I was happy to see yesterday a post by Phil Arena on his (coauthored) paper he & co. will be presenting at Peace Science in a few weeks. I won’t be at the conference, so it is always good to see research publicized from PSS, which unfortunately has yet to offer some sort of document retrieval system. I watched an interesting conversation last night on Twitter among Arena, OSU’s Braumoeller, and UNC’s Winecoff that explored the idea of the international system as part of a model, which is of course a subject dear to my own heart.
My main point in posting here is throwing some support for Arena & co. for their work, which I find very interesting. (I also haven’t had a chance to mention that I really like what he’s doing with measuring military capabilities.) I also have two points I wanted to raise here, since I was headed to bed when I caught the conversation last night and didn’t feel like butting in midway through. First, I want to comment on the model in Arena’s post directly, and second I want to address the broader question of thinking of the relationship between the international system and “big think” in International Relations.
Modeling “the system”
Arena only summarizes the bare bones of the model’s set-up, but essentially it creates a world in which two units (not necessarily states, which is refreshing), A and B, each of which may or may not be supported by major powers C and D, respectively. (Unfortunately, from the post, it is not clear whether they account for the possibility of war between C and D as a result of their intervention.)
C and D are defined as major powers, but they are operationalized as the most and second-most powerful members of the system (based on Arena’s new measure of capabilities). This bipolar set-up is my main issue here. Bipolarity lasted for a relatively brief time of major power politics, about 40 of the 200 years of the modern era.
What will bipolar models tell us about the future, which may see the involvement of rising powers? A model of much of African international politics would have to include China, the European Union, and now, it seems, even Brazil as major economic players. China is also investing in Latin America, historically firmly within the American sphere. As ties continue to develop among multiple loci of economic power, the implications for modeling the geostrategic international system as a four-player game pile up.
This is not to say that the model Arena & co. propose is not useful; in fact, my concern with the model qua model is the complexity, which Arena admits: “the relationship between the actors’ capabilities and the likelihood of war is very complex.” (Indeed, I personally still grapple with two-player games.) But if the point is that war between A and B is more likely “if B has a better estimate of the likelihood that C will intervene on his behalf than does A,” then would the fact that C may be a choice of several potential supporters, each with unique probabilities of intervening, produce similar results? (I’m honestly asking here.)
To sum up, I love the idea of modeling major power involvement in subsystem politics rather than treating their relationship as the system, but I am concerned over whether doing so pushes us beyond still conceiving the system as the relationship between the two strongest powers.
Small world, big system?
A more general issue I want to briefly address is the idea of theorizing about the international system as doing “big think” in IR. I was lucky to sit in on an interesting panel at ISA2012 in San Diego on the end of IR theory, and the discussion focused on the shift in IR from big theorizing to normal science, or the testing of the major theories proposed over the last half century.
Arena asked in a tweet announcing his post whether this work is “big think.” The responses indicated that system-as-independent-variable qualifies work as big think (although also having it as dependent variable would push it even further). While Waltz certainly established the paradigm that IR theorists should be thinking about the international system, I am not convinced what the system really tells us in a nonpolar world (a topic I still have yet to find time to think out loud about).
If A and B in Arena & co.’s model all nonstate actors, then do they care, or even know, if a great power or two will intervene? Did the protestors in Egypt or Syria? (Marc Lynch tried to make big think sense of the Arab Spring, but to little avail.) Not to mention, what if A is a major power, such as Russia, agitated with a neighbor (Georgia) or a region (Chechnya)?
As I have been forced to seriously consider my overall approach to political science and particularly the study of international politics due to being on the market, it has become more and more evident to me that the more I think about the international system, the more I think about international units and subunits. If wars are more frequent though overall less fatal, as Arena points out, then does that mean we are moving away from major, large wars fought by major, large units? If so, should we still focus on great power politics as the source of understanding international politics? I agree with Arena & co.’s conclusion that “it is inappropriate to focus strictly on the incidence of major power war if we are to understand the implications of major power politics,” but I would push the point even further. It may be inappropriate to focus strictly on the involvement of major powers if we are to understand the international system.
What does that mean for big think in IR? Sorry, I’m still working on that one.