Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Theory of conflict

The field of international relations boils down to the search for a unified theory that will explain all policies taken by actors in the international arena. The lesson materials describe the effort to find one explanation for all things in the international relations this way: “Everyone who studies international relations (IR) must confront the problem of trying to understand world society as a whole.” There are many approaches to “understanding world society as a whole,” a few of which were listed in the packet, to include empiricism, rationalism, realism, neo-realism, positivism and positivist-realist approach. (

Each of these schools of thought is an attempt to organize observations about international relations into a descriptive framework. These schools of thought rely on particular points of view or particular assumptions about human behavior in an attempt to set a behavioral baseline from which future moves can be predicted. Regardless of the school of thought, most theorists come back to the balance of power to organize their thinking. “Attempts to understand international relations in terms of the balance of power can be traced back for more than five hundred years and no other theoretical concept can boast this length of provenance. But not only is the balance of power one of the most enduring concepts in the field, it also persists, by some considerable distance, as the most widely cited theory in contemporary literature” (Little 2007, 3).

Balance of power theory posits that leaders will act in ways to maximize their own power in the international arena while attempting to minimize or ameliorate power of their international rivals. Balance of power theory provides a framework to review Quincy Wright’s categories of international relations: the actual, the possible the probable and the desirable (Doughtery and Pfaltzgraff 2001, 49). Thus, balance of power theory is all-purpose in that it is descriptive, predictive and provides courses of action for policy makers. The balance of power theory also can be overlaid on any of the major schools of thought and still be applied to all Wright’s categories, even if the results are what one analyst calls a “quagmire” of competing analyses (Cashman 1993, 232).

While balance of power is associated with the realist school of thought, the theory still has applicability to other major schools. Realists see leaders at actual people who will respond as anyone would, to maximize advantages and attempt to minimize disadvantages. Empiricists note that international conflict occurs between countries and blocs contesting for power and ends when one side wins or when both sides are exhausted. Rationalists argue that it makes sense to strive for power to protect gains and guard against lost. Neo-realists reject Western-centric analysis of international power contests to ensure that the culturally specific desires of leaders figure into the power calculus. Positivists see reality as a constraint on the actions of leaders while positivist-realists see leader’s perceptions of others as another factor that goes into balance of power considerations. Each school of thought focuses on that variable deemed most salient, but each school can still find value in the theoretical structure that balance of power offers.

Balance of power theory also is valuable because it allows the user to analyze the major aspects of international relations: conflict, war, mediation and diplomatic negotiations. In the balance of power construct, states will work to maximize their own power at the expense of others until the international system is in equilibrium. Weak states will attempt to use diplomacy and suasion while stronger states will be more prepared to act unilaterally to coerce smaller, weaker states. Various schools differ in the definition and determination of weakness, strength, coercion, suasion and equilibrium. All schools nonetheless strive to comport their observations within the theory.