Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Reconsiderations: Schweller's Deadly Imbalances

Introductory note:  
Randall Schweller's name is well known to those familiar with international-relations theory.  Schweller's first book, Deadly Imbalances: Tripolarity and Hitler's Strategy of World Conquest (1998), was based on his Columbia University dissertation.  His second book, Unanswered Threats (2006), also dealt with balance-of-power issues, focusing on instances of so-called underbalancing.  As mentioned before on this blog, in recent years Schweller's attitude toward the conventional versions of Realist international-relations theory has become much more critical (see his 2014 book Maxwell's Demon and the Golden Apple).  In this guest post, Peter T. looks back at Schweller's first book Deadly Imbalances, offering some thoughts on the book and on the enduring problem of the relation between theory and history.  I have added one sentence in brackets. -- LFC


Schweller's theoretical argument starts from Waltz's classic Theory of International Politics (1979).  Schweller acknowledges the validity of criticisms that Waltz's theory, modelled explicitly on economic theories of the market, is "too abstract to generate useful hypotheses about specific foreign-policy behaviour."  By adding a number of other factors Schweller hopes to bring theory into a closer approximation to reality.  [By contrast, Waltz's view is that, within certain limits, a theory's "[e]xplanatory power...is gained by moving away from 'reality,' not by staying close to it." (Theory, p.7)]

The argument of Deadly Imbalances centers on the lead-up to and conduct of World War II.  Schweller argues that in the late 1930s, the world was effectively tripolar, with the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Germany the central players.  This requires that Schweller establish a more nuanced hierarchy among states than a simple division into Great Powers and others.  So from the classic IR world we go to a world of Poles, Lesser Great Powers, middle powers, and others.  Further, states are no longer simply status quo or revisionist in their aims, but status quo, revisionist or neutral (the U.S. up to 1941).  Revisionist powers can have limited or unlimited aims, and states' strategic choices are not just about balancing but also buck-passing, band-wagoning, binding, distancing or engagement.

Not all these strategies are realistic options for all states, but each state has sufficient choice that, in combination with their power status and aims, there are a myriad of potential outcomes.  And this is the problem with the approach: as Schweller adds new factors his theoretical base becomes less like an explanation and more like a description.  And, as the book proceeds, the theory gives way to what looks very like old-fashioned diplomatic-military history.  It is a long way, for instance, from calculations about the overall balance of power to Hitler's belief that shipping constraints would prevent effective U.S. intervention in the European war.

In this way the book falls between two stools.  The theory illuminates very little of the complex forces at play, while the exploration of the detail draws almost entirely on secondary sources and has dated rapidly.

A second issue is that Schweller's theory, like Waltz's, assumes that states have a clear and relatively accurate view of their own and others' power. Schweller goes into some detail on the strengths of the various Poles and Lesser Great Powers, using the Correlates of War (COW) project estimates of power.  For the period, these are a composite of industrial production, population, and military strength.  Yet, as Schweller details, all states made major errors in estimating their own and other's power.  And all considered not just these factors but many others -- national morale and political cohesion, geographic position, financial resources, allies and sympathisers, operational proficiency, military technology and more.

As an instance, the COW rankings put Great Britain well behind Germany in the '30s.  Yet Great Britain had an overwhelming advantage at sea, the backing of the dominions (most of whom disposed of considerable military and industrial resources), its position as the second financial centre of world trade, and the manpower and other resources of India.  Moreover, Great Britain's economy was more advanced than that of Germany (with its still large agricultural sector) and, of course, Britain had the advantage of being an island with free access to the Atlantic.  Britain worried about the German army and air force; Germany worried about British financial pressure, grip on overseas trade, ability to call on colonial and imperial resources and on U.S. support.  Germany had an immediate superiority, Britain an ultimate one.  These are not commensurate capabilities, to be summed into two numbers and compared.

Again, Germany's attack on the Soviet Union was predicated on the certainty that German operational proficiency and Soviet political weakness would more than compensate for superior Soviet numbers, the effects of distance, and German logistic shortfalls.  Soviet calculations were, of course, in the reverse direction.

The inability to exactly define or measure power is a central problem for IR theories.  A major reason that wars happen, as Geoffrey Blainey (in The Causes of War) pointed out, is that states are uncertain of their relative power.  Clausewitz likened battle to cash settlement in commerce -- the moment when true credit-worthiness is tested and revealed.  Likewise, war usually provides a moment of clarity about relative power.  In the absence of a recent test, all parties are left to manoeuvre in uncertainty.

And this uncertainty extends to defining who are the major players.  In the '30s the U.S. preponderance of industrial and financial power was widely acknowledged.  Yet how this translated into international influence given U.S. isolationism, its distance from Europe, and the small size of its army left a lot of room for error.  In some areas the U.S. was a major force, in others a minor player.  The same could be said of the Soviet Union, China, Japan and Italy.  It is this zone of uncertainty that gives rise to alterations in the ranks of the Great Powers -- the sources of their strength go unrecognised until revealed in some contest, rendering previous calculations and strategies moot.

So Schweller's Deadly Imbalances is an interesting, and not unrewarding, read. Its strength is his willingness to engage with the detail; its weakness the inability of abstract theory to explain that detail in any convincing way.  It is a general weakness of grand theory in this area of study.

-- Peter T.


LFC said...

I just remembered that Schweller has an essay in Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists, and the Study of International Relations, ed. C. Elman and M.F. Elman (MIT Press, 2001). The piece, borrowing its main title from E.H. Carr, is "The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-39: Why a Concert Didn't Arise" (pp.181-212). The whole book is pertinent, in varying degrees, on the theory/history question.

LFC said...

p.s. Not everyone liked Bridges and Boundaries. Nicholas Onuf, reviewing it in Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. in 2002, was fairly negative, though I don't remember exactly what he said. (Onuf's outlook is quite different from that of the people who contributed to the book, so his reaction wasn't too surprising.)

chaosandgovernance said...

Schweller is consistently interesting, but I think there are some problems in Deadly Imbalances. The title indicates that the book's thesis is about the structural instability of certain configurations of power, specifically a situation with three great powers. But much of the book, and of his article 'Bandwaggoning for Profit' in International Security, instead focuses on the different judgements among great powers about the desirability of the status quo and the willingness to take risks to change it. He also argued in 'Status Quo Bias, What Status Quo Bias' that the structure of the international system doesn't create insecurity, aggressive revisionist states do.

So I think that Schweller intended to refine and elaborate a realist perspective focusing on the distribution of power within anarchy, but ends up tracing a path away from it towards an approach focused on evaluating whether actors are for or against the status quo (for a complex mix of domestic and international reasons not reducible to relative material power).

chaosandgovernance said...

LFC: I read an review of an edited volume of Vasquez's by Schweller. The review was quite negative, arguing that the findings about patterns of conflict were all humdrum and unsurprising, overlooking the findings like the apparent democratic peace that jar with realism and ignoring all the non-findings about core realist mechanisms like the balance of peace. The main criticism though was that regression running inductivism doesn't generate knowledge, theorising and rich qualitative case studies do.

Of course, in turn, historical sociologists in IR think that neo-realist theorising and historical case studies are thin and unconvincing - there's plenty of scorn to go around in the paradigm cold war!

LFC said...

So I think that Schweller intended to refine and elaborate a realist perspective focusing on the distribution of power within anarchy, but ends up tracing a path away from it towards an approach focused on evaluating whether actors are for or against the status quo (for a complex mix of domestic and international reasons not reducible to relative material power).

Without having read as much Schweller as you have, my sense is that that's right. And Mearsheimer is forced to acknowledge in an endnote in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, a note in which he cites a Schweller article, that if all states in a system are consistently seeking *only* survival and nothing else, if they are all defensive security-seekers, there is not going to be any 'security competition' and thus no chance of war. But Mearsheimer thinks uncertainty and structural factors mean that states can never assume there are no potential aggressors. I think Schweller's current view is that M. is wrong, and perhaps as you suggest that was Schweller's implicit view all along.

As for Peter T's argument in the post here, I haven't read Deadly Imbalances but I tend to be a *bit* less skeptical about the utility of historically-oriented IR theory as a general matter. But that would have to be a topic for another occasion, I think.

LFC said...

On your comment re the methods/paradigm/etc cold war: yes. (I wonder however whether that Schweller review wasn't written a long time ago? Perhaps his views on Vasquez would not have changed much though.)

Within U.S. academic IR, at any rate, there are of course still methods divides. Though increasingly, as has been noted before, students esp. in 'elite' programs try to use more than one method in their dissertations. (Again, this wd need to be a longer discussion, and to be frank I don't follow the literature that closely these days, nor have I gone to an IR conference in a long time.)

[p.s. My own diss. was a bit strange in, I suppose, more than one sense, but one of the problems w it from a job-application standpt was it was hard to pigeonhole. Whether a different topic and approach, leaving everything else constant, wd have translated into more success on the job mkt I'm not sure. A moot pt in my case anyway, since I finished in '05 and am really not part of 'the profession' or the field, if I ever was. I maintain my APSA and ISA memberships, at least for the time being, and I get various journal table-of-contents and so on by email, but that's about it.]

chaosandgovernance said...

I looked at the Onuff review, which sprinkles praise on one or two of the chapters but argues overall that diplomatic historians and realist IR theorists occupy 'a swampy zone at the distant margins of two disciplines' and that 'When offered a way out to the glittering city of social theory, with its Parisian fashions and multicultural sensibilities, these are the people who stay behind.' This, I think, is a bit of a relic of the time when academics of a broadly postmodern persuasion just asserted frequently enough that the world was going their way, that positivists and moderns were being left behind, it would somehow become true.

I think Deadly Imbalances is a worthwhile contribution, I think a sympathetic critic once labelled it a 'more realistic realism' - going against the 1990s trend of some neorealists to make sweeping claims that jar with the evidence and then excuse this through an appeal to theory. Peter T's points about the complexity of evaluation of power are well made though, this is another reason why I don't think Schweller succeeds at identifying a simple, clear logic of tripolarity.

[My last posts were full of typos! Balance of peace should be balance of power, the name of the Schweller article is 'Neorealism's Status Quo Bias: What Security Dilemma?'. ]