IR 101: Does theory tell us anything useful about international conflict?

For those of us fortunate enough to make a living studying international relations, these are interesting times. Some of our biggest ideas and claims are being put to the test as the international system seems to be changing before our eyes.

The rise of China and the relative decline of the United States are creating a much more fluid and uncertain international environment, especially in the critically important Asia-Pacific region. The question that students and policymakers alike might reasonably ask of scholars is: can you tell us anything useful about what’s likely to happen?

As academics are wont to say, the answer is yes and no. While there is no shortage of people making predictions about the likely course of history, unfortunately there’s no consensus on what it’s likely to be. Indeed, the two most influential paradigms in international relations theory - ‘liberalism’ and ‘realism’ - come to diametrically opposed conclusions about what ultimately drives the international system, let alone where it’s heading. Given what’s at stake though, it’s worth considering what some of the smartest people on the planet think is happening in East Asia in particular.

Liberals are optimists and think that the magic of the market will change the way the world works and how policymakers calculate the national interest. In a deeply interconnected world where no country is an economic island—nor wants to be—national well being is determined by relationships with the neighbours. Even North Korea may finally be getting this, although managing the transition to modernity is plainly going to be tricky.

The big point liberals make is that it is simply irrational, counter-productive madness to even think about doing anything that would upset the mutually-beneficial status quo. In an era of globalisation, everyone has too much to lose to even contemplate conflict. China and Japan plainly don’t get on, but like China and the US, they need each other and are locked in an enriching, symbiotic relationship.

Realists don’t share this optimism. On the contrary, some of the most influential realist thinkers in the US and China, think that conflict is an inescapable fact of international life. Why? Because individual states are primarily concerned about their own security and recognise that if they don’t provide it themselves, nobody will.

The rather sobering conclusion that at least some realists draw from all this is that conflict between China and the US is almost inevitable, and not just because of the increasingly likely possibility of an accident or miscalculation in one of the region’s increasingly fraught territorial disputes. This could be a trigger but not the underlying cause.

In realist jargon, China is a ‘revisionist’ power. Put simply, China’s not happy with a world, and more particularly a region, that is still dominated by the US and its network of alliances. Seen from Beijing these look too close, too constraining, and redolent of the sort of containment strategy that characterised the Cold War. It’s not hard to see why many Chinese strategic thinkers might be unhappy about this and keen to push back.

The key question is how far China is willing to go in attempting to gain greater freedom of action in, and influence over, a region in which it has historically played such a pivotal part. Is the expansion of its Air Defence Identification Zone the thin end of a geopolitical wedge that will become wider and more ambitious as China’s material power continues to grow? Equally importantly, how will the US respond to what is perhaps the greatest long-term challenge to its dominance since it became the most powerful country in the world?

Realists have no doubt. The US, too, will push back. The so-called pivot is the most tangible expression of this possibility as the US seeks to shore-up its primacy. But, the liberals may say, Barack Obama is a smart guy who has learned the lessons of history. Wise leadership makes a difference. His reluctance to get bogged down in the Middle East demonstrates that he recognises the futility of war and the overwhelming importance of keeping America’s nascent economic recovery on track.

America’s reliance on China as a critical economic partner means that no rational actor would risk jeopardising such a crucial source of domestic legitimacy. This argument looks doubly powerful for a Chinese regime that derives so much of its authority and even legitimacy from its ability to keep the development miracle going.

There are plenty of people in both countries who recognise and directly benefit form economic interdependence. People really do seem to think differently about the world and their policy priorities reflect this. (There’s another theoretical paradigm - constructivism - that has much to say about this, but I’ll save that for another time). Inter-state violence has become a rare aberration, despite the grim persistence of conflict within the notional borders of failing states. Surely liberals have unambiguous empirical evidence and the tide of history on their side?

Perhaps. We are collectively running a very large and very consequential experiment in East Asia to see whether liberal or realist ideas look more plausible. It’s not without precedent. Realists like to remind people that liberals made precisely the same arguments about the pacifying impact of economic interdependence immediately before the First World War. The rest, as they say, is history.

We must hope that we are indeed capable of learning from experience as liberals think, and not simply the victims of timeless forces beyond our control. As for what is going to happen in East Asia, dear reader, it’s rather deflating to have to concede that your guess is probably as good as mine. As that incomparable sage Yogi Berra famously advised, never make predictions - especially about the future.