The Great Debate: Combining the Four Major Schools of Thought on Political Science & International Relations To Facilitate More Accurate Decision Models And Analyses 2009

POLS 499-001  Foreign Policy Independent Study    Mark Peceny    Timothy Sipp        02/28/09

The Great Debate: Combining the Four Major Schools of Thought on Political Science & International Relations

Political Science and International Relations (IR) have several competing theoretical perspectives and levels of analysis (Smith, 2007, p. 3-12).  The discourse is primarily and historically divided into the theoretical perspectives of Realism vs. Liberalism and their newest iterations, Neo-Realism and Neo-Liberalism (Smith, 2007, p. 4). This paper considers the developments in International Relations from the positivist tradition and will leave the reflectivist theories, e.g. feminism, and poststructuralism for another paper. Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow outlined three distinct levels of analysis in their 1999 book The Essence of Decision.  Their models of decision making include the Rational Actor Model of the Unitary State, (RAM I), governmental action as a function of organizational output (Model II), and governmental action as a political resultant of individual bargaining between power brokers (players playing games) defined by roles, personal profiles, interests and Action Channels (Model III). The remaining debate is between the meta-theories or ontologies of Rational Choice and Constructivism in defining the nature of the actors involved (Smith, 2007, p. 9). 

An assessment of the numerous and varied disciplines that render policies and strategies in American government reveals dominant patterns that emerge across the theoretical models and analytical perspectives. There is an observed confluence of previously competing metrics and methods that could promote a holistic, coherent, internally consistent and balanced approach to the problems of International Relations. Successful realization of the multi-dimensional nature of decision-making across multiple actors, agencies and organizations could facilitate enhanced tools to support sustainable, successful policy and strategy choices.

The competing perspectives of realism and liberalism are themselves divided into sub-genres, further refining previous understandings in light of more recent observations. Both of the neo-realist approaches are products of Structural Realism which stipulates that states seek power because of the nature of the anarchic international system (Mearsheimer, 2007, p. 72). Defensive Realism, suggests “that it is unwise for states to try to maximize their share of world power, because the system will punish them if they attempt to gain too much power” (Mearsheimer, 2007, p. 72). Offensive Realism, proffered by John Mearsheimer maintains “that it makes good strategic sense for states to gain as much power as possible and, if circumstances are right, to pursue hegemony… for structural realists, power is a means to an end and the ultimate end is survival” (Mearsheimer, 2007, p. 72). 

Offensive Realism is concerned with the international Balance of Power and proposes “Hard Power” or military might to protect our interests and provide security. Defensive Realism stipulates a Balance of Threat in international relations and insists on “Soft Power”, comprised of diplomacy and economic influence, as its primary tools. According to Mearsheimer, the ties that bind these two sub-genres of political philosophy together are: First “that great powers are the main actors in world politics and they operate in an anarchic system. Anarchy is an ordering principle; it simply means that there is no centralized authority or ultimate arbiter that stands above states. The opposite of anarchy is hierarchy, which is the ordering principle of domestic politics” (2007, p. 73); the second tenet is that to some degree all states possess an offensive military capability and that those capabilities can vary over time. Third is the assumption that information is asymmetric, meaning that a state can never be completely certain about the intentions of other states. This is important because a state could be displeased with their current status and be determined to use force to alter the balance of power. These states are called revisionist states. States that are content with their circumstances, at least to the point of not seeking drastic changes are considered status quo states. The difficulty in assessing intentions is that they reside in the minds of the decision-makers for each state and that those decision-makers and their intentions change over time. The fourth assumption is that in spite of secondary or periphery strategic interests like prosperity or human rights, the primary goal of any state is self-preservation, including their territorial sovereignty and self-determination in their domestic politics. The final assumption is that states are rational actors, in that they are capable of determining sound strategies in order to maximize their chances of survival. States can miscalculate their circumstances and options and in the presence of highly asymmetric information the results can be catastrophic (Mearsheimer, 2007, p. 74). The inference here is that capability is the key to action, not necessarily character. In essence, means provides motive in the absence of any counter-balancing endogenous or exogenous vector/actor and in neo-realism exogenous influences are of primary concern.

The core assumptions of Liberalism, according to Panke and Risse, are that domestic institutions and actors “strongly influence the foreign policy identities and interests of states as well as their actual behavior in international relations” (2007, p. 90). Liberalism is based on the Kantian concept of the “pacific union” of republics (Panke & Risse, 2007, p. 90). The first of the three tenets of a democratic peace is that the peaceful, liberal nation should be a republic, meaning that the citizens have rights that the government respects and that the population consents to being governed. Kant did not necessarily mean that the government had to be democratically elected. Kant’s second condition for “peaceful nations” is that republics should have market economies that are focused on the well-being of the people. “Third, Kant argued that international peace would result from the expansion of a ‘pacific union’ among republics. This would begin with mutual respect and peaceful resolution of disputes among fellow republics. Thereafter, the pacific union would widen as other states observed the benefits republics enjoyed and sought to join” (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 38).

Panke and Risse continue to subdivide liberalist theory into four distinctions based on individual actors versus domestic institutions for deciding policy and cross referencing them with the meta-theories/ontologies of Rationalism and Constructivism. The first sub-category of liberalism is the Actor-Centered Rationalist approach. In this version domestic politics matters and the individual actor exists independently of social structures; their interests are conceptualized as externally defined and fixed during interactions with other actors:

“Whenever the interests of societal actors are at stake, which is when they expect concrete benefits or costs, societal actors have incentives for self-organization and for influencing and shaping the interests of the state. In pluralist systems societal actors compete with each other for access to and influence on national decision-makers. Domestic groups draw on existing channels of access and lobby politicians, in order to capture the state as agent for their particular interests (Moravcsik, 1997, p. 519)” (Panke & Risse, 2007, p. 94).

  This variation that focuses on the individual actor in domestic politics is similar in many ways to Allison and Zelikow’s Model III for government action as a resultant of political bargaining between individual actors or players playing the game (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 387). The second subcategory of liberalism is the Actor-Centered Constructivist approach which emphasizes “not only the importance of ideas, norms, and worldviews for actors’ identities and interests, but also that decision-makers’ perceptions, identities and interests are shaped in domestic processes of social learning and norm diffusion (Diani 1996; Fischer 2003; Kódre & Müller 2003; Surel 2000)” (Panke and Risse, 2007, p. 95).  This theory proposes that domestic groups engage in mutual persuasion and arguing without resorting to electoral retaliation, while the rationalists band together to form voting blocks and utilize elections as leverage to influence politicians. The question in this system is whose agendas are heard and adhered to. Haas, 1992, contends that data suggest that this system fosters the emergence of “norm-entrepreneurs”, “knowledge-brokers” and “epistemic communities” with greater collective knowledge giving particular groups’ political agendas an edge on the competition, i.e. the utility of asymmetric information for gain (as cited in Panke and Risse 2007, p. 95). The Structure-Centered Rationalist approach or Rationalist Democratic Peace theory stipulates that democracies rarely go to war with each other, for several reasons. First, in a democracy the electorate or “selectorate” and winning coalitions are necessarily large, generally cost –aware and risk-averse, thereby limiting a governments decisions to engage in war (Bueno de Mesquita, Smith, Siverson & Morrow, 2003, p. 264). Second, power is divided between domestic institutions in democracies preventing swift movements towards war. A larger coalition must be built within the democracy in order to pursue such a potentially costly policy. “Constructing winning coalitions under democratic institutional constraints is time-consuming. This prevents democracies from aggressive foreign policy responses in international affairs and from going to war (Bueno de Mesquita & Lalman 1992; Morgan & Campbell 1991)” (Panke & Risse, 2007, p. 96). The fourth liberal sub-division is the Constructivist Democratic Peace theory. The assumption here is that democracies assume that other democracies are like them in desiring peace and prosperity and are therefore more likely to have good relations because of shared norms about peaceful conflict resolution (Panke & Risse, 2007, p. 97). An interesting aspect of this theory is its ability to explain conflict between emerging democracies. The emerging democracies haven’t had the time to develop the mechanisms to diplomatically perceive their neighbors and peers in peaceful terms (Panke & Risse, 2007, p. 97). Bueno de Mesquita, B., Smith, A., Siverson, R.M., & Morrow, J. D., suggest another reason in their 2003 book, The Logic of Political Survival. An additional reason that democracies don’t fight each other often is that they don’t go to war unless they think they will win and also because “large-coalition leaders, when faced with a war, are more inclined to shift extra resources into the war effort than are small coalition leaders… This makes it harder for other states to target them for aggression. In addition to trying harder, democrats are also more selective in their choice of targets.” (Bueno de Mesquita, Smith, Siverson & Morrow, 2003, p. 264)     

Now that we have introduced the theoretical perspectives of Realism and Liberalism, let’s investigate the theoretical models of political decision making and their foundations. Allison and Zelikow’s decision-making models for government provide us with additional insights into the various levels of analysis for International Relations. The Classical Model or Rational Actor Model also called Model I is informed by the socioeconomic perspective of Rational Choice and the sociological perspective of Functionalism (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 26-48). Model I asserts that governmental action is a choice made by a unitary national actor that is seeking to maximize its assets and minimize its liabilities. Model I also assumes that a state actor will not act against its own interests. In order to make determinations, a Model I actor considers goals and objectives, options, and consequences, and then chooses. The higher the perceived cost of an action, the less likely the action will be taken. Conversely, the lower the perceived cost of an objective, the more likely the objective will be pursued (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 391).

 The Organizational Behavior Model or Model II is informed by Social Constructionism, or Constructivism, and Functionalism (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, pp. 163-185). Model II sees governmental action as organizational output. In this model there are shared powers between intra-governmental agencies with different agendas that are in part determined by the need to maintain their particular institutions and their specific cultures. Each organization has its own mission, methodology, and repertoire that characterize their desire and ability to act in any given situation. Governmental action is thus shaped by existing organizational capabilities, organizational priorities, and organizational culture specific to each agency. These traits limit government action to reactionary, small, incremental changes as new policy must work with older implementations. For this model, administrative feasibility is a top priority and is paired with long-term planning for directed change. Unchecked, this model could lead a government towards imperialist tendencies to satisfy the perceived need for predictability to maintain stability and the status quo (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, pp. 166-185, 391).

Model III or the Governmental Politics Model suggests that governmental action is a political resultant of bargaining between various players with different goals and levels of power. These players’ actions are dependent on: their position in government, their personal goals and interests, their stakes or stand in a given situation, and looming deadlines (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, pp. 255-263, 294-313, 391). Each action is a product of a game that is defined by the goal or objective, the available action-channels and the rules of the game. “An action channel is a regularized means of taking governmental action on a specific kind of issue” (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 300). An action-channel that may lead to U.S. military intervention in another country has many constituents, but the president is the one that makes the decision based on input from his/her advisors. “Action-channels structure the game by pre-selecting the major players, determining their usual points of entrance into the game, and distributing particular advantages and disadvantages for each game.” (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 301) In the foreign policy game, the president has the power to persuade his administration and the nation in pursuit of a political object that they have determined to be of value.

Today, in America, liberalism translates as the desire to proliferate the American credo of liberty, democracy, and prosperity around the world via the post WWII liberal international organizations we founded to constrain the great powers, namely ourselves and the Soviet Union. The study of these international organizations is the subject of neo-liberalism (Martin, 2007, p. 110). Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) like the UN and NATO, and Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) like Amnesty International and the Red Cross contribute significantly to the international relations environment without being states. Many of these organizations act as the contractual basis for international discourse, commitment monitoring and assuring compliance with sanctions if they have been levied between states. In essence neo-liberals see these liberal international “institutions as solutions to collective action problems” (Martin, 2007, p. 124).  

The nature of the liberal international order that the U.S. helped to forge after WWII was one of interdependence and cooperation; and the manner in which the U.S. has consistently exempted itself from some of its community obligations has weakened the norm that is a cornerstone of our inferred contractual relationship with the world. There is a crisis regarding the perceptions of U.S. legitimacy on the world stage. There is also considerable reason for concern that the last eight years of American foreign policy has caused the world to begin the process of turning its back to U. S. leadership of the international order and possibly even the norms that have so far dictated the rise of great powers since WWII.

Interestingly, the policy decisions emanating from the top down, i.e. the president of the U.S. are primarily informed by the Realist traditional concerns about power and security. (Peceny, 1999, p. 219) This concentration on the nature of power in an anarchic international setting focuses on both Hard Power or military capability, and Soft Power or the combination of economic influence and diplomacy. (Mastanduno, 1997, p. 51) However, several authors, preferring different theories, semantics and models, have come to similar conclusions: that Liberalism is not just a theory of the effects of domestic institutions on international relations, but also performs the function of a meta-cognitive filter or lensatic mechanism through which Realist political objectives must be processed in order to be made acceptable to the “winning coalition” needed to constitute the political will, both at home and abroad, to pursue the political objective with legitimacy in the eyes of the nation and the world (Ikenberry, 2008; Art, 2008; Tsai, 2008; Obama, 2007; Owen, 2001; Peceny, 1999).

  “American policymakers have engaged in a relentless struggle to reconcile realist imperatives with American liberalism. Equally important has been the ongoing effort to reconcile conflicts within the American liberal tradition between crusading American ideals and constraining institutions… Thus, the United States asserts its hegemony over other states but infuses its foreign policy with liberal purpose…What each school of thought fails to grasp fully is that it is through the promotion of democracy that the United States legitimates, to both domestic and foreign audiences, its use of military force abroad” (Peceny, 1999, p. 218).

According to Allison and Zelikow their models can be seen as complimentary to one another, not in competition with each other. Model I sets up the broader, more general context, the big picture national patterns, shared images and lower information costs. Model II discovers the organizational structures, and collective behavior normalized by Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that produce the information, options and action for each bureaucracy as well as dictate their inter-group relational dynamics. “Model III focuses in greater detail on the individuals who constitute a government and the politics and procedures by which their competing perceptions and preferences are combined” (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 392). The information costs go up as you move from models making generalizations about states to theories of individual tastes and their possible impact on policy and strategy.

This brings up the final question for discussion here: Rationalism vs. Constructivism. These seemingly opposed meta-theories or ontologies of actor expectation and behavior, the facts might suggest, are actually constituent elements of a larger ontology and epistemology. Panke and Risse explain that a rational actor’s “substantial interests are conceptualized as exogenously defined and fixed during interactions and it is presumed that human beings act according to a strategic rationality (Tsebelis, 1990; Zangle & Zurn, 1994). They calculate ends and means and act to maximize (or optimize) their given interests. Preferences over strategies of how substantial interests are best pursued can change, when new ideas on external constraints alter means-ends calculations” (2007, p. 92). They then go on to say that social constructivists change their mind based on new information, but the semantics used to describe the exact same cognitive, and meta-cognitive occurrences is significantly different. Because of the self-perception and subsequent projection of a fluid “constitutive” relationship of mutual construction a person is considered to be a constructivist instead of a rationalist. However, the changing of one’s mind based on new information in an incremental manner due to bounded rationality and asymmetric information assigns someone the identity of a rationalist. It is my observation that a rationalist in an ever changing world constantly has to re-evaluate their “fixed” position on the issues and reconstruct their understanding of themselves, their world and their goals, perhaps as often as every few news cycles dependent on local news to world events. With the advent of hyper-media exposure and worldwide coverage, we are bombarded with additional information every day, some erroneous but some vital to continuing the status quo. At what point in time does the difference between a rationalist and a constructivist cease to be more than words we use to self-label to suit some internal need to belong to a norm to which we attribute validity, belief and dedication?  

Based on these observations, my qualitative assessment and initial conclusions are: that the fundamental need to maintain the status quo limits strategists to Realist political objectives that, since WWII, must contend with Liberalist international constructs, that resist the realization of unipolarity, in order to meet their perceived needs; all three levels of analysis proffered by Allison and Zelikow can simultaneously be used to render a more thorough understanding of governmental action, but only Models II and III provide intimate and intricate observations as Model I (RAM) concerns a derivative, abstract product in the “unitary state” to be consumed by other observers; regardless of which ontological school of thought an analyst claims, they still consider themselves to be rational entities making choices based on the best available information, framed through their life’s experience, educational opportunities and personal choices. The real world is always changing, therefore, it seems that the difference between these two paradigms is allegory to digital derivation (Rationalist) vs. pure analog (Constructivist) in signal processing with the Rationalist preference for “fixed” interactions like still images vs. the Constructivist regard for the fluid, “constitutive” relational dynamic like a motion picture. These perspectives, these layered lenses are how an analyst sees themselves and their world. The use of multiple lenses can be mastered to the point of telescopic foresight with microscopic attention to detail, or, misaligned, can inappropriately manufacture false artifacts that loom large with myopic hyperbole and catastrophic consequences. Further examination could render more astute observations and concrete conclusions, or at the very least, pose additional questions.


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