Realist and Liberal takes on Diplomacy and Honor

For the better part of the past half-century the two most prominent theoretical approaches to the study of international relations have been realism and liberalism.  Realism, viewing the state as a unitary and rational actor, argues that states pursue their own interests in an anarchic international environment.  The ability to accomplish their goals, however, is curbed by the fact that other states are similarly engaged in the pursuit of their own interests.  Ultimately realists view the potential struggles generated over conflicting interests to be determined by the distribution of power in the international system.  Generally speaking, "stronger" states will prevail while weaker states do not (Morgenthau 1948, Waltz 1979). 

Alternatively, liberal scholars tend to disagree with the realist assumptions that the state is a unitary and rational actor, instead proposing that we can improve our understanding of state behavior by examining the interests of domestic political actors, looking at the incentives and constraints established by the domestic political institutions within the state, focusing on legal and moral aspects of international behavior, etc.  Whereas realist arguments view the state as having one national interest, liberal views may interpret the so-called "national interest" as simply the reflection of the dominant political coalition in the state, or as the end result of values and norms associated with domestic political institutions and structures (Trubowitz 1998, Russett and Oneal 2001).

While the debate has cooled somewhat in recent years, Ferrell and Robinson (2009) have offered a rather unique take on the issue.

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The following video is concerned with the dynamics of international conflict.  So for those of you not interested in IR, well, you should probably watch it anyway.

Ferrell and Robinson (2009) juxtapose the realist and liberal views of international affairs in a micro-level experiment that appears to be staged in a crowded urban parking lot, which obviously represents the world stage.  The study substitutes hand-to-hand combat with blunt recreational sporting objects for actual military combat and technologically advanced weaponry employed by modern militaries and nation states.  Ferrell clearly (although I admit not entirely) embodies the liberal perspective–noting that that the "bat fight" in which these two people-states are involved in is to be viewed as a game of diplomacy and honor.  Also note that he states that the "bat fight" is "anyone's game," and that it is a "test of wills."  Obviously this is a reference to the necessity of political leaders in democratic states to maintain the popular support of their constituents in a time of crisis (please see Reiter and Stam 2002, as well as Fearon 1994 for more).  Additionally, Ferrell's remarks concerning "always looking for a sign of weakness" could be interpreted as efforts to determine if a leader enjoys robust public support, or if a leader may face domestic opposition from rival parties (Schultz 1998).  Further support for the influence of domestic politics can be found early on when Ferrell indicates that "nothing's going down," and that he wishes to get out of this "sleepy town."  To me, this indicates a sort of diversionary war argument.  Rather, the conflict was, to some extent, driven by a lagging domestic economy, or perhaps liberalization of the economy, which in turn led to the exodus of local industry and jobs, thus leaving the town in its current "sleepy" state.    

It should also be noted that by stating that this fight is "anyone's game" Ferrell also seems to be showing some support for power transition arguments. 

Furthermore, there is some strong symbolism to be found in the handshake between Ferrell and Robinson prior to the onset of the bat fight.  I believe this represents a willingness to abide by the international standards of conflict as outlined by various international agreements, such as the Geneva Convention.  His assertion that anyone could win also yields some credence to the arguments put forth in Keohane (1984) concerning the perpetuation of international institutions and regimes in the absence of US hegemony.  Despite the uncertainty over the distribution of power between the two people-states in this fight, they nevertheless shake hands and respect the established rules of bat fight. 

Somewhat more disturbing, however, is Ferrell's views on military conflict.  By stating that it is "generally good natured," and "you'll have a good time," Ferrell seems to be more the embodiment of late 19th century, early 20th century America than what we generally associate with contemporary times.  This idea that men need to test their virility through activities such as war and/or bear wrestling has been shared by many prominent individuals, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Stimson, and Zangief from the Street Fighter series.  This view that war "builds character" or that it is somehow healthy carries potentially dangerous implications for the willingness of leaders to engage other states militarily.  However, Ferrell seems to believe that such activity can be engaged in with a level of acceptable risk, as evinced by his claims that "only occasionally does it get out of hand."  While it is true that war is on the whole a relatively rare phenomenon, such views and behavior would undoubtedly have a dramatic effect on raising the probability of conflict.  As Ferrell's mindset regarding the potential benefits of military experience and limited conflict spreads, it is likely that we'll see an increase in the overall level of conflict.  And with an increased frequency in the rate of these limited skirmishes we are much more likely to find ourselves in a situation where things have gotten "out of hand." 

While I have mostly harped on the liberal aspects of Ferrell and Robinson (2009) it is true that some elements support realist view points.  Ferrell justifies this activity with the claim that "it's done around the world."  I believe this is simply based on the realist arguments concerning the common portrayal of international security issues as a prisoner's dilemma.  Ferrell is simply stating that everyone else is doing it and so should we.  Consequently it seems that Ferrell and Robinson find that although domestic institutions do have an influence, the views of leaders are still strongly influenced by realist arguments. 

I admit that I am far less familiar with Marxist interpretations of international relations, but I also think there is, perhaps unintentionally, some influence from this point of view that can be felt in Ferrell and Robinston's (2009) work.  For starters, Robinson emerges at the beginning of the video from a dumpster, and can subsequently be seen fighting with no shoes on his feet.  Contrast this with Ferrell's appearance–a shirt, tie, dress trousers, purple tinted sunglasses, and a hair cut that could put John Edwards' to shame.  Marxists would alternatively argue that this conflict was instead driven by the economic disparities between the global North and South.  And while Ferrell notes that, as previously mentioned, anyone could win, we might infer that this parity of power came at the expense of Robinson's ability to provide for his domestic populace.  The lack of shoes indicates that available funds have been shifted to the acquisition of military hardware (a bat) for the purposes of warring with Ferrell.  The Marxist view is not fully born out, however, since Robinson ultimately triumphs in this brutal game, but a game that was structured by the global economic elite.  We are left to assume that the game will be perpetuated in the future, as this situation did not result in the changing of the overall structures and institutions created by global capitalism.         

Few works have wound up so many stands of international relations into one place as have Ferrell and Robinson (2009).  Their work offers a profound contribution to our field, and builds upon such earlier works as Dusto McNeato (2008) found below.

McNeato (2008) clearly only explores realist interpretations of conflict, as is demonstrated at the 2:32 point, wherein the main character is about to "get an a** full of pipe wrench," demonstrating the realist emphasis on military power as prevailing in relations between pencil-drawn 1980s music stars.


About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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