Saturday, September 13, 2014

'Offensive realism' and state motivations

One of the weak points of structural realist theories (or at least of Mearsheimer's, which has been the topic here recently) is their lack of a strong theory of state motivations. M. says states want more rather than less power, because that's the best way to be secure, or safe, in a world in which, according to M., "uncertainty about [other states'] intentions is unavoidable." (TGPP, p.31)  

In the body of the text of Tragedy of Great Power Politics, M. says that "the only assumption dealing with a specific motive that is common to all states says that their principal objective is to survive...." (p.32) But because "there are many possible causes of aggression" [what are they? he doesn't say] "and no state can be sure that another state is not motivated by one of them" (p.31), assuming that all states all the time want nothing more than survival is not warranted. Indeed, in an important end-note -- why this material is buried in an end-note rather than being in the text is rather perplexing -- M. makes clear that:
Security concerns alone cannot cause great powers to act aggressively. The possibility that at least one state might be motivated by non-security calculations is a necessary condition for offensive realism, as well as for any other structural theory of international politics that predicts security competition. (p.414 n.8)
Again, he doesn't say what these "non-security calculations" or motives are [except for a brief discussion on pp.46ff.], but this is nonetheless an important clarification. It's one that tends to get lost later in the text, however, for example at the beginning of ch.6 when he writes that "security considerations appear to have been the main driving force behind the aggressive policies of Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union" in the twentieth century (p.170). This, of course, is in some tension with the statement in the end-note that "security concerns alone cannot cause great powers to act aggressively." It may not be a fatal logical contradiction; it's probably more the result of careless use of shorthand phrases (and, to be fair to M., I have quoted only part of the end-note here, not the whole thing). Still, someone who only reads the text of TGPP and doesn't read the notes is likely to be even more puzzled about this issue than someone who has read the notes.

Harknett and Yalcin, in their 2012 article "The Struggle for Autonomy," which I discussed in this post (where, I see, I also quoted the Mearsheimer end-note I've quoted here) recognized some of these problems about state motivation in realist theory and attempted to deal with the issue more satisfactorily than had been done previously. Although I was critical of their effort (not that I have gone back and carefully read that post), they should be given credit for having recognized and tried to address the problem.

Added later: For one useful discussion of this set of issues (and, of course, more thorough than the discussion in this post), see Jack Donnelly, Realism and International Relations (2000), ch.2, "Human Nature and State Motivation."


Anonymous said...

Not yet qualified to pronounce on the book, but treating states like organisms that want to survive is a misleading metaphor. And states don't make decisions; leaders make decisions, affected by many considerations. How much of tbe present Ukraine strife for instance is caused not by any real threat to Russia, but by Putin's domestic troubles?

LFC said...

It's not so much an 'organism' metaphor as an assumption that states are 'unitary rational actors', but that can often be just as misleading.

Peter T said...

Missing from the phrase "wanting to survive" are the key words "survive as what". Nazi Germany wanted to survive as an expansionist racially-based hegemony, Japan as an empire and so on. The British core survived the two world wars, but Britain as the hub of a global empire did not.

Aggression is built into some state structures, because it's built into the logic of their construction and the self-image of their rulers, and often their fears for survival are not so much fears about the survival of "the state" as the survival of some current social form expressed through and underpinned by state power.

LFC said...

@Peter T
I tend to agree with you, at least to the extent of thinking that aggression may be built into some state structures, or to put it differently, built into certain regimes.

The closest Mearsheimer appears to come to acknowledging this is on p.46 where he concedes that states sometimes pursue "non-security goals" as long as they don't "conflict with balance-of-power logic...."
Thus "Nazi Germany expanded into eastern Europe for both ideological and realist reasons...." But his theory focuses almost exclusively on the 'realist' reasons, which at least in the case of Nazi Germany is elevating the secondary over the primary, it seems to me.