Is Neo-Liberalism closer to Neo-Realism than it is to traditional Pluralism?

Is Neo-Liberalism closer to Neo-Realism than it is to traditional Pluralism?

The paradigm of pluralism originated during the 1970s by writers such as Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, as they sought to establish an alternative to traditional realism. Through works such as, ‘Transnational Relations and World Politics,’ and, ‘Power and Interdependence,’ Keohane and Nye explained their concepts of transnationalism, multiple access channels and complex interdependence which expanded theoretical pluralism. Their analyses, which studies in these books conclude that through studying foreign policy, decision-making showed that the premise of the unitary nature of the state had now become untenable. In 1979, Kenneth Waltz, a neo-realist, introduced a new approach, through his book, ‘Theory of International Politics,’ which looked at international relations in a more structural and methodological perspective, while keeping to the same state-centric view of traditional realists such as Hans Morgenthau. Neo-liberalism being the most modern of the three paradigms, established in the 1980s, takes key concepts from both pluralism and neo-realism but goes further and incorporates the ability of cooperation occurring in an anarchical international system.

In order to assess whether neo-liberalism is closer to neo-realism than it is to traditional pluralism, it is firstly important to define the three paradigms, consider the important elements of neo-liberalism and to analyse the similarities and differences it has to the other two paradigms. It is also important to examine the arguments for and against the notion of neo-liberalism being closer to neo-realism, which would help to gauge to what extent neo-liberalism is closer to neo-realism.

During the 1960s and 1970s, changes to the world structure started occurring as the role of non-state actors, for example the European Economic Community and multinational companies, had greater significance. In, ‘Transnational Relations and World Politics,’ Keohane and Nye argue that a ‘definition of politics in terms of state behaviour alone may lead us to ignore important non-governmental actors that allocate view.’ It is clear that from a pluralistic view, states as well as non-state actors all contribute to world politics and it is this fundamental assumption, which clearly challenges and distinguishes itself from realism. Furthermore, states are not seen as the single most important actors in international politics, as they often can not regulate all other cross-border transactions. Nye argues, ‘A good deal of intersocietal intercourse takes place without governmental control…states are by no means the only actors in world politics.’ This emphasises the pluralist theory that states do not act in a unitary fashion, rather the state is fragmented and, ‘composed of competing individuals, interest groups and bureaucracies,’ which shape state policy. Transnational co-operation was needed to respond to common problems and co-operation in one sector would inevitably lead to co-operation in other sectors and as a result, ‘the effects of transnational relations are becoming more important and pervasive.’

In the 1970s, the liberal pluralists highlighted the understanding of non-state actors, undermining the state-centric world of realism. Keohane and Nye claimed that world politics was no longer the exclusive preserve of states and that, ‘…the growth of transnational organizations has lead to the state-centric paradigm becoming progressively inadequate,’ therefore a new theory called complex interdependence was introduced to run as an alternative to realism. This theory has three key assumptions the first was introduced, being that the state is not a unitary actor but there are multiple channels of access between societies. In, ‘Power and Interdependence,’ Keohane and Nye argue that these channels include, ‘informal ties between governmental elites; informal ties among non-governmental elites and transnational elites and transnational organizations.’ The second feature of the theory is that though military force is an important issue; from a pluralistic perspective it does not dominate the agenda. The paradigm allows for a multiple of issues to arise in international relations compared to the neo-realist concept, where it emphasises the military and security issues which dominate international politics. Pluralists have a low salience of force and believe that actors have different influences on different issue areas. Therefore pluralists argue that military power is not the only factor indicating how powerful a state is. The final assumption considers the fact that there is no hierarchy of issues; therefore any issue area might be at the top of the international agenda at any one time. This emphasises the second assumption of complex interdependence that, ‘military security does not consistently dominate the agenda,’ furthermore, with the complicated interactions between various sub-state actors, the boundary between domestic and foreign politics becomes obscure, such that traditionally low political issues, for example the environment and the economy take greater significance in the domain of international politics.

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The neo-realist reply to the pluralist challenges came in the form of a structuralist theory which regarded international systems to be either hierarchical or anarchical in nature. The distinction between hierarchical and anarchical is crucial to Waltz, who argued that the present international system was anarchical in nature and the pluralist challenge had failed to provide sufficient grounds to suggest that the system had changed fundamentally; therefore underlying the reality of the system remained in tact. Neo-realism deems the anarchic system has led to a self help system which lacks authority. He says, ‘each unit seeks its own good: the result of a number of units simultaneously doing so transcends the motives and aims of the separate units.’ Therefore, states are only able to survive if they increase their military capabilities, which will enhance their security. This is directly criticised by pluralists as they argue that liberal democracies are more pacifist and the fact that more states are becoming liberal democracies, shows the potential for changing the structure of the international system, and they claim that, ‘…when complex interdependence prevails military force is not used.’

However, in his critique of transnational and other pluralist efforts, Waltz raises an important idea. He defies the challenge of the state-centric paradigm by saying that ‘students of transnational phenomena have developed no distinct theory of their subject matter or of international politics in general.’ Keohane argues this critique by pointing out that for concepts such as transnational relations to be valuable; a general theory of world politics is needed. Neo-realism contains analogies from economics, especially the theory of markets and the firm where the market is a structure and exists independent of the wishes of the buyers and sellers who nonetheless create it by their actions. Waltz states, ‘international political systems, like economics markets, are formed by the co-action of self-regarding units.’ This overall perspective draws its central ethos from the discipline of economics and rational choice assumptions.

However, even pluralists like Keohane soon accepted the neo-realist concepts of the international system being anarchic in nature and states as the principle actors in it. Therefore, he repositioned himself to neo-liberalism, moving away from his previous pluralistic concerns of interdependence and transnational relations. The debate between the two came to be known as the neo-neo debate since there appeared to be a convergence between the two positions. The foundation of neo-liberalism is that states need to develop strategies and forums for co-operation over a whole set of new issues and areas and this has been facilitated by the fact that regimes, treaties and institutions have multiplied over the past two to three decades. Thus the pluralists of the 1970s such as Keohane and Nye have become the neo-liberals of today and in the process have become quite close to the neo-realists.

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Neo-liberalism’s acceptance of anarchic principles, states becoming the principal actors and the adherence to the importance of rational choice further highlights the close intellectual position with neo-realists. Nevertheless, despite this neo-liberals are trying to distinguish themselves from neo-realists when including the notion of co-operation. Neo-liberals have concerned themselves with analysing the extent of co-operation possible under conditions of anarchy and the conclusions that the two sides reach are radically different. Neo-realists claim that under anarchy, conflict and the struggle for power are enduring characteristics of international politics, and that because of this, co-operation between states is at best precarious and at worst non-existent. Neo-liberals agree that achieving co-operation is difficult in international relations but disagree with neo-realists pessimism of it not being able to occur effectively in an anarchical system. In Keohane’s book, ‘After Hegemony,’ he claims that, ‘Cooperation requires that the actions of separate individuals or organizations be brought into conformity with one another through a process of negotiation.’ Neo-liberalism goes further and claims that co-operation could be increased through establishment of international regimes and the exchange of information. They see regimes as the mediator and the means to achieve cooperation in the international system. According to neo-liberals, institutions can exert casual force on international relations, shaping state preference and locking states into cooperative arrangements.

However, neo-realists doubt that international regimes have the ability to do this efficiently, if not at all. Their pessimistic view of international relations put forward the argument that states must stress security to promote their own survival. The neo-liberal view is that though there is an anarchic system in place; institutions have the ability to, ‘encourage multilateralism and cooperation as a means of securing national interests.’ However, they do concede that cooperation may be difficult to achieve in areas where leaders perceive to have no mutual interests. Thus, there is a difference of opinion between neo-liberals and neo-realists on the notion of international regimes. The former believes that regimes can only persist so long as states have mutual interests, while the latter argues that only with a hegemon in place, can a regime work effectively.

Despite their differences over the question of co-operation in the international system, both neo-realism and neo-liberalism are rationalist theories; both are constructed upon assumptions held in micro-economic theory that the main units in the international system, states, are assumed to be self-interested and rational and act in a unitary fashion. Neo-liberals accept the basic neo-realist assumptions of international anarchy and the rational egoism of states. However, their aim is to show that to an extent rational actors can co-operate even when anarchy in the system prevails. The issue of gains is a key difference in this debate as neo-liberals assume that states focus primarily on their individual absolute gains and are indifferent to the gains of others. Whether co-operation results in a relative gain or loss is not very important to a state as far as neo-liberalism is concerned, so long as it produces an absolute gain. In contrast, ‘neo-realists, such as Waltz, argue that states are concerned with relative gains,’ rather than absolute gains and a state’s utility is at least partly a function of some relative measure such as power. Furthermore, the acceptance of states being rational actors allows the enactment of game theory, thus allowing the behaviour of states to be foreseen, aiding the scientific rigour of neo-liberalism.

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It is arguable therefore, that neo-liberalism is a doctrine that is close to both neo-realism and traditional pluralism. It is the most contemporary of the paradigms and thus has been able to take key concepts from both neo-realism and traditional pluralism to produce a new theory of international relations. However, pluralism still has strong similarities with neo-liberalism in that they both agree on the concept of different issues areas that are not necessarily military based, such as economic welfare, whereas neo-realists concentrate on military issues which they identify as being high on the political agenda. Therefore, there are no hierarchical issue areas in contrast to neo-realism where military and the struggle for power is at the top of the agenda. Furthermore both paradigms show optimism on the concept of cooperation occurring in international politics. However, it is arguable that neo-liberals have abandoned the pluralist thought of the state not being the principal actors in international relations. Here, neo-liberals have concurred with the neo-realist state-centric view; with states being described as rational actors. To a greater extent, it is the key concept for the ability of cooperation to occur in an anarchical system which distinguishes neo-liberalism from the other two paradigms, especially neo-realism, whereby cooperation can be mitigated through the establishment of international regimes and institutions. The differences on cooperation are clearly evident between neo-liberalism and neo-realism as the latter paradigm is pessimistic, in arguing that under anarchy cooperation would be very difficult to achieve. This emphasises the autonomous nature of neo-liberalism and it now becoming the main challenger to the traditional realist paradigm.


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