Chapter Summary

I. The Notion of a System

  • A system is an assemblage of units, objects, or parts united by some form of regular interaction.
  • In the 1950s, the behavioral revolution in the social sciences and growing acceptance of political realism in international relations led scholars to conceptualize international politics as a system, using the language of systems theory.

II. The International System According to Realists

  • All realists characterize the international system as anarchic. No authority exists above the state, which is sovereign. Each state must therefore look out for its own interests above all.
  • Polarity: system polarity refers to the number of blocs of states that exert power in the international system. There are three types of polarity:
    1. Multipolarity: if there are a number of influential actors in the international system, a balance-of-power or multipolar system is formed.
      • In a balance-of-power system, the essential norms of the system are clear to each of the state actors. In classical balance of power, the actors are exclusively states and there should be at least five of them.
      • If an actor does not follow these norms, the balance-of-power system may become unstable. When alliances are formed, they are formed for a specific purpose, have a short duration, and shift according to advantage rather than ideology.
    2. Bipolarity: in the bipolar system of the Cold War, each of the blocs (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and the Warsaw Pact) sought to negotiate rather than fight, to fight minor wars rather than major ones, and to fight major wars rather than fail to eliminate the rival bloc.
      • Alliances tend to be long term, based on relatively permanent, not shifting, interests.
      • In a tight bipolar system, international organizations either do not develop or are ineffective. In a looser system, international organizations may develop primarily to mediate between the two blocs.
    3. Hegemony: one state that commands influence in the international system.
      • Immediately after the Gulf War in 1991, many states grew concerned that the international system had become unipolar, with no effective counterweight to the power of the United States.
  • System Management and Stability: Realists do not agree among themselves on how polarity matters.
    • Bipolar systems are very difficult to regulate formally, since neither uncommitted states nor international organizations are able to direct the behavior of either of the two blocs. Informal regulation may be easier.
    • Kenneth Waltz argues that the bipolar system is the most stable structure in the long run because there is a clear difference in the amount of power held by the two poles as compared to that held by the rest of the state actors.
    • John Mearsheimer suggests that the world will miss the stability and predictability that the Cold War forged. He argues that more conflict pairs would develop and hence more possibilities for war.
    • Theoretically, in multipolar systems, the regulation of system stability ought to be easier than in bipolar systems. Under multipolarity, numerous interactions take place among all the various parties, and thus there is less opportunity to dwell on a specific relationship or respond to an arms buildup by just one party in the system.
    • Advocates of unipolarity, known as hegemonic stability theorists, claim that unipolarity leads to the most stable system. Paul Kennedy argues that it was the hegemony of Britain in the nineteenth century and that of the United States after World War II that led to the greatest stability. When the hegemon loses power and declines, then system stability is jeopardized.
    • The international system of the twenty-first century is confronted by a unique problem: the United States dominates both militarily and economically. What are the implications of such a world? Will it lead to international peace?
  • Realists and International System Change
    • Changes in either the number of major actors or the relative power relationship among the actors may result in a change in the international system. Wars are usually responsible for changes in power relationships.
    • An example of a system change occurred at the end of World War II. The war brought the demise of Great Britain and France, and signaled an end to Germany’s and Japan’s imperial aspirations. The United States and Soviet Union emerged into dominant positions; the multipolar world had been replaced by a bipolar one.
    • Robert Gilpin sees another form of change, where states act to preserve their own interests and thereby change the system. Such changes occur because states respond at different rates to political, economic, and technological developments.
    • Exogenous changes may also lead to a shift in the system. Advances in technology not only have expanded the boundaries of accessible geographic space, but also brought about changes in the boundaries of the international system. With these changes came an explosion of new actors.
    • Nuclear warfare has had more of an impact of on the international system more than any other technological change. Although these weapons have not been used since 1945, the weapons remain much feared, and efforts by nonnuclear states to develop such weapons, or threat to do so, has met sharp resistance. The nuclear states do not want a change in the status quo and do not want them in the hands of rogue states.
    • In the view of realists, international systems can change, yet the inherent bias among realist interpretations is for continuity.

III. The International System According to Liberals

  • The international system is not central to the view of liberals. Thus, there are three different conceptions of the international system:
    • Not as a structure but as a process, in which multiple interactions occur among different parties and where various actors learn from the interaction.
      1. Actors include, not only states, but also international governmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, multinational corporations, and substate actors.
      2. Each actor has interactions with all of the other ones. Thus, a great many national interests define the system, including economic and social issues and not just security.
      3. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye describe the international system as interdependent. There are multiple channels connecting states, and multiple issues and agendas arise in the interdependent system.
    • An English tradition of international society: in an international society, the various actors communicate and consent to common rules and institutions and recognize common interests.
      1. Actors share a common identity, a sense of “we-ness”; without such an identity, a society cannot exist.
      2. This conception has normative implications: the international system is an arena and process for positive interactions
    • An anarchic one in which each individual state acts in its self-interest: This is also called neoliberal institutionalism, a view that comes closer to realist thinking.
      1. But, unlike many realists, they see the product of the interaction among actors as a potentially positive one, where institutions created out of self-interest serve to moderate state behavior.
  • Liberals and International System Change
    • Changes come from several sources:
      1. Changes occur as the result of exogenous technological developments—that is, progress occurring independently. Examples are communication and transportation systems.
      2. Change may occur because of changes in the relative importance of different issues areas. In the last decades of the twentieth century, economic issues replaced national security issues. Globalizing issues such as human rights may assume primacy in the twenty-first century.
      3. Change may occur as new actors, including multinational corporations and nongovernmental organizations, augment or replace state actors.

IV. The International System According to Radicals

  • Radicals seek to describe and explain the structure of the system in terms of stratification: the uneven division of resources among different groups of states. The system is stratified according to which states have vital resources.
  • From the stratification of power and resources comes the division between the haves, characterized by the North, and have-nots, positioned in the South. Economic disparities are built into the structure and all actions are constrained by this structure.
  • The Implications for Stratification
    • When the dominant powers are challenged by those states just beneath them in terms of access to resources, the system may become highly unstable. The rising powers seek first-tier status and are willing to fight wars to get it. Top powers may begin a war to quell the threat.
    • For Marxists, crippling stratification in the system is caused by capitalists. Capitalism dominates international institutions whose rules are structured by capitalist states to facilitate capitalist processes, and MNCs whose headquarters are in capitalist states but whose loci of activity are in dependent states.
    • Radicals believe that the greatest amount of resentment will be felt in systems where stratification is most extreme. The call for the New International Economic Order (NIEO) in the 1970s was voiced by radicals and liberal reformers in most developing countries. They sought changes such as debt forgiveness, how commodities were priced, and controls on multinational corporations (MNCs).

V. Constructivism and International System Change

  • Constructivists argue that the whole concept of an international system is a European idea. Nothing can be explained by material structures alone
    • Martha Finnemore suggests that there have been different international orders with changing purposes.
  • Constructivists believe that what does change are social norms.
    • Social norms change through both actions of the collective and through individuals
    • Norms may change through coercion, but most likely they will change through international institutions, law, and social movements

VI. Advantages and Disadvantages of the International System as a Level of Analysis

  • Advantages:
    1. Allows comparison and contrasts between systems
    2. Comprehensiveness: it enables scholars to organize the seemingly disjointed parts into a whole.
    3. Systems theory is a holistic approach. Although it cannot provide descriptions of events at the micro level, it does allow plausible explanations at the more general level. For realists, generalizations provide fodder for prediction. For liberals and radicals, these generalizations have normative implications.
  • Disadvantages
    1. The emphasis at the international system level means that the “stuff of politics” is often neglected, while the generalizations are broad and obvious.
    2. The testing of systems theories is very difficult. Most theorists are constrained by a lack of historical information and thus the ability to test specific hypotheses over a long time period is restricted.
    3. The problem of boundaries: does the notion of the international system mean the political system? What factors lie outside the system? What shapes the system?
    4. The idea of a single international system is largely a creation of European thought. It may be better to think of multiple international systems over time
      1. Imperial China
      2. The umma as a community of Muslims
  • VII. In Sum: From the International System to the State

    • Of all theoretical approaches, realists and radicals pay the most attention to the international system of analysis. For realists, the defining characteristic is polarity; for radicals, it is stratification. Constructivists emphasize how changes in norms and ideas shape the system, seeing little differentiation between the international and domestic system and eschewing the importance attached to international system structure.
    • Constraints are viewed by realists as positive, by radicals as negative, and by liberals as neutral (as an arena and process for interaction).