3 Chapter 1 - Neorealism and Thucydides

Realism of one kind or another has monopolized the study of international relations for the past sixty-five years (Forde, 1995, p. 141). In the last thirty-five years, a new form of realist argument, widely known as ‘neorealism’ has emerged that has presented a challenge to the classical realism that dominated the post-war world. Since the publication of Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics (1979), ‘neorealism’ has become the dominant school of thought in international relations (Buzan, Jones, & Little, 1993). Waltz’s seminal study shaped much of theoretical debate during the 1980s, and positive and negative reactions still reverberate today (Art & Jervis, 2013). Waltz significantly departed from classical realism, placing the school on a more scientific footing - a footing that analysts such as Ashley (1982), Walker (1987) and Spegele (1987) suggest is more eclectic, complex than first thought and still highly applicable to contemporary theorising of International Relations (Buzan, Jones, & Little, 1993, p. 1). With such an important role in contemporary international relations literature, principles of the school, even down to the genealogy it purports should be explored. The exploration in this dissertations case will be of the neorealist appropriation of the ancient historian Thucydides.

This chapter hopes to gain an understanding of neorealism and where Thucydides has been used within the field, providing a basis for the critical analysis developed in later chapters. In order to understand neorealism adequately, ‘classical realism’ will first be summarised and explained. Once an understanding of classical realism has been achieved, the chapter will then go on to summarise the core tenets of neorealism. Finally the chapter will turn specifically to where Thucydides has been employed to support these key tenets in neorealist literature. Three key authors contributing to neorealist discourse will be examined: Waltz (1959; 1979), Gilpin (1984; 1988) and Keohane (1986). Waltz (1959; 1979) uses Thucydides to support two of his ideas. First, Thucydides is used to support the idea of the ‘third image’ – that state behaviour is caused by the anarchic state of the international system. Secondly, Waltz (1979) uses Thucydides to support his theorizing on the ‘balance of power’, noting that the ancient historian recognised the importance of power balancing in his history. Gilpin (1984) uses Thucydides to support his ‘Theory of Hegemonic War’. Thucydides according to Gilpin (1988, p. 592), in recording that it was the rise of Athens that was the determinant of the Peloponnesian war, subscribes to theory of hegemonic war. Finally, Keohane (1986) also focusing on Thucydides’ ‘real cause’ for war, states that Thucydides illustrates key neorealist tenets: for example that states act rationally, that states are amoral, and that their behaviour is determined by the international system.

3.1 Classical Realism

Classical realism developed largely in response to the failure of internationalism, the dominant ideology of the earlier part of the century, to adequately account for the developments in international relations which led to the outbreak of World War II. Among classical realism’s leading proponents were Hans Morgenthau who in turn took much inspiration from earlier scholars such as Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. In his notable work Politics Among Nations (1967), Morgenthau put forward what should be considered the six principles of classical realism. Firstly among Morgenthau’s principles was his belief that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature (1967, p. 5). Human nature, Morgenthau argued, has always, and will always, be self-centred and self-interested (1967, p.5). Morgenthau’s (1967, p. 6) second principle advocates that power, unlike neorealists who later see power as a means to an end, is an end in itself. The third principle stresses the importance of a deep understanding of the human condition in order for a state to be able to conduct its affairs effectively on the world stage (Morgenthau, 1967, p. 6). On this world stage, Morgenthau’s (1967, p. 7) fourth principle states that universal moral principles cannot be applied to relations between states as leaders must sometimes take actions considered morally wrong in order to best serve the interests of those whom they are accountable i.e. their people. The fifth principle emphasizes that politics is an autonomous sphere of action in its own right, which cannot be reduced to economic or moral explanations (Morgenthau, 1967, p. 8). Finally, Morgenthau (1967, p.9) embellishes this uniqueness in his last sixth principle, where he argues that there is a real and profound difference between classical realism and other schools of thought. Neorealists take classical realism as their point of departure but then engage in essentially abandoning the current, representing a ‘significant rupture’ within the realist tradition (Jorgenson, 2010, p. 84).

3.2 Neorealism

Neorealism is mainly associated with the writings of Kenneth Waltz (1979), who was influenced by a more positivist scientific and microeconomic understanding. In order to make realism more scientific, neorealism takes a reductionist approach, focusing on the systemic level of analysis and deliberately ignoring real actor characteristics. Whilst acknowledging that non-state actors can exist and indeed do have a role in international politics, the world for neorealism is best understood through a state centric viewpoint – effectively ‘black-boxing’ the state. This means that neorealists do not take into account sub-state level analyses such as individual leaders and the internal composition of states, as Waltz previously termed the ‘First Image’ and ‘Second Image’ respectively (1959). Neorealists argue rather, that all behaviour is down to changing structural settings, or the ‘Third Image’ (Waltz, 1959).

Summarised succinctly, Kenneth Waltz’s neorealism has three layers of explanatory factors that contribute to explain state behaviour: i) Anarchy ii) Functional differentiation of units (i.e power in terms of military and economic capability) and iii) Changing distribution of power capabilities, that is, changing configurations of polarity (one, two, or more great powers). However, as anarchy has been a constant since the 17th century and polarity change seldom happens, this has left the ‘balance of power’ as the predominant factor when explaining changing great power behaviour. Neorealism’s reductionist approach to understanding international relations has made it an attractive theory, and as aforementioned it has dominated studies of international relations since the 1980s. But the price to pay for this dominance is the lack of clarity which has now developed as a result of many theorists bending their emphases to fit within the confines of neorealism (Brown, 2012, p. 857). In this continuing expansion of neorealism, Thucydides has often been used to substantiate varying claims, as shall now be discussed starting with Kenneth Waltz (1959; 1979) himself.

3.3 Waltz’s use of Thucydides

Waltz (1959) first uses Thucydides in his book Man the State and the War. Whilst much in this earlier contribution to international relations theory would be refuted in Waltz’s later literature, the prose on the international system is relevant. Indeed, Waltz (1959) uses Thucydides (1972) to exemplify his idea of the third image - that war is caused at the systemic level and that the anarchic structure of the system is the root cause of war. Waltz (1959, p. 159), describing the international system, notes that ‘with many sovereign states, with no system of law enforceable among them, conflict… is bound to occur’. Thucydides according to Waltz (1959, p. 159) ‘implied’ this when he wrote that it was the ‘growth of the Athenian power’ which terrified the Spartans and forced them into war’. Waltz (1959, p.210) argues that many of the policy considerations that lead and follow from his idea of the ‘third image’ can be exemplified in Thucydides’ study of the Peloponnesian war, such as power balancing.

Intimately connected with the third image is the ‘balance of power’, a theory that according to Waltz (1959, p. 158) Thucydides is an advocate of. The issue of balancing power prevails wherever two and only two requirements are met: that the order is anarchic and that it is populated by units wishing to survive (Waltz, 1959, p. 118). States can do this either through internal balancing, where a state uses internal efforts such as moving to increase economic capability, developing clever strategies and increasing military strength or through “external balancing”, which occurs when states take external measures to increase their security by forming alliances (Waltz, 1979, p. 118). Waltz (1959, p. 199) claims that Thucydides subscribed to the notion of ‘balance of power’, when he explained that the policy of Tissaphernes, King of the Persians, as one of holding ‘the balance evenly between the two contending powers’, Athens and Sparta. Further developing the balance of power theory in International Politics (1979) Waltz notes that lesser states, if they are free to choose, flock to the weaker side, provided of course that the coalition they join achieves enough defensive or deterrent strength to dissuade adversaries from attacking. Thus, Waltz (1979, p. 118) points to the fact that Thucydides records in the Peloponnesian war the lesser city states of Greece cast the stronger Athens as the tyrant and the weaker Sparta as their liberator as an indicator for his subscription to the balance of power theory (Thucydides, 1972, p. 358).

3.4 Keohane’s use of Thucydides

Keohane also places Thucydides as a major influential realist, remarking that even as long ago as the time of Thucydides, realism has contained three key assumptions: Firstly, that states are the key units of action, secondly that they seek power, either as an end in itself or as a means to other ends, and finally that they behave in ways that are, by and large, rational and therefore comprehensible to outsiders in rational terms (Keohane, 1986, p. 7). Keohane (1986, p. 8) argues that these same elements can be found in Thucydides’ discussion of the causes of the Peloponnesian War (Keohane 1986, p. 7). Having described the complaints and legal violations leading up to the war, Thucydides observes that the real cause for war he considered to be the one which was formerly kept out of sight: ‘the growth of the power of Athens and the fear this caused in Sparta’ (Thucydides, 1972, p. 49). That is, the Spartans rationally feared that Athens would at some point direct its growing power against their interests, and decided to act while they could still exert some influence over the course of the events (Freedman, 2003). Thus, the Spartans did as neorealist analysts in international relations would proceed (Keohane, 1986, p. 7). They focused on states that could constitute effective threats, alone or in coalition with one another, given the power at their disposal (Keohane, 1986, p. 7); They interpreted the actions of those states not on the basis simply of their announced policies or on the assumption that they would behave morally, but rather on the premise that they are seeking rationally to increase their power (Keohane, 1986, p. 7); and finally they devised policies that would protect their own society by amassing or maintaining sufficient power, alone or in coalitions, to maintain their essential security interests (Keohane, 1986, p.8).

3.5 Gilpin’s use of Thucydides

The final neorealist appropriation of Thucydides to be observed is Gilpin’s (1984; 1988). Gilpin (1984, p. 296) purports that ‘almost everything’ that neorealists find interesting in the in the interaction of international economics and politics can be found in the History of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides, 1972): An expanding independent ‘world economy; the political use of economic leverage i.e the Megara Decree; and even conflict over energy resources, in this case the wheat to fuel men’s bodies. Gilpin notes that this change is similar to neorealist theorizing on the impact of a commercial revolution on a relatively static international system (1984, p. 297). Gilpin also uses Thucydides to support his ‘Theory of Hegemonic War’. The essential idea behind this theory, which according to Gilpin (1988, p. 592) is embodied in Thucydides’ history, is that fundamental changes in the international system are the basic determinants of wars. The structure of the system or distribution of power among states in the system can be stable or unstable. A stable system is one in which changes can take place if they do not threaten the vital interests of the dominant states and thereby cause a war among them (Gilpin, 1988, p. 592). According to Gilpin (1988, p. 593), Thucydides thought that such a stable system has an unequivocal hierarchy of power and an unchallenged dominant or hegemonic power. An unstable system is one in which economic, technological, and other changes are eroding the international hierarchy and undermining the position of the hegemonic state (Gilpin, 1988, p. 593). In this latter situation, untoward events and diplomatic crises can precipitate a hegemonic war among the states in the system. The outcome of such a war is a new international structure, as Thucydides in his History shows (Gilpin, 1988, p. 593).

3.6 Summary

To recapitulate, neorealist theorizing has focused on the systemic sources of state behaviour. The so-called ‘Third Image’ - the anarchic structure of international politics - that leads all states, regardless of their internal characteristics, to behave in certain uniform ways (Garst, 2000, p. 68). Thus Thucydides’ celebrated judgment on the ‘real’ cause of the war between Athens and Sparta - ‘the growth of the power of Athens and the fear this caused in Sparta (Thucydides, 1979, p. 49) - is often invoked in arguments emphasizing the timeless role of international anarchy and the quest for power in shaping the relations between states. Waltz (1959; 1979) Keohane (1989) and Gilpin (1984; 1988), have all used this phrase to claim Thucydides as a neorealist. However, with this said, there has been a recent proliferation of discourse on Thucydides that has criticized the neorealist appropriation of Thucydides - offering a new way of looking at the ancient historian - which will now be discussed in the second chapter.