Is a Science of International Politics Possible?

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 12
Words: 3225
Reading time:
13 min
Study level: Undergraduate

International politics are governed by state to state relations, which according to many observers appears to be uncertain and chaotic, defying predictable rational outcomes that science demands. Headley Bull provides two approaches to theory of international relations; namely the classical approach in which theory is derived from “philosophy, history and law” (Bull 361) and secondly, the scientific approach based “upon logical or mathematical proof or strict empirical procedures of verification” (Bull 362). Bull asserts that the scientific approach relying on ‘systems approach’, ‘game theory’ and other mathematical formulation have very little to contribute to the theory of international relations (Bull 366).

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Other theorists such as Chris Brown have argued that tenets of the social world are not deterministic and do not have any absolute valuation and hence cannot be judged as the ‘gold standard’ for defining theories of international relations. However, he affirms that “we can learn things about ourselves by studying our history and reading our literary inheritance once we have removed the nomological tendencies [of] past readings” (Brown 226). This paper argues through an examination of western and eastern theories of international relations that none of the theories of international relations whether theorized through the classical approach or the scientific approach are wrong and each one of them has a range of applicability and therefore deserve to be called a science.

Analysis of state behavior has a long history. The earliest reflections of Thucydides over two thousand four hundred years ago (Dunne, Kurki and Smith 52) pointed to the preponderance of realism in international politics in those times. The Peloponnesian War that began in 431 B.C. between Athens and Sparta resulted because the “growth of power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable” (Strassler 16) marking the relevance of power politics even in that ancient era.

The Athenian’s reply to Melian plea for equality that “since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and weak suffer what they must” (Strassler 352) formed the back bone of classical realist theories that have influenced western political theorists over the centuries. In the East too, the realism of Sun Tzu in 500 B.C. considered war to be a ruinous event and recommended stratagems to prevail upon the adversary through guile and if possible defeat him without fighting a battle (Tzu 77). In doing so, Eastern realism provided a more subtle understanding of power politics between states.

By far the most hard-nosed realism to be formulated in ancient times was that by an Indian scholar, Kautilya whose Arthashashtra has written in 300 B.C provided a complete system of international relations for kings to follow. Kautilya encouraged imperialistic expansion and not just defense of a state. According to his theory, the King must have no moral qualms in pursuit of his aims. In short the King “could shake hands on a peace treaty on Monday an attack on Tuesday” (Boesche 4).

Kautilya theorized that a kingdom passes through three phases namely decline, stability and advancement like a pendulum and that a wise king had to use all means available including the science of politics to ensure stability and advancement. The realist in Kautilya acknowledged that some times the King may have to wait out a period of decline to transition into stability. Decline in Kautilya’s terms, was relative in relation to an adversary, who therefore must be overcome. The Arthashashtra dwells at length on such concepts of zero sum game and how a state could utilize the opportunities to expand (Boesche 100). On foreign policy, Kautilya’s famous Mandala theory was implemented by him during the range of Chandragupta Maurya (340-293 B.C) and was followed by later kings in the Indian subcontinent.

Kautilya theorized that state relations could be envisioned as concentric circles or mandalas wherein states numbered 1,3,5,7 from own state at the centre, could be enemies while states numbered 2,4,6,8 as likely friends. In simple terms “one with immediately proximate territory is the natural enemy” (Boesche 78). Is Kautilya’s theory a science? Kautilya attempted to use mathematical and geometric quantification to explain state to state dynamics.

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It seems he succeeded if one considers historical precedent and empirical data of state behaviors in the Indian subcontinent. Even today, the Mandala theory is relevant as it explains the inimical relations between India and Pakistan and India and China, each a proximate neighbor (concentric circle 1). It also explains why India has friendly relations with Russia (on concentric circle 2 with respect to China) and why Russia has such great distrust of China with whom it shares a long border. Kautilya combined mathematics with psychology and sociology and thus can be considered as having used both arts as well as science to develop his theory.

In a later period, Machiavelli’s, The Prince published in 1532 is a western concept of hard-nosed realism that earned him considerable notoriety but also adherents. As per Machiavelli, all that mattered was power and that no action was reprehensible enough in the pursuit of power. Machiavelli’s The Prince was studied in detail by the American founding fathers who found great value in his work. A typical example of Machiavellian thought is:

“The ruler of a country that is unlike his own, as I have said, should make himself the leader and defender of his less powerful neighbors and do his best to weaken the stronger ones, and he should take care that some outsider, who is as powerful as he is, does not get in by accident.” (Machiavelli 12-13).

Does not the above statement sound like the American foreign policy down the ages since the Second World War?

Realism as a scientific construct of international politics continued its steady march through the writings of Weber, Thomas Hobbes, and E.H. Carr and of course modern classical realists like Hans Morgenthau, followed by the likes of Stephen Waltz. None of these can be discounted as each thinker had based his writings on analysis of empirical data. The entire history of human conflict and state to state behavior point to the scientific relevance of realism as an operative construct. The realist school of international relations posits that that human need for power and its manifestation in state to state relations where national interests supersede any kind of morality (Morgenthau 161) is a reality.

The anarchic nature of the world, dominance of national security rather than economic security and the prevalence of balance-of-power (Waltz 102-128) forces nations to adopt ‘self help’ (Baylis, Smith and Owens 103) as the best course of action. ‘Self help’ in such cases includes developing Comprehensive National Power (CNP) in ways that best describe the interests of the nation even if it involves resort to use of force, turning a blind eye to ‘crimes against humanity’ if it does not directly or indirectly affect own state and propping up dictators and autocracies if it suits the purposes of the state.

Is realism scientific? It seems so if one looks at the U.S. example. The U.S. has been a prime beneficiary of realist policies. In the early years after its independence, America chose to stay away from European politics and meddling in the affairs of the world. American leadership at that point in time felt that it suited American national interests better if the country concentrated on nation building rather than involve itself in futile conflicts far removed from its shores. Geographical isolation, vast natural resources and the need to build a nation were realistically termed to be more important than seeking pre-eminence in the world. This isolationist policy gave rise to the Monroe Doctrine which firmly affirmed the principle that America would stay away from interfering in European affairs and would tolerate no interference by European powers in the Americas.

The Monroe Doctrine was steeped in realism because it laid down practical steps for limiting European power politics from spilling into America’s domain. However, after the Second World War, with the threat of expanding Soviet power and the receding British Empire it suited the only other Super Power, America to take over the mantle of the ‘leader of the free world’. America then rightly concluded that it was a matter of national survival, of world freedom, of democracy that the U.S. rise up to contain the Soviet Union. This was a realist articulation of foreign policy that led to the Cold War and endless proxy wars that dominated the next four decades. American realist approach worked successfully as the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of it own contradictions and the economic strain of having to match the U.S. led Western Bloc militarily.

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Thereon, America has continued to use realist policies, for example, since it was not in the interest of the United States to sign the Kyoto Protocol, it was rejected (Roberts and Parks 3) irrespective of its legitimacy and international acceptance. The United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) 1982, which has over 159 signatories have been seen to impinge on the American notions of ‘Freedom of the Seas’, and therefore have not been allowed to pass the Senate (Winkler 1840). Realist formulations in defining American interests through neo-mckinderism is reflected in Brzezinski’s writings that the key to controlling the Eurasian landmass rested in the control over central Asia (31) that acted as a guard post over American control of the Persian Gulf oil. The Bush administration reportedly was heavily influenced by Brzezinski and hence embarked on a series of unilateralist measures to control Eurasia.

President Obama has continued America’s realist policies be it in supporting states sponsoring terrorism such Pakistan, Israel or accommodating China’s concerns. In the view of one foreign policy watcher “Obama’s foreign policy team seems to have abandoned the Democratic Party’s traditional liberal internationalist playbook in favor of hard-headed (some would say hard-hearted) realism. The administration has made clear its willingness to downplay human rights and to make whatever deals it can with Iran, Syria, Russia, and China” (Friedberg para 2).

Thus it appears that realism has a scientific basis as there is a wealth of empirical data to back that claim as has been argued in the preceding paragraphs. Theories such as Power Transition theory which describes the world comprising of a pyramidal structure of a dominant power, great powers, regional powers, minor powers and the subjugated (Organski 330-336) can claim scientific rationale based on empiricism.

In similar vein, liberalism too has a scientific basis based on successful empirical data. Liberalism looks at states as bureaucratic organizations each having their “own interests” (Baylis, Smith and Owens 5). Liberalism emphasizes the importance of individual freedom and that every person of a country had equal rights, equal opportunity and enjoys basic freedoms such as right to life, property, speech and a host of other freedoms that define the human condition. The words of John Locke that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions” (Locke 73) inspired the foundation of the American liberal state.

Equal opportunities and freedom to conduct one’s way of life also implies having tolerance of other ideologies and religious beliefs as has been enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. federal constitution (Green 316) which has also been the case in all enlightened democracies all over the world. Liberalism recognizes that the international system is anarchic but unlike the realist theory, which believes that power politics is the only answer to maintain peace and stability, it believes that while military power is valid, a “complex system of bargaining” (Baylis, Smith and Owens 5) between states can achieve international cooperation and produce peace and stability.

Liberalism in its newer variations flags issues such as universal human rights, climate change, global warming and global ecological balancing as more important than just global politics dominated by the exercise or the threat of exercise of power as is propounded by the realist school. Liberalism also believes that economic interdependence and cooperation are more conducive to peace and stability than ‘economic dominance’ as believed by the realist school. Liberalism reasons that tendency to dominate, to threaten either overtly or covertly as the realist school preaches, only leads to negative counter reaction by states on the receiving end of such overtures. This in turn leads to greater turmoil and the so called ‘balance of power’, which in any case is based on fear, is continuously challenged and thus brings greater instability.

It is because of liberalism that the world today has a more equitable and just system of jurisprudence and laws governing the civil society. The European Union is a typical example of what inspired liberalism can do. Here was a continent wracked continuously with conflicts resulting in deaths of millions since settled life first began. The continent through the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, and the Modern Period right until the end of the Cold War had nation states that held on dearly to their concepts of national interests. That European countries could get over their dearly held concepts of national sovereignty and form a Union is a startling testimony of what liberalism can achieve (Ingham 245).

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Even more startling is the fact that the former Communist countries have lined up to join the Union. Here some may say that it was adherence to a realist strategy on part of the former communist countries to join up with the stronger more prosperous bloc, but even then such a strategy would only reinforce the importance of liberalism and in such a reading, be termed as a happy collusion of liberalism with realism. The U.S. is another example of how liberalism and realism co-exist almost harmoniously. American domestic laws, and civil society interaction are based on a liberalist philosophy while its external interactions have for most part been based on a realist approach.

What about Marxism? ‘Scientific realism’ as it was otherwise known has been discredited by political scientists all over the world after the failure of the Soviet Union. However, such a failure does not remove the theoretical basis of a concept that is still very much prevalent in many parts of the world. China has modified pure Marxist ideals to merge with capitalist practices and is doing very well indeed. Marxist governments still exist in many parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia not to forget Cuba right in the American backyard. The very reason that such governments exist and conduct state-to-state relations, prove the scientific basis of the existence of Marxism as a viable entity.

A scientific theory of international relations, the ‘World Systems’ theory views the world as comprised of a core and a periphery. According to the theory, the core group of nations comprises of the developed world and the underdeveloped world is the periphery. The periphery exports raw materials to the core which produces the finished goods. Therefore in global economics, according to Wallerstein, there existed two basic types of goods; the core-like products and the peripheral products (28). In this interaction, the core employs all means necessary to maximize its gains and thus keeps the periphery dependant upon it.

These means included military, technological or organizational superiority, through a long distance exchange mechanism controlled by the core that in turn decided the politico-economic dynamics of the periphery (Kardulias and Association 154). In such a case, the periphery is just a means of acquiring raw materials for the furtherance of prosperity of the core state. The world systems theory explains that the continued poverty of Latin America derives in large parts because of its periphery status and economic interaction with the core, the U.S. that is preventing its economic progress (Schoonover 2). The theory explained European domination of Africa (Kardulias and Association 155) quite succinctly and thus has a predictive quality in describing international relations.

Even ‘game theory’ and ‘flexible response’ were valid because both the theories have had successful application in the Cold War. Game theory was used by the U.S. against the Soviet Union and can be considered successful as neither country directly confronted each other. Flexible response also worked and so did ‘massive retaliation’ or ‘mutually assured destruction’ as the world has not seen breakdown of nuclear deterrence or a nuclear war. Mathematics, in this case has therefore ensured stability and saved the world from destruction.

Perhaps, the only construct of international relations that has had not much success has been idealism that had been discredited with the failure of the League of Nations after the First World War. However, idealism succeeded brilliantly in the fight for India’s independence when M. K. Gandhi led a peaceful nonviolent movement or Ahimsa to defeat British realism and liberate the country. Today, political scientists taking a cue from the success of the EU look at Constructivism as the scientific theory that can explain evolving state to state behavior and international politics. Constructivists reject the apriori assumptions of the realists that hold that the word system is anarchic. Constructivists challenge this precept to say that anarchy in a system occurs because humans create such concepts, ideas and social structure (Dunne, Kurki and Smith 170).

Alexander Wendt states that “identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature” (1). Therefore when realists state that the nature of the international system makes it imperative for states to resort to ‘self help’, constructivists say that self help is not a constant automatic feature but a construct that emerges out of shared ideas of the actors involved, which implies that ‘self help’ can be modified. The realist formulation of national security based on power politics has been recast by constructivists who argue that since security is just a set of shared ideas, these can be changed and thus security could be envisioned in terms of human security, food security and human rights all of which required an internationalist approach (Steans 73-75) based on a cooperative model instead of a combative model that realism predisposes the international system with.

The current era of globalization may force nations to develop more flexible notions of sovereignty (Naim 65). In a Constructivist’s view, globalization offers challenges and opportunities that can be tackled through the prism of shared ideas and concepts which would then yield positive outcomes. This ‘scientific’ theory as yet is not sufficiently tested but one must remember that some theories initially evolved as hypothesis which gained acceptability and later came to be practiced.

In conclusion it can be reiterated that the demands of science for empirical validity and predictive behavior have been successfully met by realist, liberalist, Marxist and idealist theories of international relations in parts if not in absolute terms. But then it must be remembered that even pure science has never explained all events through the lens of a single scientific theory. Nobody has yet discovered a ‘grand unified theory’ that explains all laws of physics despite a brave attempt by Einstein.

In the field of international politics, each of these theories has adequately explained international political behavior either in isolation or in combination. Classical approach using philosophy, history and law has as much validity as using a scientific approach. These theories have clear maxims and predictive outcomes that have also been proved through historical analysis of international state behavior and therefore the science of international politics already exists.

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