Micro-drivers of macro-theories: realism vindicated?

The origins of modern International Relations theory began with the devastation brought about by World War II, when classical realist scholars such as Hans Mor-genthau were delineating international politics as a separate field from economics, law, and other social sciences.16 While empirically founded initially, most of International Relations theory by now is well formed and remains spatially and temporally substantive, withstanding over seventy years of continuous academic scrutiny. Given this stability in the field, empirical micro-drivers are unlikely to have major, game-changing effects on International Relations theory as a whole. Even so, nuclear modernization is a unique set of policy choices by the United States that may bring about the empirical impetus for a possibility for theory to evolve, adapt, be refined, and be further expanded on in a myriad of ways.

Our overarching assertation is that the fundamentals of International Relations theory will not be challenged by nuclear modernization, as the field remains resistant to single evidentiary challenges. But the possibility that the current U.S. nuclear modernization proposals could fundamentally alter International Relations theory does exist, with the following caveat: if the ongoing nuclear modernization is not merely a single event or set of events, but a cascading series of nuclear build-ups, resulting in a major shift in the current and past proliferation trends. If this current set of doctrine and nuclear build-up results in major increases in both horizontal and vertical proliferation, theory will change in a substantial way. This avenue of thought and theoretical argumentation, while certainly plausible, remains to be assessed at a future time.

Further, the ontological and epistemological foundations of International Relations theory remain fundamentally unaffected. Nuclear modernization does not bring about a teleological or philosophical shift in the nature of social reality from an objective viewpoint (as much as objectivity can be an attribute assigned to social reality), nor is it likely to be perceived as a fundament shift in epistemology. The divisions within our discipline, short-handedly detailed as positivist and interpretivist research, are unlikely to come closer as their fundamental underpinnings remain far apart. Interpretivist research will likely focus on identifying the underlying hegemonic discourse within nuclear modernization, while positivist research, writ large, will attempt to incorporate this new evidence into existing theory, focusing on novel theoretical causal chains, linkages, and mechanisms.

Other far-reaching effects on ontological and epistemological considerations in International Relations theory, except the ones outlined above, are unlikely, but the concept of security is ever changing. Nuclear modernization, as an important policy decision, may challenge the concept of security itself. Interesting debates about the intersections of national security, state security, and human security are bound to surface. In the same vein as Krause and William’s seminal 1996 piece,17 which attempted to link the debates between neorealist and critical approaches to security, a novel re-broadening of the security studies agenda may see sunlight. Yet even if such an endeavor were to take place, it is unlikely that the entire revision of the concept of security itself, as Baldwin did in 19971S in his work that expanded the conceptualization of the term ‘security’, will happen within our discipline in consequence.

Leaving conceptual debates behind, the next query concerns changes that may be brought about in what the disciple identifies as schools of thought, or paradigms within International Relations. While divisions exist within each broad “house” of thought, the three commonly accepted ones, as detailed by Stephen Walt, are realism, liberalism, and constructivism.19 While these paradigms are also very resistant to change, there is a natural ebb and flow in their pattern of recognition in the “marketplace of ideas” that the pages of the top journals in our field reflect.20 It is undeniable that certain events bring one of the three more limelight than others. For example, Brexit debates bring to the forefront questions of European Union integration and cohesion, which earlier we thought settled, and liberal ideas are being tested at the writing of this article. The simmering debate between the role, place, and conceptual validity of power, reciprocity, and norms and ideas continues to be debated as new evidence surfaces. Nuclear modernization will assuredly challenge and test these paradigms’ applicability today.

Reinforcing constructivist approaches, the non-use of nuclear weapons after World War II provided a substantial empirical starting point for constructivist research. Perhaps the most notable of these works in the nuclear studies field is Nina Tannenwald’s nuclear taboo,21 and follow-on theoretical work on nuclear modernization will for sure build on this. Constructivists will examine the challenges to the enduring role of established institutions and explore the possibility of norms weakening around the nuclear proliferation taboo.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the United States as a global hegemon and a unipole from an International Relations theoretical perspective in world politics. Established realist theory of the time asserted that a coalition of other-states, fearing for their security, were sure to balance against the United States. Empirics clearly did not match theoretical expectations, and the behavior of the United States continued to puzzle scholars. The concept of a benign hegemon, the assumption of unipolarity, and balancing against threat or threat perception were theorized. A great power that begins to heavily modernize may reignite this debate. In addition, the debates that are currently simmering about the role of threat versus its perception, the effect of misperceptions, inadvertent and conscious biases, may all be revisited under different conditions, especially as nuclear modernization takes off. Similarly, the European Union’s success as an integration model of supra-national organization provided generalizable theoretical works on inter-state cooperation. Nuclear modernization is most likely not of this caliber in providing fuel for liberal scholarly work, but the role that successful extended nonproliferation cooperation systems or regimes, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative,22 the Wassenaar Arrangement,23 or the Zangger Committee,24 may be further examined from a theoretical standpoint incorporating the novel evidence. Further, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a long-standing staple of a successful arms control agreement, will come under heavy scrutiny as nuclear modernization begins in earnest. The possible lagged effects of forced cooperation and the time-horizon questions of inter-state treaties will both be explored by scholars.

Perhaps the only safe assumption to make from a macro-theory standpoint, is that when empirical evidence changes for the worse, that is, peace seemingly cedes space to conflict, realism seems vindicated. The Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 left scholars to argue that realism was fundamentally correct even though the world had not witnessed great power competition for decades. John Mearsheimer argued convincingly for this proposition.25 Ongoing nuclear modernization, especially if continuous and large, will likely see something similar. Nuclear modernization will most likely be interpreted as a movement away from peaceful nuclear co-existence, norms, and institutionally-driven disarmament and peace, towards a more conflict prone scenario.

Despite this vindication of the realist school of thought, taken as a single issue, nuclear modernization will be unlikely to foster a new paradigm or a renaissance of security studies as Walt argued in the early 1990s,26 but it might offer novel theoretical work on nuclear balancing or bandwagoning. These theoretical articles, such as Waltz’s27 or Schweller’s,28 were usually written from a conventional weapons standpoint, as the nuclear proliferation debate seemed to be settled at the time. Nuclear modernization may add more detailed studies here. Further, while omni-balancing is not a novel concept,29 the multi-modal, multidimensional balancing with uncertainty around nuclear modernization may bring about new types of exploration of balancing behavior.

Finally, while it is hard to predict with any certainty future interpretivist research on the topic, it will remain clearly a topic of interest for interpretivist scholars. For one, the power dynamic between the nuclear weapons states and the non-nuclear weapons states set forth by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty may be revisited; it will be interesting to note how the hegemonic discourse on nuclear weapons use may shift with the modernization. Does the discourse around the military inapplicability or the normative stigma of nuclear weapons shift with the additional resources that are devoted to the modernization? Future discourse analysis may focus on this angle.

After the examination of macro-theory and nuclear modernization’s possible effects on it, an analysis of middle-range theories follows. The critical question remains: will nuclear competition between great powers be perceived to be similar to what theory believed it to be during the Cold War? To answer this, we revisit the concept of nuclear primacy that International Relations scholarship attributed to the United States during parts of the Cold War and examine some theoretical assumptions with new evidence that has surfaced since then. By most accounts, sometime in the past fifteen years a new state entered the post-Cold War great power competition, the People’s Republic of China. We ignore China’s role in International Relations theory at our peril, thus, we examine whether some conventional theory derived from Cold War U.S.-Soviet interactions would hold in a U.S.-China relationship in the near future.

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