Monday, February 9, 2009

Political Science Literature Review 1

The Anarchy Problematique

By Konstantinos Travlos

(written for the PS 580 class in the University of Illinois at UC, Prof. John Vasquez)

Riots, cities burning, demonstrations, inefficiency, this is what the word anarchy means for the majority of people. A quick view of the American Heritage Dictionary provides the above definition.[1] But it also provides another. This is the absence of government authority and law. It is this second definition that instinctively comes to the mind of social scientists, especially scholars of international relations. Anarchy has been for at least 30 years at the center of some of the great debates of the study of international relations. Indeed it is one of the main assumptions of the dominant realist paradigm and of the liberal institutional theories. It is, also at the center of the critiques against realism laid out by constructivists, critical theorists and some behavioral scholars. The three main questions that are debated over international anarchy are whether it exists, what is its characteristics, and finally how it impacts on the behavior of states, organizations and people active in the international system. In this paper I take a look at the debate about anarchy between Kenneth Waltz and Hedley Bull as presented by Hayward R. Alker.

In his work, “The presumption of anarchy in world politics”, Alker attacks the presumption of anarchy as it is put forward in the work of neorealist and game theoretical authors.[2] He contrasts it to the concept as presented by Hedley Bull in his book “The Anarchical Society”.[3] Most neorealist authors and game theorists rely on the concept of international anarchy as presented by Kenneth Waltz in his book “Theory of International Politics”.[4] This makes Alker’s piece a useful springboard to evaluate the tow concepts of anarchy.

Alker accuses the neorealist presumption of anarchy of being politically biased in favor of the current dominant Western capitalist statist system.[5] The presumption is one of anarchy as an absence of order and law. The causes of this bias are the rationality and instrumentality assumptions, the focus of the state as the main actor of international relations and the focus on international security policy. However, the most important cause of bias is the negative value given to the concept of anarchy and the complete disregard of the historical and value context of how the concept of anarchy came about.[6] He contrasts the neorealist treatment of anarchy to the one done by Hedley Bull.

Bull, according to Alker, after conducting a historical analysis of the evolution of the international system, argues that international anarchy is not a situation of no order or lawlessness. It is a proto-society with common interests, common values, common institutions and common rules. It has been formed from dialectic of values, ideas and arguments. What makes international anarchy different from the state system is the absence of a supranational authority that monopolizes the use of force and imposes values, decisions and so on. International Anarchy is the realm of consensus not domination.[7] But how accurate is Alker’s picture?

Kenneth Waltz

When it comes to the neorealist concept of anarchy, Kenneth Waltz’s analysis seems to validate some of the criticisms of Alker but not the rationality presumption and the crucial on of a pejorative concept of anarchy. Waltz sees international anarchy as the system created by the coordinatory interaction between a precise number of functionally similar states in pursuit of similar goals, with survival been the most important, but with a variation in the amount of capabilities they have in pursing these goals.[8] Nobody imposes these goals on states; nobody tells them what tools to use. But the sum of their interactions creates constraints on their behavior. Waltz’s states are instrumentally defined.[9] The seek goals and they seek those goals using similar tools. Indeed what makes one state different from the other is just the variation of capability in using those tools. Waltz focuses on the security foreign policy and great powers. But it is hard to find a rationality presumption in Waltz. Waltz believes that state will behave rationally but not, I repeat, not because they are by nature rational. Indeed the most important presumption of Waltz is that states seek survival over everything else. Rationality comes from the constraints imposed on states by the international system. Rationality is thus a systemic level effect. [10]

More importantly it is hard to see Waltz making a pejorative case for anarchy. Waltz sees the difference of anarchy and hierarchy as being one of a functional difference among the systems units, the impact that relative difference in capabilities among the units have on the system and the impact in the difference of numbers. Anarchy for Waltz is a mechanistic process created from almost automatic interactions among units. While Waltz considers systems made up of many units less stable than those made of smaller numbers of members, the prime reason for this is not the consideration that anarchy is a bad thing or unable to produce order, but that anarchy with fewer members is more efficient in managing the crucial balance of power.[11]

Is Alker more on the mark with Bull? Hedley Bull sees all social life as requiring order. Order is a perquisite for individuals and communities to be able to attain the Universal Primary Goals of Life, Property and Truth.[12] Order thus is functionally conceptualized. So there is an instrumental assumption in Bull. Order can be brought about by hierarchical modes or by consensus. It can be expressed in rules or not. Bull focuses on states. The sovereignty of states is seen as the normative assumption of the system.[13] As for Waltz, the international system is the result of interactions among states. Whether a society of states will result from this interaction is an open question. This is important, because if the system presupposes the society, and if the system is the result of interactions among states, then there is some overlap between the ideas of Waltz and Bull. There are important differences, but it does seem that the starting point is the same; states interacting.

Bull doesn’t see anarchy in a pejorative way. Alker is correct here. But that fact doesn’t mean that Bull’s international Anarchy is any friendlier to the weak or the individual than Waltz’s is. In theory, international anarchy in Bull’s conception of it, benefits individuals through preserving the sovereign state. Also the social element within it means that the consensus on common interests and values will include the views of the weak.[14] But when Bull looks on how the institutions of international anarchy function, at least in one case it is clear that weaker members and individuals are at the mercy of stronger members. The institution is the Balance of Power.

The balance of power of Bull is a richer concept than that of Waltz. But it serves the same purpose; the preservation of the sovereign state system.[15] A more careful reading shows that what both Waltz and Bull mean is the preservation of the independence of great powers. Waltz is quite clear about that. Bull arrives there from another angle. The Balance of power has many facets but it is only one distinction that we will focus on. The one between general and local balance of power. The general balance of power is the one that prohibits a drive for world hegemony or empire. The local balance of power protects the independence of states. But the general balance of power takes precedence over the local balance of power.[16] The existence of the state system takes precedence over the existence of any particular state. For Bull it is the Great Powers that bear the responsibility for maintaining and managing the General Balance of Power.[17] Great Powers are also the main benefactors of the sovereign state system. Which means that Great Powers can sacrifice weaker states in order to protect the international system from universal imperialism.

While the case is made by Bull that a Great Power could be sacrificed for the good of the system, the fact that is that this will happen only if the power place’s itself outside the system by attempting to conquer it. This is important, as a weak state can be exterminated or its sovereignty radically constrained, whether it is part of the system or not. A great power can only be exterminated if by its actions it has placed itself beyond the pale of the system. Bull neither absolutely condemns, nor condones this state of affairs. Suffice to say that it is a crucial social institution in maintaining and managing the international system.

Alker seems to have missed these points. This is understandable since he focused on the World Order problimatique of Bull. But that part is only a third of Bull’s book. When it comes to anarchy itself Waltz and Bull provide concepts that are generally either value free or benign. They even come to the same conclusions about the stability of nuclear bipolar systems (Bull 117-119). Alker is correct in noting a political bias in the anarchy concept used by neorealists and game theorists. But it is hard to trace it to Waltz. And it is hard to see a positive bias in Bull.


[1] The American Heritage dictionary, Fourth Edition, A Dell Book, 2007, page 31

[2] Hayward R. Alker, “The presumption of anarchy in world politics”, from Rediscoveries and Reformulations, Cambridge University Press. pp 356, 360-363

[3] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society, Columbia University Pres, New York, 2002

[4] Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, McGraw Hill, 1979

[5] Hayward R. Alker, “The presumption of anarchy in world politics”, from Rediscoveries and Reformulations, Cambridge University Press, 1996. pp 362-363,371-372

[6] Hayward R. Alker, “The presumption of anarchy in world politics”, 1996 pp 375-386, especially 380-382,383,385

[7] Alker, 1996, pp 358-360

[8] Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, McGraw Hill, 1979, pp 40,72-73,80-81,88-98,100-101

[9] Kenneth Waltz,Theory of International Politics, McGraw Hill, 1979, pp 91,93-99

[10] Waltz, 1979, pp 103-106

[11] Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, McGraw Hill, 1979, pp 111-116, 121,131, 132-138,145, 162

[12] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society, Columbia University Pres, New York, 2002 pp 4-7.

[13] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society, pp8-9,13,16-18,65-66

[14] Hedley Bull, 2002 pp 40-41,53,

[15] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society, Columbia University Pres, New York, 2002 pp98-99,102-107

[16] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society, Columbia University Pres, New York, 2002 pp 103-104,

[17] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society, Columbia University Pres, New York, 2002 pp 103, 199-202

3 comments:

Herzog Ignaz said...

Thought provoking. The Dey of Bizercca questions whether rationality bias isn't an observer artifact, rather than a systematic one. It is the nature of the political analyst to impose a coherent, rational system of analysis on any observed political unit, whether or not the participants in the observed system share that bias.

A sufficiently fatalistic society, like that of the Deylicate, may indeed operate entirely independent of rational analysis, merely on the conviction that all unfolds according to the inscrutable will of Allah.

A religious society with belief in a rational ultimate concern will ultimately behave rationally, and history has shown that those states routinely achieve superiourity over those without such a commitment, but regimes of irrationality can continue to exist whenever the rational powers do not calculate a net benefit to transforming them.

Konstantinos Travlos said...

My dear Dey, thank you for your comments. But I will have to point several things. First the rationality assumption is always very basic in International Relations. Typically it takes the form of a basic cost/benefit 4x4 analysis. It shouldn't be overelied on.

Secondly, basic rationality is not seen as useful in the "real" world. The usual term used is "bounded" rationality. Essentially human beings are rational but within a specific context(life situation, civilization, or religion e.t.c.). What seems irrational to people out of that context, is rational within it. It also means that cost/benefit analysis change from person to person, context to context.

For example, the Dey's subjects are irrational by the standards of the Duchies subjects. But so are the Duke subjects by the standards of the subjects of the Dey. To be fair this seems like post-modernism, but bear with me.

This means that their is a limit to how much a person can understand the thought process of a person operating in a different context. This is not just between societies, but could be between jobs for example in the same society. The rationality under which I worked in the army is different from that under which I work in Academia.

So essentially what am I saying is that the people of the Dey of Bizercca and those of the Duchy of Beerstein (for example) can't really understand each other? Not exactly.

You made an interesting, but intellectually (I do not claim any street wise on most things:))flawed argument. Rational powers will defeat irrational powers. First, the post-modernist would just question what is "rationality", who defines it, and who makes it a hegemonic concept..but forget that pesky fellow.

What you really might want to ask is why are rational societies defeat irrational societies? Before we talked about "bounded" rationality. We said that every society operates under a "bounded" rationality. And this are different from society to society.

I would argue though (and I am sure others have done this before me, and a lot better), that a basic "bounded" rationality of survival is present in all humans. It is bounded by our natural urge to live. It exists parallel to the societal "bounded" rationality. Every human has two 4x4 cost/benefits games going on at the same time in their head, one in the "survival" rationality and one in the "bounded" rationality.

What goes on when two "bounded" rationalities come to conflict is that one of the two because of the "survival" rationality gets marginalized. Now there are people who end up sacrificing the "survival" rationality for the "bounded" rationality. Hitler, Goebbels, Hussein are apt examples. But the majority of human beings typically do not do this.

A good example of this is the scene in "Downfall", where the SS soldiers meet the Soviets. They are both armed, but the SS soldiers surrender. Why? This are hard core Nazis. They also know what is going to follow(Siberia)? Why not do what Hitler did? To put it simply, irrational societies do not lose wars to rational societies because of their irrationality, but exactly because the majority of human beings in these societies are very rational.

Or that is my opinion on this matter. Not any better or worst than any other persons.

Ask the Dey, how sure is he, that his subjects would follow him to death?

Herzog Ignaz said...

The Dey puts his faith in Allah, not in the feeble schemes of men.