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Why have states throughout history regularly underestimated dangers to their survival? Why have some states been able to mobilize their material resources effectively to balance against threats, while others have not been able to do so? The phenomenon of "underbalancing" is a common but woefully underexamined behavior in international politics. Underbalancing occurs when states fail to recognize dangerous threats, choose not to react to them, or respond in paltry and imprudent ways. It is a response that directly contradicts the core prediction of structural realism's balance-of-power theory—that states motivated to survive as autonomous entities are coherent actors that, when confronted by dangerous threats, act to restore the disrupted balance by creating alliances or increasing their military capabilities, or, in some cases, a combination of both.
Consistent with the new wave of neoclassical realist research, Unanswered Threats offers a theory of underbalancing based on four domestic-level variables—elite consensus, elite cohesion, social cohesion, and regime/government vulnerability—that channel, mediate, and redirect policy responses to external pressures and incentives. The theory yields five causal schemes for underbalancing behavior, which are tested against the cases of interwar Britain and France, France from 1877 to 1913, and the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) that pitted tiny Paraguay against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay.
Randall Schweller concludes that those most likely to underbalance are incoherent, fragmented states whose elites are constrained by political considerations.
"The book focuses largely on 'underbalancing', or on why certain types of states fail to employ balance-of-power strategies. The answer is domestic politics. . . . The book is a clear blend of realism and idealism. . . . A superb book worthy of a wide readership."—Charles F. Doran, International History Review
"Unanswered Threats is a most valuable addition to the field. . . . [Schweller] makes a giant leap forward by pairing variables that are reductive and idiosyncratic with well-constructed and empirically testable hypotheses of his own."—Ariel Ilan Roth, International Studies Review
"[An] insightful and elegantly written book. . . . [Unanswered Threats] is a formidable first cut on the salient topic of underbalancing."—Evan Resnick, Perspectives on Politics
"In the net, two interesting conclusions can be drawn from Schweller's excellent work. The first is that domestic uncertainties can doom the presumed outcomes of realism—in either hyper-aggression or hypo-assertion. The second is that if democratic states can control the logroll, they frequently behave distinctly and differently from other states. They can develop fellow feeling toward other nations that rises above mere short-term policy behavior. If this were not true, how does one explain the relative acceptance of America abroad at a time when so many foreigners decry the policies of the president?"—Richard Rosecrance, Political Science Quarterly
BETWEEN 1638 AND 1640, Charles I concentrated his energies on the construction of a new royal palace at Whitehall. Designed in the Classical style by John Webb, the new Whitehall was to be the fulfillment of the king's lifelong dream to replace the sprawling and obsolete palace that he had inherited from the Tudors with one that would match the splendor and majesty of the Louvre or the Escorial. Charles I desired nothing else than that his surroundings should reflect the magnificence of his rule: "Here, at last, would be a seat of government appropriate to the system of 'Personal Rule' Charles I had established since dispensing with Parliament in 1629. At least until 1639, it was from here that Charles could expect to govern his realms, resplendent amid Webb's Baroque courtyards and colonnades, during the next decade and beyond."
In making such ambitious plans, Charles I displayed supreme confidence that his regime would not only survive but thrive well into the future. Unfortunately for Charles, the controversies and disputes that dogged him throughout his unsuccessful reign erupted in civil war between Crown and Parliament (the Cavaliers and the Roundheads) on August 22, 1642, and "this war without anenemy," as Sir William Waller called it, resulted in a parliamentary victory for Oliver Cromwell. On January 30, 1649, Charles I was beheaded on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London. His last words were: "I am the martyr of the people." If the conventional historical wisdom that "the collapse of Charles I's regime during the 1630s, appeared 'inevitable'" is correct, then Charles obviously suffered from self-delusion-an unreality all too characteristic of remote and isolated rulers.
International politics, too, has seen many instances of this type of folly, where threatened countries have failed to recognize a clear and present danger or, more typically, have simply not reacted to it or, more typically still, have responded in paltry and imprudent ways. This behavior, which I shall call underbalancing, runs directly contrary to the core prediction of structural realist theory, namely, that threatened states will balance against dangerous accumulations of power by forming alliances and/or building arms. Indeed, even the most cursory glance at the historical record reveals many important cases of underbalancing. Consider, for instance, that none of the great powers except Britain consistently balanced against Napoleonic France, and none emulated its nationin-arms innovation. Later in the century, Britain watched passively in splendid isolation as the North defeated the South in the American Civil War and as Prussia defeated Austria in 1866, and then France in 1871, establishing German hegemony over Europe. Bismarck then defied balance-of-power logic by cleverly creating an extensive "hub-and-spoke" alliance system that effectively isolated France and avoided a counterbalancing coalition against Germany. The Franco-Russian alliance of 1893 emerged only after Bismarck's successor, Leo von Caprivi, refused to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia for domestic political reasons and despite the Tsar's pleadings to do otherwise. Thus, more than twenty years after the creation of the new German state, a balancing coalition had finally been forged by the dubious decision of the new German Chancellor combined with the Kaiser's soaring ambitions and truculent diplomacy. Moreover, it was not the common threat of Germany that brought Russia and France together but rather their shared desire to change the status quo, as Kenneth Waltz's own discussion of the Franco-Russian pact makes clear:
Russia would have preferred to plan and prepare for the occasion of war against Austria-Hungary. She could hope to defeat her, but not Germany, and Austria-Hungary stood in the way of Russia's gaining control of the Straits linking the Mediterranean and the Black Seas. France, however, could regain Alsace-Lorraine only be defeating Germany. Perception of a common threat brought Russia and France together.
Waltz says "common threat," but the motivations he cites are for gains, not security.
Likewise, during the 1930s, none of the great powers (i.e., Britain, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, Italy, and Japan) balanced with any sense of urgency against Nazi Germany. Instead, they variously bandwagoned, buck-passed, appeased, or adopted ineffective half measures in response to the German threat. A similar reluctance to check unbalanced power characterizes most interstate relations since 1945. With the exception of the U.S.-Soviet bipolar rivalry, a survey of state behavior during the Cold War yields few instances of balancing behavior. As K. J. Holsti asserts: "Alliances, such a common feature of the European diplomatic landscape since the seventeenth century, are notable by their absence in most areas of the Third World. So are balances of power." Continuing this pattern, no peer competitor has yet emerged more than a decade after bipolarity to balance against the United States. Contrary to realist predictions, unipolarity has not provoked global alarm to restore a balance of power.
Despite its historical frequency, little has been written on the subject. Indeed, Geoffrey Blainey's memorable observation that for "every thousand pages published on the causes of wars there is less than one page directly on the causes of peace" could have been made with equal veracity about overreactions to threats as opposed to underreactions to them. Library shelves are filled with books on the causes and dangers of exaggerating threats, ranging from studies of domestic politics to bureaucratic politics to political psychology to organization theory. By comparison, there have been few studies at any level of analysis or from any theoretical perspective that directly explain why states have with some, if not equal, regularity underestimated dangers to their survival.
There may be some cognitive or normative bias at work here. Consider, for instance, that there is a commonly used word, paranoia, for the unwarranted fear that people are, in some way, "out to get you" or are planning to do one harm. I suspect that just as many people are afflicted with the opposite psychosis: the delusion that everyone loves you when, in fact, they do not even like you. Yet we do not have a familiar word for this phenomenon. Indeed, I am unaware of any word that describes this pathology (hubris and overconfidence come close, but they plainly define something other than what I have described).
That noted, international relations theory does have a frequently used phrase for this pathology, the so-called Munich analogy. The term is used, however, in a disparaging way by theorists to ridicule those who employ it. The central claim is that the naiveté associated with Munich and the outbreak of World War II has become an overused and inappropriate analogy, because few leaders are as evil and unappeasable as Adolf Hitler. Thus, the analogy either mistakenly causes leaders to adopt hawkish and overly competitive policies or is deliberately used by leaders to justify such policies and mislead the public.
I suspect, however, that a more compelling explanation for the paucity of studies on underreactions to threats is the tendency of theories to reflect contemporary issues as well as the desire of theorists and journals to provide society with policy-relevant theories that may help resolve or manage urgent security problems. Thus, born in the atomic age with its new balance of terror and an ongoing Cold War, the field of security studies has naturally produced theories of and prescriptions for national security that have had little to say about-and are, in fact, heavily biased against warnings of-the dangers of underreacting to or underestimating threats. After all, the nuclear revolution was not about overkill but, as Thomas Schelling pointed out, speed of kill and mutual kill. Given the apocalyptic consequences of miscalculation, accidents, or inadvertent nuclear war, small wonder that theorists were more concerned about overreacting to threats than underresponding to them. At a time when all of humankind could be wiped out in less than twenty-five minutes, theorists may be excused for stressing the benefits of caution under conditions of uncertainty and erring on the side of inferring from ambiguous actions overly benign assessments of the opponent's intentions. The overwhelming fear was that a crisis "might unleash forces of an essentially military nature that overwhelm the political process and bring on a war that nobody wants. Many important conclusions about the risk of nuclear war, and thus about the political meaning of nuclear forces, rest on this fundamental idea." Now that the Cold War is over, we can begin to redress these biases in the literature. In that spirit, this book focuses on the question of underbalancing and presents a domestic-politics explanation. There are surprisingly few, if any, studies on the role of domestic politics in balance-of-power theory. The reason for this theoretical lacunae is that balance of power has been traditionally treated as a law of nature, wherein the whole universe is pictured "as a gigantic mechanism, a machine or a clockwork, created and kept in motion by the divine watchmaker." The origins of balance-of-power theory are important in explaining why structure and natural laws, rather than domestic politics, have dominated its discourse for centuries-a subject to which I now turn.
BALANCE OF POWER AS A LAW OF NATURE
The idea of a balance of power in international politics arose during the Renaissance as a metaphorical concept borrowed from other fields, such as ethics, the arts, philosophy, law, medicine, economics, and the sciences, where balancing and its relation to equipoise and counterweight had already gained broad popular acceptance. Wherever it was applied, balancing was conceived as a law of nature underlying concepts viewed as generally appealing, desirable, and socially beneficial (e.g., order, peace, justice, fairness, moderation, symmetry, harmony, and beauty). As Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed about the states of Europe: "The balance existing between the power of these diverse members of the European society is more the work of nature than of art. It maintains itself without effort, in such a manner that if it sinks on one side, it reestablishes itself very soon on the other." This Renaissance view of balancing behavior as a response driven by a law of nature still infuses most discussions of how the theory operates. Thus, Hans Morgenthau wrote: "The aspiration for power on the part of several nations, each trying either to maintain or overthrow the status quo, leads of necessity to a configuration that is called the balance of power and to policies that aim at preserving it." More recently, Kenneth Waltz has declared: "As nature abhors a vacuum, so international politics abhors unbalanced power." Likewise, Christopher Layne averred: "Great powers balance against each other because structural constraints impel them to do so." Realists invoke the same "law of nature" metaphor to explain opportunistic expansion. In this vein, Arnold Wolfers says of structural incentives for gains: "Since nations, like nature, are said to abhor a vacuum, one could predict that the powerful nation would feel compelled to fill the vacuum with its own power." Using similar logic, John Mearsheimer claims that "status quo powers are rarely found in world politics, because the international system creates powerful incentives for states to look for opportunities to gain power at the expense of rivals, and to take advantage of those situations when the benefits outweigh the costs."
From the policymaker's perspective, however, balancing superior power and filling power vacuums hardly appear as laws of nature. Instead, these behaviors, which carry considerable potential political costs and uncertain policy risks, emerge through the medium of the political process; as such, they are the product of competition and consensus building among elites with differing ideas about the political-military world and divergent views on the nation's goals and challenges and the means that will best serve those purposes. As Nicholas Spykman observed many years ago, "Political equilibrium is neither a gift of the gods nor an inherently stable condition. It results from the active intervention of man, from the operation of political forces. States cannot afford to wait passively for the happy time when a miraculously achieved balance of power will bring peace and security. If they wish to survive, they must be willing to go to war to preserve a balance against the growing hegemonic power of the period." In an era of mass politics, the decision to check unbalanced power by means of arms and allies-and to go to war if these deterrent measures fail-is very much a political act made by political actors. War mobilization and fighting are distinctly collective undertakings. As such, political elites carefully weigh the likely domestic costs of balancing behavior against the alternative means available to them (e.g., bilateral or multilateral negotiations, appeasement, buck-passing, bandwagoning, etc.) and the expected external benefits of a restored balance of power. Structural imperatives rarely, if ever, compel leaders to adopt one policy over another; decisionmakers are not sleepwalkers buffeted about by inexorable forces beyond their control. This is not to say, however, that they are oblivious to structural incentives. Rather, states respond (or not) to threats and opportunities in ways determined by both internal and external considerations of policy elites, who must reach consensus within an often decentralized and competitive political process.
Before proceeding, I must make a very important point. The discussion so far has focused on the concept of underbalancing behavior. Underbalancing, however, is merely one symptom of the larger puzzle that this book addresses, namely: Why can some states mobilize their nation's material resources effectively and, thereby, realize their latent national power, while others cannot do so? Prudent balancing behavior is only one potential use of mobilized power. Other uses of mobilized national resources include profitable and prudent expansion as well as self-destructive, reckless aggression, namely, expansion that leads to the formation of overwhelmingly powerful countercoalitions. The general question this book addresses is less about whether states can balance prudently against threats (though this is discussed in detail) than it is about the larger issue of which states can and cannot adroitly mobilize their material resources. Simply put, the book is about who mobilizes, not whether the goals of mobilization are prudent ones. It, therefore, concerns not just unanswered threats but also missed opportunities and ill-considered and disastrous aggression (illustrated by the case of Paraguay in chapter 4).
This chapter unfolds as follows. First, I situate a domestic politics explanation of underbalancing within the extant literature and, more particularly, within the realist paradigm. Second, I offer a precise definition of balancing and underbalancing and how the two concepts should be viewed within the larger context of balance-of-power theory. Next, I examine the relationship between national power and the domestic politics of mobilization capability. Then I present an epistemological discussion of what is meant by explanation and understanding in this study. Finally, I provide an overview of the book.
THE ROLE OF DOMESTIC POLITICS IN REALIST THEORY
The theme of this book fits squarely within the new wave of neoclassical realist research, which emerged in the early 1990s and posits that systemic pressures are filtered through intervening domestic variables to produce foreign policy behaviors. Works by Thomas Christensen, Aaron Friedberg, Randall Schweller, Jack Snyder, William Wohlforth, and Fareed Zakaria all show that states assess and adapt to changes in their external environment partly as a result of their peculiar domestic structures and political situations. More specifically, complex domestic political processes act as transmission belts that channel, mediate, and (re)direct policy outputs in response to external forces (primarily, changes in relative power). Hence, states often react differently to similar systemic pressures and opportunities, and their responses may be less motivated by systemic-level factors than domestic ones.
Excerpted from Unanswered Threats by Randall L. Schweller
Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations ix
INTORDUCTION: Balance of Power and the Puzzle of Underbalancing Behavior 1
CHAPTER ONE: Prudence in Managing Changes in the Balance of Power 22
CHAPTER TWO: A Theory of Underbalancing: A Neoclassical Realist Explanation 46
CHAPTER THREE: Great-Power Case Studies: Interwar France and B Bitain, and France, 1877-1913 69
CHAPTER FOUR: Small-Power Case Studies: Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, and the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864-1870 85
CHAPTER FIVE: Why Are States So Timid? State Coherence and Expansion in the Age of Mass Politics 103