Balancing theory with evidence, in which we form and adjust our theories at least in part based on their performance, might seem to be a part of any social scientific enterprise. However, there are powerful epistemological tendencies, particularly in the field of international relations (IR), which lead many researchers in other directions. One is somewhat unique to IR—the role played historically by paradigms in the field. At their worst, paradigms put theory before evidence. They offer a set of core assumptions about the nature of international politics and lead their adherents to cherry pick evidence to support them. The other we find in many other social sciences besides political science and international relations—a commitment to deductive theorizing, particularly by practitioners of rational choice. Based on an instrumentalist epistemological position, deductive theory derives hypotheses from a set of assumptions that remain untested, and aims at uncovering general patterns of human behavior that are as generalizable as possible. This type of research, which rests on an instrumentalist epistemological approach, finds itself unable to follow the evidence because it is uninterested in testing its own assumptions with empirical data. When these assumptions prove faulty, it generates bad theory because its foundation is rotten. International relations theorists have squabbled for decades over basic epistemological positions, with each side favoring a particular school in the philosophy of science that justifies their preferred approach to research. As Monteiro and Ruby have nicely argued in 2009, these disagreements cannot be resolved through argument, as each epistemological approach rests on its own set of assumptions that cannot be tested. While they are correct to argue that IR pick and choose their epistemology based on the kind of research they like to do, the viability of epistemological choices is to some degree subject to empirical testing.
Empirical Evidence for Empirical International Relations Theorizing: Tests of Epistemological Assumptions With Data
Brian C. Rathbun
The Territorial Peace: A Research Program
Douglas M. Gibler
The first argument that the democratic peace may, in fact, be the product of a larger, territorial peace among states was published in 2007. The argument was based on the strong findings associating territorial issues with conflict. Territorial issues may, in fact, be so salient to the domestic population that they force political centralization and the maintenance of non-democratic governments. This also implies that democracies are likely to be members of a group of states that have resolved their latent territorial issues with neighbors; absent these threats to the state, democracies are faced with few issues over which to fight. That argument is described here, providing a comprehensive discussion of why territorial issues are so salient to the domestic population and the effects of that salience on the polity.
Leaders and Foreign Policy: Surveying the Evidence
Stephen Benedict Dyson and Thomas Briggs
Political Science accounts of international politics downplay the role of political leaders, and a survey of major journals reveals that fewer than 3% of all articles focus on leaders. This is in stark contrast to public discourse about politics, where leadership influence over events is regarded as a given. This article suggests that, at a minimum, leaders occupy a space in fully specified chains of causality as the aggregators of material and ideational forces, and the transmitters of those forces into authoritative political action. Further, on occasion a more important role is played by the leader: as a crucial causal variable aggregating material and ideational energies in an idiosyncratic fashion and thereby shaping decisions and outcomes. The majority of the article is devoted to surveying the comparatively small literature on political leaders within International Relations scholarship. The article concludes by inviting our colleagues to be receptive to the idiosyncrasies, as well as the regularities, of statespersonship.
Toward an Evolutionary Theory of International Relations
Rose McDermott and Christian Davenport
The current practice of conceiving and examining international relations within the dogma of the existing dominant paradigm in international relations unnecessarily truncates our understanding of how historical factors influence current events and restricts our ability to generate flexible and creative hypotheses to predict, and perhaps more successfully intervene in, future events. In many ways, these constraints result, at least in part, from the temporal, strategic, and behavioral isolation embedded in these models, which limit our ability to understand, integrate, and address how states deal with one another comprehensively. Substantial theoretical and empirical purchase can be gained through the application of an integrated explanatory rubric of evolutionary modeling, invoking the central concepts of variation, selection, and retention. Models derived from evolutionary psychology, applied not only to human cognitive architecture, but also to the interaction of these psychological dynamics with environmental factors including institutions, provides a richly generative framework from which to derive meaningful and novel hypotheses about politics in general and international relations in particular. It also allows for a progressive and cumulative research agenda that can build a more comprehensive and descriptively accurate foundation for understanding the nature of interaction between people and societies as well as between states themselves. Such an approach provides a useful framework for understanding the dynamic and interactive nature of international relations, sheds light on existing limitations as well as empirical findings, and facilitates insight into areas not yet explored.
Theories of International Norm Contestation: Structure and Outcomes
Jeffrey S. Lantis
First-generation constructivist theories argue that international norms are constitutive and regulative—that they shape state behaviors and promote international cooperation. Theories focus on the life-cycle of international norms and probe their impact on cooperation across a range of issue areas. However, a new generation of scholarship has identified the potential for contestation and challenge in international norm development and maintenance. Critical constructivist theory recognizes powerful roles for agency and alternative definitions of norm parameters and compliance. Norm contestation can occur in multiple ways. First, critical constructivists recognize the norm development process itself can involve significant struggles over the definitions and prescriptions of normative architectures. Second, state leaders sometimes challenge the definition and prescriptions that flow from established normative architectures, and they may engage in contestation over the validity or justification of the norm or application in international institutions. Third, some norms may not become internalized in standard ways at the state level due to alternative patterns of norm diffusion and localization. Fourth, norm strength also can be affected by the actions of rival advocacy coalitions in processes of contestation. While contestation represents a vibrant research program today, critics charge that it suffers from significant limitations. No single theory of norm change or contestation has emerged as dominant in the first decade of research, and scholars are just beginning to grapple with whether greater attention should be devoted to contestation during norm development or localization/diffusion challenges. In addition, the concept of norm change raises an ontological debate about whether norms are static or dynamic in nature, and how best to study the cyclical development of norms (or norm change over time). A discussion of areas for further research and empirical testing of norm contestation theories is also presented.
Systemic Causes of Civil Wars
Civil wars in the contemporary world are deeply interpenetrated by international influences. There are six different conceptions of the international system and their effects on civil conflicts: (1) the realist conception and the superpower interventions of the Cold War period, (2) the liberal institutional conception and the diplomatic mediation of the United Nations, (3) global cultural influences such as world religions, democratization and education, (4) the global economy and structural poverty, (5) transnational bilateral relations with neighboring states, and (6) the planetary ecosystem and the effects of climate change. Taken together, these international influences have a weighty effect on the conduct and duration of contemporary civil wars.
Challenges and Possibilities of Empirical International Relations Theory: Evidence From Research in Brazil
Fernanda Barasuol and Andre Reis da Silva
Much of the debate in international relations (IR) theory in the past decades has concerned epistemological matters and the possibility of empirical research in the field. Most of this debate happened either within the United States or between Americans and Europeans, translating the general trend of keeping the theoretical core of the discipline centered around its geographical (developed) core. Brazilian international relations provides an additional peripheral view to IR theory (IRT). It is worth analyzing how theory has been used in Brazilian teaching and research, with the aim of understanding how Brazilian academics have used different theoretical approaches to understand their objects of study. With this objective, it is important to look into teaching syllabi, PhD dissertations, and articles published in academic journals in the field of international relations. There are considerable differences between teaching and research in Brazil, with the first following traditional American textbook standards. Research, however, shows considerably different theoretical and methodological bases.
Cumulative Knowledge, Science, and the Emergence of International Relations
Torbjørn L. Knutsen
Statesmen, salesmen, soldiers, and scholars have discussed international relations for hundreds of years—at least since sovereign states consolidated their presence along the North Atlantic rim. The Renaissance saw the rise of such discussions, triggered by gunpowder-based armies in Europe and discoveries of new lands in extra-European regions. The Reformation added arguments about the role of religion in interstate affairs—arguments echoed in peace treaties like those signed in Augsburg (1555) and Westphalia (1648). The Enlightenment brought more systematic efforts to explain the causes of war and the preconditions of peace. Two different arguments were drawn more sharply after the Wars of the Spanish Succession and the peace conference of Utrecht (1715): one argued that international order could be maintained by an equilibrium of power; another claimed that peace could be created through diplomatic cooperation and international law. Both arguments were elaborated during the Napoleonic Wars and informed the peace treaties signed at the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815). In the wake of World War I, when the academic discipline of international relations (IR) was established—when scholarly institutions were sponsored for research and education about international issues—there existed a rich literature on the causes of war and the preconditions for international peace. It is argued here that this literature has not been managed particularly well. Few IR scholars have mined this literature systematically. New generations of IR scholars have been more preoccupied with current events than with recurrent patterns. They have been more busy with contemporary theories than with systematically arranging and assessing explanations from the past. If IR wants to become a social science, marked by progress and accumulation of knowledge, it is necessary to catalogue and manage its scholarly heritage in more systematic ways.
Defending Classical Geopolitics
Three successive parts are presented within this article, all intended to raise the visibility and show the utility of classical geopolitics as a deserving and separate international-relations model: (a) a common traditional definition, (b) relevant theories that correspond to that definition, and (c) applications of certain theories that will delve at some depth into three case studies (the Ukrainian shatterbelt, contemporary Turkish geopolitics, and a North American heartland). The placement of states, regions, and resources, as affecting international relations and foreign policies, defines classical geopolitics. This definition emphasizes the application of spatially composed unbiased theories that should bring insight into foreign-affairs events and policies. Specifically, a “model” contains theories that correspond to its description. A “theory” is a simple sentence of probability, with “A” happening to likely affect “B.” Importantly, models are passive; they merely hold theories. In contrast, theories possess their own titles and perform actively when taken from such models. Various methodological challenges are presented: (a) combining concepts with theories, (b) estimating probability for testing theories, (c) claiming the “scientific,” (d) accounting for determinism, (e) revealing a dynamic environment for geopolitics, (f) separating realism from geopolitics, and (g) drawing classical geopolitics away from the critical. Certain theories that are placed within the geopolitical model are examined next: (a) heartlands and rimlands, (b) land and sea power, (c) choke points and maritime lines of communication, (d) offshore balancing, (e) the Monroe doctrine, (f) balances of power, (g) checkerboards, (h) shatterbelts, (i) pan-regions, (j) influence spheres, (k) dependency, (l) buffer states, (m) organic borders, (n) imperial thesis, (o) borders/wars, (p) contagion, (q) irredentism, (r) demography, (s) fluvial laws, (t) petro-politics, and (u) catastrophic events in nature. Additional theories apply elsewhere in the article as well. Of the three case studies, the Ukrainian shatterbelt represents the sole contemporary geopolitical configuration of this type, a regional conflict coupling with a strategic rivalry. Here, partisans of the civil war between the eastern and the western sectors of the country have joined with the Russians against the Europeans and Americans, respectively. Next, Turkey’s pivotal location has afforded it both advantages and disadvantages, a topic discussed at some length earlier in the article. Its “zero-problems” strategy of seeking positive relations with neighbors has now been forced to change tactics, reflective of new forces within and beyond the country. Finally, a North American heartland compares nicely to Halford Mackinder’s earlier Eurasia heartland thesis, with the American perhaps proving more stable, wealthy, and enduring, based in large part on its stronger geopolitical features.
The Balance of Power in World Politics
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.
The Global Spread and Contraction of Democracy: A CoEvolutionary Approach
John M. Owen
Much of the literature on international democratic diffusion appeals to mechanisms—competition, learning, emulation or socialization, and coercion—that typically are treated as competing and theoretically separate. All four, however, fit within a coevolutionary framework, that is, one integrating the concepts of variety, retention, and selection of traits (in this case, regime type). Competition, learning, and emulation are not mutually exclusive and all find support in the large literature on cultural and social evolution. Coercion may seem anti-evolutionary, inasmuch as it implies design and implementation by a powerful rational actor (state, international institution, etc.), but co-evolution can accommodate coercion as well. In co-evolution, agent and environment evolve together: an agent shapes its environment (engages in niche construction), and that reshaped environment alters the fitness of the agents’ traits. A powerful democracy can alter its social and material environment so as to increase the fitness of its own regime. Co-evolution can provide a framework to integrate mechanisms by which democracy and other regime types spread and contract across time and space, and hence can aid empirical research on the effects of global power shifts, including the rise of China, on the fate of democracy in various regions around the world.
The Theoretical and Empirical Approaches to Uncertainty and Conflict in International Relations
Muhammet A. Bas and Robert Schub
Uncertainty is pervasive in international politics. This uncertainty can have many sources. Each source has different origins and implications for the likelihood of conflict. Existing theories focus on three sources: (1) uncertainty due to asymmetric information about adversary traits that affect war payoffs, (2) uncertainty about adversary intentions, and (3) fundamental uncertainty about conflict-relevant processes. Scholarship details the implications of each type of uncertainty for war and peace as well as the prospects for reducing the uncertainty. While theoretical work is quite rich, empirical studies generally lag behind due to measurement challenges and difficulties in specifying clear, testable implications. Nonetheless, using novel proxies for different forms of uncertainty has generated notable progress.
Diffusion in International Politics
Alex Braithwaite and Sangmi Jeong
Diffusion with respect to international politics is commonly defined as the tendency for events or behaviors occurring in one spatial unit to influence the likelihood of similar events or behaviors occurring in another spatial unit. General definitions and mechanisms of diffusion that can be thought of as somewhat ubiquitous to the broader literature of diffusion in international politics tend to focus on processes of spillover or learning/emulation. These processes are common to the adoption and diffusion of policy innovations, the spread of democracy and democratic revolutions, and the contagion of civil and international conflicts. While the nomenclatures of these literatures often differ quite significantly, considerable overlap exists in terms of the primary conceptualizations of diffusion mechanisms. Most literatures appear to identify some combination of the following mechanisms: coercion and external pressure; constructivist norm cycles; social networks and linkages; geographic proximity and demonstration effects; learning and emulation. While the study of these phenomena and mechanisms has advanced significantly in recent years, some notable areas of future growth remain. First, differentiating between learning/emulation and spillover processes still presents considerable difficulty. Second, the role of “firewalls” in limiting diffusion processes is not well understood in either general or specific cases. Third, while understanding of social and geographic spaces is now rather nuanced, it remains unclear how best to theorize and model timing in diffusion processes.
Unipolarity: The Shaky Foundation of a Fashionable Concept
James H. Lebovic
Since the Cold War’s end, academics and policy analysts alike have described the international system as unipolar. The term’s use appears well grounded. The United States possesses exceptional relative capabilities by historical standards, with capabilities—including control of the skies—that were unimaginable under British, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese hegemony. The system seems unipolar then when assessed using a common method for discerning polarity: counting the number of unusually powerful countries in the system. But the numerical case for U.S. preeminence is far easier to make than a logical argument for judging the number of poles in the system. Logic actually suffers considerably when analysts base their thinking about unipolarity on the common assumptions that (a) the Cold War-era international system was bipolar, (b) the current system is unipolar, (c) polarity is discernable from aggregate capabilities, and (d) polarity is detectable in interstate behavior.
Constructing a General Model Accounting for Interstate Rivalry Termination
William R. Thompson
Unlike many topics in international relations, a large number of models characterize interstate rivalry termination processes. But many of these models tend to focus on different parts of the rivalry termination puzzle. It is possible, however, to create a general model built around a core of shocks, expectation changes, reciprocity, and reinforcement. Twenty additional elements can be linked as alternative forms of catalysts/shocks and perceptual shifts or as facilitators of the core processes. All 24 constituent elements can be encompassed by the general model, which allows for a fair amount of flexibility in delineating alternative pathways to rivalry de-escalation and termination at different times and in different places. The utility of the unified model is then applied in an illustrative fashion to the Anglo-American rivalry, which ended early in the 20th century.
The Selectorate Theory and International Politics
Randolph M. Siverson and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
The Selectorate Theory is based upon one simple, perhaps even commonplace assumption: Once in office, leaders want to remain in office. They have a variety of tools to enhance their longevity in office, but the theory hypothesizes the leader’s allocation of two types of goods will be paramount in their efforts. One good is private, meaning that it is enjoyed by those to whom it is allocated and not to others. Such goods would include money, jobs, opportunities for corruption, but their hallmark is that they are not shared. These goods may be given to one individual or to a group, but they are not shared outside those to whom they are given. The second type of good is public and is shared by all those in the state. These goods would include potable water, clean air, education, and, importantly, national defense. There is little unique about the Selectorate Theory’s understanding of these goods, as they approximate ideas from economics. The importance and values of these two goods depend critically on the political institutions of the state. The Selectorate Theory identifies two political institutions of dominant importance: The Selectorate, from which it takes its name; and the Winning Coalition. The former consists of all those people who have a role in selecting the state’s leader. This group may be large, as in the electorate in democratic states, or small, as in the case of an extended family or a junta. In unusual circumstances it can even be a group outside the state, as when a foreign government either imposes or influences choices made inside the state. The winning coalition may be large, but not larger than the selectorate, or it may be as small as an extended family or a junta, groups that essentially constitute the selectorate. Variations in these two institutions can have important consequences for how the state conducts its foreign policy. For example, leaders in states with small winning coalitions should be able to take greater risks in their policies because if these fail, they will be able to mobilize and distribute private goods to reinforce their position. If these goods are not readily available, it is possible to purge non-critical supporters and redistribute their goods to others. These institutions are also important in identifying the kinds of issues over which states are more or less likely to enter into conflict. States with small winning coalitions are more likely to enter into disputes over things that can be redistributed to supporters, such as land or resources. Large winning coalitions will have little use for such goods, since the ratio of coalition size and goods to be distributed is likely to be exiguous. The Selectorate Theory also provides a firm analysis of the foundations for the idea of the Democratic Peace, which has been generally either lacking or imprecise. Despite its clarity, some interpretations of the Selectorate Theory have led to mistaken inferences about what it says. We discuss several of these and close with a consideration of the need for improvement in the measurement of key variables.
Empirical Analyses of Deterrence
Stephen L. Quackenbush
Deterrence is an important subject, and its study has spanned more than seven decades. Much research on deterrence has focused on a theoretical understanding of the subject. Particularly important is the distinction between classical deterrence theory and perfect deterrence theory. Other studies have employed empirical analyses. The empirical literature on deterrence developed at different times and took different approaches. The early empirical deterrence literature was highly limited for varying reasons. Much of the early case study literature did not seek to test deterrence theory. Early quantitative studies did seek to do so, but they were hampered by rudimentary methods, poor research design, and/or a disconnect between quantitative studies and formal theories of deterrence. Modern empirical research on deterrence has made great strides toward bridging the formal-quantitative divide in the study of deterrence and conducting theoretically driven case studies. Further, researchers have explored the effect of specific variables on deterrence, such as alliances, reputations and credibility, and nuclear weapons. Future empirical studies of deterrence should build on these modern developments. In addition, they should build on perfect deterrence theory, given its logical consistency and empirical support.
Analytical Liberalism, Neoclassical Realism, and the Need for Empirical Analyses
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 Spread of Conflict in International Relations
Nils W. Metternich
International relations as a subfield in political science has always been fundamentally concerned about the relations between actors and how they lead to conflictual or cooperative outcomes. However, despite this inherent interest in relations between actors, the gap between theoretical conceptualization and empirical estimation considerably widened until spatial econometric and network analytic estimation approaches allowed researchers to address interdependencies in multiactor settings empirically. However, the discipline needs to strengthen the link between theoretical and empirical network analysis by integrating formal theoretical advances and fully embracing inferential statistical network approaches that are available to researchers. Formal theories of network behavior need to be further developed to establish systematic insights into the conditions under which complex network structures arise and how they affect actor behavior. Rigorous theoretically guided research will form the basis of linking network theories of conflict and cooperation and empirical testing.
Is Democracy a Cause of Peace?
Essentially all scholars agree that the levels of violent conflict, especially wars, within democratic pairs of states are significantly lower than levels of violent conflict within other pairs of states. However, debate rages as to whether this observed correlation is causal or spurious. Does democracy actually cause peace? Answering this question is critical for both scholarly and policy debates. Critics have lodged two sets of arguments proposing that the observed correlation between democracy and peace does not mean that democracy causes peace. First, some claim that the peace observed among democracies is not caused by regime type, but rather by other factors such as national interest, economic factors, and gender norms. These critics often present statistical analyses in which inclusion of these or other factors render the democracy independent variable to be statistically insignificant, leading them to draw the conclusion that democracy does not cause peace. The second critique claims that there is a causal relationship between democracy and peace, but peace causes democracy and not the reverse. Peaceful international environments permit democracy to emerge, and conflictual international environments impede democracy. Though peace causes democracy, democracy does not cause peace. Careful examination of the theoretical claims of these critiques and especially the pertinent empirical scholarship produces two general conclusions. First, there is enough evidence to conclude that democracy does cause peace at least between democracies, that the observed correlation between democracy and peace is not spurious. Second, this conclusion notwithstanding, the critiques do make important contributions, in the sense that they demonstrate that several factors (including democracy) cause peace, that there may be some qualifications or limitations to the scope of the democratic peace, and that causality among factors like democracy and peace is likely bidirectional, part of a larger dynamic system.