy since the 1940s has been based on a grand strategy of extra-regional hegemony , an approach which he considers mistaken. In his view, the U.S. should rather adopt a grand strategy of offshore balancing .

Not all neoclassical realists share this approach, however. Another position, consistent with Rose s original statement of neoclassical realism as foreign policy analysis and further detailed by Steven Lobell, Norrin Ripsman and Jeffrey Taliaferro (2009), posits that it can content itself with simply explaining foreign policy puzzles. Zakaria, in the middle, does not deal with mistakes and severe consequences , but rather identifies an anomaly , the imperial understretch of US foreign policy in the 19th century. This runs counter to the predictions of defensive and classical realism; in contrast, his state-centred realism, he argues, provides a better framework (1998). His ambition is to explain this anomaly, but not to prescribe how the US ought to act (or to have acted). It is possible to view these three approaches to neoclassical realism as constituting a spectrum, ranging from the Rathbunian end to the Rosian opposite, with the Zakarian version in the middle. These three approaches must not be viewed as mutually exclusive, contradictory, or indicative of a degenerative paradigm, but rather as different tools available to the student of foreign policy, with the appropriate one to be chosen on the basis of the needs of a particular research endeavour. In addition to the Rosian-Rathbunian continuum, neoclassical realism can situate itself at various points along a second spectrum, that of specificity vs. generalizability. This paper proposes a general statement for neoclassical realist strategic analysis , a variant which aims to position itself at one end of this second spectrum, by seeking even greater specificity and accuracy than much of neoclassical realism has done so far. Specificity, accuracy

Rathbunian Generalizability, parsimony


On this second spectrum of specificity vs. generalizability, one finds at one end the grand strategy-type studies done by some neoclassical realists, which in their relatively lower levels of richness and higher levels of generalizability are not much different from many applications of other forms of realism. Works such as those of Zakaria (1998), Schweller (1998), or Layne (2006), for example, are positioned on this spectrum quite similarly to other realist studies such as those by Barry Posen (1984), Stephen Walt (1987), or Stephen Van Evera (1999). The more one moves towards the specificity end of the spectrum, the more one approaches the objective of explaining why state X made a certain move last Tuesday (Waltz 1979, 121). At this end, the researcher accepts the statement by William Fox that a good big theory does give a handle on the long- and middle-run future, but it does not point directly and ineluctably to the big shortrun decisions (1985, 5). Crucially, neoclassical realist strategic analysis as research at this end of the spectrum is labelled can include any form of research along the Rosian-Rathbunian spectrum. Neoclassical realist strategic analysis, in sum is a refuge of sorts for those scholars who are dissatisfied with theoretical explanations that are at once too far removed from the texture of political life and do not seem sensitive enough to capture diverse historical factors influencing international politics (Frost 1997, 157).

The decisions on where to situate oneself along these two continua must be made solely on the basis of the needs of the specific research endeavour, and not any preconceived epistemological, ontological or methodological bias; research should be problem-driven, not theory-driven. Neoclassical realist strategic analysis therefore caters to those studies which seek detailed, rich and current (or recent) analyses of foreign policy, with a willingness to use a theoretically-informed framework.2 To do so, all neoclassical realists are willing to add more variables to tackle problems of underspecification and ambiguity; the strategic analysis variant is willing to push this further. As Jack Snyder and Christensen argued, Waltz s ultraparsimonious theory must be cross-fertilized with other theories before it will make determinate predictions at the foreign policy level (1990, 138). Gary King, Robert Keohane and Sydney Verba concurred, positing that in some cases, it is not only valid but a superior decision to include more variables, and that we should never insist on parsimony as a general principle of designing theories (1994, 20). In sum, instead of seeking to explain, like Waltz, a small number of big and important things (1986, 329), neoclassical realism seeks to explain a large number (n) of small things (t). Crucially, it seeks to explain them, not simply to describe them. Neoclassical realism is flexible with the balance between the n and the t: the strategic analysis variant proposed here seeks a larger n of smaller ts, while other variants can pursue a smaller n of larger ts. Decisions on the balance between n and t should solely be based on the particular research problem at hand; the more specific and accurate the account of foreign policy sought, the more the researcher can pursue two options: adding more intervening variables, and operationalizing the intervening variables in more specific ways. A more general account (smaller n, larger ts) could, for example, use one intervening variable, either leaders or state interests (status quo vs. revisionist), while a more specific study (larger n, smaller ts) could not only incorporate both, but increase their individual specificity by changing the first one to factional politics (which incorporates the balance of power among key regime factions) and the second one to either Schweller s model (which further divides state interests into five categories; 1998) or into the more nuanced variable of regime identity . 2- The core assumptions of neoclassical realism Realists of all stripes have proposed a number of core assumptions for the paradigm, failing to agree on a common set. Keohane, in his review of structural realism, proposes three assumptions as forming the hard core of the research program: state-centricity, rationality, and the centrality of power (1986, 164-5). Robert Gilpin, for his part, proposes that the three assumptions of political realism are the essentially conflictual nature of the anarchic international system, the group as the essence of social reality, and the primacy in all political life of power and security in human motivation (1986, 304-305). Joseph Grieco proposes slight modifications, arguing that the core assumptions of realist international theory are the centrality of the state, the anarchic nature of the international system, and that states are rational, autonomous and unitary actors (1997, 164-166). John Mearsheimer, finally, proposes five assumptions which, taken together, explain the power-maximizing and offensive behaviour of great powers: the international system

Methodologically, one implication of focusing on more current cases concerns sources. Access to archival records may be more limited; with certain countries such as, for example, China, access to officials may be more difficult, while limited freedom of the press can also constrain the availability of information. In this sense, neoclassical realist strategic analysis clearly suffers from a presentist focus; this is an inevitable consequence of its objective of studying mostly, but by no means exclusively, current topics.

is anarchic; great powers inherently possess some offensive military capability; states can never be certain about other states intentions; survival is the primary goal of great powers; and great powers are rational actors (2001, 29-32). Neoclassical realism is based on five foundational assumptions; the first three are acceptable to most realists and build on those mentioned above. It is because neoclassical realism accepts those three that it is firmly and unambiguously embedded within the realist tradition. It is on the basis of its acceptance of the last two that its distinctiveness arises. The primacy of the conflict-group The first core assumption of neoclassical realism is that, as Gilpin argued, the fundamental unit of social and political affairs is the group, or what the distinguished German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf has called the conflict group (1996, 7). In previous eras, this unit took the shape, alternatively, of city-states, empires, or tribes; for the past few centuries, the dominant conflict group has been the state. As Waltz argues, states... set the terms of the intercourse... When the crunch comes, states remake the rules by which other actors operate (1979, 94). Or as Stephen Krasner explains, the behaviour of other actors, including multinational corporations and international organizations, is conditioned and delimited by state decisions and state power (1985, 28). Importantly, this assumption says nothing about the extent to which the state is a unitary actor; it does not preclude opening the black-box of the state in the analysis of foreign policy. The nature of international politics is anarchic The second core assumption posits that the international system is essentially anarchic; there is no central authority to arbitrate disputes between units, to enforce agreements, or to come to the protection of units under duress. As a result, international politics are fundamentally conflictual; realism describes a world of conflict and positional competition. As E.H. Carr posited, war constantly lurks in the background of international politics (2001/1939, 102). Similarly, Waltz argued that in the absence of a supreme authority, there is then constant possibility that conflicts will be settled by force (1959, 188). This is an enduring feature of the system: the name, size and organization of the competing groups... alter over time [but]... the essential nature of intergroup conflict does not (Gilpin 1986, 395). Neoclassical realism accepts this assumption, but it relaxes it somewhat, as it does with the state-centricity and primacy of power assumptions. Like Stephen Brooks, it views conflict in terms of probability and not possibility (1997); when the probability is low, states can focus on matters other than security, even while keeping an eye on future sources of conflict. Self-help, in other words, may be the default position of states, the one to which they revert when they must, but it is not necessarily a permanent one. For neoclassical realists, neglect of non-self-help behaviour leads structural realists to ignore a wide range of important foreign policy matters; in this sense neoclassical realism broadens the scope of realism. The primacy of power Neoclassical realists assume that power more specifically, a state s place in the international system, or its relative power is the chief determinant of state behaviour, or the independent variable. As Rose pithily and rightly puts it, that is why they are realists (1998, 146). Again, however, neoclassical realists bring nuance and qualifiers to this assumption. First, they argue for flexibility in the definition, operationalization, and measurement of the concept of power

(Schmidt and Juneau forthcoming). Second, though they position power at the beginning of their causal chain, they refuse to allow it to monopolize explanatory strength. Power shapes state behaviour, but other factors at the domestic level, intervene downstream. And third, even though they accept that power is both a means and an end, they also accept that it is unnecessarily restrictive to posit that states may pursue only one end, be it power or security. For neoclassical realists, states pursue a variety of ends, depending on circumstances. Confined rationality There is a longstanding debate on the status of rationality as an assumption within realism. For Keohane, Grieco and Mearsheimer, rationality is a core assumption of realism. Others, however, argue that it is not. For Waltz, in particular, states are pushed and pulled by structure; either they follow the pressures and incentives of the system, or they suffer consequences. This does not assume that they must, a priori, behave rationally. Neoclassical realism accepts the rationality assumption, but a qualified, contingent one, which it terms confined rationality. It agrees that systemic pressures create opportunities and constraints. Power pushes states to act within a range of possibilities; this does not imply that they are necessarily rational. However, within this space created by systemic constraints in which states may act, there is a role for rationality. Within this range of manipulable choice , states do purposely seek to maximize certain ends, and in doing so measure risks, opportunities, costs, and benefits (Zakaria 1998, 20). This harks back to one of the pillars of Marxism, according to which men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past (Marx and Engels, quoted in Kennedy 1982, 143). Or, more pithily, as Fox argued, the future is semi- but only semi-determined (1985, 12). In other words, within the confines of what a state s capabilities allows it to do (more on this below), there is an assumption of rationality, in that states are assumed to be seeking though usually not fully succeeding to maximize a number of ends in the economic, valuemaximizing sense. States are mostly, but usually imperfectly, aware of their external environment, and rank policy choices on the basis of cost-benefit calculations within the confines of the range of choice made possible by structural opportunities and constraints. Neoclassical realism thus allows for a certain role for state agency. It does so, however, in an ontologically and epistemologically flexible manner, allowing, in particular, for sub-optimal behaviour (if, for example, domestic pathologies impede optimal value-maximization). Neoclassical realists also accept that rationality is a fluid, imprecise and hard-to-define ideal, which needs to be clarified and fleshed out on a case-by-case basis. Thus many will seek, depending on their research objectives, to include as part of their intervening variables the necessary tools to flesh out how the rationality of a specific government plays out in its foreign policy choices. 3 Ontological and epistemological flexibility and complexity It is essential for neoclassical realism to elevate its acceptance of ontological and epistemological flexibility and complexity to the status of a core assumption; doing so opens the door to considerable differences with structural realism, while keeping a high degree of coherence and rigour. Moreover, because the four previous assumptions are all accompanied by considerable qualifications, it is logically consistent to take this extra step. Charles Glaser s contingent realism

Ruth Lane proposes, for example, to combine rational choice theory with political culture approaches to better flesh out the concept of rationality (1992). This would be an inherently contingent, context-dependent approach.

makes a similar assumption, which he labels the conditionality of international politics (1994/95). Neoclassical realists accept that international politics are ontologically complex; as a result, sweeping generalizations on state behaviour ( states balance rather than bandwagon ) are of limited use to the analyst seeking to study what state X did last Tuesday . They therefore specifically and explicitly eschew and reject parsimony, which they view as a major impediment on usefulness and relevance. The sub-sections below on methodology, on ontology and epistemology, and on theory and practice provide more detail on this matter. 3- Characteristics A theoretically-inspired framework Neoclassical realism provides a theoretically-inspired framework to explain foreign policy; it allows for the production of rigorous and objective but at the same time eclectic and rich qualitative research.4 It is based on a foundational law, that capabilities shape intentions, and supplemented by the proposition that intervening variables, at the level of domestic politics, further specify state actions. It is not a theory, however, in the Waltzian sense. For this, it would have to specify which intervening variable has which effect under which circumstances, and would preferably also limit the number of intervening variables. Following this logic, Waltz argues that Hans Morgenthau s version of classical realism only presents elements of a theory... but never a theory , and that without a concept of the whole, he could only deal with the parts (1990, 26). Neoclassical realism would accept this as an accurate description of its limited theoretical ambitions. It would not take this as criticism, however, as will be further discussed below. It prefers to keep the flexibility inherent in its more flexible orientation. Like Morgenthau, it rejects the feasibility and desirability of single-factor explanations (1993/1948, 174). Furthermore, it accepts that the same intervening variable can, in different circumstances, have opposite effects (Tang 2009, 810). In other words, instead of a collection of laws combined with statements explaining them and thus aggregating into a theory of foreign policy, it contents itself but does not view this as inferior with providing the tools for a conceptual analysis linking variables together and proposing a menu of candidate variables. It thus agrees with Keohane s statement on the limited theoretical ambitions of classical realism, which aspires to make the actions of states understandable by providing a context within which they can be intelligibly described (1986, 162). Modesty One cannot be a dogmatic neoclassical realist , believing that it explains everything . Neoclassical realism has no claim to the status of a grand theory of foreign policy, let alone of international politics. One must therefore reject Schweller s hubristic claim that neoclassical

A framework is theoretically-inspired when it is precise, coherent and conceptually-sound; built on a small number of foundational laws and core assumptions; and can be readily and directly applied to the analysis of individual cases or for purposes of comparing cases. Its application includes, or can include, four main steps: the causes of a given a phenomenon (i.e., explaining its occurrence); a description of the phenomenon; its consequences or implications; and some form of prescription on what can or should be done. This builds on but is distinct from Hedley Bull s definition of ideal models: by liberating us from the restraint of constant reference to reality, they leave us free to set up simple axioms based on a few variables and thenceforward to confine ourselves to rigorous deductive logic, thereby generating wide theoretical insights that will provide broad signposts to guide us in the real world even if they do not fill in the details (1969, 31).

realism is now the only game in town (2003, 345). Neoclassical realism certainly is on the rise as a research program, as witnessed by the increasing number of publications in top journals based on it, but its success is partly built on the humility of its claims and the modesty of its ambitions: it is a framework for analysing foreign policy, but one with limited (though still unclear) scope conditions, and with limited but essential assumptions. As such, it is entirely possible that, in some cases, a given foreign policy puzzle will not be explainable by a neoclassical realist framework. A related point is the recognition that there are clear and important things it cannot and does not aim to do, especially as concerns the intervening variables. Neoclassical realism identifies domestic-level factors or processes and argues that they act as filters for the state s foreign policy. The how is dealt with in detail, but the why the sources of the domestic level factors is taken as given. The sources of state identity, for example, are not explained; state identity is taken as a given, and incorporated into the explanation. Neoclassical realism rejects the charge that this is a weakness; it is not within its ambitions or scope to explain such things. It completely accepts the cookie-cutter approach, whereby different theories have different strengths and weaknesses. The field of International Relations advances when this is recognized, when the complementary strengths of different theoretical approaches are identified, and when ways to combine them are identified and implemented. Thus in the case of the sources of state identity, neoclassical realism is perfectly willing to accept that, say, a constructivist explanation could be most satisfactory, and could be combined with the neoclassical realist account of the state s actual foreign policy to build a fuller picture. The importance of the full chain It is essential for neoclassical realism of every variant to ensure that the three steps in its causal chain are fully taken into consideration. If power is either neglected or found not to be causally significant, then the analysis though perhaps empirically valid is not a realist one; if the intervening variable is neglected, then it may be realist, but not neoclassical; and if the foreign policy outcome is not sufficiently detailed, then the analysis is incomplete.5 In the Rosian and Zakarian approaches, power is and must be the independent variable; in those cases where empirical work determines that power is not the chief determinant of foreign policy, then neoclassical realism does not apply. Neoclassical realism accepts that such instances are possible; power is the chief determinant of foreign policy most of the time, and, crucially, is so systematically over the long term. But neoclassical realism accepts that in some circumstances and the narrower the research context, the more this is likely it is possible that domestic factors could subvert foreign policy, and thus monopolize all or most of the explanatory power. This is a matter which must be determined empirically, on a case-by-case basis. In those cases, Innenpolitik theories are better suited. A case can be made that some neoclassical realists have neglected this seemingly essential rule. Michael Spirtas, for example, criticizes Schweller for ignoring power and focusing only on the unit level of analysis in his study of foreign policy under tripolarity (1996, 412). Similarly, some have labelled Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack s study of the impact of leaders on foreign policy (2001) as neoclassical realist (Lobell et al. 2009, 8). But this is only partly valid, for the simple reason that Byman and Pollack do not systematically integrate power

That said, different parts of the analysis can be useful on their own. Detailed power analysis or accounts of foreign policy outcomes, of national interests, or of the consequences of foreign policy choices can all be hived off for distinct and valuable purposes.

in their explanatory framework. In some of their case studies and hypotheses, power does seem to shape a state s behaviour, with the personal characteristics and idiosyncrasies of leaders then intervening downstream as filters further specifying foreign policy. They argue, for example, that Germany, without Hitler, would have been in the 1930s a revisionist state, largely because of systemic factors. Hitler s personality, however, magnified this propensity, thereby changing the direction of the country s foreign policy. In other cases, however, leaders seem to account for most of their country s foreign policy orientation, while the explanatory role of systemic factors is vaguely acknowledged but neglected, as in the case of their depiction of the role of Saddam Hussein and Hafiz al-Assad. It would thus be more accurate to describe Byman and Pollack s work as making a potentially valuable contribution to neoclassical realism, by proposing that a specific intervening variable at the unit-level individual leaders does, in some circumstances, have an important bearing on a state s foreign policy. Future research could therefore dig deeper and integrate leaders in the complete framework. A more comprehensive effort to integrate the impact of leaders as an intervening variable, in between systemic factors and foreign policy, can be found in Paul Kennedy s study of the foreign policy of Wilhelmine Germany (1982). This raises an important question concerning the Rathbunian approach to neoclassical realism. Obviously, power is and must be the independent variable in the ideal foreign policy stream. But what about the case of actual foreign policy? Rathbun argues that Mearsheimer and Walt s study of the influence of the Israel Lobby over US foreign policy (2007) is textbook neoclassical realism (2008, 321). But as numerous critics have pointed out, Mearsheimer and Walt s reading of US policy towards Israel is pluralist, and not realist it is classic interest group politics, entirely based on domestic factors.6 Mearsheimer and Walt s analysis is therefore not consistent with neoclassical realism; it is an Innenpolitik analysis of actual foreign policy, followed by structural realist prescriptions. Power, in sum, should also be the independent variable in the depiction of actual foreign policy. The causal effect of intervening variables must then be validated and demonstrated. If it is not, the analysis is possibly in the realm of structural realism. A related challenge for neoclassical realism and an important existing weakness is the validation of the choice of intervening variable(s). Why does a case study select a particular intervening variable, and not another? Why perceptions, and not state interests? Neoclassical realists have not answered this question satisfactorily thus far, which leaves them vulnerable perhaps with some justification to charges of ad hocness. Neoclassical realism and international outcomes As repeatedly stated by its proponents, neoclassical realism s scope is foreign policy analysis and not the study of international outcomes such as wars or the formations of balances of power as is with Waltz s neorealism. A case could be made, however, that the study of international outcomes represents undeveloped fertile ground for neoclassical realism. One important application could be a neoclassical realist interpretation of the democratic peace. The intervening variable, here, could be democracy which, of course, would have to be fleshed out: is it understood in terms of its institutions, norms, or both? This variable, it would be argued, serves to moderate the foreign policy of countries which display it, at the very least towards one another. This would account for the lower rates of conflict between them. One advantage would be to properly integrate the variability of the measures for the democracy

For an overview of such discussions, see Slater (2009).

variable: the more democratic is a state, the more its foreign policy is moderated in certain circumstances. Specific aspects of democratic development, then, could be argued to account for specific behaviours. The important aspect of this proposition is that consistent with realist criticisms of the democratic peace hypothesis7 the independent variable, power, maintains important causal power. This is consistent with arguing, as many realists would, that the main historical case of democratic peace, the post-1945 Western world, is primarily explained by a structural factor, US hegemony. The peace in question, however, is further facilitated by a domestic-level intervening variable, democracy. This explanation of an international outcome such as the democratic peace displays some of the strengths of neoclassical realism. It is flexible, in that it integrates different variables; it is eclectic, in that it seeks these variables from different sources; and it is more comprehensive than explanations based solely wither on power or on norms or institutions. The study of international institutions could form another fruitful avenue for future research and for broadening neoclassical realism s scope. In fact, it would partly build on the earlier work of Schweller (1997, with Priess). Here, power would remain the independent variable, while the dependent variable would be the level of international institutionalization an outcome of international politics, not foreign policy. The intervening variable(s) would depend on the research question. Another important dimension of neoclassical realism is that even when it looks at foreign policy and not at international outcomes, it can serve as a framework to empirically test propositions featuring outcomes. Some of these remain controversial, and are difficult to test. Will the rise of China trigger the formation of a balance of power an outcome, not a unit behaviour as many realists predict, or will non-realist theories have it right by arguing that, for example, factors such as economic interdependence or norms can lead to stability through mechanisms other than a balance? Ultimately, the only way to test the validity of a systemic prediction is by looking in depth at the behaviour of individual states, something neoclassical realism is arguably best positioned to do within realism. In this case, neoclassical realism can study the individual foreign policies of East Asian states to determine if they balance, bandwagon, or something else, relative to China. Neoclassical realism and political theory The Rathbunian approach to neoclassical realism opens the door to wade into the waters of political theory. For Carr, for example, political science is about the balance between utopia and reality with the latter studying how things should be (that is, the ideal or optimal foreign policy), and reality corresponding to how things actually are. Importantly, Carr argues that political scientists must not neglect the study of the road leading from reality to utopia (or at least, how to strive for utopia; 2001/1939). Similarly, Morgenthau distinguishes two dimensions, theory (which describes reality as it ought to be), and deflections from this normative, rational ideal in reality, because of contingencies and systemic irrationalities (1993/1948, 10). In her discussion of classical realism, Murielle Cozette (2008) argues that according to Raymond Aron and Morgenthau, it is essential to define an Ideal that is not necessarily achievable, but that Man must strive for. According to Cozette, Aron presents the Idea of Reason as a regulative ideal, as a Kantian horizon: something always to be striven for, even if never achieved (677). Cozette says, however, that Morgenthau and Aron are vague not only about what this Ideal is, but even more about how to achieve it.

For an overview of realist criticism of the democratic peace hypothesis, see Walt (2002, 219).


Most writings under the broad umbrella of realism in recent decades, especially since the Watlzian revolution, have neglected this duality. 8 Neoclassical realists ambitions at least for those following the Rathbunian approach are more limited, and more practical and applied: to propose detailed frameworks not only for the ideal foreign policy of a state, but also how to get there. Even if such proposals are not necessarily achievable, they can nonetheless serve as yardsticks by which to assess or evaluate a state s actual foreign policy, and serve as blueprints for specific policies that can strive for this more optimal outcome. This opens the door to a potentially rich research agenda. What is, first and foremost, ideal foreign policy? Realists have been arguing for decades about the implications of anarchy; as such, to say that states should respond to the constraints and opportunities of the system maintains the same ambiguities and underspecifications that neoclassical realism criticizes and rejects. Much can also be done to better understand neoclassical realism s proposed consequences for states which do not respond sufficiently to the system s pressures and incentives. Another interesting approach could be to challenge the assumption that ideal foreign policy is that which does not allow for intervening variables to intervene as filters for systemic pressures. Empirical tests could be performed to determine if, for example, certain unitlevel factors such as democratic ideas or values could not, in fact, lead to more ideal scenarios than foreign policies conducted strictly according to systemic pressures. Interesting links to classical realism s notions of prudence and restraint could be explored. A dynamic and path-dependent chain Neoclassical realist strategic analysis posits that two key characteristics of its causal chain are its dynamism and path-dependency. For most structural realists, the independent variable is the structure of the international system, usually operationalized in terms of its polarity. Polarity does not change often; slight variations in state power have no bearing on it. Neoclassical realism, however, brings in a dynamic quality to the interaction between structure and unit. Many scholars, some realists and others not, have written about the interaction between structure and unit. Most famously, Charles Tilly wrote that war made the state and the state made war, implying that system and unit constantly interact with each other, and change the other (1990). Similarly, Keohane argued that international institutions, rules, and patterns of cooperation can affect calculations of interest, and can also be affected incrementally by contemporary political action (1989, 66). Capabilities Usable power Conversion process Intervening Variable(s) Foreign policy

Though more and more, the normative dimension of Waltz s work is being recognized (see Mearsheimer 2009).


There is thus a dynamic quality to the neoclassical realist causal chain, with each variable having a feedback effect on the value and operation of the others. As a result, because power is fluid, the range of possible state action is not fixed or static; it constantly shifts. The effect on foreign policy of a given intervening variable, moreover, can lead to certain components of power being maximized to the detriment of others; this, in turn, changes the causal effect of power. Even more specifically, an intervening variable can have an impact on another, downstream intervening variable, further changing the dynamic of the chain. There is, in sum, reciprocity between the three steps in the causal chain, as illustrated by the figure below as the value of one variable changes, it impacts the others. As Robert Jervis wrote, changes in one part of the system produce ramifications in other elements and feedback loops (1991/92, 42). Neoclassical realist strategic analysis further posits that path-dependency is an important characteristic of its causal chain. Path-dependency is a concept which is sometimes implicit in studies of international politics, but is rarely explicit; it is certainly undertheorized. Walt, for example, in a study of alliance formation under unipolarity, argues that American leadership today is the artefact of... particular historical circumstances . The US inherited from the Cold War a unique and global military position; if it had become a unipolar power under different circumstances for example in the 1920s its behaviour could well have been different (2009, 100). Drawing a parallel with evolution, which can only work by modifying the structures available to it (2002, 83, quoting Bowler), Jennifer Sterling-Folker makes a rare foray in this direction, arguing that the flow of international politics is, in significant measure, contingent or path-dependent (1997, 42-43). Similarly, Peter Katzenstein and Nobuo Okawara define history as an open-ended process in which the accumulation of events and experience from one period alters the contours of the next (2001/02, 156). There remains much debate in the literature as to the definition of path dependency. Paul Pierson, in a review, reports competing broader and narrower versions (2000). The broad one refers to the causal relevance of preceding stages in a temporal sequence (252). He quotes William Sewell, for whom it means that what happened at an earlier point in time will affect the possible outcomes of a sequence of events occurring at a later point in time (252). By contrast, he quotes approvingly Margaret Levi s narrower definition, which incorporates the concept of increasing returns: once a country or region has started down a track, the costs of reversal are very high... the entrenchments of certain institutional arrangements obstruct an easy reversal of the initial choice (252). Neoclassical realism prefers, despite Pierson s preference for the opposite, the broader definition, simply because it finds its more flexible approach to be more appropriate to its needs. Neoclassical realism s foundational law is that capabilities shape intentions, in that they shape a range of feasible policy alternatives. Intentions are then further specified as successive variables in the causal chain shift and narrow the range of feasible actions. Conceptually, pathdependency can thus be understood as the locking in or boxing in of the range of feasible state action, as prior decisions shape and constrain future options. This is consistent with Douglass North s definition: path dependence is a way to narrow conceptually the choice set and link decision-making through time (1990, 99). The direction that power pushes foreign policy towards cannot change overnight; as such, foreign policy is locked or boxed in, with some decisions having long lasting implications for future choices.9

Methodologically, the incorporation of path-dependency into neoclassical realism s causal logic is consistent with and reinforces its use of analytical narratives and process-tracing. Path-dependency implies that the effect of variables over time must be taken into consideration: the most important implication is the need to focus on branching points and on the specific


Of course, such boxing in of future options is neither permanent nor fixed; the narrowing of the range of future options because of a given decision can be reverted or changed by either decisions or actions by the state in question, or by factors exogenous to it. Such change can be either sudden or gradual. In the case of sudden changes, the state jumps from one path to a new one, which was possibly rejected or ignored in the past. This can occur, for example, in the wake of a revolution, which can change in some cases, reverse a state s identity, as was the case of Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This is relatively rare; rather, more frequent are gradual changes, or readjustments to a path, as elements of power or of intervening variables evolve with time. As these change, the range of possible state actions shifts gradually, tilting in one direction or another. For example, this thesis retains factional politics as an intervening variable. In this case, shifts in the domestic balance of power among key factions, for example following elections or other internal dynamics, leads to corresponding tilts in the causal chain, and therefore in foreign policy. Methodology In general, neoclassical realism is satisfied with the methodological tools at hand; it offers no innovations, though it does make use of certain tools which other realists have somewhat neglected. In particular, neoclassical realism uses three methodological tools: case study research, process-tracing, and analytical narratives. Alexander George and Andrew Bennett define case studies as the detailed examination of an aspect of a historical episode to develop or test historical explanations that may be generalizable (2004, 5). The case study approach features strengths that are particularly appropriate for neoclassical realism, such as its ability to examine the proposed causal mechanism in great detail, to accommodate complex causal relations, and to achieve high levels of conceptual validity and clarity (2004, 19-22). A common criticism of the case study method is that it is atheoretical and ad hoc. Zeev Maoz, for example, argues that case studies have become in many cases a synonym for freeform research where everything goes (2002, 165). Neoclassical realism, however, rejects such criticism: it uses case studies to apply (and constantly improve) a theoretically-inspired framework based on a foundational law and core assumptions. George and Bennett define process-tracing as the method which attempts to trace the links between possible causes and observed outcomes (2004, 6), by focusing on sequential processes (2004, 13). On the basis of one or a few cases, process-tracing is intended to investigate and explain the decision process by which various initial conditions are translated into outcomes (George and McKeown 1985, 35). Bennett and Colin Elman argue that processtracing can involve either deductive or inductive analysis (2007). Inductive studies may reveal potentially causal processes that the researcher had not theorized a priori (183). Neoclassical realism uses deductive analysis, whereby theory suggests which intervening events should have occurred within a case if the theory is an accurate explanation (183). An important key to successful process-tracing research is the use of a wide variety of sources (Bennett and Elman 2007, 183). This is particularly the case for neoclassical realist strategic analysis, given its focus on current or recent events, often in countries with difficult or limited access to reliable data.

factors that reinforce the paths established at those points (Pierson 2000, 263). Issues of sequence and critical junctures are therefore crucial; neoclassical realists should be more transparent in integrating them as they build their analytical narratives. On critical junctures, see Hacker (1998).


An analytical narrative is the organization of material in a chronologically sequential order, and the focusing of the content into a single coherent story, albeit with subplots (Stone 1981, 74). Its purpose is to build theoretically-informed, contingent accounts of the foreign policy of a given state, under given circumstances. Narrative analysis, as Jack Levy argues, is a method which, though compatible with most theoretical orientations, is not devoid of theoretical assumptions (1997, 27). In this sense, the development of analytical narratives by neoclassical realist research is a logical result of its use of process-tracing and case study methodologies. Ontology and epistemology Neoclassical realism s approach to ontology and epistemology, unlike its methodological preferences, diverges from much of structural realist scholarship, in some cases significantly. Neoclassical realists view the realm of international politics as complex and richly-detailed. Power is imprecise and changing; opportunities for state action are ambiguous and fluid. 10 States are the main actors of international politics, but they are assumed to be complex aggregates of a multiplicity of domestic actors, often with conflicting goals; foreign policy is the result, then, of a messy process driven by both international and domestic causes. States vary in their goals depending on time and context, and it is not possible to reduce those goals to a single end be it the maximization of power, security, wealth, or something else or to reduce foreign policy to a single strategy, such as bandwagoning or balancing. As Morgenthau wrote, the complexities of international affairs make simple solutions and trustworthy prophecies impossible... The best the scholar can do, then, is to trace the different tendencies that, as potentialities, are inherent in a certain international situation (1993/1948, 22). To explain this complex world, neoclassical realism embraces richness and specificity at the expense of parsimony and generalizability, and mid-level or contingent theorizing instead of grand theories of international politics. Paul Schroeder has criticized neorealism s sweeping and generalizing claims that states tend to balance against power (or threat) and are not functionally differentiated (1994). Neoclassical realism shares this reluctance to generalize and seek parsimony as a letter of faith. Such an approach agrees with Harold Lasswell and Abraham Kaplan, who reject the quest for universal laws in the grand style , but seek instead to build a framework for political inquiry that can lead to partial inquiries that can illuminate situationally localized problems in empirical ways (1950, xxiii). Similarly, Ashley Tellis argues that because political life is chaotic and cannot be falsely ordered, the discipline must content itself with developing sets of detailed, historically-derived, inductive principles, a systematized body of empirical information (1996, 48). This, of course, has been criticized. Anders Wivel, for one, argues that rejecting parsimony and generalizability risks leaving the reader confused (2005, 357), while Barry Buzan and Richard Little posit that it is impossible to know when we should stop adding new dimensions of reality to an analysis conducted from this point of view (quoted in Wivel 2005, 370). Neoclassical realism turns this criticism on its head: it can be as confusing, if not more, to

A parallel can be made to the growing acknowledgement of the importance of uncertainty in strategic planning. As Fitzsimmons notes, official assessments of the future security environment have, since the end of the Cold War, consistently acknowledged the importance of uncertainty (2006-07, 132). Or as a former principal deputy undersecretary of defence for policy the leader of the Quadrennial Defence Review Process in 2006 put it, uncertainty defines the strategic and operational environment today... A planning system based on the prediction of specific threats can no longer adequately address the spectrum of feasible threats to our society (quoted in Fitzsimmons 2006-07, 133). Similarly to theory-development, a strategic planning process which takes greater account of uncertainty must sacrifice generalizability and predictability in favour of richness and specificity.


explain the complex behaviour of a state or a group of states with an overly general statement. It trusts the researcher to add the required levels of complexity, on the basis of the specific needs of the research endeavour. In this, it agrees with key elements of Bull s view of what he refers to as the classical approach to the theory of international relations. For Bull, theorizing is characterized above all by explicit reliance upon the exercise of judgement (1969, 20). Issues of generalizability and parsimony are more fluid than many critics would admit. This can be illustrated by Zakaria s study of US foreign policy around the turn of the 20th century. He asks two questions: a more general one under what conditions do states expand (or change) their interests abroad and a more specific one, concerning the dominant cause that explains the course of late nineteenth century American foreign policy (1998, 8). He provides a very detailed and rich answer to the second question, which is highly valuable in itself. Any light, however incomplete, he provides on the general question is a bonus. The key is that neoclassical realism accepts encourages that the detailed, rich answer to the second question is an end in itself, whereas it is the answer to the first, more general question that is the means: theory is a mean, not an end. The end is the explanation of a specific phenomenon of international politics. On some aspects, neoclassical realism situates itself at the crossroads between internationals relations and diplomatic history.11 It blends the accuracy and descriptive completeness of narratives about particular events of the historian s methodology (Kiser and Hechter 1991, 2), with political science s focus on more theoretically-oriented explanations of social phenomena. It disagrees with those political scientists who seek to generalize systematically and who believe that broad covering laws can explain the recurrence of sweeping classes of events in international politics. At the same time, it accepts one foundational law, that capabilities shape intentions. Limited, contingent generalizations are thus possible, but only in the context of rich, detailed explanations of individual episodes of social phenomena, whose unique and particularistic features are recognized. It provides, in other words, a framework that allows some level of systematization and rigor, within specific bounds, while respecting the complexity of international life. Neoclassical realism, in sum, rejects the view that every social phenomenon is rigorously unique, as well as the other extreme according to which large numbers of events can be aggregated together and lumped under single classes. Instead, it accepts that individual cases can be treated as members of a class or category of phenomenon, but that such groupings are not only relatively narrow and constricted, but also fluid and ambiguous. Moreover, similar events can fall under different categories, while the same case can change category with time, as the research context changes.12 Neoclassical realists agree with Gabriel Almond and Stephen Genco, who argue that although there are political regularities to be discovered, they are different from physical ones. The properties of political regularities are soft; political decisions are subject to a complex array of constraints and opportunities and are historically bounded. Thus all political science can aspire to is a collection of propositions specifying the conditions under which variation occurs (1977).

Rose has already proposed that neoclassical realism is found in the middle ground the via media because it incorporates, within a realist framework, variables associated with constructivism or liberalism, such as ideas or leaders (1998). It is debatable, however, whether this really positions neoclassical realism in the middle ground, since it firmly stays within the realist camp. It would be more accurate to argue, on this issue, that neoclassical realism favours eclecticism, but within a broad, realist framework. 12 On the dialogue between diplomatic history and international relations theory, see the special issue of International Security (1997).


Such cloud-like complex events are best explained by contingent generalizations or mid-range theories , as opposed to grand theories which aim to explain a small number of big and important things , with a minimal number of variables (Waltz 1986, 329). Mid-range theories aim for the opposite: they explain a big number of small things, and are ready to sacrifice generalizability and parsimony for gains in accuracy and specificity. As Keohane argued, the predictions of a large-scale theory will be rather gross . To achieve greater precision when this is the objective of a particular research endeavour, as it is for neoclassical realism one must narrow the domain of the theory and progressively add complexity. The debate between parsimony and contextual subtlety then resolves itself into a question of stages rather than an either/or choice (1986, 188). This is a trade-off neoclassical realists enthusiastically make. They do not disparage grand theorizing; in fact, they depend on it, as neoclassical realism should be seen as a logical extension of neorealism (Rathbun 2008). They simply argue that middle-range theory with its more limited claims and greater selfconsciousness of conditionalities is more useful for the study of the how of foreign policy. General theory is necessary to build more contingent theory, but the high level of abstraction at which it operates does not sufficiently allow for more focused analysis of particular policy problems (Jentleson 2002, 174). A framework focusing on the development of contingent generalizations allows for the identification following extensive empirical research of causal processes linking an upstream variable power to a downstream outcome, foreign policy behaviour, through the intervening filter of domestic processes. More specifically, it allows the analyst to explain why changes in the value of upstream variables, either the independent or intervening ones, lead to changes in foreign policy behaviour. Even more specifically, it allows for the linkage of changes in components of upstream variables such an element of power with the outcome. This can be illustrated with the important decision of which intervening variable(s) to select. As neoclassical realism progresses as a research agenda, it will increasingly be possible for analysts to pick and choose from an existing menu of intervening variables, by intuiting which are most appropriate and by testing them against the evidence. Each application will, hopefully, further refine the conceptualization and the scope condition of each variable. This is a point similar to Clifford Geertz s argument about thick description : successive use allows for increases in the boldness and incisiveness of the analysis (1973, 24). As discussed above, neoclassical realism is a theoretically-informed framework for the study of foreign policy, not a theory. A parallel can be drawn with the case Valery Bunce makes for the development of frameworks for the study of democratization, rather than for a theory of democratization (1995, 123). Such a framework is improved by applying it and then reflecting on its application so as to refine it. The generalizability of such contingent theories is limited, but this is a trade-off neoclassical realists are comfortable with: they are willing to leave abstract theorizing to others and prefer to concentrate their efforts on more focused endeavours. Some generalizability is nonetheless possible, as variables developed and refined in one context can be reused, with more or less adaptation. As neoclassical realism matures, its databank of variables will grow; with time, it should be possible for analysts to pick from a menu which variables are most appropriate for the country they wish to study. The neoclassical realist research agenda is progressive, then, in a Lakatosian sense, if it can be shown that not only are new applications shedding light on previously misunderstood phenomena, but also if the available menu of intervening variables improves in both quantity and quality. A common criticism of the foreign policy analysis literature is that too much of it consists

of ad hoc lists of which domestic factors can influence foreign policy, and not enough actual systematization. Robert Putnam, for example, argues that much of the existing literature on relations between domestic and international affairs consists either of ad hoc lists of countless domestic influences on foreign policy or of generic observations that national and international affairs are somehow linked (1988, 430). Neoclassical realism within its framework of capabilities shaping intentions is willing to accept a degree of list-making . Future research should thus focus on building a menu , through extensive case studies, of candidate intervening variables at the level of domestic politics. It accepts that to some extent this may be the best IR scholarship may be able to hope for. It is legitimate to seek to better identify scope conditions, by specifying which domestic variables matter under which circumstances, and by understanding the circumstances under which domestic variables matter more. But its ambitions at this level are limited: it is willing to accept here a relatively high degree of fluidity and indeterminacy, which must be dealt with empirically. This recognition of the complexity of political reality and of the resulting focus on contingent theorizing implies that neoclassical realism must be flexible ontologically and epistemologically. It must favour eclecticism, accepting a diversified ontology consisting of material and ideational elements, at the level of both the independent and intervening variables (on eclecticism, see Sil 2000). As Walt argues, no methodological laws are broken when a scholar draws on more than one theoretical tradition when seeking to explain some particular phenomena (2002, 199). Neoclassical realism thus favours the cookie-cutter approach, especially in its selection of intervening variables, whereby appropriate explanatory factors are selected from a tool-box solely on the basis of the needs of a given case. Its eclecticism, however, differs from the ad hoc approach put forward by Katzenstein and Okawara and others, whereby variables and theories should be combined solely on the basis of what works (2001/02). Melvyn Leffler, for example, argues, in his study of the Cold War, that he applies no single theory... if reality is too complex to be captured by a single theory, different theories may help the historian to make sense of different parts of the phenomenon or event or process under scrutiny (1995, 179). Instead, neoclassical realism posits that one causal variable power, associated with realism is primus inter pares. It thus provides a modicum of hierarchy in its eclecticism. It rejects monocausal accounts and parsimony, but does not go as far as historians who favour complex multicausal accounts. In this sense, neoclassical realism is a via media between unicausal and multicausal explanations it is uni-multicausal. Many object to such eclecticism. Steve Smith, in particular, argues that it is not possible to combine a social ontology with a positivist epistemology (2000), whereas Roxanne Doty believes that it is a problem to make a complex social ontology amenable to positivist social science (2000, 137-8). Others disagree with this rigidity and dismiss it as counterproductive. Krasner, for example, quotes John Searle who contends that it is possible to have a subjective ontology but an objective epistemology (2000, 131). In Comparative Politics, many accept this kind of eclecticism. Peter Hall, for one, argues that to gain a comprehensive understanding of the political economy of industrialized nations, it is best to integrate the key variables from all three branches of Comparative Politics: interests, institutions, and ideas (1997). Interestingly, authors straddling the border between IR and Comparative Politics have been particularly encouraging of such pluralism. Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink have highlighted how some of the most innovative work of the past years has resulted from the combination of a priori distinct

approaches (2001). They mention how Emmanuel Adler and Michael Barnett s work borrows from both constructivism and Karl Deutsch s pioneering studies of security communities, or how Thomas Risse s work on communicative action borrows from both constructivism and the work of Jurgen Habermas. Scientific progress then occurs through the recognition that various theoretical approaches have different strengths. Albert Hirschman has argued that competing interpretations of market societies should not be seen as mutually contradicting, but rather as together forming a comprehensive tableau : however incompatible the various theories may be, each might still have its hour of truth and/or its country of truth . Accounts of conditions under particular times and places are most powerful when they seek to combine elements from the different approaches, not when they hold them against each other (1982, 1481). Scientific progress occurs through a gradually improved understanding of the specific circumstances under which a given paradigm is better adapted. No single theory can explain everything ; rather, elements from different theories better explain different aspects of a given social phenomenon. Debate among paradigms should not lead to the triumph of one over all others, but to a better understanding of their relative strengths and weaknesses. In this context, the most appropriate epistemological approach is the soft postbehaviouralism or neo-positivism of King, Keohane and Verba (1994). Qualitative social science research can arrive at reasonably reliable inferences by using well-established procedures of inquiry. They emphasize that the goal of scientific research is to make descriptive or explanatory inferences on the basis of empirical information about the world (7). Complex events can be understood by seeking generalizations, by conceptualizing individual cases as members of a class of events about which generalizations can be made. Neoclassical realism moves away from the focus on usual debates on scientific standards whether Lakatosian, Kuhnian, or Popperian. Schweller, the only author to have openly discussed the theoretical evaluation of neoclassical realism, defined success as an approach s popularity inside its field (2003, 344). The approach proposed here explicitly rejects this. Rather, it focuses on another test, which it believes social scientists too often neglect: how fruitful or useful is the framework for explaining shedding light on current or recent, important and complex phenomena in international politics?13 Too often theory is viewed as an end in itself and is therefore evaluated on its own grounds instead of being viewed as a means to an end, which should be to provide useful and relevant explanations of international politics. Theories in the biological sciences, to draw a parallel, should not be evaluated solely or even primarily on the basis of their internal logic, but rather on whether they are useful for understanding the natural world, and therefore to support applied research seeking, for example, cure for particular diseases. Theory and practice Neoclassical realist strategic analysis positions itself at the border between theory and practical or applied analysis. The discipline of political science as a whole can be viewed as encompassing a spectrum of specializations, ranging from most to least theoretical. Roughly, this would include the following categories (which, of course, are fluid and often morph into one another, while individual studies can and often do blend in aspects from more than one): metatheory, or philosophy of science; theory; theoretically-informed frameworks; theoretically13

Similarly, Mearsheimer posits that the the most important criterion for assessing the worth of any theory is how well it explains state behaviour (2002, 58).


informed empirical analysis; empirical analysis 14; policy analysis and recommendations. It must be emphasized that this continuum is horizontal, and not vertical; there is no implicit or explicit hierarchy marking some categories as inherently superior. Each stage, rather, is responsible for its own portion of the division of labour, is equally valuable, and depends on the others for its development and relevance.15 Crucially, theory is, or must be, a means to an end, and not an end in itself; this end is to shed light on complex phenomena of international politics. Too much work in international relations loses track of this distinction, and veers towards viewing, explicitly or implicitly, theory as an end in itself. As Bruce Jentleson argues, graduate programs convey early on to Ph.D. students that the track they have chosen is more about the discipline than it is about the world (2002, 178). Similarly, Wallace argues that political science (in Britain) is in danger of becoming unbalanced, preoccupied with theory for its own sake rather than as a means to explanation (1996, 314). More specifically, F. Gregory Gause III, one of the foremost scholars of the international relations of the Middle East, writes that in his field, one is rewarded more for counterintuitive theoretical findings than for getting the cases right (2010, 9). Smith s objective for a collective volume on European foreign policy illustrates well this trend: using the vast changes sweeping Europe in the early 1990s as a case study, the volume aims to understand the state of foreign policy analysis; if, along the way, we can say something about the nature of those changes, that will be a bonus (1994, 19). Neoclassical realism thus calls for problem-driven research, and criticizes the discipline of International Relations for having veered towards theory-driven research (for similar views, see Jentleson 2002 and sources therein, and Gaddis, 1997; for a criticism of the same problem regarding political science as a whole, see Green and Shapiro, 1994). Incentives in the field (publications, promotions, appointments), in particular, favour theoretical work, and not policy or policy-relevant studies. Neoclassical realist strategic analysis calls for the balance between theory and policy-relevance to shift further towards policy-relevance, and away from theory. Theory is not rejected; it is part of the necessary foundation for theoretically-informed frameworks and applied analysis. As Jentleson argues, theory can be valued without policy relevance being so undervalued (2002, 170). The identification of the problem, therefore is key; it implies that research problems should be more often defined in concrete policy terms, with direct and relevant applicability. Theory, in other words, should be viewed as a tool, to be used for specific ends. One particular tool say, a hammer is a means, for example to hang a work of art on a wall, which is the end sought. A hammer, on its own, is useless, while the work of art, once hung on the wall, is not: it can be enjoyed by society. A tool exists solely for the purpose of building things. A tool is not necessarily, or does not have to be, an elegant item, like the work of art. A hammer must have a good handle and be easily manipulable, so that different individuals can pick it up and use it for their own purposes, so long as these remain within the broad scope of the hammer s function, which is, roughly, to bang on things. Crucially, this means that the hammer must be


Some would argue that it is impossible to rid oneself of theoretical assumptions, even in supposedly atheoretical case studies. The distinction here between theoretically-informed empirical analysis and empirical analysis , however, simply distinguishes those studies which explicitly apply a theoretical framework from those which do not, or barefoot empirical analysis. 15 That said, there is a frequent bias in the political science discipline to view harder theory as inherently superior. The field itself is structured this way; theoretical publications, in particular, are usually more highly valued (see Wallace 1996, 303; Jentleson 2002). This writer s instructor in an introductory course on political theory, for example, openly stated that there was a hierarchy within the discipline, with political theory at the very top.


usable readily, handily, and repeatedly by different people with different but broadly coherent purposes. The discipline of International Relations should view itself as no more and no less than a service industry. Like any service industry, it has clients, who are those who require tools to better understand the world: the general public, governments, NGOs, businesses, the media, and so on.16 Hard and meta-theory matter, even though they will not be directly useful to clients. The ultimate end of the provision of a service must be the overarching priority as more abstract works of theoretical development are undertaken. This is why Schweller s criteria mentioned above success defined as popularity within the discipline should be rejected. Indeed, much academic research in international relations views consciously or not consumption within the field as its objective. As George wrote, most university professors seem to write largely for one another and have little inclination or ability to communicate their knowledge in terms comprehensible to policymakers (1993, 7). Neoclassical realism therefore rejects the view of those academics who call for purity and who reject the contamination of participating in public policy debates, and who decry the fallen intellectual seduced by the siren song of policy relevance .17 As Wallace writes in his review of the relationship between academics and practitioners, intellectual responsibility shades into irresponsibility when the intellectual disclaims engagement with the world (1996, 304). It is possible to draw a parallel between theory development and intelligence analysis to illustrate the need to fulfil a service. Intelligence analysis is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end, which is to provide relevant, tailored analytical support to feed into the decision- and policy-making processes (see Herman 1996). Intelligence must or else it is not fulfilling its mandate produce reports tailored for the needs of its clients. This involves quite an extensive process of identifying those clients; identifying their needs; identifying and building the capabilities needed to respond adequately to these needs; actually performing this function; constantly monitoring performance to identify and remedy weaknesses and to survey evolving client needs. In fulfilling this service (shedding light on international politics for the benefit of clients), academics have a specific niche to fill; theirs is one voice among many others participating in the public debate, be it on international security policy, trade policy, or environmental policy. This niche is for detached, objective, well thought out, culturally aware, historically- and theoretically-informed analysis and advice. In this, they differ from other voices providing similar services, such as journalists, think-tanks, or civil servants. Such an approach is consistent with Weber s favouring of a degree of detachment between the academic and the state, while recognizing a responsibility to both state and society. 18 To be relevant and useful, this should be done using accessible terminology and transparent logic something neoclassical realism is well-positioned to do. A poor understanding of this need to fulfil a service, common in the discipline, is illustrated by Wivel s discussion of the alleged ad hoc integration of intervening variables and the low generalizability and parsimony of neoclassical realism. He argues that foreign policy decision-makers seeking advice may be disappointed (2005, 357). While in some circumstances, it is true that statesmen do seek general laws, in many other cases they are wary

Smith s concerns that academia should not have the state as a sole client is therefore rejected as besides the point (1997); it is perfectly appropriate to have as an objective the fulfilment of a service towards other elements of society. 17 This is an underlying theme among some of the contributors to Girard et al. (1994); the quote is from the chapter by Nygren (107). 18 See Politics as Vocation and Science as Vocation in Gerth and Mills (1958).


of parsimonious, simple if not simplistic worldviews, based on black and white assessments (i.e., state A balances; B has revisionist aims...). As George wrote, too strict a pursuit of the scientific criterion of parsimony is inappropriate for developing useful policy-relevant theory and knowledge. The policymaker has to deal with complex situations that embrace many variables; he or she will get more help from rich theories (1997, 51). Indeed, assessments in government are the result of extensive and continuous debates between numerous analysts housed in different agencies (and sometimes in different countries), each contributing diverse personal and institutional perspectives. Nuanced conclusions are only gradually reached, and are constantly subject to revisions. Limited generalizations are possible, but are only accepted cautiously; that many cases can potentially be sui generis is entirely plausible. Neoclassical realist strategic analysis can serve as a bridge not only between theory and analysis on the political science continuum mentioned above, but also between theory and practice. No practitioner in the strategic analysis or intelligence community would directly apply neorealism even less constructivism or postmodernism to write a paper; at the same time, policy or decision-makers have little use for abstract theories, finding academic knowledge useful instead when it is in a more detailed, regionally-specific, culturally-aware (Zelikow 1994, 145). Real-time foreign and security policy decision-making does not correspond to highly abstract, stylized theories (154). As argued below, structural realism is a necessary but insufficient framework to explain foreign policy; similarly, it is insufficient to provide advice regarding its conduct. Neoclassical realism is thus well-positioned to perform specifically what George argues policy-relevant, contingent theories should do: conceptualize actual or potentially successful foreign policy strategies by transparently identifying the key variables associated with their success, and explaining the logic underlying their operation (1993). In addition, it proposes a framework that can be constantly updated and refined, as different analysts review it and feed into it, and as events change some of its components (e.g., following a major military acquisition, or crucially in anticipation of one; then downstream effects can be worked on). The analysis can then benefit from multi-disciplinary or inter-agency expertise.19 Furthermore, neoclassical realist strategic analysis is particularly relevant for the analysis of current or very recent foreign policy puzzles; in those cases, the availability and reliability of information is likely to be a serious challenge, especially when it is applied to countries with a more hostile relationship to the West such Iran, North Korea, or China. In those cases, the use of a theoretically-inspired framework should be viewed as even more useful, given its ability to better order ambiguous data. Conclusion This preliminary discussion of the internal logic a typology, its foundational assumptions, and key characteristics is of course only a first step. The next steps require, first, an elaboration of the three stages of the neoclassical realist causal chain: power, the domestic-level transmission belt, and the foreign policy outcome. Next, case studies should be conducted, to determine empirically if the promise of highly detailed, rich accounts of foreign policy using this framework indeed hold the potential of increasing the relevance and usefulness of international relations scholarship.

For a call for the intelligence community to better develop combined, shared analyses that benefit from collective scrutiny, see Hart and Simon (2006).


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