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CIAO DATE: 07/02

"Realisms at war": Robert Gilpin's political economy of hegemonic war as a critique of Waltz's neorealism

Stefano Guzzini

Copenhagen Peace Research Institute
March 2002

There are two main ways to approach the general topic 'International Political Economy and war'. One consists in adding a list of items to a defi-nition of war already known. This usually includes a longer list of strate gi-cally important economic resources for which countries might go to con-flict or they might need in a conflict. Some of this comes now often under the grandiose name of 'geo-economics'. Another approach, however, would look what a different understanding of human motivation and the international system makes to our very understanding of war.

This chapter has taken this second road to illustrate what a political economy approach adds to our understanding of war. This is, of course, nothing new. Indeed, in the past, neo-Marxist approaches of imperialism did exactly this. Yet, the present chapter has chosen to illustrate the contribution of political economy by comparing two understandings of war from within one and the same school of thought, namely Robert Gilpin's and Kenneth Waltz's versions of realism.

The choice of an inner-realist debate is both obvious and a bit puzzling. On the one hand, realism seems an obvious choice. For if there is one school of thought on international affairs that should be well prepared to face the very question of 'war', it should be realism. It was set up as a theory which stresses the inherently conflictual nature of politics and the possibility of war as the cornerstone of its international world-view. Also, it is the outlook on the world often implicitly accepted by many policy analysts. Hence, when in the 1980s, a theory called neorealism entered the stage, which early commentators saw represented by mainly two scholars, Kenneth Waltz and Robert Gilpin 1 , it was to be expected that realism had now reached a new stage, a maturity which would also give an authoritative understanding of one its core objects, war. The rigour of a neorealist under-standing of war was to be derived from its reliance on the theoretical model of economics, Waltz using macroeconomics (oligopoly theory), Gilpin relying on microeconomics (marginal utility maximisation).

Hence, it might seem odd to compare two visions of war which are said to be fundamentally similar. Yet, the following will argue that a political economy version of realism, as represented by Gilpin, understands war in a profoundly different and to some extent antithetical way to Waltz's neorealism.

The structure of the chapter is dictated by yet an other assumption. Theoretical developments are usually done by professionals, be they at universities or different type of research units. Their new ideas respond to, and feed back into, external and internal developments of their field or disciplines. Hence, before going to show exactly the difference between Gilpin and Waltz, a first part will introduce into the context of the theoretical debate.

In a first part, I will argue that both approaches can be considered as two realist responses to an identity crisis by realism and IR alike. Yet, Gilpin's and Waltz's reaction have been diametrically opposed. Waltz defines a very narrow identity of international relations as international politics, based on a pure balance of power theory and methodological analogies with econ-omics. In other words, here realism and IR are again in overlap, because IR has been redefined accordingly. Gilpin, however, takes up the challenge by much of the interdependence literature and includes a variety of new factors in an amended realist scheme. Also he attempts to recreate an overlap between realism and IR, yet by redefining realism in such a way as to become a leading, if competing theory for a more encompassing subject-matter, namely IPE (which subsumes IR). Gilpin's approach is here paradoxically both more in the tradition of classical realism than Waltz, insofar as he relies on a theory which is not purely systemic, and less, in that Gilpin consciously wants to propose a realist approach to political economy while Waltz does his best to resurrect the borders of a limited subject-matter.

In a second and more elaborated part, I will show how Gilpin, as a corollary to his understanding of realism just outlined, does away with three central tenets of Waltz's realism. Gilpin does not set international politics apart, but redefines politics as political economy; he does not derive conflict only from the systemic level; and he understands the inter-national system as functionally differentiated through hegemony which asks for a more historical (and historically contingent) approach to world politics, as well as for a theory of the state. A political economy approach of realism undermines the very classical balance of power theory realism is so often identified with - and hence also the simplistic view of interna-tional politics which comes with it.


Note 1: For the most outspoken example, see Ashley (1986 [1984], p. 266). For a lucid critique which carefully spells out some philosophical differences, see (Walker 1987).Back