No Church in the Wild
Da Vinci once said “Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.” Waltz did the opposite of his peers: he looked at the world as it was and worked back to the reasons. The field of International Relations was never the same thereafter. What Newton was to physics, Waltz was to political theory.
Kenneth Waltz’s unflinching honesty about the true nature of nations and wars is embodied in his statement: “Each state pursues its own interests, however defined, in ways it judges best. Force is a means of achieving the external ends of states because there exists no consistent, reliable process of reconciling the conflicts of interest that inevitably arise among similar units in a condition of anarchy.”
Interestingly, Newton’s great contribution to science was not empiricism but generalizability – i.e. by simplifying observed phenomena via the universal language of mathematics. In fact, Aristotle’s worldview correlates more with the subjective realities of existence at the Earth’s surface, which explains why it persisted for as long as it did. (If you don’t believe me, go drop a bowling ball and a soccer ball off the Leaning Tower of Pisa and observe which hits the ground first.)
Accordingly, it is better to think of war not as a type of phenomenon per se but as one particular manifestation of one particular way two or more populations of humans can interact. To think of war in this fashion, the correct fashion, I would argue, and that fashion most likely to prevent war from happening in the first place, requires dismissing all other definitions of war specified to time or place as mired in conceptual failure.
If we really want to look at human international relations as realists, we must look at humans as what we really are – organisms – and model our own behavior the same way we model the behavior of populations of other organisms:
Populations can interact in a variety of ways – five to be precise (or three if you deny the existence of indifference). One way populations can interact is by competition, in which case both populations lose. Within this framework, we can see war as an example of one way that populations compete directly, and since competition means both parties lose, both parties necessarily lose in war. (Whether this type of interaction is what we actually mean by “war” is debatable.)
Another type of interaction between populations, consumer-resource interactions, involves one party gaining and the other losing. A good historical example of consumer-resource interactions vis–à–vis international relations is colonialism, where populations of colonizers gained from appropriating the resources of native populations, who lost. We consider colonialism to be closely related to war, even though it is a manifestation of something different entirely, because both colonialism and war involve violence organized by states.
It is also possible to have mutualism between populations, which is when both populations gain from interacting. This is often what happens in the case of free trade agreements, even if one side uses its position of power to gain relatively more than the other. This is how, for example, economic or public health gains are mediated by international institutions such as the WTO, WHO, UN, and World Bank: the bulk of gains goes to developed nations such as the United States, and the developing world gets very little.
The last two types of interactions are arguably less common, do not significantly differ from the types of population interactions already discussed, and are not particularly necessary for my argument, so I will just mention them briefly. They are amensalism, when one population is harmed while the other is unaffected, and commensalism, when one population gains while another is unaffected.
Because populations of humans are just like populations of other organisms, the kind of empiricism BlaiseP attributes to Waltz – i.e. looking at the present reality of human international relations as reality writ large and not just one specific reality – suffers from both sample size problems and category errors. Waltz’s theories are specified for an era of state-state violence where the states are relatively equally matched and populations are relatively discrete (the Twentieth Century), hence competition between populations and its ensuing destruction is often the result.
This world of state-state violence is increasingly not the world we live in. The Internet, telecommunications, economies of scale, international institutions, grassroots religious movements, and widespread global trade have created a different dynamic, where populations are no longer confined to nation states but fluid – non-corporeal even – and increasingly locked into mutualistic relationships that depend on continued cooperation – and their own continued judicious maintenance – to pay off.
Accordingly, it seems the best way forward for international relations, and the best choice among all the different ways populations can interact, is the continued establishment of such mutualistic relationships. At the scale of the nation state: how do we deal with North Korea? Engage them in trade. How do we deal with Iran? Engage them in trade. How do we deal with the Taliban? Engage them in trade. In this way, seen as just another specific example of a kind of biological interaction between populations, international relations can be analyzed using the kinds of generalized frameworks developed through scientific observation.