Neoliberal vs. Neorealist Debate

Neoliberal vs. Neorealist Debate
February 24, 2013
Ways of Understanding the Debate
• Considerable amount of agreement (including
shared assumption that not all state interests
• Most disagreement is about the prevalence of
international conflict and the possible roles
international institutions can play in promoting
cooperation (not the absolute presence or
absence of both)
• Partly disagree because looking at different parts
of the world (trade vs. security, for example)
• Most important difference in general is that:
– Neorealists believe that the existing levels of conflict
in the world are insurmountable because states a) are
cooperating as much as they can, b) in that they are
already at their Pareto Optimal position
– Neoliberals argue that conflict can be further reduced
because cooperation is now impeded by problems of
information and trust, problems that could be
resolved through the operation of international
institutions (just as they were resolved domestically
through national institutions that created selfreinforcing norms that promote trust and
Also differ in their understanding of institutions:
• Neoliberals see institutions as having a life of their own in the sense that
they can act independently of states and facilitate cooperation among
states that is not available due to the bare existence of overlapping or
mutual interests. Institutions can create new opportunities for
• Neorealists: institutions are just tools of states that provide the platform
by which cooperation dictated by overlapping or mutual interests is played
• Empirically, it is not clear what institutions can do. It could be that they
can be innovative (create opportunities for cooperation that statesmen
cannot see) and transformative (can change preferences), though the
latter so for have only arisen in circumstances in which such
transformations were neither foreseen nor intended.
However, there is a difference among realists:
• Offensive realists tend to see the level of
conflict as irreduceable. The problem isn’t
information or absence of norms (as indicated
in Prisoner Dilemma situations) but
incompatible interests– particularly the
presence of countries willing to go to war to
expand, or the presence of countries with
incompatible security requirements.
• Defensive realists are more like neo-liberals in
seeing many current conflicts as being
describable by the Prisoners’ Dilemma, and
thus accepting that a more optimal position is
available through cooperation facilitated by
information and trust-forming conditions.
However, they also accept that some
situations are not so describable, involving
aggressors and incompatible security needs.
Mearshiemer: EH Carr
There is no difference between current
conditions and when Carr wrote in the 1930s:
• States and power are the most important
factors in explaining international affairs
• Predominance of idealists, who do not accept
that these factors are decisive.
Carr’s Views
• Statesmen misunderstand world politics
• Are utopian, in that they hope
– To change the nature of international politics
– Create an international order not built on balance
of power
– Believe in the efficacy of individuals to change the
nature of states and their actions
• Argued for the importance of military power
• But did not say why states pursue power and only
hinted at how much power states want– observes
they always want more
• Recognized that statesmen must pay attention to
international norms in both peace and war, and
that populations in states tend to embrace those
norms and expect statesmen to follow them.
• But also seemed to argue that power and the
following of norms are incompatible
• Thus, despite some gaps, Mearshiemer suggests
that Carr created the basis for powerful way of
explaining international politics that was free of
naïve moralizing and encompassed at least part
of the types of analysis that modern liberal
internationalists engage in.
• But discarded after WWII with the re-emergence
of idealists (liberal internationalists, English
School, constructivists, post-modernists)
• Move to marginalize the type of analysis that Carr
articulated a mistake; even more of a mistake to
try to eliminate all traces of realism in academia.
• Current analysis:
– Argue by changing discourse rather than convince
through rational argument
– Replace state as the unit of analysis with the
– Set up academic idealists as the principal actors.
Niou and Ordeshook: Realist/Liberal
It is not possible to resolve the debate on empirical
• Arguments and concepts on both sides too
general and imprecise to create helpful
hypotheses to test
• No agreed conception of state goals to be used
• No common ground in use of rational choice or
game theory because both sides misuse those
Niou and Ordeshook
• But can create a framework in which we can work
out the likelihood of either cooperation or
conflict in different environments or contexts
made up of subjective beliefs, chance, and the
presence of clearly signaled intentions.
• We can think about liberalism and realism as
describing different types of situations or
contexts, in which they correctly assign a high
likelihood of conflict (realists) or cooperation
Niou and Ordeshook
• Because it is not clear that states always
pursue either absolute or relative gains in
terms of goals, and because goals and
environments are intertwined such that goals
create environments and environments create
goals, can only think about goals and
environments in relative terms themselves: g
goal existing in e environment
Niou and Ordeshook
Also relevant are:
• Different types of equilibrium games
• Different types of equilibria
• Different types of equilibrium strategies
The first and third can be mixed and matched, such that a
successful strategy for a equilibrium (x) may be employed, but
in the context of equilibrium game (z) in which the optimal
equilibrium is (1): ie., there may be strategies that attempt to
achieve a type of equilibrium, but it may or may not work
given the context involved. E.g., a tit for tat strategy may be
best for dealing with a Prisoners’ Dilemma, but not for a
Battle of the Sexes game.
Niou and Ordeshook
For liberals, this is where coordination comes
into play. Coordination allows everyone to
understand the game and the correct strategies
by means of norms and practices.
These are achieved in states through
constitutions, which lead to cooperation rather
than conflict. The question is, is the situation the
same in international politics?
Niou and Ordeshook
One indication that it is not always relevant is the
fact that there can be non-cooperative equilibria
(for example, competitive alliance systems).
Realists argue that such equilibria are easier to
coordinate, and thus the natural tendency is to
gravitate towards them. Liberals argue that
cooperative equilibria are easier to coordinate.
Empirically, it appears that both types of equilibria
have existed.
Nye: Neoliberalism and Neorealism
Problems of IR:
• The world is not a laboratory– cannot control for
factors or run the same scenario multiple times
• Theorists are too close to events, and generally
attempt to instruct their fellow citizens
This leads to different strategies to emerge from
changing contexts. Thus liberalism arises in reaction
to Vietnam and the different ways power was
manifested during the 1970s Oil Crisis, and realism
reemerged in the 1980s in the face of a more
assertive Reagan administration
However, realism and liberalism are not as different as
they are often depicted; instead, they are often
• Realism provides essential discussions regarding the
role of states, power and the international system.
• Liberalism provides important discussion regarding:
– How states define their interests through the workings of
domestic politics
– How states can learn, particularly in terms of cooperation
• Pluralistic security communities (NATO)
• Regional cooperation (integration of Europe)

similar documents