Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Waltz On Theory and the International System

Well now, to start off, my first post will lay out ideas about the relevance, purpose and limits of theory in general. Here to help us out with this task is Kenneth Waltz. In “Evaluating Theories” Waltz provides an understanding of theory in this way:
a picture, mentally formed, of a bounded realm or domain of activity. A theory depicts the organization of a realm and the connections among its parts. The infinite materials of any realm can be organized in endlessly different ways. Reality is complex; theory is simple. By simplification, theories lay bare the essential elements in play and indicate necessary relations of cause and interdependency- or suggest where to look at them.
The general idea here is that a theory necessarily has its limits. A theory cannot explain everything. It also has an interdependent relationship with the facts it utilize. Facts themselves are seen as “theory laden:” a result of the limitations of our knowledge of the external world. This however, is what gives theory its importance. While we cannot know reality directly, theories provide us with a basis for conceptualizing the external world so that we can understand it to some degree. Without them we would be lost in a whirling chaotic blur of seeming illusions.

Waltz himself describes the world of international relations in terms of system structure. This particular system is devoid of hierarchy. There is no authority that can impose rules and regulate behavior. Thus, anarchy is the central “organizing principle.” Anarchy socializes every state into the same aggressive behavior types. No state can escape from the fact that it must provide for its own security, which leads to competitions between them, and ultimately to security dilemmas like the cold war arms race. Promoting peace in this system has little to do with pacifism, and more to do with fear balanced in mutual deterrence. As war is sometimes necessary to achieve balance in the system, war ironically is an effective means of achieving a peaceable state of equilibrium. Whether or not our current actions in Southwest Asia can be rationalized in this way is questionable. As Waltz mentions,
because states exist in a self-help system, they are free to do any fool thing they care to, but they are likely to be rewarded for behavior that is responsive to structural pressures and punished for behavior that is not.
So, the question remains: are we being rewarded or punished?

1 comment:

Jeb said...

Great introductory post, Travis. IR theory is a cool topic for a blog. I've added you to my blogroll, and I look forward to reading your posts in the future!