Structural Realism and its Validity

Essay 2000 11 Pages

Politics - Political Theory and the History of Ideas Journal




“Every time when peace breaks out, people proclaim the realism to be dead”.

Kenneth N. Waltz.

As suggested by Professor Sztompka, a theory should try to explain real life situations. A theory validation occurs through its potential to foresee the future and suggest the best possible way to cope with it. The Structural Realism theory may provide guidelines and predictions of states’ behavior. My aim is therefore confined to description, analysis and proof in support of the Structural Realism thesis, as well as qualification and consideration of alternatives.

Kenneth Waltz is claimed to be the father of the structural realist school of thought. He created a new theory by deduction, studying international processes on international level, a level of system and not like a derivative of states foreign policies. In this sense power has to be understood as a descriptive construct for a better explanation of a single unit’s position. For analytical purposes we should consider international politics as a bounded realm, then discover law-like regularities and explain observed realities. It should be noted that previous theories were considered by Waltz as ‘reductionist’, with a lack of explanation of states’ environment, and the interaction patterns between states studied through examination of individual actors only. They also could not give a reason for the chaos and instability of the international system, although the states themselves remained stable.

As there is only a limited amount of possible outcomes for a great variety of actors and their actions, it is reasonable to suspect involvement of systemic causes. States, through their interaction, create a system, which in turn imposes certain constraints upon them. System theories explain how the constitution constrains interacting units within the whole, stressing the importance of power. Systems act through structures, which come in two kinds: those that socialize the actors and those that provide for rivalry and competition. Socialization consists in mutual influence of actors and production of uniformity. Competition is a second mechanism that forces states to accept common attributes.

According to Siedschlag, the structure of Waltz’s theory is built in accordance with ‘the coordination principle’, i.e. without any central authority or sanctioning power, unlike a hierarchical principle of states’ internal structure. Viewed through the prism of Structural Realism, international politics is all about inequality, reflecting the distribution of national capabilities. Existence of international politics also presupposes existence of wars, which, by the way, is quite consistent with Kant’s views.

Power, sovereignty, egoism and interest are cornerstones of states’ motives of behavior. International influence may be exercised only through power threats, be they military or economic. Survival is the states’ primary motive and is consistent with the principle of profit maximization. All other goals are subordinate to this.

According to Vogt, the might and power of states may be measured. To match their respective capabilities, states tend to form equally weighted alliances, called ‘balances of power’, which represent the most secure form of existence, as the ‘state units’ are dispersed more or less equally around the antagonists. ‘Bandwagoning’, on the other hand, presupposes clustering of weaker units around the strongest. As Waltz put it, “because power is a means and not an end, states prefer to join the weaker of two coalitions”. Indeed, if it were otherwise, there would be world hegemony. Thus, the states, in this respect only, do not maximize their power but maintain their position within the system. In its dispersal mechanism, the balancing provides for peace in its own ways. It is submitted, that states may have the choice between bandwagoning and balancing, but they can make the wrong choice. But structures encourage states to do some things and to refrain from doing others. Balancing is a strategy for survival, an effort to maintain an autonomous way of life. Whether states bandwagon or balance depends on circumstances, as they choose many strategies for survival. Many critiques emphasize that the fallacy of the bandwagoning thesis draws a qualitative conclusion from a quantitative result. It is submitted that the balancing theory does not predict uniformity of behavior but a strong tendency to follow the pattern.

So the system displays two contradictory characteristics: socialization and rivalry. Security of one state means insecurity of another. Thus, the states are facing a constant dilemma of power and security, which gives rise to creation of alliances to ensure a better positioning and to counterbalance opponents, to provide against uncertainty inwards and outwards.

The international system, according to the structural realists is built of independent states and features three traits. These are:

i. Prevalence of anarchy in the system, which means that states try to be prime actors of international relations;
ii. They are organized in accordance with their functions;
iii. It follows that states differ from each other in their relative power and capabilities, which are functions of their territorial size, natural resources, economic capabilities, political stability and military power.



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Lancaster University – Political Science
Structural Realism Validity




Title: Structural Realism and its Validity