Chapter Summary with Learning Objectives

Chapter 5

Realist perspectives view the world since the end of the Cold War primarily in terms of the distribution of power. They view history as a series of cycles of empire and equilibrium, and although they agree that the world is unipolar – that the United States is the world’s only superpower – they disagree over whether unipolarity is durable and desirable.

Power transition realists argue that unipolarity or hegemony (which are closer to empire than equilibrium) are more stable for the world and more desirable for the United States. War results when the international distribution of power becomes more equal, or moves towards equilibrium. Therefore, the US can and should preserve its dominant position and should use preemptive or preventive war against potential challengers.

Power balancing realists, on the other hand, argue that unipolarity is unstable and war=prone, since it provokes counterbalancing alliances. They believed that the US would decline in relative power and should use deterrence and containment against rivals while building counterbalancing alliances with allies.

The divide between the two schools of realism was illustrated in the debate within the George H.W. Bush administration at the end of the Cold War, particularly regarding the breakup of the Soviet Union. Power transition realists like Dick Cheney (the future vice president) favored aggressive policies to break up the Soviet Union and forestall potential rivals, while power balancing realists like Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell (and George H.W. Bush) favored a more cautious stance toward the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. This divide was echoed in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, where Cheney wanted to pursue an aggressive policy to change the balance of power in the Middle East, while Powell (and Scowcroft, now a civilian) urged caution.

As the world’s only superpower, the United States faces challenges from rising powers like Russia and China. It also faces rogue states that support terrorists and seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction, as well as failed states that harbor terrorists. Finally, it faces asymmetric threats like terrorism and cyber warfare, which are used by weak states and groups against the strong.

The George W. Bush administration saw the global war on terror as being waged against rogue states and in failed states. Their style of international politics relied more on unilateralism than multilateralism, and it sought to use force in a way that enabled diplomacy. The Barack H. Obama administration revered these emphases, although it has perpetuated and escalated other policies like the use of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, the surveillance of phone calls and emails by the NSA, and the use of drones strikes against suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.

Realist perspectives differ from others in that they see groups engaged in the struggle for power at the international, domestic, and foreign policy levels of analysis. International institutions, they argue, are ultimately creations of states – they reflect the distribution of power among states and the interests of their members. At the domestic level, political parties, legislatures, and the public, contest potential policies. In cases of ethnic conflict, they believe that ethnic groups are reflections of hardwired group loyalties, and that their struggle for territory and resources is best dealt with by territorial partition. At the foreign policy level, policymaking agencies clash over parochial interests in the process of bureaucratic politics, while interest groups pressure policymakers to act in certain ways.

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter students should be able to understand:

  • What types of threats the United States faces in a unipolar international system.
  • How power balancing and power transition realists differ in the way they view the world and the policies they advocate.
  • How (and to what degree) the George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack H. Obama administrations have taken a realist perspective in policymaking.
  • How realist perspectives apply idea that groups struggle over power to international institutions, ethnic conflict, domestic politics, and foreign policymaking.