Sam Seitz

For those who regularly read this blog, it is obvious that I have mixed feelings about “theory.” On the one hand, the social world is simply too complex to understand absent some fairly well-defined frameworks and models. But on the other hand, the inevitable simplification that occurs during the creation of theoretical models potentially leads to the omission of important variables. The more troubling aspect of theory is that it tends to blind strict adherents, leading them to contort the empirical record to fit their theoretical priors. Indeed, theoretical schools can develop cult-like followings not dissimilar to fanatical religious sects. But there is a broader problem with theory that relates to human agency. As the theoretical models become more rigid and all-encompassing – think of some of the major IR theories like realism or liberalism – they actually start to become less useful. There exists to some degree, therefore, a theory paradox.

To illustrate this, think of one of the more absurd international relations theories: offensive realism. To those who are unacquainted with this theory of state behavior, its central assumption is quite simple: States want power, leading them to inexorably expand and come into conflict with other power-seeking states. As John Mearsheimer puts it, this is how we get the “tragedy of great power politics.” There are other important assumptions and claims made by this theory, as well: Domestic politics are irrelevant; systemic pressures like the distribution of power, anarchy, and uncertainty are key; and states are rational. Of course, almost none of this is true in a general sense. There are also obvious empirical problems such as, for example, the fact that a small country like Switzerland is clearly not inexorably expanding and coming into military conflict with its neighbors. People like Mearsheimer might retort that this is irrelevant because only the “great powers” seriously impact the systemic balance of power, but this begs the question of what a great power is. It also undercuts the claim that offensive realism accurately describes the behavior of all states. In short, it is a dumb theory. But it also falls prey to my so-called “theory paradox” by offering a strict, structuralist explanation for state behavior that is divorced from domestic politics and human agency.

Ironically, Mearsheimer himself has consistently made comments directly at odds with his theory of offensive realism, thus demonstrating the salience of the paradox. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is his penchant for blaming Russian revanchism on Western aggression and NATO expansion. As he tells it, the loss of power and growing insecurity that resulted from NATO’s inexorable eastward growth have forced the Russians to lash out within their near abroad. He criticizes American policymakers for their post-Cold War hubris, arguing that all this ill-will is completely unnecessary and could have been easily avoided. Except his theory says otherwise. After all, if the U.S. and its NATO allies are systemically compelled to inexorably expand in order to bolster their power and security then policymakers are blameless. They are no more at fault than the Russian leadership that continues to instigate conflict and destabilize neighboring countries. They have no choice; this is just the tragedy of great power politics! This argument is, of course, risible, and it reveals that even the iconoclastic Mearsheimer knows his theory is absurd, at least when taken to its logical conclusions. Either domestic politics and national leaders are irrelevant – in which case who cares – or they aren’t – in which case Mearsheimer’s theory is bogus.

The point is that this paradox is inevitable for any deterministic theory. In some ways, it is like the social science’s version of the paradox of free will, only far stupider because it is simply the result of bad premises. Mearsheimer is a perfect example of someone who takes theory far too seriously and, as a result, comes out looking quite foolish. Theoretical models have a role – indeed, even offensive realism is helpful in explaining state behavior under certain conditions. Nevertheless, they are easy to misuse and overapply. Once you start claiming you have found the theory to describe a certain phenomenon, you have already lost. Everything is contingent and, to some degree, random. We need to appreciate that more.