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Rosenau J.N., Durfee M. Thinking Theory Thoroughly: Coherent Approaches to Incoherent World
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Rosenau J. N., Durfee M. Thinking Theory Thoroughly: Coherent Approaches to Incoherent World. – Boulder-San Francisco-Oxford: Westview Press, 1995.
(Selections from chapter 2)
System Polarity

One might ask how the distribution of capabilities between the interacting units in a situation of anarchy affects the structure of the international system. "Behavior and outcomes," according to neorealists, "change as interactions among a system's units become sparser or denser, as alliances shift, as nations adapt their policies to one another. These are changes within the system and often systems dynamics are identified with and limited to such changes." In other words, the anarchical international system can change as the number of powerful states increases or decreases, but in so doing it does not lose its essential characteristic of anarchy.

Over the 350 years of the modern system, the number of great powers has varied between two and five. When there are two dominant powers, the international system is said to be bipolar. When there are four or more, it is viewed as multipolar. A system with three powers could be called multipolar but is usually called tripolar. A structure with only one great power is called unipolar.

Some writers say the current international scene is multipolar, with the United States, the People's Republic of China (PRC), Russia, Japan, and the European Union (EU) operating as the poles. Others say neither Japan nor the EU count as poles. The EU is rejected because its individual members still retain considerable independence in security affairs, and Japan is not viewed as meeting great-power standards because it is too weak militarily. According to this interpretation, the world is tripolar (United States, Russia, PRC). Still others say the world remains bipolar (United States and Russia), but recent changes in the former Soviet Union undermine this perspective. One hardy soul claims that the collapse of the USSR has put the world in a "unipolar moment," with the United States first among equals. Historian Paul Kennedy does not think the world has quite become unipolar, but he does regard the power of the United States as exceptional. "Because it has so much power for good or evil, because it is the linchpin of the western alliance system and the center of the existing global economy, what it does, or does not do, is so much more important than what any of the other Powers decides to do" (emphasis in original). Perhaps the best term for today's world, drawn from realists primarily interested in economic relations, is hegemonic. The United States (the hegemon) has the capacity and sometimes the desire to lead the world in a variety of contexts, but other states can clearly shape its behavior.
Attributes of the Balance of Power

Deciding who is a great power may seem like an exercise in bragging rights, but for realists the number of major powers matters considerably. There is reason to think that states alter their behaviors depending on the polarity of the international system. This changed behavior is expressed through the operation of the balance of power. The balance may operate differently depending on the polarity of the system. Moreover, overall systemic stability and the propensity for war or peace may be affected by polarity.

The balance of power, according to one observer, serves three purposes:

1. to ensure the continued existence of the state system by preventing universal empire through conquest. In other words, "let no one power predominate";

2. to assist, at the regional level, in maintaining the independence of states; and

3. to facilitate the growth of law and organization by providing a kind of enforcement by great powers.

Viewed in this way, it follows that the balance of power is essential to maintaining order in international politics. The balance is one of the methods, along with law, war, and diplomacy, that states use to serve the goal of maintaining the state system. Sometimes the powers may be unable to balance; in other cases, they may see no reason to do so. For example, China maintained a suzerain over East Asia for centuries. That is, it dominated all other regions so thoroughly that no actor could gain power internally or make enough allies to balance the power of China. A somewhat similar picture emerges in the Western hemisphere, where the United States dominates most countries in the region. At the same time, none of the Latin American states has built enough power or successfully allied with others to counterbalance the United States.

Traditional realists and neorealists differ in their views on how much choice states have in balancing. Traditionalists see considerable leeway for states. Neorealists assume balances arise naturally from the anarchy of the system. In either case, failure to balance is rather rare. Traditional realists take some pains to explain these rare occasions;

neorealists do not. Balances may fail to arise, according to traditional

realists, when states have low perceptions of threat or have no other options.

Sentiments favoring the threat perception view can be found in the writings of early writers on international relations. For example, Emerich von Vattel, who wrote about the law of nations in the eighteenth century, observed, "Power alone does not constitute a threat of injury; the will to injure must accompany the power. ... As soon as a State has given evidence of injustice, greed, pride, ambition, or a desire of domineering over its neighbours, it becomes an object of suspicion which they must guard against".

Stephen Walt says proximity, growth in arms, and obvious hostile activities contribute to making a state seem threatening. A state next door that adds a hundred aircraft to its military inventory is more threatening than a state 2,000 miles away that adds a similar number to its ledger. If the nearby state also tries to coerce other states to do things they otherwise would prefer not to do, then it becomes even more menacing. Very powerful states can take their time to react to such threats, but smaller ones cannot.

Walt also offers an explanation for the failure to balance based on the availability of allies. If a state lacks good external options and has only a limited capacity to build power domestically, it bandwagons with the threat. That explanation accounts for the lack of balancing against U.S. aggressive behavior in Latin America; these states have few options. If the states of Latin America build up power (and the United States dominates many of their economies, so this scenario is unlikely), then they may achieve greater success in balancing against the United States.

Although the functions of the balance of power remain constant irrespective of the polarity of the international system, polarity does affect the actual implementation of the balance. A set of categories for analyzing the means by which states keep a balance in bipolar and multipolar systems is shown in Table 2.2. Here, "alliance" refers to mutual agreements to assist (or not to get involved with) another state in military situations; "coalition" involves four or more states working together against a threat; "moderation" means preservation of essential players and includes allowances for those vanquished in war to have a say in postwar decisions; "vigilance" denotes sensitivity to changes in power; "intervention" entails intrusion into the affairs of another state; "holding the balance" refers to a third party that sits


Operation of the Balance of Power in Two Types of Polarity







Alliances become permanent coalitions

Rare; only formed in times of military crisis


No; only with respect to nuclear weapons

Only toward great powers



Other great powers only



Only when there is sudden shift in power of another great power

Holding the Balance

No; requires third party

Yes; Britain said this was its policy toward Europe


No; closet analog is that main power sometimes transfers resources to allies



Yes, but not against the other power; may be a function of nuclear weapons

Yes, as last resort against other powers

Source: Categories and multipolar characteristics derived from Edward Vose Gulick, Europe's Classical Balance of Power (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1955), Chap. 3.

"outside" a major conflict and shifts its weight depending on who has the upper hand; and "compensation" involves agreements giving a state that lost land or people in one area equivalent land or people elsewhere. The last row, war, is self-explanatory.

The operation of the balance of power was quite evident in 1990 in the Persian Gulf. President Saddam Hussein built up the military power of Iraq to the point where it became a regional power. This course of action was a response to both Iranian and Israeli power. He also evidently hoped to gain more economic resources via force of arms. Earlier he had warred with Iran; the world mostly ignored that war. But his grab for Kuwait was different: It sought the outright conquest of an independent state. As we have seen, one of the most important goals of the international society, and one of the major reasons for any balance of power, is to protect the independence of states. Beyond that, Kuwait had oil, a factor critical to the industrial lifeblood of many states. If Iraq had gained access to Kuwaiti oil, it would have controlled a large share of world petroleum resources. That would be too much power, in the view of many states who import large quantities of oil and gas from the gulf. Consequently, a thirty-two-nation coalition fought a quick and successful war to redress the balance by ousting Iraq from Kuwait.

Based on Table 2.2, this response to Iraq's aggression fits a multipolar operation of the balance better than a bipolar one. The coalition formed to solve the problem was temporary (many of the states were not under formal alliance). Iraq had perhaps gotten away with the invasion in the first place because it was not important enough to watch vigilantly. Once the war ended, considerable moderation was employed by the other states with respect to Iraq's independence. Iraq was not destroyed, and it still participates in decisions over its future. War was certainly the last resort; months of negotiations occurred before the U.S.-led coalition took military action. Only the entries for the holding-the-balance and the compensation rows in Table 2.2 do not conform to the facts of the Iraq conflict.

Rosenau J. N., Durfee M. Thinking Theory Thoroughly: Coherent Approaches to Incoherent World. – Boulder-San Francisco-Oxford: Westview Press, 1995
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