The Limits of Neorealism: Marginal States and International Relations Theory

By Lieb, Doug | Harvard International Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Limits of Neorealism: Marginal States and International Relations Theory

Lieb, Doug, Harvard International Review

The foreign policy of small states tends to attract little public or scholarly attention. Much of the discussion about the international role of less powerful nations seems to acquire a mocking tone, flippantly dismissing Switzerland's quaint neutrality or famine-stricken Eritrea's place in the US coalition for the war in Iraq. Since the powerful naturally contribute more to the shaping of international circumstances, a discourse that eschews weaker countries in favor of more influential ones makes practical sense. Examining small states, however, amounts to more than musing over puzzling curiosities. It can inform the consideration of pressing practical issues by improving the means used to approach them.


In other words, small states provide compelling test cases for international relations theory. Examining the presence of relatively impotent states at the margins of broad military coalitions sharpens the debate between competing theoretical models of international alliance. Specifically, current weak-state behavior in military coalitions demonstrates that a purely neorealist theoretical perspective is insufficient. Accounting for domestic and institutional factors provides a more complete explanation of alliance patterns. Weak-state behavior also lends empirical credibility to the idea that states may choose to bandwagon with, rather than balance against, a pressing threat.

The argument leading to these conclusions will begin with an explanation of the relevant theory. It will then consider two case studies: Iceland and its membership in NATO, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, as well as these nations' relationships to the US-led war in Iraq.

Essential concepts shared by these theoretical models are bandwagoning and balancing. Richard Harknett and Jeffrey A. VanDenBerg, Professors of Political Science at University of Cincinnati, explain: "Balancing is alignment driven by the desire to find security in resisting or defeating one's most pressing threat; bandwagoning is alignment driven by the desire to find security in appeasing one's most pressing threat." States may balance or bandwagon regardless of theoretical approach; an approach that accounts for omnialignment recognizes that balancing and bandwagoning may occur with and against threats both internal and external.

Specifically, neorealism holds at its basis that external pressures will outweigh domestic ones as state leaders rationally choose a foreign policy that will minimize security risk in an anarchical international system. In other words, the neorealist approach, whose foremost advocate is Kenneth Waltz, presumes that elites--the empowered individuals shaping their nations' foreign policy--will be free of any domestic constraints that might sway their strategy for global interactions. National politics, international institutions, and ideological or cultural affinities among nations have little relevance.

At odds with neorealism is the domestic-level (or "liberal") theoretical approach. Miriam Fendius Elman, Professor of Political Science at Arizona State University, writes that scholars in this camp "expect that state attributes and societal conflicts will affect foreign policy choices ... and will often render statesmen incapable of responding to the exigencies of the international environment." Institutionalism also places a limit on the neorealist premise of fully rational and self-interested leaders seeking risk minimization. Its constraint, however, comes from the binding political and ideological ties forged within and cemented by such international institutions as the United Nations.

On balance, the truth lies between the extremes. Supposing that leaders who author foreign policy have absolutely no stake in the polities of their nations is as impractical as supposing that they are so preoccupied with those politics as to develop strategy without giving any thought to external conditions.

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