How Structural Realism Shows America Needs a More Liberal, Multilateral Approach to Foreign Policy

By Charles Kirchofer, Dec. 17th, 2008

I actually should be finishing work on part two of my series (if you can call something that when it only has one part) on the big issues for Barack Obama in foreign policy. Or I could work on my planned article on why the stock market is not a casino, even now. Instead, I want to take a few moments to do something unorthodox. If you were thrown off by the title of this article (thinking "what the f$!k is 'structural realism'?!"), have no fear: I'm not about to get all theoretical on you. What I will say, however, is this: there are two major schools of thought on international politics (and maybe a third or possibly fourth, depending whom you ask). These are realism and liberalism. Realists believe nation states are the central players on the international scene and that these states live in a competitive environment. Liberals believe the world is becoming ever more integrated, that NGOs, international organizations, and transnational corporations have seriously reduced the influence of nation states on world affairs, and that there is something called the "international community," whose desires may be universal and are to be put above national interests. OK, that's it for the theory. Here's the unorthodox part: rubbish, I say. I'm about to argue for a more liberal American approach to foreign policy for realist reasons. That's right: the two terms are a false dichotomy, which is why I say they're both right and therefore both wrong, which means we are free to combine reasoning from both "schools" as they fit.

The realist foundation

OK, maybe there's going to be more theory than I promised, but stay with me. Structural realism holds that the number of great powers in the world (called "poles") decide the system's structure, which, in turn, influences outcomes. For example: the world before 1945 was multipolar, with most of the great powers right next to each other in Europe. Because the competitors were next to each other and relied on each other for resources because they were all relatively small, it was very unlikely that there would be any lasting European cooperation. Indeed, though they tried, this was the case. After 1945 the world became bipolar, with the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. as the great powers. Now, with none of the great powers in Western Europe, the countries there were no longer in a position where they had to compete with each other. Cooperation was then possible. The result? The European Community and later the EU, complete with a shared currency. Liberals would say the Europeans just finally learned their lesson and learned to cooperate, but everyone thought that in the late 19th century and after WWI, too. Do ideas and public opinion matter? Sure, but I think this structural explanation explains the timing better and is the more likely underlying enabler (combined with factors the liberals point out).

Nice history lesson, so what's this have to do with anything?
Good question. The world today is no longer bipolar, it's become unipolar, or possibly multipolar. Militarily, at least, the world is definitely unipolar, with America the military superpower (it's military spending is more than the spending of the next five top military spenders combined). Good for the U.S., right? Well, not really. Realists predict that states always move toward balancing power. This would mean essentially everyone else would align against, or at the very least refuse to cooperate with, the United States. European countries may not have agreed with the Vietnam war, either, and yet cooperation remained high because the system was bipolar. It was the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. Faced with that decision, they largely stuck with the U.S. Diplomats will tell you cooperation has become more difficult. Realists would argue this process was set in motion after the fall of the Soviet Union (meaning the tendency would be present even without the Iraq war).

That said, I think we can agree the Iraq war certainly helped to ally states against the U.S. This is bad news. The U.S. was used to playing the world police force during the Cold War. It was indirectly encouraged to do so by the presence of the other pole (the U.S.S.R.), and it was also constricted by the Soviet presence, which checked U.S. power. In the 90's, the U.S. suddenly saw itself changed from a superpower to what some called a "hyperpower." With all this power sitting around, some felt it was time to use it to change the world according to their own standards, just as realists would have predicted (because there was no longer any check on American power), which is not to say they all necessarily would have recommended it (indeed, many realists spoke out against the war as being unnecessary and too risky). Hence: the Iraq War.

What does this mean for us now? Regardless of whether the world is (still) unipolar or if it has become multipolar, cooperation is likely to become more difficult. My conclusion? Start thinking like liberals. Start welcoming cooperation, rely more on "soft power" ("winning over the hearts and minds" of the world, making them want to be more like us and want to cooperate with us), encourage reform in, and support the workings of, international organizations (particularly the UN and NATO). As I've mentioned before, it's time to dust off the old-time art of diplomacy, because coercion is simply going to meet with ever more resistance and become ever more counterproductive for global and U.S. aims.

In the end, the realists accurately describe how the world works, but the liberals accurately prescribe what we should do in the current environment. So we should speak softly and be more friendly, everyone already knows we're carrying a big stick (and the realist in me would advise keeping it).


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