Theories of Global Politics

Theories of global politics (Note: questions will only be asked on realism and liberalism)

Key themes of realism – traditionally the foremost theory of international politics; power politics; states as key global actors; nature and origins of state egoism (human egoism, classical realism); international anarchy and its implications (self-help and survival force states to prioritise national security and military power); importance of balance of power; ethical considerations irrelevant to foreign affairs, etc.

Realist theories of war and peace (war is inevitable; human aggression, etc; implications of international anarchy); security dilemma (fear and uncertainty mean that a possibly defensive military build-up by one state will always be interpreted as aggressive by other states, hence arms races and international tension); only the balance of power maintains (ever fragile) peace.

Key themes of liberalism – liberalism as key form of idealism (belief that international politics should be based on morality); optimism about human nature (reason and progress); tendency towards balance or harmony in human (and international) affairs; bias in favour of cooperation (complex interdependence; growth of international organisation and global governance) etc.

Liberal theories of war and peace – political causes of war (multinational empires (Woodrow Wilson); authoritarian government; economic causes of war (economic nationalism; autarky); diplomatic causes of war (balance-of-power systems); how peace is upheld (free trade and commercial liberalism), national self-determination, democracy (‘democratic peace’ thesis, republican liberalism), international rule of law (institutional liberalism).

Radical theories – Marxism/neo-Marxism (critique of international/global capitalism; core/periphery analysis; world-system theory; dependency theory, etc); anarchism (corruption of state power; hegemonic states seek world domination). (Note: questions will not be set on radical theories as such; they are nevertheless relevant, for instance, to debates about globalization and the causes of poverty.)

UNIT THREE REVISION BY TOPIC: Conflict, War and Power Questions.

 War, Conflict, Hard Power, Soft Power and NATO Questions

 Short Answer Questions

Why do realists believe that global politics is characterised by conflict? (15 Marks)

Realists argue that global politics is biased in favour of conflict both because of the nature of states (or other global actors) and because of the implications of the international system.

For realists, states are the principal actors in international or world politics, and, being sovereign, they act as autonomous entities.

The primary motive driving state action is the pursuit of power and self-interest, usually explained by reference to human nature (human beings are viewed as selfish, greedy and power- seeking creatures).

International relations are therefore inevitably characterised by power politics, with power usually understood in terms of military capacity or force, the ability to impose their will on others or to resist aggression of fellow states.

Realists believe that all states are motivated by such power-seeking tendencies, regardless of their constitutional character.

A tendency towards conflict also stems from the dynamics of the international system itself. Anarchy reigns in the international system because there is no authority higher than the sovereign state.

However, anarchy forces states to adopt a strategy of self-help. As no other body or actor can ensure their security, states are forced to ensure their own security. The international system is therefore characterised by suspicion, fear and insecurity, creating an irresistible tendency towards conflict and competition.

This is made worse by the security dilemma, in which a defensive military build-up by one state is depicted as potentially or actually aggressive by another state, leading to an arms race, growing hostility and the likelihood of war.

What is ‘soft’ power, and why has it become more important in recent years? (15 Marks)

Soft power is the ability to influence other actors by persuading them to follow or agree to norms and aspirations that produce the desired behaviour. It contrasts with ‘hard’ power, in which power is exercised through threats or rewards, typically involving the use of military ‘sticks’ or economic ‘carrots’.

Soft power operates through intangible factors such as the popularity of a state’s values and institutions and its moral standing in the world.

Although there is debate about the relative significance of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power, it is often argued that soft power has generally become more important in the modern world.

This is seen as a consequence of the growth of global interdependence and freer flows of communication and information.

Interdependence encourages states to achieve goals by working together, ‘soft’ power being particularly effective in facilitating co-operation.

‘Soft’ power is most often associated with the rise of globalisation and the establishment of ‘complex interdependence’.

Why do liberals believe that global politics tends towards cooperation rather than conflict? (15 Marks)

Liberals believe that global politics is biased in favour cooperation for a number of reasons, including the following:

Liberals believe that the principle of balance applies to international affairs, and that it is reflected in the overlapping interests of states.

Cooperation amongst states is encouraged by economic interdependences, particularly in the form of international trade, which also helps to promote general prosperity.

The trend towards democracy also promotes cooperation and reduces the incidence of war because democratic states share the same culture and values.

The trend towards global governance supports cooperation among states by establishing norms and increased trust, helping to facilitate rule-governed behaviour.

What is the balance of power, and how effective is it in preventing war? (15 Marks)

The balance of power can be defined in a variety of different ways, including the following:

An even distribution of power between rival power blocs.

The existing distribution of power, which may be even or uneven. A policy designed to achieve an even or more even balance of power.

An inherent tendency in international politics to produce an even distribution of power.

Views about the capacity of the balance of power to prevent war diverge, however:

Realists argue that the balance of power is the surest, and perhaps only, guarantee that war can be avoided.

Its value is that an even distribution of power, whether brought about naturally or as a consequence of statecraft, prevents the triumph of dominant powers.

Powers will be deterred from attacking others only if they have reason to believe they will be unsuccessful.

Liberals, on the other hand, believe that the balance of power merely legitimises state egoism and fosters the growth of military power.

In this view, the balance of power is a cause of intensifying tension and possibly war, based upon a mind-set of competition, rivalry and distrust.

How do realists explain the tendency within the international system towards war? (15 marks)

Realists explain the tendency within the international system towards war in a number of ways.

Classical realists believe that war is, sooner or later, inevitable both because of non-rational and often aggressive drives that are intrinsic to human nature and because if states pursue the national interest they will inevitably come into conflict with one another.

Neorealists argue that the tendency towards war can largely be explained by imbalances in the international system that encourage states to believe that they can prosper by taking military action against other states, because there is little prospect of their being defeated or humiliated.

This is particularly argued by offensive realists who believe that states are motivated by the desire to maximise power, and not merely security, implying that war amongst great powers in particular is unavoidable.

Explain how the role of NATO has changed since the end of the Cold War. (15 marks)

NATO’s initial purpose was to act as a deterrent against the threat posed by the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc satellite states, whose collective military alliance was the Warsaw Pact.

The end of the Cold War has, however, forced NATO to find a new role. This has involved establishing itself as a force for European and global peacemaking and crisis management, as has applied, for example, in former- Yugoslavia.

This has also seen NATO expand its involvement beyond the North Atlantic area, particularly through its association with the ‘war on terror’ and its command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

Finally, NATO has been involved in redefining relations between the USA and its western allies and post-communist Russia, partly through extending NATO membership to former-communist states and through the idea of missile defence.

Distinguish, using examples, between ‘hard’ power and ‘soft’ power.

Hard power is the ability of one actor to influence another through the use of threats or rewards, typically involving military ‘sticks’ or economic ‘carrots’.

This is power as compulsion or as inducement. Soft power, by contrast, is power as attraction or identification.

It is the ability to influence other actors by persuading them to follow or agree to norms and aspirations that produce the desired behaviour.

Soft power operates largely through culture, political ideals and foreign policies.

The examples of hard and soft power should be accurate and help to explain or illustrate the differences between the two.

Essay Questions

‘Military power is now largely obsolete in global politics.’ Discuss. (45 marks)

Military power has traditionally been viewed as the chief currency of international politics. However, some argue that it has become redundant for a variety of reasons, these include the following:

Military power is redundant because large-scale high-intensity conflict has disappeared in many parts of the world, linked to the expansion of democratic ‘zones of peace’.

There has been a general shift from war to trade, as globalisation has increased economic interdependence and encouraged states to advance national prosperity through strategies of increased competitiveness.

Many wars appear to be unwinnable because of the wider use of strategies of terrorism, insurrection and guerrilla warfare, meaning that economically-dominant powers can no longer easily get their way through military might.

On the other hand, military power has been viewed as of enduring significance, for reasons including the following:

War is endless, as realist theorists argue, implying that military power remains the only sure guarantee of a state’s survival and security.

The irresolvable security dilemma means that fear and uncertainty will always persist in international affairs.

New security challenges have emerged, notably terrorism, that cannot be contained by non-military means alone.

Military power has increasingly been used for ethical purposes, notably to facilitate humanitarian intervention and to support peacekeeping and peacebuilding initiatives.

The intellectual skills that are relevant to this question are as follows:

The ability to analyse and explain how and why military power is used.

The ability to evaluate the significance of military power in modern global politics.

Are war and international conflict inevitable features of global politics? (45 Marks)

The question about the inevitability of conflict and war in global politics has long been a matter of theoretical debate and discussion.

It is perhaps the key issue that has divided realism from liberalism or idealism.

Realist theorists have argued that conflict and war are permanent characteristics of international or global politics.

Most basically, people are viewed as narrowly selfish and ethically flawed, intent on achieving self-advantage regardless of others. A lust for power and a desire to dominate others is an ineradicable feature of human nature.

This implies that international politics boils down to a struggle for power, in Hobbes’s words, ‘a war of all against all’.

The primary objective of every state is to promote its national interests, trying to achieve relative gains in the international system.

International politics is thus, inevitably, a form of power politics, with war being used as an instrument of state policy.

This tendency is strengthened by the anarchical character of the global system, in which, with no power standing above the sovereign state, states being forced to rely on self-help to achieve security in a context of mutual fear, suspicion and hostility.

The dynamics of this anarchical system make long-term stability and international co-operation difficult, and perhaps impossible, to achieve.

However, stability and peace can be achieved for temporary periods through the maintenance of a balance of power.

Liberal theorists, on the other hand, believe that global politics can be characterised by harmony and co-operation, meaning that conflict and war occur for very specific reasons and are not inevitable.

At the core of liberalism is a belief in reason and the possibility of progress.

As individuals are moral creatures and not merely power-seeking ones, liberals believe that international and global politics can conform to ethical principles rather than merely power politics.

They believe that conflict and war can be contained in at least three ways.

First, free trade helps to establish economic interdependence between and amongst states, making war perhaps unthinkable and building international understanding between trading partners.

International institutions can also be forged to ensure an international rule of law, helping to replace unstable balance-of-power politics with a system of collective security.

Democratic government also reduces the tendency towards war, particularly as democratic states are accustomed to using compromise and negotiation to resolve disputes.

Conflict and war may nevertheless occur, but they are usually associated with factors such as the rise of economic nationalism or the existence of authoritarian rule or imperial structures.

The limits of ‘hard’ power are evident in the ’war on terror’, in which an emphasis on military force and unilateralism weakened the USA’s ‘soft’ power in terms of its ability to build a wider coalition of support within and beyond the Moslem world.


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