Wednesday, September 3, 2014

IR Theory and the Security Dilemma FTW!

There is increased speculation that Putin's efforts in Ukraine are part of a larger effort to use threats to break NATO and force countries to submit.  What I cannot help but see here is a basic divide in looking at International Relations, one that I taught every year in Intro to IR and one that I learned long ago. 

One vision of IR is that a world where threats work, where the more aggressive you are, the more that others will submit.  It was modeled as a world of chicken games--constantly risking war and confrontation.  [See Robert Jervis].

A competing vision of IR is one where countries respond to threats by increasing their own efforts to defend themselves rather than submit. The security dilemma is a situation where any effort to improve one's security unilaterally, the other responds by finding ways to improve their security, leaving all worse off.  It is modeled as prisoner's dilemma. 

If one believes one is in the former situation but is actually in the latter, well, threatening produces bad outcomes.  And that is how we have depicted World War I with Kaiser Wilhelm thinking that he could immobilize Britain with his threats.  Instead, Britain joined France and Russia.  Oops.

Stephen Walt pondered this question in his first and best book: is it a balancing world or a bandwagoning world?  Do countries join with the greater power or threat or the lesser?  By focusing on threats rather than power (the old scholars focused on balancing power), he could understand why countries joined with the US against the Soviet Union.  The US was more powerful, but the USSR was more threatening--it was closer, more aggressive, etc.

Putin apparently has been reading later, more strident Walt rather than Walt's first book.  Because Putin seems to believe that threats will generate bandwagoning rather than balancing.  But history has tended to prove such folks wrong.  The Security Dilemma, despite various wrinkles people have suggested over the years, is the one concept in IR that changed the way I saw the world.  I am not a diehard realist, but I do buy into what Herz, Waltz, and Jervis have argued.  Too bad Putin has not read such folks.

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