DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Anarchy, Neoliberalism, & Neorealism


            Anarchy exists as a central element in the international relations theories of both neoliberalism and neorealism; however, they differ significantly in how much emphasis they respectively place on the effects and influence of anarchy in the motivations of nation states. It is helpful, first though, to clarify what is meant by anarchy in this context. Though anarchy is often understood to be the absence of structure (forms of governance), in the international arena, anarchy itself becomes a form of structure. That is to say, that in the absence of world order or of a government for which the nation states of the world to unify under, the prevailing structure is thus anarchical. In his article, Anarchy in International Relations Theory: The Neorealist—Neoliberal Debate, author Robert Powell described anarchy in the following way:

No agency exists above individual states with authority and power to make laws and settle disputes. States can make commitments and treaties, but no sovereign power ensures compliance and punishes deviations. This—the absence of a supreme power—is what is meant by the anarchic environment of international politics. (19)

Powell’s definition leads us to the first way in which neorealism and neoliberalism differ in their understandings of anarchy.

            In the neoliberal perspective—markedly more idealistic than its counterpart—anarchy represents a lack of a central authority capable of enforcing agreements. Here, neoliberalism assert that international institutions can assuage the uncertainty and fear generated through anarchy as these international institutions can create rules, agreements, etc. that bring some semblance of order to the anarchical structure of international relations. Put another way, without a central authority in the international arena, the greatest obstacle to cooperative relations between nation states is the possibility of foul play. One of the central functions of these international institutions then becomes the abatement and discouragement of foul play. In a sense, it is anarchy itself which creates the opportunity and need for states to foster cooperation via institutions  Examples of neoliberal institutions can be seen in organizations such as the UN, NATO, WTO and perhaps most notably, the European Union.

            From the neorealist perspective, anarchy has a much more profound impact on the actions and motivations of nation states. Because there is no central global authority, states are thus compelled to act solely for the purpose of furthering their own goals, bolstering their own economies, acquiring precious resources, and amassing military forces and armaments. International institutions are little more than the tools of more powerful nations, used to secure more power. In the anarchical structure of international relations, with nations acting in their own interest, they are thus put at odds—in competition—with the rest of the international community. This creates a strong emphasis on the primacy of relative gains, resulting in an endless drive toward acquisition and one-upmanship, particularly when it comes to military power. This is often referred to as the “security dilemma,” exemplified in the Cold War nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States. The Cold War represents a prime example of neorealist theory, as this was a case of two powerful nations competing to secure their dominance in the international arena.

            In recent years, however, neorealism has run into significant theoretical gaps when applied to post Cold War international affairs. The previously cited example of the European Union exists as something of a thorn in the sides of neorealists. Are all the members of the EU acting in their own interests? David Baldwin points out in his article Neoliberalism, Neorealism, and World Politics, “…the future of the European Community will be an important test for these theories… If progress toward integration continues, the neoliberals will presumably view this as support for their views” (3). However, the EU has by no means had an easy go of it in recent years, so perhaps its turbulence will serve as grounds for the validation of neorealism.


Works Cited

Baldwin, David. Neoliberalism, Neorealism, and World Politics. Web.

Powell, Robert. Anarchy in International Relations Theory: The Neorealist--Neoliberal Debate.     The MIT Press, 1994. Web. 

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

The Realist Argument Against Intervention in Syria


            With the ongoing brutal civil war in Syria, some serious questions have been raised as to what, if any, the response of the international community should be. Pundits from both ends of the political spectrum in America have called for intervention, citing the unacceptable use of chemical weapons and the need to put an end to the Assad regimes’ human rights abuses. Not long ago, President Barack Obama endorsed a military strike in Syria, and it seemed that America was poised before the precipice of yet another costly intervention abroad. However, upon closer inspection and deeper inquiry into the conflict in Syria as well as a broader review with consideration to the efficacy of past humanitarian and military interventions alike, it becomes increasingly less likely that intervention in Syria will prove helpful for the Syrian people or the international community at large. 

            What follows will be an analysis of the possibility of US intervention in Syria from the realist perspective, making the argument that not only is intervention as it has most commonly been practiced (i.e. Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan) ineffective, it is actually detrimental to the interests of the intervening state and harmful to the people on whose behalf they intercede.

            We begin with a brief overview of realism and its approach toward intervention and humanitarian aid.  Realism concerns itself solely on the security and development of each state; these states are, in the realist view, in constant competition with other states.  In this way, power and self-interest are central and it is the pursuit of power which compels states to develop. Put another way, it is every state for itself and even the apparently more cooperative ventures between states, the United Nations for example, are ultimately just a means to further the interests of individual states. What then is the realist view on intervention and aid? 

            Fundamentally, realists focus on the strategic advantages of intervention and aid, whilst liberalists, for example, would most likely focus on “normative claims on when to intervene” (Stanford) founded in a perceived duty to preserve and promote certain ideals (i.e. democracy and human rights) around the world. Realists however, do not concern themselves with the moral implications of intervention. It is this very concern with morality however which has been most often cited in Washington as the motivation to intervene in Syria. America though, has been far from consistent in its perceived duty to uphold these principles abroad.

A closer look at recent atrocities around the globe reveals numerous examples of self-interested behavior on the part of states when it comes to humanitarian interventions. The genocide in Rwanda saw little action from the international community as few had any stakes in intervening into the conflict. The international community also failed to intervene in the early stages of the Darfur genocide and proved unwilling to persecute the Iraqi regime for using chemical weapons against Kurds in 1980s—so long as Saddam remained an American ally (Aleyiv) –which is perhaps most interesting given how much of a hot issue the use of chemical weapons in Syria has now become. This begs the question, are there any realist motivations for intervening in Syria?

Most immediately, an answer to this question could be that the collapse of Syria into chaos potentially creates serious problems for American allies like Turkey and Israel, threatening greater stability in the region and in turn adversely affecting American interests. This is an argument, however for either mediating an end to the civil war or tacitly accepting an Assad regime victory, which ever would more swiftly ensure a return to relative Syrian stability, not for intervening on the side of the rebels (Millman).

            Another possibility is that America wishes to take the opportunity to curtail anti-American extremist groups like Hezbollah and Al Qaeda by allying with the Syrian rebels to ensure that America has allies among the victors. In particular, we want to make sure that anti-American terrorist groups don’t wind up dominating a post-Assad Syria (Millman). This is highly problematic however given the questionable and fractured nature of the Syrian rebel groups, who themselves have been associated with Islamic extremist groups. As former secretary of state and realist Henry Kissinger asks, “…do we risk repeating the experience with the Taliban, armed by America to fight the Soviet invader but then turned into a security challenge to us?” (Syrian Intervention…).

As we can see, the decision of whose side to take in the Syrian conflict is a far more complex matter than what the dominant narrative from Washington has alluded to.

Washington seems to be under the impression that Assad is a tyrannical dictator who has repeatedly brutalized his discontent and defenseless citizenry. There may very well be a great deal of truth to this; however, rarely are such distinctions so clear and black and white. As peoples are embroiled in intense and violent conflicts, the certitude as to who is more “in the right” swiftly begins to deteriorate. As previous interventions abroad have proven, “aiding defenseless civilians has usually meant empowering armed factions claiming to represent these victims, groups that are frequently responsible for major human rights abuses of their own” (Valentino 63).  And given that the violence in Syria is no worse than what Washington has been able to bear with “comparative equanimity in Rwanda, Sudan, and Congo. On what moral grounds should one decide that one war is intolerable while another can be ignored?” (Millman).


Additionally, any claim to this moral high ground becomes more suspect when we take into consideration the costs of intervention itself. In an article entitled, The True Costs of Humanitarian Intervention, author Benjamin Valentino reminds us that

Using force to save lives usually involves taking lives, including innocent ones. The most advanced precision-guided weapons still have not eliminated collateral damage altogether. Many Americans remember the 18 U.S. soldiers who died in Somalia in 1993 in the ‘Black Hawk down’ incident. Far fewer know that U.S. and UN troops killed at least 500 Somalis on that day and as many as 1,500 during the rest of the mission—more than half of them women and children. (64)

Given the very real possibility of loss of civilian life as a result of U.S. intervention in Syria we must also consider that further involvement in the region may actually do more to bolster radicalization than mitigate it. In effect, U.S. humanitarian intervention has done very little to curry favor in the past, both in the countries they intervene in as well as in the international community. This is perhaps the most persuasive realist argument for remaining uninvolved in Syria as “The United States’ long-term security depends on good relations with China and Russia, perhaps more than any other countries, but U.S.-sponsored interventions have led to increasing distrust between Washington and these nations” (Valentino 65-6).

Firmly established international law bars other nations from using force against other nations except without the approval of the United Nations Security Council. In the case of Syria, UNSC approval will not be forthcoming considering that both Russia and China have clearly opposed intervention. Thus, intervention by the United States would undermine the rule of international law and further strain relations between the U.S. and both China and Russia (Glasshausser).  Additionally, given that the U.S. has already ignored the UN with regard to Kosovo and Iraq, adding yet another blatant disregard of the mandates of the UNSC will be a tremendous slap in the face to the international community further tarnishing important alliances and setting a dangerous precedent, as it will be more difficult for the United States to condemn the use of force by other states that fail to obtain UN approval.

In his article, Syrian Intervention Risks Upsetting Global Order, Henry Kissinger outlines two conditions essential for an effective and efficient humanitarian or military intervention. He writes,

First, a consensus on governance after the overthrow of the status quo is critical. If the objective is confined to deposing a specific ruler, a new civil war could follow in the resulting vacuum, as armed groups contest the succession, and outside countries choose different sides. Second, the political objective must be explicit and achievable in a domestically sustainable time period. I doubt that the Syrian issue meets these tests. (Kissinger)

            Indeed, should the rebels overthrow Assad, no consensus yet exists as to what the new form of government will look like. Given the previously mentioned fractured nature of the rebel groups, such a consensus is not likely to emerge without further bloodshed, which begs the question; what place could the U.S. possibly have in mediating such a conflict? And given the recent costly and seemingly unending attempts to prop up a democratic government in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we have seen that “Americans do not have the understanding of other societies and people, the attention span or staying power, to engage in an active, interventionist policy of nation-building and democracy-promotion on a large scale” (Millman).

So then, from the realist perspective should America do nothing in Syria? Not necessarily. The U.S. merely needs to take a more pragmatic, less moralistically charged approach. Military interventions, peacekeeping, or nation-building missions carry with them what economists have deemed opportunity costs. These are the missed opportunities for aid whose resources have instead been allocated to military endeavors. And since “military intervention is a costly way to save lives,” (Valentino) these costs are extensive.

Valentino offers a sobering cost-benefit analysis of military intervention as he writes:

Each of the more than 220 Tomahawk missiles fired by the U.S. military into Libya, for example, cost around $1.4 million. In Somalia a country of about 8.5 million people, the final bill for the U.S. intervention totaled more than $7 billion. Scholars have estimated that the military mission there probably saved between 10,000 and 25,000 lives. To put it in the crudest possible terms, this meant that Washington spent between $280,000 and $700,000 for each Somali it spared. (The True Cost…)

            If the real motivation and intention for the U.S. to intervene in Syria is about saving lives (this is questionable at best), military intervention is certainly not the most effective nor economic means of doing so. Rather, Valentino offers three alternatives which are substantially more pragmatic and effective means of achieving this goal with a much lower moral, political, and economic cost. He writes that we should be…

investing in international public health initiatives, sending relief aid to victims of natural disasters and famines, and assisting refugees fleeing violent conflict. Millions more lives could be saved if the billions of dollars spent on humanitarian interventions were instead spent on these efforts.


Of these approaches the most applicable to Syria would be assisting refugees fleeing the conflict, which are now well over 2 million people (Syrian Regional…). This could come in the form of providing safe havens for the Syrian people where medical attention, food and shelter are readily available. This approach ensures U.S. neutrality in the matter while addressing efforts to save lives. Yet, from the realist perspective, one has to ask, what’s in it for us—the U.S.?

Again, Velentino sheds light on this question. He writes,

After the U.S. military sent rescue and medical teams and emergency supplies to Indonesia in the wake of the devastating 2004 tsunami, the proportion of Indonesians who held favorable views of the United States, which had plummeted following the invasion of Iraq, more than doubled—an important gain in the world’s largest Muslim country. (The True Cost…)

This example shows that effective, neutral, humanitarian assistance can actually be a powerful means stymying anti-American sentiment—a cause which is greatly in the interest of the U.S. From the realist perspective, this may amount to little more than a global PR move but it could also be seen as a more cost-effective means of counter-terrorism.

In closing, and on a more personal note, it bares mentioning that I take issue with the foundational assertion of classical realism—that humans are fundamentally self-serving, and interested only in furthering their own ends and though to a lesser degree, I find I have similar reservations with the school of neo-realism, which merely shifts the claim of self-interest from humans to states—from human nature to systemic nature. Simply put, this is because I’m unwilling to accept a worldview devoid of altruism and compassion, as I trust that each of us has just as much capacity to be self-serving as we do to be selfless. It is interesting to note however, that I have found the simple pragmatism of realism to make so much sense, and oddly enough, it seems in my own reckoning, that the IR approach that is perhaps least concerned with morality is also least likely to violate it.

Ultimately, I hold a vision of a world where atrocities like those befalling the citizens of Syria (and many other nations around the world) can be stopped and ideally prevented. This would not be championed by an overzealous US with a questionable ideological agenda, but by a banded together global community whose interests lie solely in the preservation of the sanctity of life—a vision which is anathema to the realist perspective. However, as much as I may wish to live in that world, a world where ending gross injustice is a simple matter and intervention and aid for our brothers and sisters around the globe only saves lives and builds peace—that world does not yet exist.

Instead, we are imperfect and conflicted beings doing the best we can with tremendously complex and nuanced real-life situations involving swathes of other imperfect conflicted beings.

Often, as we have seen, the actions states undertake on behalf of others, albeit with good intentions, too often are costly and ineffective and almost always incur unforeseen repercussions that run counter to their stated goals. In the end, it seems we do us all—states and those they seek to assist—a great disservice by reducing this reality to simplistic dichotomies and falling prey to absolutes. Put bluntly, good intentions are simply not enough in the real world.

            States do not exist in vacuums, however, and injustice around the globe should concern us as moral beings. And though it is well known that the United States possesses the military means as well as the resources to intervene or assist any country, America would do well to be more circumspect in its actions and more modest about its capabilities. For there is not a clear solution to every problem—Syria’s civil war being a prime example. In intervening we run the very real risk of causing more harm than good, as we have seen in Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, for as Henry Kissinger warns, “In reacting to one human tragedy, we must be careful not to facilitate another”(Syrian Intervention…).      

`           Perhaps then, it is this obsession with a narrowly conceived notion of morality that so blinds states from seeing the bigger picture and the inevitable consequences of their actions. Perhaps the pragmatism of a realist perspective could actually help them achieve their most noble-minded humanitarian goals abroad.


Works Cited

Aliyev, Huseyn. "Neo-Realism & Humanitarian Action: From Cold War to Our Days." tufts.edu. The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, 16 May 2011. Web. 30 Nov 2013.

Glasshausser, Alex. "Doing Nothing is a Right, But is it Right?." Huffington Post: Politics. Huffington Post, 12 Sep 2013. Web. 26 Nov 2013.

Kissinger, Henry. "Syrian Intervention Risks Upsetting Global Order." The Washington Post. N.p., 01 Jun 2012. Web. 26 Nov 2013.

Millman, Noah. "What's The Realist Explanation for America's Syria Intervention?." The American Conservative. N.p., 17 Jun 2013. Web. 25 Nov 2013.

Stanford. "Despite Good Intentions: The Failure of International Humanitarian Interventions." Stanford.edu. Stanford University Press. Web. 30 Nov 2013.

"Syrian Regional Refugee Response." UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency. N.p., 14 Nov 2013. Web. 1 Dec 2013.

 Valentino, Benjamin. "The True Cost of Humanitarian Intervention: The Hard Truth about a Noble Notion." Foreign Affairs. 60.6 (2011): 60-73. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Obama’s Proclamation of US Imperialism?


On September 24th 2013, on the heels of disturbing evidence supporting the use of chemical weapons in Syria and President Obama’s stated support of a military strike against the Assad regime, Obama delivered an address to the United Nations General Assembly. In his speech, Obama spoke to a number of issues in addition to the US stance on the Syrian civil war. Namely, a statement of America’s commitment to ensuring that Iran does not develop nuclear weaponry, a reaffirmation of US support of Israel, and a sweeping support for the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Broadly speaking, Obama outlined US policy and relations with the Middle East and North Africa. What is of particular interest here, as we will see, is the markedly imperialistic tone of much of what was spoken. What follows is a critical analysis of a portion of President Obama’s UN address, asking the question: is America engaged in imperialism in the Middle East?


First, let us define our terms. What do we mean by imperialism? Johan Galtung, author of A Structural Theory of Imperialism, provides a helpful means of understanding an imperialistic relationship between nations. In Galtung’s model “The world consists of Center and Periphery nations; and each nation, in turn, has its centers and periphery” (265). Center nations are those with more power, influence, and resources, whereas Periphery nations are those generally considered to be less developed, with less power and influence. Imperialism, then, can be defined as "...one way in which the Center nation has power over the Periphery nation, so as to bring about a condition of disharmony…between them." (Galtung 266-7). Put another way, imperialism is essentially a parasitic relationship between a Center nation and a Periphery nation, in which the Center is the beneficiary. However, there is an added degree of subtlety here when we take into account the center and periphery within each nation-state.

To use the Marxist terminology, the center of a nation could be considered the bourgeoisie—the elite—whilst the periphery could be understood as the proletariat—the working class. It’s important to note here that the gap and inequality between the periphery of the Center nation and the periphery of the Periphery nation is far greater than that of the gap between the centers of each nation respectively. In Galtung’s model, imperialism consists of a mutually beneficial relationship between the center of the Center nation and the center of the Periphery nation. This agreement must also benefit the periphery of the Center nation whilst alienating and exploiting the periphery of the Periphery nation. These are Galtung’s three criteria for imperialism. 

With this framework in place, we come to our first point in Obama’s UN address, in what has been called “a naked… declaration of American imperialism” (The Empire President…), in which Obama spoke the following:  


…let me take this opportunity to outline what has been U.S. policy toward the Middle East and North Africa and what will be my policy during the remainder of my presidents (sic). The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region. (TRANSCRIPT, 3)

Given this strong antagonistic statement, it is abundantly clear who in this situation is the Center nation (America) and who are the Periphery nations (Middle East and North Africa). Yet, what are the “core interests” he speaks of? This is addressed in the following portion of his speech, as he says


We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world. Although America is steadily reducing our own dependence on imported oil, the world still depends on the region’s energy supply… (TRANSCRIPT, 3)


This statement in itself should be of little surprise to anyone, the Persian Gulf supplies 13% of America’s oil, most of which comes from Saudi Arabia (Corey). However, the vast majority of American oil is actually produced domestically or imported from Canada. So, why then, the insistence on fervently protecting this “core interest”? A possible answer can be found when we look at the total cost of producing a single barrel of crude domestically vs. a barrel produced in the Middle East. One barrel of crude produced domestically, on average, costs around $34, whilst the same barrel produced in the Middle East costs about $17 (Frequently Asked…). So, why is there such large disparity of cost to produce the same product? Returning to Galtung’s model, the immediate answer is that goods produced from Periphery (poorer) nations will assuredly be cheaper than those produced by Center (wealthier) nations.  


Galtung outlines two stages of exploitation that go hand-in-hand with imperialism, in which in the first stage the Center nation “…simply engages in looting and takes away raw materials without offering anything in return" (Structural… 268). America is at least not overtly engaged in this form of exploitation in the Middle East, however, it could be argued that given Obama’s aforementioned statement about the use of military force to protect “core interests in the region,” one could at least infer a willingness to do so. It is Galtung’s second stage, however, which appears to be the more applicable form of exploitation outlined in the situation above. In this stage the Center nation offers “…something 'in return.' Oil, pitch, land, etc. is 'bought'… it is no longer simply taken away without asking any questions about ownership. The price paid is ridiculous" (Structural… 268). Thus, we can see that, judging from Obama’s statements and the disparity of oil production costs, that America is involved in an exploitative relationship with the Middle East, and in Galtung’s words, “the exploitation of an increasing number of small or weak nations by a handful of the richest or most powerful nations… have given birth to those distinctive characteristics of imperialism…" (Structural... 262).


As previously mentioned, Galtung offers three criteria for imperialism, firstly, “there is harmony of interest between the center in the Center and the center in the Periphery nation.” Secondly, “There is more disharmony of interest within the Periphery nation than within the Center nations. And thirdly, “There is disharmony of interest between the periphery in the Center nation and the periphery in the Periphery nation" (Structural… 267). Thus far, we’ve established the second criteria—the disharmony of interest between America and the Middle East. What then of the 1st and 3rd criteria?


Addressing the first criteria, this begs the question, who in the oil rich Middle Eastern nations benefits from the oil industry? Disproportionately, it seems to benefit a handful of obscenely wealthy families—and we can see the mutually beneficial arrangement between the center of the Center nation (in this case, those in the American oil industry) and the center of the Periphery nation. And finally, the third criteria—the disharmony between the periphery of the Center and the periphery of the Periphery—certainly in this case, the periphery of the Center—the general American public—stands to gain far more from cheaper oil than do the general citizenry of oil rich Middle Eastern countries. 


With all three criteria established, it seems that America is indeed engaged in imperialism in the Middle East, and Obama has made this blatantly clear to the international community in his speech. Not only this, but America proves itself to be something of a pro in the matter, for as Galtung writes, "Only imperfect, amateurish imperialism needs weapons; professional imperialism is based on structural rather than direct violence..." (Structural… 270). It seems though that America is not above stooping to “amateurish imperialism” when it sees fit, however, if it comes to protecting “core interests.”


Works Cited


Flintoff, Corey. "Where Does America Get Oil? You May Be Surprised." NPR.org. N.p., 12 Apr 2012. Web. 30 Oct 2013.


"Frequestly Asked Questions: How much does it cost to produce crude oil and natural gas?." U.S. Energy Information Administration. U.S. Department of Energy, 01 Nov 2012. Web. 30 Oct 2013.  


Galtung, Johan. A Structural Threory of Imperialism. eBook.


"The Empire President: Jeremy Scahill on Obama’s "Neocon" Doctrine of Military Force in U.N. Speech." Democracynow.org. Democracynow.org, 25 Septermber 2013. Web. 30 Oct 2013.


"TRANSCRIPT: Obama's U.N. General Assembly Speech." Washington Post. Washington Post,  24 Septermber 2013. Web. 28 Oct 2013.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.