International relations: balance of threat, soft power and the international political economy.
The study of IR as an academic subject cannot overlook the political implications of its own theoretical frameworks (Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, English school) and, in so doing, it has to take account of the usability of such theories for policy-makers and those interested in applying them to the contemporary issues of international politics. For the purpose of this article, three main concepts belonging to the study of International Relations are going to be briefly depicted: the balance of threat, soft power and, that wide and fascinating subject commonly referred to as International Political Economy.
Balance of threat
Introduced during the last years of the Cold War by Stephen M. Walt, and firstly published in an article entitled Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power (1985), the balance of threat theory provides an original explanation for the balancing behaviours in the bipolar world. By refining and reformulating some classical assumptions about the central role of power, Walt makes a central contribution to the development of neorealist theories of international relations.
According to balance of threat theory, states choose allies in order to balance against the most serious threat perceived. In addition to the importance of aggregate power (comprised of territorial size, population and economic capabilities), the threat is also composed of geographical proximity, offensive (or military) capabilities and perceived intentions. As the state that poses the greatest threat is not the most endowed with military strength, Walt argues that the more a state perceives a rising state as possessing these qualities, the more likely it will be to deem it as a threat and balance against it accordingly. Admittedly, such a theory has been also inspired by a variety of studies carried out in those years by R. Jervis on the importance of psychological factors and it can be viewed as the first but unaccomplished attempt to introduce the role of ideas in IR within the realist framework.
Applied to the US-Soviet international confrontation, balance of threat theory explains why a more powerful coalition formed in response to a threatening coalition and why alliances form in response to regional threats still today. For instance, taking China as a potential threat for the US, the former currently lacks powerful offensive capabilities, although possesses a great deal of aggregate power, is relatively geographical proximate (the Pacific Ocean) and has enacted increasingly non-cooperative political actions since the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008.
What precisely does Joseph Nye mean by soft power? According to him, military and economic power are at odds with such a definition, as they are peculiar examples of hard power that can be used to induce others to change their decisions. As a result, soft power can be defined as an alternative source of indirect strength in world politics based on the attraction and admiration towards values, material and economic prosperity, and openness provoked by an external country.
Rather than threats, coercion or payments, a country’s soft power rests on its resources of culture, values, and policies as factors capable to influence states’ behaviours of the international system. One of the first thinker to have elaborated a similar theoretical perspective was Antonio Gramsci in the 1920s. Speaking about the process of Americanization in the Western world, he clearly understood that lifestyle, or even different industrial models of production (such as Fordism) and the consequent cultural reflections in structuring society, could play a relevant role in determining other state’s preferences and imitations. Political and social values, and culture in addition, are prominent elements, as lamented by the French Socialist politician Hubert Védrine, of the American power, because they can “inspire the dreams and desires of others, thanks to the mastery of global images through film and television and because, for these same reasons, large numbers of students from other countries come the United States to finish their studies”. Nye’s conviction is that the transformative character of power will, in this century, rest on a mix of military, economic and soft drivers.
As a matter of fact, the current struggle against international terrorism has increased the relevance of soft power. While the US is unrivalled militarily, it cannot monitor every corner on the globe and, for this reason, it has to appeal to a mutuality of interests with other states, creating an attraction of shared values and adopting the so-called “smart strategy” invoked and put in practice by the Secretary of State Clinton: indeed, a smart power strategy combines hard and soft power resources under the aegis of public diplomacy and multilateralism.
International Political Economy
International political economy (IPE) was developed as a significant subfield in the study of International Relations in the 1970s. At the beginning of that decade, the global economy suffered a period of turbulence following an unprecedented period of stable economic growth, which also benefited less developed countries. The unilateral choice of the Nixon administration to change the value of the dollar (expressed in terms of the price of gold), brought about the removal of the system of fixed exchange rates, starting the gradual loss in effectiveness of the Bretton Woods financial system.
Insofar as the IPE is focused on the interrelationships between public and private power in the allocation of scarce resources, Susan Strange described its method of analysis as concerned with the social, political and economic arrangements affecting the global systems of production, exchange and distribution, and the mix of values reflected therein. As an analytical method, political economy is based on the assumption that what occurs in the economy reflects, and affects, social power relations. According to Gilpin, there are three principal categories of theoretical approaches to IPE: liberalism, nationalism and Marxism.
The liberal approach to IPE, currently considered the mainstream among academics, goes back to Adam Smith’s thesis of the “invisible hand” of market competition. This approach emphasizes that specialization and competition (as drivers for maximizing welfare) should be applied also at the international sphere, through developing the notion of production according to comparative advantage. The win-win situation that results from countries specializing and trading according to their comparative advantage creates a harmonic and interdependent structure of international interactions, in which the role of the international institutions is essential in determining positive outcomes.
Modern economic nationalism, firstly developed by Hamilton in 1791 and List in 1844, conceives the world economy as a zero-sum game where the gains by one economy inevitably must come at the expense of another. According to such a vision, national governments should provide their national firms with a protected domestic market and by promoting their exports. State intervention, protectionist policies, application of tariffs should be theoretically removed once an industry could compete in the international market. Many contemporary theorists of the nationalist approach to IPE have underlined the importance of a dominant state that, in certain historical periods, such as during the Great Depression, could have avoided the collapse of the international financial system by ruling the same as an economic hegemon.
Finally, the Marxist or critical perspective is focused on distributional issues, the constraining effects of domestic and international structures and the social classes as the basic unit of analysis. Due to the instability and conflictual nature of the global capitalism, the international economic relations are seen as a zero-sum game where two prevalent forms of political clash occur: within the states between capitalists and workers, in the international arena between imperialists and exploited states. According to Lenin, the under-consumption capitalist states were compelled to wage external wars in order to expand their internal market, rendering international conflict an unavoidable result. Today, neo-Marxists look at globalization and its major institutions (WTO, IMF) as the elites’ attempt (wealthy and industrialized countries) to constitutionalize neo-liberal principles.
Although introductory, this piece has no pretension to be exhaustive. As a matter of fact, each of the issues briefly presented can rely on impressive lists of academic studies and on-going researches. For sure, balance of threat, the concept of soft power and IPE do not represent just useful tools for understanding current world politics, but also theoretical approaches which deserve more attention and purposeful contributions by policy-makers.