Chapter Summary with Learning Objectives

Chapter 1

Students and observers of international affairs use perspectives, levels of analysis, and causal arrows to describe and explain the things we see happening in international affairs. Perspectives, levels of analysis, and causal arrows help us select which facts – out of an overwhelming set of possibilities – we think are important, and they help us order those facts differently to create competing explanations.

Each perspective and level of analysis sees certain facts as more important than others, and each draws causal arrows among those facts in different ways. The realist perspective focuses on conflict and war. According to this perspective, war and conflict are consequences of anarchy, which forces actors (like states) to rely on self-help. States are mostly concerned with their own security, which depends on how much power they have and whether than can preserve their sovereignty. But when a state tries to be secure, it can threaten other states and make them less secure, creating a security dilemma. As a result, states seek a balance of power to ensure that no state dominates the others. In seeking a balance of power, states create alliances. The possibility of war depends on the polarity of the system, or how many great powers and alliances are involved in the balance of power.

The liberal perspective focuses on opportunities for (and challenges to) cooperation, and sees the possibility for minimizing war and conflict through higher levels of aggregation. By “aggregation,” the liberal perspective primarily means how actors (like states) interact and form institutions, both of which have been increasing in magnitude throughout history. According to this perspective, actors behave towards each other based on reciprocity, which increases as interactions and interdependence among actors increase. As interactions and interdependence increase and become more regular and formal, actors create international regimes and international institutions. Throughout history, modernization and technological change have increased opportunities for reciprocity, and today non-governmental organizations and domestic civil society interact both within states and across state borders through transnational relations, while states create intergovernmental organizations to administer global governance.

The identity perspective focuses on the ideas – like values, norms, and beliefs – that guide the use of force and the behavior of institutions. According to this perspective, actors (like states) have identities that influence their actions and those identities are created through the construction of identities. There are two ways of understanding the construction of identities. Social constructivism focuses on how actors interact and communicate, leading them to construct shared identities and external identities. On the other hand, agent-oriented constructivism focuses on how an actor constructs its identity autonomously, creating an internal identity that can be compared to other actors’ internal identities in studies of relative identities or the distribution of identities. Other variations on the identity perspective focus on soft power, belief systems, psychology, and gender.

The three mainstream perspectives are criticized by several critical theory perspectives which argue that all the facts examined by those perspectives – and, indeed, the students or observers who do the examining – are bound within specific, contingent historical structures. Change, according to critical theory perspectives, involves radical solutions and even revolution. Examples of critical theory perspectives are Marxism, which emphasizes the conflictual relationship between communist and capitalist states, and postmodernism, which emphasizes how power is hidden in language and discourse and is used to marginalize different groups of people.

While perspectives describe the substance of a cause, levels of analysis describe the origin of that cause. The systemic level of analysis focuses on explanations that take into account the relationships among all, several, or two states, including the relative position of states (or structure) or the interactions among states (or process). The domestic level of analysis includes on explanations that focus on the characteristics of a specific state (like the United States, Germany, or the Soviet Union) or a specific type of states (like authoritarian or democratic states). The individual level of analysis encompasses explanations that examine the traits of a specific individual or leader (like Hitler or Stalin), or a small group of leaders (like President George W. Bush’s neoconservative advisers), or human nature in general. The foreign policy level of analysis sees a “two-level game” between the systemic and domestic levels of analysis in which a policy-maker or leader balances constraints and opportunities within the state and in the international system. Other levels of analysis – including regional and transnational levels of analysis – also exist alongside these four major types of explanations.

Perspectives and levels of analysis interact with each other, and an explanation can involve factors or variables from multiple perspectives and levels of analysis. What distinguishes these explanations is the direction in which causal arrows run – if an argument says that the international balance of power determines domestic ideas, that’s an explanation from the realist perspective at a systemic level of analysis. If the causal arrow is reversed – if the argument says that domestic ideas influence the international balance of power – that’s an explanation from the liberal perspective at the domestic level of analysis.

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter students should be able to understand:

  • What the major perspectives and levels of analysis are.
  • How explanations or hypotheses describe causes of international situations using perspectives and levels of analysis.
  • How causal arrows link factors or variables emphasized by different perspectives and levels of analysis, and how different perspectives and levels of analysis draw causal arrows in different directions.
  • What factors, variables, and concepts each perspective emphasizes.
  • How the prisoner’s dilemma works and how it can be modified to stress the factors emphasized by each perspective.