Keohane's (ed.) Neorealism and Its Critics , Chapters 6-8

October 12, 1995 for Professor Marc Neufeld (PO420: IR Theory)

by Howard Fienberg

In examining Chapters six through eight of Robert O. Keohane's Neorealism and Its Critics , one finds stark differences between the approaches of the first two authors, and of the last. The first two, John Gerard Ruggie and Keohane, both are critiquing neorealism from more or less within the paradigm, while Robert W. Cox is standing outside in forming his attack. Still, one must first critique Ruggie's "Continuity and Transformation in the World Polity" and Keohane's "Theory of World Politics" before moving to the more dogmatic article "Social Forces, States and World Order" by Cox.


Ruggie's piece is not conducive to a particularly grand analysis, precisely because he is within the realist paradigm. He acknowledges this, and finds no shame in it. His arguments form around a matter of interpreting Durkheim. The basis of his insistence on including Durkheim's second point on structure comes from his belief that realism cannot explain changes in the international system without recognizing what the principle is that separates the units of the system. Ruggie makes a fine study between the heteronomous medieval world and the sovereignty-based modern world.

This transformation between what Ruggie sees as different systems is based on the redefinition of property relations. Waltz rebuts this critique in a separate chapter by refocusing attention on the structure. (326-7) He finds the argument on transformation invalid to his theory, because the change to which Ruggie refers is an internal one; while it ran through all the actors, it was not a phenomenon that changed the international structure, but one which changed the domestic structures of the various units. As such, when arguing within realist theory, it becomes difficult to claim that the changes within the actors themselves changed the international system. It would make more sense to say that the distribution of the actors' various capacities had changed (Durkheim's third point on structure), rather than their function. That function, self-preservation, remained unchanged from the medieval to the modern society. From a Waltzian point of view, Ruggie has made a foray into the idealist field through his unnecessary focus on the actors' differences of functions.


Keohane, while still within the mainstream, finds himself in a different paradigm from Waltz, that of idealism, and it colors his critique. The hostility he shows to certain concepts, and his knit-picking behaviour do somewhat demonstrate his position. Keohane focuses on rationality as a faulty concept. Due to the near infinite number of choices that are available to an actor in decision-making, he proposes that rationality is bounded, whereby actors will attempt to reach an outcome which is the most satisficing within a given period of time. An interesting point, but one which seems merely to hone a piece of the realist theory. He also links the faults to the self-preservation principle, since he misunderstands its conception. It is not out of the question, even within Waltz's conception of the principle, for actors to aid one another if they are in positions of relative security. He carries on from this into a polemic on force. It is not, as he sees it, the focus of realism, merely a part of it. Realism's focus is power; although force falls under this category, it is not the only kind of power (economic, political, diplomatic).

When dealing with military force, Keohane criticizes that realists seem to think that it fungible. It can be shown that it is so. Idealists point to Vietnam as a demonstration of the limitations of force in international relations, but in actuality what this case truly highlights is the only possible limit to the fungibility of force: ethics. The fact that the United States failed to beat North Vietnam was not for lack of force, but the moral boundaries on appropriate uses of force. These were of course stretched, but the reigns remained. The US could have rained nuclear death upon the North Vietnamese; idealists claim that this would have made the whole affair pointless to begin with. On the contrary, it would have achieved the US' main goal: the protection of South Vietnam. What kept the nuclear option in check was not its lack usefulness but the lack of any moral support. Perhaps a useful critique emanating from this point is that realists, in their cynicism, are capable of a more horrific imagination.

Keohane's notation that non-state actors are not included in realist thought is partially right. While they are included, they are given a lower status, being of a secondary nature in comparison to the more primary states. This is shown by tracing their legitimacy, which is derived from the state. Microsoft could cease to exist if nations wanted it that way, since it is an outgrowth of state power. The corporations' assets and holdings could be seized or frozen, its employees imprisoned or killed, their rights being dependent on state law. However, a nation-state will not disappear in the same manner. The United States cannot deny Cuba its existence; it must deal with Cuba as an actor on the same stage.

The national self-interest as an actor motivator is a concept criticized by Keohane as too constraining, and therefore an ill-conceived way to approach IR. Though he is right to note that it is limited, it still may form the basis from which to make many predictions in the international system.

Keohane demonstrates throughout his critique various points that put him in the pluralist camp as opposed to the realist one. He is an idealist and optimist, not a cynic like a realist. He also does not buy the realist focus on the state as the primary actor, preferring to focus more on individuals and the domestic situation within states.


Cox makes a valid point when he questions outright objectivity. There remains, when he is through with his argument, no possibility to reach true knowledge as the mainstream accepts it, because he has derived a new meaning for the concept. Whereas Waltz would say that one is deriving true knowledge when one separates bias from an objective investigation, Cox, in the usual manner of a Marxist, rebuts this belief, and claims that true knowledge can only be reached when one knows what one is doing, and one understands and accepts one's own biases. Cox finds objectivity a farce.

A manner in which to elucidate their differences may be to graft them onto another concept, in this case the enlightened citizen; it is relevant in so far as it deals with pure reasoning. Immanuel Kant found that a mature and enlightened man was one who worked from the tenets of reason, and reason alone. Other theorists have differed in their reliance on such an orthodox cling to the concept of pure reason as the basis for civilization, but it remains at the heart of what is referred to as the Enlightenment and the enlightened citizen. The enlightened citizen, with the proper backing of morality, should base his or her life on reason and truth, including self-reflection, and an openness to new ideas.

Cox would disagree with the morality, because that is what determines the bias that develops the person's conception of truth, and, as such, eliminates the capacity for pure reason as Kant may have conceived. However, he might fail the overall test of what formulates an enlightened man in a personal sense. Cox believes that he is reaching truth by accepting his biases and stating them. But he is also claiming that what he believes is true. Such an argument smacks of a lack of self-reflection; Cox has examined Waltz, and dismissed the realist paradigm completely without turning the critical perspex on his own.

The real problem here is in the conception of objectivity. What is required in objectivity is the acceptance of a few principles, basic tenets of reality, which are essentially recognized by the community at large. Cox is rejecting this community for its biases, crying "value-laden" and "conservative." He is correct in this sense, but one must make a judgment on what one considers to be a base truth. Cox accepts the Marxist view, and its radical view of society, which is untenable from a mainstream theoretical standpoint, the reason being that they are theoretical discordants. The middle ground is simply not attainable, especially not between Waltz and Cox.

Yet it is exactly this discord which makes Cox's piece so important in the scope of this work. While Keohane and Ruggie are both picking at Waltz's theory from within the same range, Cox is mounting an assault from without, one that requires a far more broad defense on the part of Waltz. Cox's Marxist machinations are of the utmost importance because they actually reject the foundations of the mainstream traditions, and offer an alternative. Waltz thus must face an attack on the very basis of his arguments. This at least gives Cox a serious foothold when ascertaining relevance. Where Keohane insists on his ideology's differentiation from that of Waltz, it seems credible to say that Keohane is stressing his search for that differentiation rather than making it. Cox, in his very vichean beliefs, must be a critic of Waltz and the other mainstream paradigms, because he is so diametrically opposed. In conclusion, each of the three articles has merit in that they represent a critique of realism from three major paradigms: Ruggie from within realism; Keohane and idealism; and Cox and Marxism.


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