Week 2 Summaries

David A. Lake and Robert Powell, “International Relations: A Strategic-Choice Approach” in David A. Lake and Robert Powell eds., Strategic Choice and International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 3-38.

Lake and Powell introduce the strategic-choice approach (SCA) to international relations. It focuses on choices made by diverse actors under strategic interaction – a situation in which an actor’s ability to further its ends depends on the actions others take. There are three principal components in the SCA: 1) Treating strategic problems and interactions per se as the unit of analysis; 2) Actors and environments constitute a strategic interaction, such that actors have preferences and beliefs, while environments consist of actions and information; and 3) Methodological assumptions such as: agnostic attitude toward the ‘appropriate’ level of analysis in IR, strategic interactions at one level aggregates into interactions at other levels in an orderly manner, partial equilibrium perspective, avoidance of untheorized changes in preferences or beliefs as explanations. There are three benefits from this approach: 1) It is useful in organizing one’s thinking about IR, and is unique as a perspective; 2) It helps sharpen the logic of (other) theories by emphasizing micro-foundations and providing fuller description of strategic setting; and 3) It tends to break down some outmoded and counterproductive distinctions in the study of IR and political science.

Assumptions and Components

1. Purposive action: the SCA is based upon rational-choice theory. Actors make purposive choices to the best of their ability and choose the strategy that best meets their subjectively defined goals.
2. Strategic Interactions as the Unit of Analysis: the SCA views IR as strategic interactions between actors (individuals, NGOs, governments, IO’s, etc.).
3. Way of Organizing Strategic Problems: The SCA breaks strategic interactions into actors and their environments. Strategic environments are composed of 1) actions available to other actors and 2) an information structure that defines what the actors can know for sure and what they have to infer from the behavior of others. Actors are composed of two attributes: 1) preferences defined as the rank ordering of the outcomes of the strategic interactions defined by their environment, and 2) prior beliefs about the preferences of others. Actors always make some probabilistic assessment on opponents’ preferences.
4. The pragmatic nature of theory: Beyond individuals, all actors are social aggregates. The SCA assumes that interaction of substate actors aggregate into a state’s preferences and beliefs, and then states interact with other states in the international arena. Therefore, interactions between substate actors do not shape the underlying preferences of the state. Appropriate ‘main actors’ vary depending on the nature of strategic situation.
5. Methodological Bets: 1) The SCA is agnostic toward the appropriate level-of-analysis in IR. 2) The SCA assumes that interactions do aggregate in an orderly fashion, in a sense that aggregate successfully represent the sum of “local-level” interactions. 3) The SCA is based on a partial equilibrium perspective, so certain events out of the “box” are ignored in analysis. 4) When characterizing a strategic interaction, specifying the attributes of the actors is just as important as specifying the environment. To explain changes in behavior, the SCA turns to changes in the environment rather than changes in preferences or beliefs. The SCA decomposes the state into more basic substate actors and see how the change in environment at a specific affect the interactions among actors and the way that their goals aggregate into state goals.

Characteristics and Implications
The SCA emphasizes microfoundations, or the causal chain linking the actors and their environment to the outcomes by focusing on strategic interactions. The SCA also tends to break down traditional distinctions between the levels of analysis, security and international political economy, and IR and other areas of political science.

Alternative Approaches
The cognitive and constructivist approaches constitute influential alternatives to the SCA. Cognitive approach assumes actors could be “non-rational” (fail to respond to their environment with a coherent purposive calculation) from cognitive limitations, motivated biases, or misperceptions. Constructivism assumes actors and environments are mutually constructive, therefore clear distinction between the two is not possible and desirable.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1968 (1651). Leviathan. New York: Penguin, Chapter 13.

In this chapter, Hobbes describes his view of man in the state of nature.  Men are equal in ability and compete over resources.  Hobbes offers three principal reasons for competition between individuals:  to gain resources, to secure their own safety, and to aggrandize their reputations. 

In the state of nature, Hobbes argues that an individual survives and obtains security by mastering every other individual who poses a threat to him.  Even individuals who are content with their lot must fight to extend their resources in order to defend themselves in the long term. 

Without “a common power to keep them all in awe, [individuals] are in that condition which is called war; and as such a war as is of every man against every man.”  Although individuals may not fight all the time, they exist in a state of war so long as there is no guarantor of peace; however, no laws can be made until individuals agree on a person to make them. 

The sovereign makes law and guarantees security for members of society.  Hobbes recognizes that although men may have never lived in the state of nature, states exist in an anarchical state like the state of war.  The difference between the international system and Hobbes’ state of nature is that sovereigns seek security and maintain independence in order to protect the industry of their subjects.  Although the international system is similar to the state of war, the life of an individual in a state is not similar to the state of nature. 

Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979), Chapters 4, 5, 6.  


This is Waltz's classic statement of minimalist or defensive neo-realism.  The distrubution of power among states constitutes the structure of the international system, and is characterized by anarchic.  States are the primary actors, and act on a principal of self-help.  States seek to maximize relative power and engage in balancing behavior to ensure their survival.  Anarchy limits cooperation among states, but a global goverment is not desirable in any case.  States that do not engage in realpolitik will be left behind.  

Chapter 4:  Reductionist and Systemic Theories. 

Theories of international politics deal with events at both the sub- and supranational levels.  “Theories are reductionist or systemic … according to how they arrange their materials.”  (p. 60)  A reductionist theory explains the behavior of parts.  Waltz argues, “It is not possible to understand world politics simply by looking inside of states.  … Every time we think that we see something different or new, we will have to designate another unit-level ‘variable’ for its cause” leading to “the infinite proliferation of variables.”  (p. 65) 

Waltz points out that although actors change, similarities in outcomes recur.  “If the same effects follow from different causes, then constraints must be operating on the independent variables in ways that affect outcomes.”  (p. 68)  For Waltz, these constraints are at a systemic level. 

A systemic theory focuses on the structure of the international system, where the “structure is defined by the arrangement of its parts.”  (p. 80)  “Structure affects behavior within the system, but does so indirectly” through socialization and competition.  (p. 74)  Just as “[s]ocialization encourages similarities of attributes and of behavior[, s]o does competition.”  (p. 76)  Waltz implicitly argues that states emulate other states both to fit into an international society of states, and to maintain their place in the international system.  (pp. 76-77, and more directly on p. 92) 

Chapter 5:  Political Structures

For Waltz, a structure possesses an ordering principle, specifies the functions of formally differentiated units, and distributes capabilities across those units.  (p. 82) 

In the international system, Waltz identifies anarchy, defined as the absence of a central authority, as the ordering principle.  (p. 89)  He “assume[s] that state seek to ensure their survival.”  (p. 91)  As long as states exist in an anarchic system, “they are not formally differentiated by the functions they perform” which justifies treating them as like units (alike in that irrespective of size, they are autonomous political units which face similar tasks).  (p. 93, 95-96) 

Waltz recognizes that international organizations and transnational corporations exist, but dismisses them because “structures are defined not by all of the actors that flourish within them but by the major ones.”  (p. 93)  Thus, “a theory that denies the central role of states will be needed only if nonstate actors develop to the point of rivaling or suprassing the great powers, not just a few of the minor ones.”  (p. 95) 

“The structure of a system changes with changes in the distribution of capabilities across the system’s units.”  (p. 97)  Although this statement seems to violate his assertion that structure must be independent of units, Waltz defends this claim by arguing, “Although capabilities are attributes of units, the distribution of capabilities across units is not.”  (p. 98)  Although he does not specify clearly here, it seems that Waltz is arguing that a bipolar world (between Germany and England) is analytically similar to a bipolar world (between the United States and the USSR), and that a systemic change would be a shift along the continuum from anarchy to hierarchy, such as a shift from bipolarity to multipolarity. 

Chapter 6:  Anarchic Orders and Balances of Power

Waltz distinguishes between violence and anarchy.  Drawing heavily on Hobbes, Waltz points out, “Among states, the state of nature is a state of war.  This is meant not in the sense that war constantly occurs but in the sense that, with each state deciding for itself whether or not to use force, war may at any time break out.”  (p. 102)  The threat of violence is characteristic of anarchy, not violence itself. 

Waltz’s distinction between violence in the international and domestic realms relies on the right of a government to reserve the right to use force.  In the case of the private use of force, citizens can appeal to the government, but in the international system, there is no authority to which states may appeal. 

Furthermore, anarchy limits the cooperation between states in two ways:   

1)  States are uncertain about the distribution of gains from cooperation.  Uncertainty about another state’s future intentions works against cooperation.  (Waltz implies the notion of relative gains here.)  (p. 105-106) 

2)  Dependency on other states (whether through trade or through “cooperative endeavors”) reduces a state’s ability to ensure its survival in an autarkic, self-help system.  “Like organizations, states seek to control what they depend on or to lessen the extent of their dependency.”  (p. 106) 

Waltz identifies this inability to cooperate as a “prisoners’ dilemma” because each state, acting for its own interest, produces a result which is undesirable at the systemic level.  (p. 107-109) 

Furthermore, Waltz argues that an anarchic realm is better than an ordered international system.  Moving to a more hierarchical arrangement in the international system would lessen the risks of war between states, but would entail the creation of “agencies with effective authority and extending a system of rules.”  Waltz points out that these administrative bodies, like other institutions, would be managed by individuals for whom “the first and most important concern” is “to secure the continuity and health of the organization.”  Furthermore, with centralized institutions, “the means of control become the object of struggle.  Substantive issues become entwined with efforts to influence or control the controllers.”  (p. 111)  Waltz points out that if an armed struggle breaks out to control the central agencies, it would be a “world civil war.”  He favors an anarchical system, because “[i]n the absence of organization, people or states are free to leave one another alone.  Even when they do not do so, they are better able, in the absence of the politics of the organization, to concentrate on the politics of the problem and to aim for a minimum agreement that will permit their separate existence rather than a maximum agreement for the sake of maintaining unity.”  (p. 112) 

Balance of Power (pp. 116-128) 

Waltz argues that given states as unitary actors (with either minimalist or imperialist motives), and given more than two states in the system, states engage in balancing behavior. 

He contrasts balancing with “bandwagoning” behavior.  “Because power is a means and not an end, states prefer to join the weaker of two coalitions.  They cannot let power, a possibly useful means, become the end they pursue.  …If states wish to maximize power, they would join the stronger side, and we would see not balances forming but a world hegemony forged.”  (p. 126) 

Waltz recognizes that balance-of-power theory is limited.  The predictions are indeterminate and do not specify what or how quickly balancing behavior will occur.  He argues, however, that even with a time lag in behavior, that the balancing behavior does occur.

John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.  Chapters 1, 2.  

Mearsheimer uses the offensive-defensive balance developed by Jervis, Van Evra, and Snyder, to refine Waltz’s “defensive realism” into “offensive realism”.  The actors in offensive realism are great powers, states that “have sufficient military assets to put up a serious fight in an all-out conventional war against the most powerful state in the world” and fight to at least a war of attrition.  (5) 

“Offensive realism” is based on five assumptions: “the international system is anarchic”; “great powers inherently possess some offensive capability”; “states can never be certain about other states’ intentions”; “survival is the primary goal”; and states are rational actors. (30-31)  From these assumptions, Mearsheimer directly deduces, “Apprehensive about the ultimate intentions of other states, and aware that they operate in a self-help system, states quickly understand that the best way to ensure their survival is to be the most powerful state in the system.”  (33)  In this conception of the international system, great powers live in a perpetual security dilemma.  (35-36) 

Great powers are not unthinkingly aggressive.  Mearsheimer recognizes that there are costs and benefits associated with proposed military action, and that states must weigh the costs against the anticipated benefits.  (37) 

Mearsheimer defines a hegemon as “a state that is so powerful that it dominates all the other states in the system.  No other state has the military wherewithal to put up a serious fight against it.”  (40)  Thus, if a hegemon exists, it is the only status quo power; in all other situations, all great powers are revisionist.  (35)  Mearsheimer distinguishes between regional and global hegemons.  Although there has never been a global hegemon, regional hegemons do exist.  (40-41) 

Powers balance against other power’s military capabilities.  While wealth and population are indicators of capacity, a state’s actual power is embedded in its armies, “because they are the principal instrument for conquering and controlling territory—the paramonutn political objective in a world of territorial states.”  (43)  He argues that the level of fear (and implicitly, the likelihood of war) varies due to three power considerations.  First, second-strike nuclear capacity decreases fear.  Second, great powers separated by large bodies of water decreases offensive capability and fear.  Third, inequality in the distribution of power in the system increases fear.  Bipolarity is the most stable distribution of power, followed by multipolarity, followed by multipolarity with a potential hegemon.  (44-45) 

Mearsheimer posits a hierarchy of state goals.  Non-security goals (such as economic prosperity, ideology, national unification, and human rights) are secondary to security goals.  He dismisses a world peace movement because the states that promote it are the states that would otherwise lose out if the status quo were not preserved, and without certainty that the effort would succeed, those who support the movement are likely to have lost ground in terms of the balance of power.  (50-51)  Finally, he argues that states consider the distribution of absolute gains in relative terms.  (52-53)

Robert Keohane, After Hegemony.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.  Chapter 1.  (and bits of other chapters as necessary) 

In this classic statement of neo-liberal institutionalism, Keohane addresses conflict in the international system.   Conflict arises when “[i]nterdependence leads democratic governments to expand state activity in order to protect their citizens from fluctuations in the world economy.  (Cameron, 1978)  When state activity takes the form of seeking to force the costs of adjustment onto foreigners, discord results.”  (5-6) 

Keohane argues that Realism views discord as a consequence of fundamental conflicts of interest.  Realism fails to explain the existence of “system-wide patterns of cooperation that benefit many countries without being tied to an alliance system”.  (7)  Realism argues that the creation and maintenance of international institutions relies on the existence of a hegemon. 

In contrast, Institutionalists argue that cooperation is “essential in a world of economic interdependence, and … that shared economic interests create a demand for international institutions and rules.”  (7)  Keohane further identifies a group of “sophisticated institutionalists” who view institutions “more broadly as ‘recognized patterns of practice around which expectations converge’ (Young, 1980, p. 337).  They regard these patterns of practice as significant because they affect state behavior” such that “interdependence creates interests in cooperation.”  (8) 

Keohane’s argument proceeds as follows: 

Chapter 3 distinguishes cooperation (active attempts to adjust policies to meet the demands of others) from harmony (shared interest without need for adjustment) and discord (conflict of interests).   Keohane argues, “The mere existence of common interests is not enough [for cooperation]: institutions that reduce uncertainty and limit asymmetries in information must also exist.”  (12-13) 

Chapter 5 applies a collective goods argument to explain cooperation among self-interested states.  International institutions that facilitate transparency and effective monitoring (or international regimes with norms of reciprocity that facilitate nonnegotiated adjustments) can reduce instances of free-riding and defection.  (83-84) 

Chapter 6 uses theories of market failure (e.g., Coase) to develop a functional theory of international regimes.  Regimes reduce transaction costs, reduce uncertainty, and increase information, facilitating cooperation.  (92-95) 

Chapter 7 relaxes the rational actor assumption in two ways. 

First, Keohane relaxes the assumption that states have perfect information and rationally consider every alternative before making a decision.  Keohane allows that states may act under “bounded rationality”.  Regimes provide shortcuts to continuous calculations of self-interest, allowing for the convergence of behavior due to socialization.  The informal rules of thumb provided by regimes make state action more predictable, and may provide opportunities for governments to bind their successors.  “Even egoistic actors may agree to accept obligations that preclude making calculations about advantage in particular situations, if they believe that doing so will have better consequences in the long run than failure to accept any rules”.  (13) 

Second, Keohane argues that states’ conception of self-interest may not always be egoistic.  He points to two features of international regimes which appear puzzling from an egoistic standpoint:  1) the morally obligatory status of regime rules; and 2) unbalanced exchanges of resources that often persist for long periods of time.  (14) 

Keohane concludes his theoretical discussion of regimes by noting that regimes persist “even after the conditions that facilitated their creation have disappeared: regimes acquire value for states because they perform important functions and because they are difficult to create or reconstruct.”  (14)  Thus, “hegemony is less important for the continuation of cooperation, once begun, than for its creation.”  (12)

Section III contextualizes Keohane’s theoretical discussion in terms of post-war history through 1984.  

Review of: Jervis, Robert. "Cooperation under the Security Dilemma."  World Politics 30:2 (1978).  pp. 167-214.

Jervis argues that international peace can be modeled as the ‘stag’ in stag hunt, where the states are actors and the ‘chasing the hare’ corresponds to going to war.  In this first simple view, there are three qualifications to this model. (1) International cooperation, unlike the stag, is not guaranteed in the long run. (2) States whose real objective is to maintain the status quo may be nonetheless pressured to expand their military capabilities. (3) One state’s security gains may detract from other’s security; in my words, each state’s guns make it more secure but also threaten other states.

In stag hunt, expected payoffs are lower when one hunter chooses to go alone in search of a hare.  With respect to international cooperation, a nation can seem to abandon its international commitments by building up its arsenals.  While this build-up need lead to aggressiveness, or even be in terms of offensive weapons, other states might interpret any movement as a possible aggression. “The fear of being exploited … most strongly drives the security dilemma.” (172) When there is little fear that one state is trying to exploit the other, the game may take on a sequential nature – meaning that one state may have the luxury to wait and evaluate more precisely the effect of another state’s activities.  Conversely, asymmetries in play, like those produced when one state is more powerful than another, matched with uncertainty about the meaning of actions, can create instabilities.  In particular, one fears a kind of cascading effect where a small increase in military capacity by one state leads to a parallel increase by another, ad infinitum.

A number of interesting dynamics are discussed.  For example, if the cost of going to war is excessive, the game takes on the character of ‘chicken.’  One state might abandon its commitments to peace if it thinks that the other state will not retaliate in kind.   So in this case, because the costs of retaliation are sufficiently high, a state will not risk retaliation by abandoning commitments in the first place.  Of course, if cooperating is itself very costly for the first state, then the additional losses incurred by retaliation may be worth risking.   But, any gains from this exploitation may be mitigated by long run costs incurred through a higher long-term probability of conflict.  These kinds of dynamics drive the status quo of international relations.

The paper then discusses the manner in which the already mentioned, necessary expansion of defensive capabilities can lead to arms race or conflict – even between partners who are committed to this status quo – and develops this possibility as the idea of ‘four worlds.’ (211)  (1) In the first, offense (as in offensive weaponry) has an advantage over defensive weaponry and offense and defense are indistinguishable.  This world is very unstable since an opponent as offensive may interpret incorrectly slight increases in defensive capability. Then, since offense has the advantage over defense, they must respond by building up even more capacity.  If that build-up is also interpreted as an offensive one, then the process is iterated and an arms race is developed.  This is the world where the security dilemma is deadly.  (2) In the second world, defense has the advantage, and offense and defense are still indistinguishable.

The security dilemma exists, because one state cannot determine whether its opponents are building up offensive or defensive weapons.  However, this world can be stable.  Since defense has the advantage over offense, a defensive response can be smaller than the indeterminate buildup to which it responds.  There is no cascade: small movements generate smaller responses by status-quo seeking states.  Most of history looks like this, in the sense that fortifications or guerillas to fight against an opposing army have been easier to produce.  (3) In the third world, offense has the advantage, and offense and defense are distinguishable.  In this world, there is no security dilemma, but aggression is possible.  This comes about because small increases in one state’s offensive capabilities is clearly interpreted and responded to by a response of similar magnitude.  This can lead to the same cascading effect as in the first world, but the dynamic here is driven solely by the fact that it is more difficult to defend oneself than attack one’s enemy. (4) Finally, in the fourth world, defense has the advantage, and offense and defense are distinguishable.  This world is extremely stable.  Small increases in offensive capability are met by smaller increases in defensive capability; increases in defensive capability are easily interpreted as such and not as a provocation.

Andrew Moravcsik, "Taking Preferences Seriously: Liberalism and International Relations Theory," International Organization (Fall 1997), 512-553.

“This article reformulates liberal international relations (IR) theory in a nonideological and nonutopian form appropriate to empirical social science.”  (513)  ‘Form’ has a double meaning in this context, as it both indicates Moravcsik’s specific formulation of liberal IR as well as the set of principles which he sets forth as good reasons to grant paradigm status to liberal theory.  In fact, the principal internal motivation of the article is to present liberal IR as a paradigm of equal empirical validity and analytic priority to realism and institutionalism (516).  Much of the paper invokes a constant borrowing of liberal ideas on the part of the more dominant paradigms in IR.  

The specific formulation consists of three assumptions.  In considering these, it is perhaps useful to keep in mind a concluding remark. “This article does not aim to provide a comprehensive intellectual history of classical liberal international thought, nor a self-sufficient guide to the normative evaluation of policy, but to distill a coherent core of social scientific assumptions for the narrower purpose of explaining international politics.”  (548)  Assumption 1. “The fundamental actors in international politics are individuals and private groups who are on the average rational and risk-averse and who organize exchange and collective action to promote differentiated interests under constraints imposed by material scarcity, conflicting values, and variations in societal influence.” Assumption 2. Representation and State Preferences.  States (or other political institutions) represent some subset of domestic society, on the basis of whose interests state officials define state preferences and act purposively in world politics.  Assumption 3.  Interdependence and the International System.  The configuration of interdependent state preferences determines state behavior.  Moravcsik argues that these three satisfy four conditions: (1) generality, parsimony; (2) rigor, coherency; (3) empirical accuracy; (4) multicausal consistency .  (516)  

The assumptions require that we identify a state not with a particular set of strategies or tactics, but instead with a set of preferences over states of the world, and among these states are included all possible conformations of the particular political, cultural, social situation within its boundaries. (see 518)  This is starkly in opposition to those views of IR which see the ‘state’ as the essential unit of analysis, i.e. realism, institutionalism.  The assumption is said to be consistent with three variants of liberalism: ideational, commercial, and republican liberalism.  These are, in turn, views of liberalism stressing the roles of identity, markets, and political rent-seeking in domestic politics.  These three are subsequently viewed as noncompeting and, when joined, in fact productive for understanding the functioning of the state in international politics.  

Finally, three notes on implications of the theory.  These concern (1) some phenomena explained successfully by it (and not by its competitors), (2) a differentiation between functional regime theory, and (3) a potential empirical superiority of liberal IR. (534-5) A brief elaboration of each of these:  (1) These phenomena include explanations for variation in the substance of foreign policy, historical change in the international system, and the rise of modern international politics.  The dynamic nature of the new theory is stressed throughout this discussion, in contrast to the closed, static tendencies of its predecessors.  (2) Functional regime theory thinks of regimes as identical with a particular realized set of tendencies, think of regimes as the primary actors of international relations.  (3) Modern international politics involves an idea of evolution in the system of IR itself. The liberal theory accounts for this evolution in terms of shifting conformations within domestic horizons.

Three final notes on implications of the theory:  These concern (1) some phenomena explained successfully by it (and not by its competitors), (2) a differentiation between functional regime theory, and (3) a potential empirical superiority of liberal IR. (534-5) A brief elaboration of each of these:  (1) These phenomena include explanations for variation in the substance of foreign policy, historical change in the international system, and the rise of modern international politics.  The dynamic nature of the new theory is stressed throughout this discussion, in contrast to the closed, static tendencies of its predecessors.  (2)  Functional regime theory thinks of regimes as identical with a particular realized set of tendencies, liberat IR recognizes regime in the constitution the primary actors within them.  (3) When the fundamental actors are viewed as relevant variables operating within states, they imply an omitted variable bias in any analysis of international relations that takes just states as the fundamental actors.