Review of Randall Schweller, Unanswered Threats: Political Constraints on the Balance of Power

The book is written as an alternative theory of the balance of power against the standard literature of the theory advanced by structural realists.

Unanswered Threats: Political Constraints on the balance of power
Unanswered Threats: Political Constraints on the Balance of Power.

Randall L. Schweller’s Unanswered Threats: Political Constraints on the Balance of Power is first published in 2006 and has since been regarded as a significant neoclassical realist contribution to International Relations theory, particularly to the balance of power literature. The book is an extension of the author’s earlier article, Unanswered Threats: A Neoclassical Realist Theory of Underbalancing.[1] The theme of the work is fitted within the new wave of neoclassical realist research emerged in the early 1990s (p. 6). It can be understood that the context of this book is also set in a unipolar world.

The main focus of the work is on the underbalancing behaviour of states, by which Schweller means the failure on the part of the threatened states to recognise a clear and present danger, or their underreaction to it, or their response to it in paltry and imprudent ways (p. 1). Speaking in tune with neoclassical realists, Schweller considers that domestic politics is the answer to why states behave in this way, why they underbalance a danger. As Schweller puts it, ‘this book focuses on the question of underbalancing and presents a domestic-politics explanation’ (p. 4).

The book is written as an alternative theory of the balance of power against the standard literature of the theory advanced by structural realists. Structural realists predict that states will balance against a threatening state or an external threat by building arms or by forging alliances with other friendlier states. However, substantiated by historical evidences, Schweller argues that underbalancing, and not balancing, has been what we have been witnessing most frequently in world politics, that states ‘regularly underestimated dangers to their survival’ (p. 3). Moreover, it is domestic politics than structural-systemic factors that compels the states to behave in a particular manner in the international environment.

With an assumption that states are internally cohesive and not domestically constrained, political or otherwise, the first chapter of the book tries to identify when states behave prudently or imprudently in managing changes in the balance of power. The main focus here is how the established powers and rising or revisionist powers react to each other when power shifts occur. It can be seen that the book is more concerned with how the established or status quo powers would respond to the rising, unsatisfied powers than the later would.

According to Schweller, the nature and intention of the rising or revisionist powers- whether it is risk-acceptant or risk averse revolutionary, or limited aims revisionist- should determine which policies the established powers adopt and whether or not such policies will work. One such policy response, other than deterrence and spiral models, is Schweller’s own discovery, i. e., the engagement model. The main objective of engagement is to convert the revolutionary or dissatisfying state into a status quo power with a stake in the stability of the system. When engagement fails, punishment is provided as the final option (p. 37).

However, recognising the accurate nature and intention of the rising or revisionist powers is highly impossible task given the constant uncertainty of international environment and ambiguousness of behaviour of states. One important variable here is ‘threat perception’: ‘anticipation on the part of a decision-maker of impending harm of a military kind to the state’ (p. 38). However, various subjective factors mislead ‘threat perception’. To put it short, threat perception, threat assessment and strategic adjustment can be impaired by cognitive constraints. And, there is a lot of danger when there is misleading threat perception.

Here, Schweller provides a neoclassical realist explanation of a theory of underbalancing (Chapter 2). The neoclassical realists’ understanding is that

‘states assess and adapt to changes in their external environment partly as a result of their peculiar domestic structures and political situations’ (p. 6).

State actions, Schweller asserts, are determined by state actors which constitute political elites and social groups.[2] Accordingly, the balancing and underbalancing actions of states are mostly a function of the preferences of political elites and social groups, which is again influenced by domestic politics.

Schweller posits four domestic factors that explain the different manners of state responses to threats: elite consensus, elite cohesion, government or regime vulnerability, and social cohesion. “Elite consensus and cohesion primarily affect the state’s willingness to balance, while government or regime vulnerability and social cohesion affect the state’s ability to extract resources for this task. The combination of these four variables determines the degree of state coherence (p. 47).” Among these, however, Schweller considers ‘elite consensus/disagreement as the most proximate cause of a state’s response or nonresponse to external threats (p. 47).’

These four factors or variables are followed by five causal schemes and predictions. In the following chapters (Chapters 3 and 4), two different case studies are examined: great-power case studies, which include interwar France and Britain, and France, 1877-1913; and small-power case studies, which include Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, and the War of The Triple Alliance, 1864-1870.

Interestingly, in both case studies, Schweller situate these states in different causal schemes in accordance with the corresponding domestic political factors. What he finds in these case studies is the frequent underbalancing behaviour of the states when they see an external threat. This is factored by one of the four domestic factors, namely elite consensus, elite cohesion, government or regime vulnerability, and social cohesion, or all of them.

In the last chapter (Chapter 5), Schweller’s main questions are why do states not expand ‘in an age of mass politics’? Why do they not go to war even when there is a threat? Why is there so much underbalancing and underaggression and so few cases of expansion in modern times[3]? More simply put, why are states so timid?

It is clear that these questions try to sum up the importance of domestic politics in formulating foreign policies. ‘In the age of mass politics’, state actions must be supported by public consent, their wholehearted cooperation- just a mere compliance due to force will not work. The only exception here is fascism. Fascist states before and during the Second World war could employ expansionist and aggressive foreign policies. The main reason for this was that the revisionist powers, Axis forces, were internally coherent, while the defending powers, Allied forces, were not. However, such overaggression also leads to self-destruction.

Towards conclusion, Schweller predicts four possible worlds on the basis of his arguments in the book. First, both the aggressor and the defender are unitary and motivated actors. In such a world, the stability of the system will be determined by the distribution of power between revisionist and status quo states. Second, potential defenders are internally fragmented, while revisionists are internally united and highly motivated to expand. Such a world is the most dangerous. Third is the least dangerous world because here revisionists are internally fragmented and unmotivated, while the defenders are internally unified and highly motivated to preserve the status quo. Fourth and final, both expanders and defenders are fragmented and unmotivated. Such a world is safe but unstable. The problem in such situation is that ‘it is easier to unify the state and society for conquest and expansion than for balancing against threats.


Final Remarks

Schweller’s Unanswered Threats basically focuses on the importance of domestic political factors on state actions, but at the same time, it does not nullify the importance of structural-systemic factors. However, Schweller presents various harsh criticisms of and logical flaws in structural realists’ theory of balance of power (p. 115, 130).

unanswered threats: review
Randall Schweller.

Two major arguments in the book are: (1) ‘stable and unified regimes that govern united polities have the capacity to mobilise the necessary national resources to deal with new threats and opportunities’, and (2) ‘in contrast, unstable and fragmented regimes that rule over divided polities will be significantly constrained’ in doing the same (p. 130). These arguments make it clear that domestic political factors determine state behaviour in a far reaching manner.

However, Schweller does not give a convincing theory of underbalancing when it concerns the type of state of his argument (1). The underbalancing behaviour seems to concern only the argument (2) type of states or similarly affected states but not the argument (1) type of states. Even if he tries to respond to this ‘missing point’, its weakness is obvious throughout the book.

On the other hand, the whole theory concerns maintaining the balance of power in world politics, providing, in a way, various ‘advices’ on how to ensure it. But, what he does is ending up being a status quoist. In fact, the book is for those who want to maintain the status quo and not for those who want to change it.

Moreover, the analysis is mostly confined to a unipolar world system. It does not adequately say about balancing and underbalancing behaviour of states in multipolar or tripolar or bipolar world systems.

Despite above limitations, the book is a pioneering and commendable work. It poses a challenge to the standard structural realists’ theory of the balance of power. It provides a completely renewed understanding of state behaviour in international politics. In addition, the historical case studies Schweller provides also strengthen his arguments in the book.

Moreover, it was an ecstatic read. It presented a very relevant and contemporary insight into the present day world order.

The target of the book, however, is the advanced readers in the field, and not general readers.

Finally, it is notable that the title of the book captures the whole theme of the work: domestic politics constraints (or advances) the response (or non-response) of states to external threats. When the states fail to recognise that threat, or does not act, or balance against the aggressor, such threats are regarded as ‘unanswered threats’- threats that are not being answered. Thus the title Unanswered Threats: Political Constraints on the Balance of Power.

*Review of Randall L. Schweller, 2006, Unanswered Threats: Political Constraints on the Balance of Power, Princeton University Press, United Kingdom, Pages: 182

Notes and References

[1] Schweller, Randall, Unanswered Threats: A Neoclassical Realist Theory of Underbalancing, International Security, Fall 2004, Vol., 29, No. 2, pp. 159-201, (posted online on March 29, 2006).

[2] In an interesting note, Schweller says, ‘states do not make policy; governments through their leaders do’ in Chapter 2, page 47. However, he is not clearly explaining what this statement means and the distinction he makes here. In fact, not many thinkers or writers are clear about it. Such a superficial statement endangers the legitimate existence of state. It raises the question of where is the state. Does state, as such, exist?

One important Marxist thinker who almost adequately responds to this dilemma is Ralph Miliband. Miliband, in his The State in Capitalist Society, says that state, as such, does not exist. But, we sense the existence of state through its institutions. What we know of the existence of state is through its institutions only. (Since the study of security and balance of power is centred on state, I just wanted to point the frequently missing point in most of our discussions about state and its various institutions. State, I personally think, exists as a concept as well as a reality.)

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Heigrujam Premkumar

I love to read. I love to write. On all things I am passionate about. Tweet me at @heigrujampk

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