Jonathan Pierce and Katherine Hicks
The advocacy coalition framework (ACF) was developed to explain policy processes where contentious coalitions of actors seek to translate competing belief systems into public policy. Advocacy coalitions may include interest groups, members of the media, scientists and academics, and government officials that share beliefs about a public issue and coordinate their behavior. These advocacy coalitions engage in various strategies using resources to influence policy change or stasis. As part of this process, advocacy coalition members may learn within and/or across coalitions.
This framework is one of the most prominent and widely applied approaches to explain public policy. While it has been applied hundreds of times, in over 50 different countries, the vast majority of ACF applications have sought to explain domestic policy processes. A reason for the paucity of applications to foreign policy is that some ACF assumptions may not seem congruent to foreign policy issues. For example, the ACF uses a policy subsystem as the unit of analysis that may include a territorial dimension. Yet, the purpose of the territorial dimension is to limit the scope of the study. Therefore, this dimension can be substituted for a government body that has the authority or potential authority to make and implement foreign policy. In addition, the ACF assumes a central role for technical and scientific information in the policy process. Such information makes learning across coalitions more conducive, but the ACF can and should also be applied to normative issues, such as those more common among foreign policy research.
This article introduces the ACF; provides an overview of the framework, including assumptions, key concepts and theories, and transferability of the ACF to foreign policy analysis; and discusses four exemplary applications. In addition, it proposes future research that scholars should explore as part of the nexus of the ACF and foreign policy analysis. In the final analysis, the authors suggest the ACF can and should be applied to foreign policy analysis to better understand the development of advocacy coalitions and how they influence changes and stasis in foreign policy.
International Relations theory has tended to overlook the role of Africa and Africans in the international system. Traditionally, the discipline’s most influential theorists have focused instead on relationships between and perspectives of “major powers.” A growing body of work, however, has challenged these more limited efforts to conceptualize African agency in international politics. This scholarship has emphasized the significant space available to, and carved-out by, African states in molding the agendas of international institutions, and the role of African governments and advocacy networks in influencing the trajectory of major international debates around issues such as aid, development, trade, climate change, and migration. The study of African agency in international politics continues to wrestle with two key debates: the meanings of “agency” and “African.” Much of the literature focuses primarily on the role and influence of African states rather than that of African citizens and communities. This focus provides, at best, only a partial and qualified view of the ways in which African agency is secured and exercised at the global level, particularly given the significant structural constraints imposed on Africa by global economic and political inequalities. The extent to which contemporary analysis captures the breadth of African engagement with the international system is also compromised by current state-centric approaches. It is thus necessary to examine a range of approaches adopted by scholars to deepen and nuance the study of African agency in international politics, including work on agenda-setting, mesolevel dynamics and microlevel dynamics.
Jaclyn M. Johnson and Clayton L. Thyne
The devastating Syrian civil war that began after the Arab Spring in 2011 has reminded the international community of the many consequences of civil war. However, this conflict is simply one of many ongoing conflicts around the globe. Civil war has a number of effects on individual lives, the country experiencing the conflict, as well as the international system more broadly.
The humanitarian costs of civil war are steep. Individuals are negatively impacted by civil war in a myriad of ways. Three main areas of research are of interest: mortality, physical and mental trauma, and education. Several factors increase the number of deaths in a civil war, including a lack of democracy, economic downturns, and foreign assistance to combatants. Even if civilians survive conflict, they are likely to endure trauma that affects both mental and physical health. Strong evidence indicates that civil war spreads infectious diseases and severely diminishes life expectancy. Mental health is also likely to suffer in the face of conflict, as individuals often must overcome debilitating trauma. Finally, children are particularly susceptible in civil war settings. Children are often unable to continue their education as a consequence of civil war because combatants often target schools strategically or the state is unable to fund education as a result of funneling resources to the conflict.
Civil wars also pose a number of threats to the state itself. First, a state that has experienced a civil war is much more likely to have another civil war in its future. Conflict recurrence has been explained through the type of settlement that concludes the initial civil war, institutions that may prevent recurrence like proportional representation, and the role of third parties in providing peace-ensuring security guarantees. Beyond recurrence of war, scholars have looked at the impact that civil wars have on state-level institutions, including democratization. While most state-level effects of civil war seem to be deleterious, there may also be positive effects, specifically in terms of female representation. Civil war in sub-Saharan Africa has been shown to increase the number of female representatives, perhaps providing an avenue for gender equality.
Civil wars have ripple effects that impact neighboring countries and the international system more broadly. Proximate states are often challenged with an influx of refugees that may burden social programs or facilitate the spread of diseases and illicit arms. However, positive consequences of hosting refugees may include trading opportunities or economic growth from remittances. Moving beyond proximate states, civil wars have consequences for the entire globe. For example, civil wars have been demonstrated to spur international terrorism. The civil war literature has explored the various effects of conflict at the individual, state, and interstate level.
For much of the history of the study of international relations, and of foreign policy as a distinctive subfield, scholars have debated the relative weight of agency and structure in shaping the course of international events. Often, the significance of agency versus structure depends on the scope of inquiry. Efforts to identify broad patterns of social interaction tend to play up the significance of structure, while studies of specific events bring agency to the fore. International relations theory is typically associated with the former, and foreign policy analysis (FPA) is more closely linked to the latter. That association suggests that the question of agency versus structure in international outcomes is settled in FPA in favor of agency. An assessment of the literature in FPA shows such a suggestion to be wide of the mark. Not only does FPA struggle with the question of agency versus structure that pervades the study of international relations generally, but also it wrestles with how to reconcile agency and structure in the context of psychological constraints on human cognition. Thus, rather than resolving the debate between agency and structure, the literature on FPA shows that it extends down to the level of individual policymakers. The debate over the role of agency and structure occupies two axes. The first is the engagement of FPA with broader debates over agency and structure in international relations scholarship. The second is the tension between agency and structure in FPA that emerges once psychology is incorporated into the analytical matrix. In both cases, the significance of structure in the actual analysis of foreign policy is far greater than common conception recognizes. This reality means that FPA represents the cutting edge for theoretical and analytical efforts to understand the relationship between structure and agency in international outcomes.
Agent-based computational modeling (ABM, for short) is a formal and supplementary methodological approach used in international relations (IR) theory and research, based on the general ABM paradigm and computational methodology as applied to IR phenomena. ABM of such phenomena varies according to three fundamental dimensions: scale of organization—spanning foreign policy, international relations, regional systems, and global politics—as well as by geospatial and temporal scales. ABM is part of the broader complexity science paradigm, although ABMs can also be applied without complexity concepts. There have been scores of peer-reviewed publications using ABM to develop IR theory in recent years, based on earlier pioneering work in computational IR that originated in the 1960s that was pre-agent based. Main areas of theory and research using ABM in IR theory include dynamics of polity formation (politogenesis), foreign policy decision making, conflict dynamics, transnational terrorism, and environment impacts such as climate change. Enduring challenges for ABM in IR theory include learning the applicable ABM methodology itself, publishing sufficiently complete models, accumulation of knowledge, evolving new standards and methodology, and the special demands of interdisciplinary research, among others. Besides further development of main themes identified thus far, future research directions include ABM applied to IR in political interaction domains of space and cyber; new integrated models of IR dynamics across domains of land, sea, air, space, and cyber; and world order and long-range models.
Over the past three decades, economic and political demographers, using various measures, have discerned that increased age-structural maturity makes significant statistical contributions to levels of per capita income, to educational attainment, to declines in the frequency of onsets of intrastate conflict, and to the likelihood of achieving and maintaining liberal democracy. Some of the stronger statistical relationships have been used in forecasts. For example, using the United Nations Population Division (UNPD) demographic projections, political demographers have relied on the strong statistical association between age structure and stable liberal democracy to forecast the rise of democracy in North Africa more than two years in advance (in 2008)—at a time when regional experts believed that forecast to be absurd.
Whereas critics remain skeptical of the murky causal connections of age-structural theory, its proponents counter that causality in the development of state capacity is complex and is less important than the theory’s positive qualities (namely, that it is forward-looking, its statistical findings are easily repeated, its forecasts have outcompeted regional experts, and its predictive products can be readily adapted to the needs of intelligence foresight, defense planning, and foreign policy analysis). Perhaps most important, the age-structural theory of state behavior has yielded a surprising number of “novel facts”—new knowledge concerning the observed pace and timing of state political, social, and economic behaviors.
Arno Tausch, Leonid Grinin, and Andrey Korotayev
In 1937, the Japanese economist Kaname Akamatsu discovered specific links between the rise and decline of the global peripheries. Akamatsu’s theory of development describes certain mechanisms whose working results in the narrowing of the gap between the level of development of the economy of developing and developed countries, and, thus, in the re-structuring of the relationships between the global core and the global periphery. Akamatsu developed his model on the basis of his analysis of the economic development of Japan before World War II, with a special emphasis on the development of the Japanese textile industry. Akamatsu’s catch-up development includes three phases: import of goods, organization of the production of previously imported products, and export of those goods. This model proved to be productive for analyzing the development of many other developing countries, especially in East Asia, making the theory of flying geese popular among the economists of these countries, as well as the whole world. The “flying geese” model produces certain swings that may be denoted as Akamatsu waves. Akamatsu waves may be defined as cycles (with a period ranging from 20 to 60 years) that are connected with convergence and divergence of core and periphery of the World System in a way that explains cyclical upward and downward swings (at global and national levels) in the movements of the periphery countries as they catch up with the richer ones.
Nearly everything a state does has distributional consequences, including grand strategy. Societal groups with different stakes in the international economy and defense spending often have conflicting strategic priorities, and these groups pursue their parochial interests by supporting the nomination and election of like-minded politicians. Thus, grand strategy is a product of political economy. An overview of American foreign policy over the last several decades illustrates this logic. In the 1980s, the Democratic and Republican coalitions had conflicting interests over the international economy, so the two parties diverged on grand strategy. The recovery of the Rust Belt in the 1990s and 2000s, however, brought increasing convergence. Political discourse over foreign policy was fiercely partisan, but, with the notable exception of George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, the two parties shared essentially the same view of America’s role in the world. The disastrous outcome in Iraq led the Bush administration back to the middle ground in its second term, and Obama followed the same course. In contrast, the election of Donald Trump augurs change. Trump’s electoral coalition consists of a different balance of interests in the international economy than that of past Republican presidents, so he is likely to pursue different strategic priorities.
Ulrich Franke and Gunther Hellmann
This article examines scholarship in the field of foreign policy analysis inspired by the philosophy and social theory of American Pragmatism. Pragmatism is reconstructed as a unified theory of human thought and action emphasizing the primacy of practice and situated creativity. It has been largely ignored in International Relations (IR), in general, and foreign policy analysis (FPA), in particular, during the 20th century. Given the fact that pragmatism is widely taken to be one of the few genuinely “American” social theories, its marginal role in IR scholarship is astounding since the discipline has rightly been characterized as an “American social science” (S. Hoffmann).
Against this background the article highlights one of the prominent disciplinary dualisms, the distinction between “systemic” theories of international politics/relations on the one hand and “sub-systemic” foreign policy analyses on the other. It does so, however, as an entry point for a different perspective. Pragmatist thought entered the field in the mid-1990s at a moment when increasing numbers of scholars felt uneasy about this dualism because it severed human agency from internally connected transformations at the global level of political interaction. The proliferation of paradigmatist scholarship about German foreign policy after the country’s unification in 1990 illustrates both how established “paradigms” grappled with “change” and “continuity” in German foreign policy and how pragmatism was mobilized as a theoretical resource in order to respond to this challenge.
Pragmatism is a distinctive social theory that starts with what people do (primacy of practice) and that conceives of theories as tools for coping. Rather than distinguishing between thought (or theory) on the one hand and action (or practice) on the other as separate activities, pragmatism emphasizes the unity of all problem-solving forms of “inquiry” (J. Dewey). Inquiry removes doubt and enables us to form beliefs (as “rules for action”). Methodologically this understanding translates into a rejection of the separation of “theory” and “subject matter” in favor of empirically grounded reconstructive approaches. In addition to pragmatist perspectives on epistemology and methodology, the article highlights different ways of substantive theorizing in IR/FPA such as habits, practices, and loyalties but also normative accounts.
Like all decision making, foreign policy decision making (FPDM) requires transferring meaning from one representation to another. Since the end of the Cold War, students of FPDM have focused increasingly on historical analogies and, to a lesser extent, conceptual metaphors to explain how this transference works. Drawing on converging evidence from the cognitive sciences, as well as careful case studies of foreign policymaking, they’ve shown analogy and metaphor to be much more than “cheap talk.” Instead, metaphor and analogy are intrinsic to policymakers’ cognition.
This article traces the development of this growing literature. So far, FPDM has treated analogy and metaphor separately. It has also paid far more attention to the former than the latter. By contrast, the article argues that analogy and metaphor are not only similar, they are equally essential to cognition. It defines and compares metaphor and analogy, analyzes their socio-cognitive functions in decision making, and charts the evolution of analogy and metaphor research in FPDM. It also suggests the utility of a constructivist-cognitive synthesis for future work in this area.
Mark R. Brawley
Two approaches currently enjoy widespread popularity among foreign policy analysts: Analytical Liberalism and Neoclassical Realism. On the surface, they seem remarkably similar. Both emphasize domestic factors, yet each claims to employ domestic variables in a distinct fashion. How do they differ? To answer that question, it would be helpful to reflect upon examples where scholars applying each approach have addressed the same case, allowing us to contrast their descriptions directly. Few such comparisons exist, however. Instead, as is apparent to even the casual observer, each approach fits neatly into its own niche. Neoclassical Realism appeals to scholars addressing security policy, whereas Analytical Liberalism dominates research in international political economy. Why would both approaches enjoy limited applicability? Here too, a direct comparison of their arguments might illuminate their comparative strengths and weaknesses. A review of how each approach works provides insight into their respective strengths and weaknesses. Under certain conditions, the key traits of the approaches can be revealed. These conditions identify a series of cases deserving closer empirical analysis, which would provide evidence concerning the relative utility of each approach.
The pattern of international conflict and peace differs from region to region. Regions differ from each other not only in terms of the simple presence or absence of war but also the degree to which war or any sort of military conflict is likely in the long run. Arguments have been offered to explain the spatial heterogeneity in war and peace. One approach to explaining regional peace is additive—the peacefulness of international politics is essentially analyzed and explained at either monadic or dyadic level variation. Notably, the dyadic approach to international conflict and peace has been dominant in the contemporary international relations. For example, two states that are economically dependent, both democratic, with vastly different levels of capabilities, and involved in neither a territorial dispute nor rivalry are likely to develop peaceful relationships. From this perspective, the regional degree of peace is explained by summing up the peacefulness of dyads within a region.
Although this approach to regional peace has been dominant in the field, other approaches go beyond this simple additive approach. The first such explanations base their theoretical arguments on dyadic or monadic mechanisms, but focus on regionwide conditions such as consistency between national and state borders. Regional conflict and peace are ultimately explained by these regional historical conditions. The second group of explanations draw on the notion of spatial contagion through such mechanisms as domestic instability and war expansion in which international and civil wars provide opportunities for further conflict in the neighborhood in various ways. Conflict diffuses through spatial contagion and war joining, which in turn produces a zone of conflict. The third strand of explanations involve more explicit analyses of interdependence between units—states or dyads—which does not necessarily have to take place in the spatial context but often so. For example, pacifying international trade may result from “flying geese” learning and socialization processes within a neighborhood, thus making a whole region peaceful. Furthermore, studies that draw on techniques of network analysis tend to directly model dyad-to-dyad interdependence as an important source of conflict and peace. In short, there are various approaches to explain the regional variation of international conflict and peace from both additive monadic or dyadic approaches and more complex approaches that assume regional clustering of material conditions and interdependence between micro-units in space.
Deborah Welch Larson
Although more scholars have used archival evidence to analyze foreign policy in recent years, relatively little has been written on the methods involved in using archives as well as the evidentiary value of different types of documents. Analyses of foreign policy decisions often make use of narratives or process-tracing. Process-tracing should uncover the causal mechanisms wherever possible in order to explain foreign policy decisions. Primary sources are extremely useful in uncovering causal mechanisms, whether public opinion, bureaucratic politics, advisory group dynamics, or psychological processes. Through archival evidence, the researcher can capture how policymakers perceived the world at the time, unbiased by hindsight, and their calculations. Because psychological evidence shows that people do not necessarily know what influenced their decision, scholars should not necessarily take at face value the reasons that policymakers give for their actions.
It is useful for political scientists to carry out their own archival research because historians have different implicit theories and may not gather data of relevance to the theories being tested. In addition, through examining the documents, political scientists may be able to discriminate between competing historical interpretations of the same event. It is important to interpret documents within their historic, situational, and communication contexts. The document’s place in the policy process—the sequence of memos and discussions—helps to determine its meaning and impact on the final decision. In order to interpret statements that are apt to be biased by instrumental motives, the investigator should consider who said what to whom under what circumstances and with what purpose.
David F. Mitchell and Jeffrey Pickering
The empirical literature on arms buildups and the use of interstate military force has advanced considerably over the last half century. Research has largely confirmed that a relationship exists between arms buildups and the subsequent use of force, although it is historically contingent. The relationship seems to have existed in some earlier historical periods but has not been a feature of international politics since 1945. Broader work such as the steps-to-war model brings understanding to such variation by demonstrating how arms races are interrelated with other causes of conflict, such as territorial disputes and alliances. Still, many important dimensions of the arms race–conflict connection remain to be explored. Differences between qualitative and quantitative arms races, for example, have not received sufficient empirical scrutiny. Precise theory also needs to be developed on direct and indirect relationships between arms races and conflict, and such theory requires empirical investigation.
Arms control is a strategy by governments to overcome the security dilemma with institutionalized cooperation. It comes in three versions, arms control proper, with stability as the main objective; non-proliferation as a sub-category of arms control, so understood with the main objective being to preserve the distributive status quo concerning certain weapon types; and disarmament, with the objective to eliminate a specific weapon type. Confidence building is a crosscutting functional concept lumping together many different measures that can serve all three versions.
Arms control does not reject self-help as a basis of national security, but entrusts a significant piece of it to cooperation with potential enemies. Hence, arms control—with the exception of unilateral, hegemonic arms control imposed on others, and of non-proliferation for preserving an existing oligopoly—is a difficult subject for realism and neorealism, but also for post-modernism. It presents a solvable puzzle for rationalists and no problem at all for constructivists who, to the contrary, can dig into norms, discourses, and identities.
Concerning stability and change, arms control can be looked at from two opposite perspectives. Since it aims at stability, critical security approaches have labeled it as a conservative, status quo orientated strategy. But there is also a transformational perspective: arms control as a vehicle to induce and reinforce a fundamental redefinition of the relationship between states. Naturally, the concept of disarmament shows the greatest affinity to the transformational perspective.
A related issue is whether arms control is a result of political circumstances, a dependent variable without a political impact of its own, or whether it has causal effect on interstate relations. Constructivism proposes a dialectical relationship in which arms control and broader policy influence each other. From this reflection, the question of the conditions of success and failure flows naturally. Conducive interstate relations (or extrinsic shocks), technology, domestic structures, learning, leadership, perception, and ideology have been candidates for the independent master variable.
Three models tackle the relationship of arms control and historical time: the enlightenment intuition of steady progress; a series of waves, each of which leaves the world in a more cooperative state than the previous one; and the circle—arms control ebbs and flows alternatively, but achievements are fully lost in each ebb period.
We can distinguish four arms control discourses: arms control as the maiden of deterrence; arms control subordinated to defense needs; arms control under the imperative of disarmament; and arms control as the instrument of human security, the survival and well-being of human individuals, notably civilians.
As with all politics, arms control involves justice issues: the distribution of values (security/power), access to participation in decision making, and the granting of recognition as legitimate actor. Arms control negotiations are ripe with justice claims, and failure through incompatible justice demands happens frequently. Also, emotions play a key role: frustration and ensuing resentment, anger, and existential fear can prevent success. Finally, compassion, empathy, and trust are ingredients in successful arms control processes.
Toby J. Rider
An “arms race” is a competition over the quality or quantity of military capabilities between states in the international system. The arms race phenomenon has received considerable attention from scholars over many decades because of the ubiquity, throughout history, of states building arms as a means of deterring enemies, but disagreement persists over whether that policy is effective at avoiding war.
The Latin phrase si vis pacem, para bellum, meaning “if you want peace, prepare for war,” dates back to the Roman Empire but the sentiment is likely much older. That states should rapidly build up their militaries in the face of potential threats is a common thread that runs through much of the modern international relations scholarship influenced by realism and deterrence theory. Meeting force with force, the logic went, was the only way to ensure the security or survival of the sovereign state. These states faced a paradox, however, best articulated by the “security dilemma.” Anything a state does in the name of defense, like a rapid military buildup, decreases the security of other states and will be viewed with hostile intent. This set up a debate over competing expectations regarding the relationship between arms races and war (peace). On one hand, deterrence theory posits that rapid arming is necessary to raise the cost of an adversary attacking and, consequently, preserves peace. On the other hand, the spiral model argues that the reality of the security dilemma means that arming produces mistrust, hostility and, thus, increases the likelihood of war. Scholars set out to test these competing hypotheses using large data sets and statistical techniques, but there was widespread disagreement on how to measure arms races, appropriate research design, and the statistical findings were somewhat mixed.
Critics of this approach to studying arms races note a number of important weaknesses. First, scholars primarily focus on the consequences of arms races—whether they lead to war or peace—at the expense of understanding the causes. Those who advance this position believe that a theory of arms race onset might well inform our understanding of their consequences. Second, security dilemma, taken as the primary motivation for arms races, suffers from significant logical flaws. Third, assessment of the arms race-war relationship consists of comparative theory tests of deterrence theory and spiral model, yet these ideas are underdeveloped and expectations oversimplified. More recently, scholarship has shifted the focus from the consequences of arms races to developing theories and empirical tests of their causes. These efforts have been informed by insights from bargaining models of war, and their application to this context holds promise for better future understanding of both the causes and consequences of arms races.
Lisa J. Carlson and Raymond Dacey
The major empirical frameworks for understanding crisis initiation are the diversionary account and the constraint account. Both accounts deal with the influences that domestic audiences have on the probabilities of removal from office and thereby on the probability of crisis initiation. The diversionary account holds that the domestic audience will bring pressure if the leader does nothing to address a declining status quo. The constraint account holds that the domestic audience will bring pressure if the leader initiates a crisis but either fails to win the war or backs down from the crisis.
The diversionary and constraint accounts of crisis initiation employ different assumptions, stress different variables, and ultimately specify different theoretical linkages to explain the decision to initiate a crisis. Thereby, the two accounts are traditionally viewed resting on distinct theories and resulting in distinct empirical analyses. Can the two accounts be unified under one theoretical structure?
The simple answer is yes, but reaching the answer is not so simple. The key to the unifying the two accounts involves rendering precise the inexact theories that underlie the two accounts and specifying the linkages between the underlying theories and the empirical analyses based on those theories. Some issues remain open. In particular, a major open issue, encountered by both the diversionary and constraint account, is inherent in the use of aggregate data to test hypotheses that are specified theoretically at the individual level of analysis.
Austria was occupied at the end of World War II by the four Allies, but in contrast to Germany the four powers left in 1955—the condition being its declaration of permanent neutrality, on which the Soviet Union had insisted.
In the first half of the 1950s, relations with the new-founded European Coal and Steel Community were being discussed in Austria, because the organization encompassed Austria’s two most important trading partners at that time, West Germany and Italy. But after the uprising in October-November 1956 in neighboring Hungary, Austria started to stress more its neutrality, excluding European Economic Community (EEC) membership. Instead, it joined other European countries to create a less integrated economic entity, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1960.
Not until the mid-1980s did debate about membership in the now European Community (EC) start again. Economic problems and a narrower interpretation of neutrality led to Austria’s application for EC (later European Union) membership in July 1989. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the application of other EFTA countries, Austria finally acceded to the EU on January 1, 1995 (along with Finland and Sweden). The political system and its economy adjusted relatively smoothly to the challenges of EU membership; the “social partnership,” while losing some of its power, could maintain its influence on Austrian politics. Eastern enlargement of the EU brought further economic advantages for Austria.
As one of the smaller EU countries and a non-NATO member, Austria has a somewhat unique position in the EU. Environmental policy and supporting EU membership of the Balkan countries are among the important “niches” for Austrian EU activities. But the country has no close partners in the EU, because it is not participating in the “Visegrad” cooperation of the other Central European EU members. This difficulty clearly showed during the “sanctions” period of the EU-14 against the new Austrian government in 2000.
The foreign policy of autocratic regimes reflects the research interest in the international behavior and decision making of domestic actors in nondemocratic regimes. The regime type (its nature, structure, leadership constellation, legitimation strategies, relation between leadership and public) thus is presumed to have explanatory power for the foreign policy actions and decisions of autocratic actors.
Randall L. Schweller
The balance of power—a notoriously slippery, murky, and protean term, endlessly debated and variously defined—is the core theory of international politics within the realist perspective. A “balance of power” system is one in which the power held and exercised by states within the system is checked and balanced by the power of others. Thus, as a nation’s power grows to the point that it menaces other powerful states, a counter-balancing coalition emerges to restrain the rising power, such that any bid for world hegemony will be self-defeating. The minimum requirements for a balance of power system include the existence of at least two or more actors of roughly equal strength, states seeking to survive and preserve their autonomy, alliance flexibility, and the ability to resort to war if need be.
At its essence, balance of power is a type of international order. Theorists disagree, however, about the normal operation of the balance of power. Structural realists describe an “automatic version” of the theory, whereby system balance is a spontaneously generated, self-regulating, and entirely unintended outcome of states pursuing their narrow self-interests. Earlier versions of balance of power were more consistent with a “semi-automatic” version of the theory, which requires a “balancer” state throwing its weight on one side of the scale or the other, depending on which is lighter, to regulate the system. The British School’s discussion of balance of power depicts a “manually operated” system, wherein the process of equilibrium is a function of human contrivance, with emphasis on the skill of diplomats and statesmen, a sense of community of nations, of shared responsibility, and a desire and need to preserve the balance of power system.
As one would expect of a theory that made its appearance in the mid-16th century, balance of power is not without its critics. Liberals claim that globalization, democratic peace, and international institutions have fundamentally transformed international relations, moving it out of the realm of power politics. Constructivists claim that balance of power theory’s focus on material forces misses the central role played by ideational factors such as norms and identities in the construction of threats and alliances. Realists, themselves, wonder why no global balance of power has materialized since the end of the Cold War.