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Unipolar Politics:

Realism and State Strategies After the Cold War

Ethan B. Kapstein
Michael Mastanduno, (eds.)

Columbia University Press


Bibliographic Data

Table of Contents


  1. Realism and State Strategies After the Cold War

  2. Realism and the Present Great Power System: Growth and Positional Conflict Over Scarce Resources

  3. The Political Economy of Realism

  4. Realism, Structural Liberalism, and the Western Order

  5. Preserving the Unipolar Moment: Realist Theories and U.S. Grand Strategy After the Cold War

  6. Mercantile Realism and Japanese Foreign Policy

  7. Realism and Russian Strategy after the Collapse of the USSR

  8. Realism(s) and Chinese Security Policy in the Post-Cold War Period

  9. Realism and Regionalism: American Power and German and Japanese Institutional Strategies During and After the Cold War

  10. Realism and Reconciliation: France, Germany, and the European Union

  11. Neorealism, Nuclear Proliferation, and East-Central European Strategies

  12. Does Unipolarity Have a Future?



Michael Mastanduno and Ethan B. Kapstein

For the past decade, policymakers and scholars who focus on international affairs have found themselves adrift without chart or compass. The end of the Cold War surely meant profound changes in the international system, but what form did the “new world order” take? Were we on the road toward a world of liberal, peace-loving democracies, as Francis Fukuyama proposed in “The End of History?” Or were we facing instead, as Samuel Huntington asked, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Wherever one looked, scholars and policymakers seemed to be presenting conflicting visions of world politics, and in most cases they failed to provide the sort of testable propositions that would help us discover whether or not their assertions were correct.

At the level of foreign policy, authors were also asking about the future direction that countries would take around the world. Would the Western alliance survive the end of the Cold War, or was it doomed to collapse? Would Japan and/or China challenge American leadership, or would they “bandwagon” with the United States? Was the European Union likely to develop a single foreign and defense policy, or would it continue to “free-ride” on Washington? Again, we have faced a barrage of questions and answers without a filter to help us separate out the serious ideas from those that were frivolous.

The authors of this volume came together to bring some analytical clarity to the increasingly contested realm of world politics. Specifically, we wanted to know whether the dominant research program in international relations, realism, could help us to understand both changes in the systemic environment and in the grand strategies of nation-states. Overall, our answer is “yes.”

At the systemic level, we took the concept of polarity seriously, and focused on what the world was like now that one country, the United States, dominated other states in economic, security, and even cultural terms. What was the meaning of international politics in a unipolar system, and how stable was that order? Not surprisingly, most authors feel that unipolarity is fundamentally an unstable system, and that the United States should expect an array of challenges. Some of these would naturally come from other emerging powers, while others, and perhaps the most significant among them, would come from inside the American polity itself, blocking Washington's leadership activities.

This book was written in the context of the Changing Security Environment project at Harvard University's John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. We would like to express our gratitude to Professor Samuel Huntington, director of the Olin Institute, not only for his support of this work, but more broadly for his unwavering commitment to academic research in the field of national security. More than any other individual, Sam has animated contemporary security studies, and all of us who seek to pursue scholarship in that area owe him a considerable debt.

We also wish to thank Ms. Inga Peterson of the Olin Institute for her administrative assistance, and Mr. Keith Vargo of the Stassen Center at the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, for turning twelve different word processing programs into a book! Finally, we want to express our appreciation to each of our authors for their hard work, as well as to Ms. Kate Wittenberg, editor-in-chief of Columbia University Press, who supported this project from its early stages, and whose anonymous referees provided us with a superb set of constructive comments on an earlier draft.



1. Realism and State Strategies After the Cold War

Michael Mastanduno and Ethan B. Kapstein

Since 1989, the world’s great powers have been struggling to chart a course through the changed political landscape. That landscape is shaped by two prominent features. On the one hand, the United States dominates the terrain as the only superpower, in possession of superior capabilities and able to advance its particular interests across a wide range of political, military, and economic issues. On the other hand, a new set of challenges and challengers has forced scholars and policymakers in every country to raise uncomfortable questions about the national interest and the direction of international policy. The emergence of China as a great Asian power, for example, must be of concern to its neighbors, just as an erratic Russia remains a global worry. Since no foreign government can rely on Washington to respond to every crisis, and since the United States will not be the world’s leader forever, states must retain some independent capacity for action. There will likely be any number of regional issues in which the United States will choose not to exercise its power, and in some cases a group of countries might even seek to balance against the United States. The end of the Cold War has brought with it the emergence of new strategic dilemmas for nation-states; governments have no choice but to calculate their national interests in this international environment and muster the resources needed to advance them.

This volume was written as an initial effort to understand how states are actually navigating the end of the Cold War. In that sense its purpose is largely empirical: to analyze and explain the “grand strategies” of important actors in the contemporary international system. We seek to answer such questions as: What are the likely patterns of conflict and cooperation in relations among the major nation-states? How have these major powers—the United States, Russia, Japan, Germany, China, France—defined and pursued their national interests in the absence of the overwhelming yet somehow reassuring constraint of the Cold War? And how are smaller powers—especially those of central and eastern Europe, which have so often been in the crucible of world politics—responding? The book addresses these questions through chapters that focus both on the contemporary international system and on case studies of particular nation-states.

The second purpose of this book is theoretical: to see whether we can make any general statements about the state behavior we have observed, or at least develop arguments for future testing drawn from our current understanding of foreign policymaking. In particular, we explore the question of the extent to which the intellectual construct known as “realism,” with its emphasis on international anarchy, insecurity, and the state, helps to illuminate contemporary world politics. We focus on realism not only because it remains the dominant paradigm in the study of international relations, but also because it has come under increasing attack by a battery of scholars.1 Realism’s critics believe that it is particularly ill-equipped to account for international politics in a new world characterized by the improbability of war among great powers, the declining significance of territorial acquisition, the spread of liberal democracy and interdependent market economies, and the growing importance of non-state actors.2 Still, no alternative paradigm now stands ready to take realism’s place.3

To date, several volumes have appeared that use the end of the Cold War primarily as a vehicle for engaging in “paradigm wars”—conceptual debates over the relative merits of realist versus other explanatory frameworks.4 Although we draw on those debates, it is not our purpose to recapitulate them. Rather, our emphasis is on the fit between theoretical propositions drawn from the realist framework and the preliminary empirical evidence offered by the post-Cold War world.5

The end of the Cold War, of course, has provided students of international relations with a unique opportunity to engage in the testing and refinement of various theories. It is not often that a global “systemic shock” occurs which affects nearly all the actors on the world stage at the same time.6 Realist theories rely heavily on the structure of the international system—the distribution of power—as the key factor in accounting for foreign policies and international outcomes. The collapse of the Soviet Union represented a major change in the international structure, and almost every government has had to reconsider if not change its foreign policies as a result. If realism provides a worthwhile explanatory framework, then propositions derived from it should yield insights about state strategies and behavior in light of this shift in the global distribution of power.

The overall assessment of the chapters below is that the much-anticipated death of realism is premature. Realism remains a powerful and valuable explanatory framework, the end of the Cold War notwithstanding. Most of the contributors find some variant of realism helpful in understanding the foreign policy predicaments of particular states. This holds for the advanced states of the capitalist world, as well as for the states of the former communist world. And, it applies in the arena of foreign economic policy as well as in what is usually considered realism’s traditional preserve—national security policy.

Randall Schweller, for example, draws on classical realism to advance an argument about positional competition among states under conditions of scarcity. Jonathan Kirshner looks to the tradition of both liberal and mercantilist writings to generate “the political economy of realism,” i.e., a set of core realist propositions that may be tested against developments in the post-Cold War world economy. Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry, in a more critical vein, offer what they term structural liberalism as an alternative to realism to account for peace among major powers after the Cold War. Eric Heginbotham and Richard Samuels propose the idea of “mercantile realism”—a variant of realism that focuses mainly on the role of economic policy in national strategy—to explain Japanese behavior, while Iain Johnston looks to “identity realism,” or the way in which elites define or construct the external environment, to explain Chinese behavior. Michael Mastanduno draws on classical and structural realist arguments to develop a “balance-of-threat” explanation of U.S. security strategy after the Cold War. For Neil MacFarlane, Joseph Grieco, and Michael Loriaux, state calculations of power and interest in Russia, Germany, Japan, and France have evolved and in particular historical and geopolitical contexts, shaping “path-dependent” strategies that have been influenced but not overwhelmed by the end of the Cold War. For Mark Kramer, the end of the Cold War has meant a whole new set of strategic dilemmas for governments in central and eastern Europe and efforts to resolve them through the development of alliance relationships with the West. Finally, in his effort to explain post-Cold War outcomes in the international political economy, Ethan Kapstein draws on the arguments of hegemonic stability theory as articulated by realist thinkers such as Robert Gilpin and Stephen Krasner.7

Collectively, these chapters remind us that realism is a research program, bound by a core set of shared assumptions, rather than a single theory. Our authors focus primarily on the distribution of power, relative position, and the role of the state and state calculations of power and interest in deriving explanations of foreign policy behavior. They are less concerned with regime type, shared values, international institutions, or interest group politics as independent sources of state strategies and international outcomes.8 However, several authors do move beyond an exclusive emphasis on material capabilities and take seriously the contribution of nonmaterial factors in shaping foreign policy. Johnston’s emphasis on cultural identity, Loriaux’s reliance on the emergence of shared norms, and Mastanduno’s concern with threat perception and response constitute salient examples. The authors in this volume find the realist framework valuable but also prove willing to broaden or look beyond it, drawing on the insights of other research programs in their efforts to develop better explanations for state behavior.

Existing realist arguments, however, do not all fare equally well. Indeed, the realist theory that receives the least empirical support is currently the most prominent one in the international relations literature—the neorealist balance-of-power theory associated with the work of Kenneth Waltz and his followers.9 Specifically, we find little evidence of military balancing by the major powers of Europe and Asia against the world’s only superpower. The chapters below demonstrate unequivocally that the predictions and behavioral expectations plausibly derived from Waltz’s theory do not square, thus far, with the behavior of the major powers after the Cold War.

But this critical questioning of Waltz’s version of balance-of-power theory is not tantamount to a rejection of the realist tradition. Neorealism does not define the entire paradigm, even though critics and proponents sometimes treat it that way. The contributors to this volume draw largely on the richness of classical realism, with its focus on the factors shaping foreign policy as opposed to those that determine international outcomes, and most of them have combined classical realism’s insights with a systemic perspective in an effort to construct effective explanations of state behavior. Indeed, this volume could be viewed as part of the ongoing effort to elaborate an alternative realist vision, one that goes inside the “black box” of state decisionmaking to explore how foreign policy officials conceive of the international environment and their place within it in order to calculate and pursue national interests.10

Not surprisingly, no single theory or explanation emerges from this volume as a clear alternative to Waltz’s seminal contribution. Instead, the chapters cluster around two realist arguments that emphasize different aspects of the post-Cold War international order. Together, they provide a compelling picture of the forces influencing foreign policymaking today.

The first argument centers on what might be called unipolar politics. Neorealist balance-of-power theory typically underemphasizes unipolarity, treating it as an inevitably brief transition to yet another era of multipolar balancing.11 Yet the chapters demonstrate that a principal foreign policy challenge for each of the states analyzed, including the United States, is to adjust their strategies to the emergence and possible endurance of a unipolar distribution of power. Some states have been determined to “bandwagon” with the United States and rely on American power for their security into the foreseeable future. Others, such as China and Russia, want to hedge their bets; nonetheless, they have been more inclined since 1990 to seek integration into the political and economic institutions of the U.S.-dominated international order rather than try to weaken or undermine that order. What is most striking, in the context of neorealist balance-of-power theory, is the reluctance of other major powers to engage in an individual or collective strategy of balancing against the preponderant power of the United States in an effort to create an alternative international order.

The absence of balancing at the core of the international system does not imply the absence of conflict among major powers. Our second realist argument emphasizes the importance of positional competition among states beyond the realm of military security. For realists, positional competition is an enduring consequence of an anarchical international system. Although major powers currently may not be competing militarily, positional conflicts over resources, markets, prestige, and political influence are prevalent and will persist. Several of the chapters analyze the strategies that different states have devised in an effort to improve their standing in international economic competition, influence weaker neighbors, or compete for international respect and prestige.

At first glance, these two arguments offer clashing visions of the contemporary international system. The image depicted by unipolar politics is one of cooperation among the major powers, as others accept the reality of American hegemony, recognize the high costs of challenging that hegemony, and adapt their strategies to make the most of their position in the new structure. This image portrays the United States, for its part, as acting to preserve its dominant position by reassuring and integrating potential challengers.

In contrast, the vision offered by positional competition is of an ongoing struggle for power and international influence that could eventually spill over from the relatively benign forms it is taking at present to the more traditional forms of military and territorial competition among major powers. This is world politics of the bare knuckles variety, in which each state seeks to maintain if not improve its position in the hierarchy.

Yet these images need not be mutually exclusive. Cooperation and competition among major powers may coexist uneasily. As stated at the outset, there is no guarantee that the present dominant position the United States enjoys will last forever. Prudent governments will seek to bandwagon with the United States while still maintaining some independent capacity for action, either through the mustering of internal resources or through the cultivation of regional or global relationships. This is the very tightrope that states must now walk, as they seek to avoid alienating Washington while pursuing their particular interests. Washington, in turn, faces the ongoing problem of pursuing its own interests without triggering the formation of a balancing coalition against it.

Can the major powers cross these tightropes without falling? The analyses contained in this volume suggest that the contemporary order may be stable for the time being, but that the walk will continue to be a delicate one. Russia’s leaders, for example, are somehow seeking both accommodation with the West and the restoration of Russian hegemony in the former Soviet area. This latter effort, however, could prove threatening to the West or at least contentious in terms of Western interests and values. Similarly, China is striving for deeper integration into the world economy, but at the same time its leaders gain political benefits from depicting the country’s security environment as threatening and hostile. Their willingness to act on that image, for example against Taiwan or in the south China Sea, generates regional insecurity and prompts confrontation with the United States. Germany and France are struggling to maintain the prudent cooperation that served them so well during the Cold War, but now without the glue of the external security threat and in the face of significant economic and social pressures at home as the costs of European integration seem to mount. Japan’s leaders have been anxious to preserve the positive aspects of the Cold War status quo, but they face economic stagnation, trading partners who are less willing to accept asymmetrical market arrangements, and a United States whose security guarantee necessarily seems less certain without the Cold War. Finally, the United States, the most important player in the system, is trying to preserve its unipolar position through a global engagement strategy. U.S. officials, however, face a public and Congress that have proven reluctant to support military intervention, skeptical of foreign assistance, and anxious about America’s role in the global economy.

The rest of this chapter expands on the themes introduced above. The next section reviews the realist research program and criticisms of neorealism raised in the volume’s chapters. The following two sections elaborate the arguments of positional competition and unipolar politics.


The Realist Research Program and Neorealist Theory After the Cold War

Realism contains a set of core assumptions from which a variety of hypotheses and explanations can be generated. As the chapters in this volume demonstrate, there is no single “theory of realism,” and realism per se cannot be tested, confirmed, or refuted. A recent and serious scholarly attempt to test “realism” as opposed to particular realist theories found that the “scientific study of realism is difficult because it is not often specific enough to be falsifiable.”12 Particular realist theories, however, can and should be constructed specifically enough to be falsifiable.13

The following set of assumptions are generally accepted in the chapters below as providing the foundation for the realist research program in international relations. First, the most important actors in international politics are “territorially organized entities”—city-states in antiquity, and nation-states in the contemporary era.14 Nation-states are not the only actors on the current world scene, but realists assume that more can be understood about world politics by focusing on the behavior of and interaction among nation-states rather than by analyzing the behavior of individuals, classes, transnational firms, or international organizations.

Second, realists assume that state behavior can be explained as the product of rational decisionmaking. As Robert Keohane puts it, for the realist “world politics can be analyzed as if states were unitary rational actors, carefully calculating the costs of alternative courses of action and seeking to maximize their expected utility, although doing so under conditions of uncertainty.”15 States act strategically and instrumentally, in an arena in which the “noise level” is high. The problem of incomplete information is compounded because states have incentives to conceal or misrepresent information to gain strategic advantage. Consequently states may miscalculate, but not so frequently that they call into question the rationality assumption.16

Third, realists emphasize the close connection between state power and interests. States seek power (defined both as relative material capabilities and relative influence over outcomes) in order to achieve their interests, and they calculate their interests in the context of the international environment they confront. While all states seek power, it is not necessary to assume that states seek to maximize power. Not every state needs or wants nuclear weapons, for example. Similarly, although security and survival are the highest priority in terms of state interest, there is no need to assume that states always strive to maximize security at the expense of other goals. States pursue an array of interests; the key point for realists is that in defining the so-called national interest, state officials look “outward,” and respond to the opportunities and constraints of the international environment.

Fourth, realists believe that relations among states are inherently competitive. While states compete most intensely in the realm of military security, they compete in other realms as well, particularly in economic relations. To say that states “compete” means that states care deeply about their status or power position relative to other states, and that this concern guides state behavior. Competition is a consequence of anarchy, which forces states ultimately to rely on themselves to ensure their survival and autonomy. This does not imply cooperation is impossible, only that states will approach cooperative ventures with a concern for the impact of those ventures on their relative power positions.17

Waltz’s balance-of-power theory, often labeled neorealism, remains the most prominent realist theory of international relations. As such, it provides the starting point for analysis in most of our chapters. At its core is an argument about international interactions and their outcomes; it is not explicitly a theory of foreign policy, or why states act the way they do. Waltz’s approach is systemic and his model is parsimonious. He posits that international systems are anarchic as opposed to hierarchic and that states are functionally similar rather than differentiated. The key independent variable is international structure, or the distribution of capabilities across states. From this, Waltz derives the hypotheses that (1) states will balance against a preponderant power, (2) balances of power will inevitably form and recur, and (3) bipolar or two-power systems will be less war-prone and more stable than multipolar ones.18

Waltz’s contribution has been extraordinarily influential, shaping the realist research agenda for almost two decades and inspiring scholarship and debate on an array of fundamental issues including the stability of international systems, the causes of alliances, and the nature of international theory itself. As is the case for any major social science contribution, the theory has also attracted considerable criticism. Some fault the theory for positing an overly narrow conception of international structure, and for being incapable of explaining the all-important problem of international system change.19 Others point out that Waltz provides little systematic evidence for his central claim of the recurrence of balancing, and relies instead on selected illustrations that tend to confirm his expectations.20 Paul Schroeder’s recent survey of European diplomatic history, for example, casts doubt on the empirical validity of Waltz’s claims.21

Given the centrality of Waltz’s argument, and the obvious temptation of testing it in the setting of a unipolar system, virtually all of the chapters do so against the available evidence compiled since the end of the Cold War. The result is a strong consensus that neorealist balance-of-power theory does not provide an effective explanation either for the behavior of particular states or for their interactions regionally or globally. For example, Johnston’s chapter finds no evidence that China is developing forces to balance the United States, or that it is seeking to coordinate its diplomacy with possible U.S. adversaries in the same way that it sought coordination against the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s. Rather than reducing its economic dependence on the United States, China is increasing it, and Chinese behavior in Asia has hardly prompted other states to weaken their security ties to the United States. MacFarlane argues that the most developed parts of Russian cooperation with the West lie in the realm of security, notwithstanding the provocative prospect of NATO expansion. Rather than pursue balancing against the United States, Russia’s leaders have emphasized a “strategic partnership” with America in which Russia is de facto the subordinate partner. Russia has even sought assistance from the United States in dismantling its nuclear weapons—hardly the stuff of balance-of-power theory.

In their chapter, Heginbotham and Samuels argue that Japan has embarked on a long-term path of downsizing its military forces, even though defense budgets and military capabilities elsewhere in East Asia have been growing rapidly. Faced with the prospect of an increasingly powerful China, Japan seems inclined neither to seek regional allies who will balance against China nor to develop an independent nuclear capability. Instead, it continues to rely heavily on its bilateral security treaty with the United States.

In the context of Europe, Michael Loriaux finds the striking absence of balancing by France against the power of a resurgent and reunified Germany. Mark Kramer shows that, contrary to the expectations and explicit predictions of some neorealists at the end of the Cold War, the states of central Europe and especially Ukraine have foresworn reliance on nuclear weapons, the most potent capabilities available to them to balance Russian power. And, in accounting for German and Japanese regional strategies, Joseph Grieco demonstrates that changes in polarity—the key variable in neorealist theory—do not correlate with changes in state behavior.

Proponents of neorealist balance-of-power theory might counter that Waltz’s intention was to explain international outcomes, not the foreign policies of particular states. Waltz, in fact, makes that point explicitly.22 Yet, if balancing behavior is to be a systemic outcome, at least some, if not all, major powers need to be engaged in it. Or, as Johnston notes, “while one single-country test of neorealist propositions is not sufficient to confirm or undermine neorealist claims, neorealists ought to be concerned about the cumulative implications of many single-country tests.”23 The post-Cold War evidence to date is fairly clear at both the national and the systemic levels—other states are not balancing the preponderant power of the United States.

Neorealists might respond that it is too soon to tell, and that balancing behavior will emerge eventually. For example, the European Union’s effort to create a common currency, the “euro,” arguably could be conceived as an attempt to create a balance against U.S. financial hegemony. The revival of bilateral diplomacy between Russia and Japan, or Russia and China, could develop into closer relationships based on a shared anxiety about U.S. preponderance. Leaving aside the fact that the most prominent neorealists have predicted a fairly rapid transition to multipolar balancing, the “too soon to tell” point is a fair one. The evidence from the post-Cold War world can only be preliminary at this stage, and therefore it would be highly imprudent to abandon or discard Waltz’s theory.24 The initial experience of the post-Cold War system, however, does suggest that it is sensible to develop and explore additional hypotheses and propositions. This volume’s contributors take up that challenge and in so doing they elaborate two realist images of the contemporary international system that are not centered around military balancing among the great powers.


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