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Structural Realism after the Cold War
Author(s): Kenneth N. Waltz
Source: International Security, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Summer, 2000), pp. 5-41
Published by: The MIT Press
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The Realist Paradigm and Degenerative versus Progressive Research Programs: An Appraisal of
Neotraditional Research on Waltz’s Balancing Proposition
Author(s): John A. Vasquez
Source: The American Political Science Review, Vol. 91, No. 4 (Dec., 1997), pp. 899-912
Published by: American Political Science Association
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American Political Science Review Vol. 91, No. 4 December 1997
The Realist Paradigm and Degenerative versus Progressive Research
Programs: An Appraisal of Neotraditional Research on Waltz’s
Balancing Proposition
JOHN A. VASQUEZ Vanderbilt University
Several analysts argue that, despite anomalies, the realist paradigm is dominant because it is more fertile
than its rivals. While the ability of the realist paradigm to reformulate its theories in light of criticism
accounts for its persistence, it is argued that the proliferation of emendations exposes a degenerating
tendency in the paradigm’s research program. This article applies Lakatos’s criterion that a series of related
theories must produce problemshifts that are progressive rather than degenerating to appraise the adequacy
of realist-based theories on the balancing of power advanced by neotraditionalists. This research program is
seen as degenerating because of (1) the protean character of its theoretical development, (2) an unwillingness
to specify what constitutes the true theory, which if falsified would lead to a rejection of the paradigm, (3)
a continual adoption of auxiliary propositions to explain away flaws, and (4) a dearth of strong research
findings.
W ithin international relations inquiry, the de-
bate over the adequacy of the realist paradigm
has been fairly extensive since the 1970s. In
Europe it is often referred to as the interparadigm
debate (see Banks 1985; Smith 1995, 18-21). In North
America, the focus has been more singularly on realist
approaches and their critics (see Vasquez 1983). To-
ward the end of the 1970s, it appeared that alternate
approaches, such as transnational relations and world
society perspectives, would supplant the realist para-
digm. This did not happen, partly because of the rise of
neorealism, especially as embodied in the work of
Waltz (1979). Now the debate over the adequacy of the
realist paradigm has emerged anew.
In this analysis, realism is defined as a set of theories
associated with a group of thinkers who emerged just
before World War II and who distinguished themselves
from idealists (i.e., Wilsonians) on the basis of their
belief in the centrality of power for shaping politics, the
prevalence of the practices of power politics, and the
danger of basing foreign policy on morality or reason
rather than interest and power. The realist paradigm
refers to the shared fundamental assumptions various
realist theorists make about the world. Derived primar-
ily from the exemplar of realist scholarship, Mor-
genthau’s ([1948] 1978) Politics among Nations, these
include: (1) Nation-states are the most important ac-
tors in international relations; (2) there is a sharp
distinction between domestic and international poli-
tics;

and (3) international relations is a struggle for
power and peace. Understanding how and why that
struggle occurs is the major purpose of the discipline
(see Vasquez 1983, 15-9, 26-30 for elaboration and
justification).
While much of the debate over realism has focused
on a comparison to neoliberalism (see Kegley 1995),1
John A. Vasquez is Professor of Political Science, Vanderbilt Uni-
versity, Nashville, TN 37235.
The author thanks Marie T. Henehan and the anonymous review-
ers for helpful comments and suggestions.
1 “Neoliberalism” is a label employed by a number of scholars (see
the debate has also raised new empirical (Rosecrance
and Stein 1993), conceptual (Lebow and Risse-Kappen
1995, Wendt 1992), and historical (Schroeder 1994a)
challenges to the paradigm as a whole. Some call for a
sharp break with the paradigm (e.g., Vasquez 1992),
while others see the need to reformulate on the basis of
known empirical regularities (Wayman and Diehl
1994). Many still see it as the major theoretical frame-
work within which the field must continue to work
(Hollis and Smith 1990, 66), and even critics like
Keohane ([1983] 1989) and Nye (1988) see the need to
synthesize their approaches (in this case neoliberalism)
with the realist paradigm.
If any progress is to be made, scholars must have a
set of criteria for appraising the empirical component
of theories and paradigms (see Vasquez 1992, 1995).
Appraising a paradigm, however, is difficult because
often its assumptions are not testable, since they typi-
cally do not explain anything in and of themselves (e.g.,
nation-states are the most important actors). Essen-
tially, a paradigm promises scholars that if they view
the world in a particular way, they will successfully
understand the subject they are studying. In Kuhn’s
([1962] 1970, 23-4) language, paradigms do not so
much provide answers as the promise of answers.
Ultimately, a paradigm must be appraised by its utility
and its ability to make good on its promise. Thus, a
paradigm can only be appraised indirectly by examin-
ing the ability of the theories it generates to satisfy
criteria of adequacy.
Within mainstream international relations, the work
of Lakatos (1970) has attracted the most consensus as
a source of such criteria among both quantitative and
Nye 1988, 1993, 36-40) to refer to a theoretical approach associated
with a cluster of three ideas: (1) Democracies do not fight one
another (an idea going back at least to Kant); (2) free trade and
growing wealth will create a harmony of interests that will reduce the
need for war (the position of the early free traders); and (3) reason
can be used to reduce global anarchy and produce more orderly
relations among states in part through the creation of global institu-
tions (ideas associated with Grotius and, later, Wilson). For a
complete review, see the authors in Kegley 1995; see also Doyle 1986.
899
The Realist Paradigm and Degenerative versus Progressive Research Programs December 1997
traditional scholars (see Keohane [1983] 1989). Al-
though the appraisal of theories and the paradigms
from which they are derived involves a number of
criteria (see Simowitz and Price 1990), including, in
particular, the criterion of empirical accuracy (the
ability to pass tests) and the principle of falsifiability,
the present analysis will apply only the main criterion
on which Lakatos laid great stress for the evaluation of
a series of theories: They must produce a progressive as
opposed to a degenerating research program. Laka-
tos’s criteria clearly stem from a more positivist per-
spective, but since realists and neorealists accept them,
they are perfectly applicable.2
One main difference between Lakatos and early
positivists is that Lakatos believes the rules of theory
appraisal are community norms and cannot be seen as
logically compelling, as Popper (1959) had hoped. The
case that any given research program is degenerating
(or progressive) cannot be logically proven. Such a
stance assumes a foundationalist philosophy of inquiry
that has been increasingly under attack in the last two
decades (see Hollis and Smith 1990). A more reason-
able stance is that exemplified by the trade-off between
type 1 and type 2 errors in deciding to accept or reject
the null hypothesis. Deciding whether a research pro-
gram is degenerating involves many individual deci-
sions about where scholars are willing to place their
research bets, as well as collective decisions as to which
research programs deserve continued funding, publica-
tion, and so forth. Some individuals will be willing to
take more risks than others. This analysis seeks to
present evidence that is relevant to the making of such
decisions.
The task of determining whether research programs
are progressive or degenerating is of especial impor-
tance because a number of analysts (e.g. Hollis and
Smith 1990, 66; Wayman and Diehl 1994, 263) argue
that, despite anomalies, the realist paradigm is domi-
nant because it is more enlightening and fertile than its
rivals. While the ability of the realist paradigm to
reformulate its theories in light of conceptual criticism
and unexpected events is taken by the above authors as
an indicator of its fertility and accounts for its persis-
tence, the proliferation of emendations may not be a
healthy sign. Indeed, it can be argued that persistent
emendation exposes the degenerating character of the
paradigm. This analysis will demonstrate that the “the-
oretical fertility” apparently exhibited by realism in the
last twenty years or so is actually an indicator of the
degenerating nature of its research program.
THE CRITERION
Imre Lakatos (1970) argued against Popper (1959) and
in favor of Kuhn ([1962] 1970) that no single theory can
ever be falsified because auxiliary propositions can be
added to account for discrepant evidence. The prob-
lem, then, is how to evaluate a series of theories that are
intellectually related.
2 Vasquez (1995) deals with antifoundationalist postpositivist criti-
cisms of such criteria. On the latter, see Lapid (1989).
900
A series of theories is exactly what is posing under
the general rubrics of realism and neorealism. All these
theories share certain fundamental assumptions about
how the world works.3 In Kuhn’s ([1962] 1970) lan-
guage, they constitute a family of theories because they
share a paradigm. A paradigm can be stipulatively
defined as “the fundamental assumptions scholars
make about the world they are studying” (Vasquez
1983, 5).4 Since a paradigm can easily generate a family
of theories, Popper’s (1959) falsification strategy was
seen by Lakatos (1970) as problematic, since one
theory can simply be replaced by another in incremen-
tal fashion without ever rejecting the shared fundamen-
tal assumptions. It was because of this problem that
Kuhn’s sociological explanation of theoretical change
within science was viewed as undermining the standard
view in philosophy of science, and it was against Kuhn
that Lakatos developed his criteria for appraising a
series of theories. To deal with the problem of apprais-
ing a series of theories that may share a common
paradigm or set of assumptions, Lakatos stipulated that
a research program coming out of this core must
develop in such a way that theoretical emendations are
progressive rather than degenerating.
The main problem with this criterion is that, unless it
is applied rigorously, with specific indicators as to what
constitutes “progressive” or “degenerating” research
programs, it will not provide a basis for settling the
debate on the adequacy of the realist paradigm. In an
early application of this criterion to structural realism,
Keohane ([1983] 1989, 43-4, 52, 55-6, 59), for exam-
ple, goes back and forth talking about not only the
fruitfulness of neorealism but also its incompleteness
and the general inability of any international relations
theory to satisfy Lakatos’s criteria (see also Nye 1988,
243).
Eventually, it would be highly desirable to construct
operational indicators of the progressive or degenerat-
ing nature of a paradigm’s research program. Since
these are not available, this analysis will explicitly
identify the characteristics that will be used to indicate
that a research program is degenerating. Lakatos
(1970, 116-7) sees a research program as degenerating
if its auxiliary propositions increasingly take on the
characteristic of ad hoc explanations that do not pro-
duce any novel (theoretical) facts, as well as new
empirical content. For Lakatos (p. 116), “no experi-
mental result can ever kill a theory: any theory can be
saved from counterinstances either by some auxiliary
hypothesis or by a suitable reinterpretation of its
terms.” Since Lakatos (p. 117) finds this to be the case,
he asks: Why not “impose certain standards on the
theoretical adjustments by which one is allowed to save
a theory?” Adjustments that are acceptable he labels
3 Theory is defined here as a set of interrelated propositions pur-
porting to explain behavior; see Vasquez 1992, 835-6. Given this
definition, which is noncontroversial, the realist paradigm can have
many different theories; see Vasquez 1983, 4-6.
4 Masterman (1970) has criticized Kuhn for using the concept of
paradigm ambiguously. This stipulative definition is meant to over-
come this objection, while still capturing the essence of what Kuhn
([1968] 1970, Postscript) was trying to do with the concept.
American Political Science Review Vol. 91, No. 4
progressive, and those that are not he labels degener-
ating.
The key for Lakatos is to evaluate not a single theory
but a series of theories linked together. Is each “theo-
ryshift” advancing knowledge, or is it simply a “linguis-
tic device” for saving a theoretical approach?5 A
theoryshift or problemshift is considered (1) theoreti-
cally progressive if it theoretically “predicts some
novel, hitherto unexpected fact” and (2) empirically
progressive if these new predictions are actually cor-
roborated, giving the new theory an excess empirical
content over its rival (Lakatos 1970, 118). In order to
be considered progressive, a problemshift must be
both theoretically and empirically progressive-any-
thing short of that is defined (by default) as degenerat-
ing (p. 118). A degenerating problemshift or research
program, then, is characterized by the use of semantic
devices that hide the actual content-decreasing nature
of the research program through reinterpretation (p.
119). In this way, the new theory or set of theories are
really ad hoc explanations intended to save the theory
(p. 117).
It should be clear from this inspection of Lakatos’s
criterion that progressive research programs are eval-
uated ultimately on the basis of a criterion of accuracy,
in that the new explanations must pass empirical
testing. If this is the case, then they must in principle be
falsifiable. The generation of new insights and the
ability to produce a number of research tests, conse-
quently, are not indicators of a progressive research
program, if these do not result in new empirical content
that has passed empirical tests.
How can one tell whether a series of theories that
come out of a research program is degenerating? First,
the movement from T to T’ may indicate a degenerat-
ing tendency if the revision of T involves primarily the
introduction of new concepts or some other reformu-
lation that attempts to explain away discrepant evi-
dence. Second, this will be seen as degenerating if this
reformulating never points to any novel unexpected
facts, by which Lakatos means that T’ should tell
scholars something about the world other than what
was uncovered by the discrepant evidence. Third, if T’
does not have any of its new propositions successfully
tested or lacks new propositions (other than those
offered to explain away discrepant evidence), then it
does not have excess empirical content over T, and this
can be an indicator of a degenerating tendency in the
research program. Fourth, if a research program goes
through a number of theoryshifts, all of which have one
or more of the above characteristics and the end result
of these theoryshifts is that collectively the family of
theories fields a set of contradictory hypotheses which
greatly increase the probability of at least one passing
an empirical test, then a research program can be
appraised as degenerating.
5 Lakatos (1970, 118 n3) notes that by “problemshift” he really
means “theoryshift” (i.e., a shift from one specific theory to another)
but does not use that word because it “sounds dreadful.” Actually, it
is much clearer. On the claim that the problemshifts which are
degenerating are really just linguistic devices to resolve anomalies in
a semantic manner, see Lakatos 1970, 117, 119.
This fourth indicator is crucial and deserves greater
explication. It implies that while some latitude may be
permitted for the development of ad hoc explanations,
the longer this goes on in the face of discrepant
evidence, the greater is the likelihood that scientists are
engaged in a research program that is constantly
repairing one flawed theory after another without any
incremental advancement in the empirical content of
these theories. What changes is not what is known
about the world, but semantic labels to describe dis-
crepant evidence that the original theory(ies) did not
anticipate.
How does one determine whether semantic changes
are of this sort or the product of a fruitful theoretical
development and new insights? An effect of repeated
semantic changes which are not progressive is that they
focus almost entirely on trying to deal with experimen-
tal outcomes or empirical patterns contrary to the
initial predictions of the theory. One consequence is
that collectively the paradigm begins to embody con-
tradictory propositions, such as (1) war is likely when
power is not balanced and one side is preponderant,
and (2) war is likely when power is relatively equal. The
development of two or more contradictory proposi-
tions increases the probability that at least one of them
will pass an empirical test. If a series of theories, all
derived from the same paradigm (and claiming a family
resemblance, such as by using the same name, e.g.,
Freudian, Marxist, or realist), predict several compet-
ing outcomes as providing support for the paradigm,
then this is an example of the fourth indicator. Carried
to an extreme, the paradigm could prevent any kind of
falsification, because collectively its propositions in
effect pose the bet: “Heads, I win; tails, you lose.” A
research program can be considered blatantly degen-
erative if one or more of the behaviors predicted is only
predicted -after the fact.
To be progressive, a theoryshift needs to do more
than just explain away the discrepant evidence. It
should show how the logic of the original or reformu-
lated theory can account for the discrepant evidence
and then delineate how this theoretic can give rise to
new propositions and predictions (or observations)
that the original theory did not anticipate. The gener-
ation of new predictions is necessary because one
cannot logically test a theory on the basis of the
discrepant evidence that led to the theoryshift in the
first place, since the outcome of the statistical test is
already known (and therefore cannot be objectively
predicted before the fact). The stipulation of new
hypotheses that pass empirical testing on some basis
other than the discrepant evidence is the minimal
logical condition for being progressive. Just how fruit-
ful or progressive a theoryshift is, beyond the minimal
condition, depends very much on how insightful and/or
unexpected the novel facts embodied in the auxiliary
hypotheses are deemed to be by scholars within the
field. Do they tell scholars things they did not (theo-
retically) know before?
It should be clear that the criteria of adequacy
involve the application of disciplinary norms as to what
constitutes progress. The four indicators outlined
901
The Realist Paradigm and Degenerative versus Progressive Research Programs December 1997
above provide reasonable and fairly explicit ways to
interpret the evidence. Applying them to a body of
research should permit a basis for determining whether
a research program appears to be on the whole degen-
erative or progressive.
It will be argued that what some see as theoretical
enrichment of the realist paradigm is actually a prolif-
eration of emendations that prevent it from being
falsified. It will be shown that the realist paradigm has
exhibited (1) a protean character in its theoretical
development, which plays into (2) an unwillingness to
specify what form(s) of the theory constitutes the true
theory, which if falsified would lead to a rejection of the
paradigm, as well as (3) a continual and persistent
adoption of auxiliary propositions to explain away
empirical and theoretical flaws that greatly exceed the
ability of researchers to test the propositions and (4) a
general dearth of strong empirical findings. Each of
these four characteristics can be seen as “the facts” that
need to be established or denied to make a decision
about whether a given research program is degenerat-
ing.
THE RESEARCH PROGRAM TO BE
ANALYZED
Any paradigm worth its salt will have more than one
ongoing research program, so in assessing research
programs it is important to select those that focus on a
core area of the paradigm and not on areas that are
more peripheral or can be easily accommodated by a
competing paradigm. It also is important that the
research program be fairly well developed both in
terms of the number of scholars and the amount of
time spent on the program.
If one uses Kuhn’s ([1962] 1970) analysis to under-
stand the post-World War II development of the field
of international relations, there is a general consensus
that the realist paradigm has dominated international
relations inquiry within the English-speaking world and
that Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations can be seen
as the exemplar of this paradigm (see Vasquez 1983 for
a test of this claim; see also Banks 1985; Smith 1995;
Olson and Groom 1991; and George 1994). Neoreal-
ism can be seen as a further articulation of the realist
paradigm along at least two lines. The first, by Waltz
(1979), brought the insights of structuralism to bear on
realism and for this reason is often referred to as
structural realism. For Waltz (1979), structure (specif-
ically the anarchic nature of the international system) is
presented as the single most important factor affecting
all other behavior. The second by Gilpin (1981),
brought to bear some of the insights of political
economy with emphasis on the effect of the rise and
decline of hegemons on historical change. Both of
these efforts have developed research programs. Gen-
erally, it is fair to say that Waltz has had more influence
on security studies, whereas Gilpin has been primarily
influential on questions of international political econ-
omy. Since the main concern here is with security,
peace, and war, this appraisal will concentrate on the
work of scholars who have been influenced by Waltz.
902
A complete case against the realist paradigm needs
to look at other aspects of neorealism and to examine
classical realism as well. Elsewhere, the quantitative
work guided by classical realism has been evaluated
(Vasquez 1983). Gilpin’s work on war is best treated in
conjunction with the power transition thesis of Organ-
ski and Kugler (1980), with which it shares a number of
similarities (for an initial appraisal see Vasquez 1993,
chapter 3; 1996). So, part of the reason for focusing on
Waltz and the research agenda sparked by his analysis
is that only so much work can be reviewed in depth in
a single article.6 The more compelling reason is that
Waltz’s analysis has in fact had a great impact on
empirical research. His influence on those who study
security questions within international relations in what
may be called a neotraditional (i.e., nonquantitative)
manner is without equal.
Waltz (1979) centers on two empirical questions: (1)
explaining what he considers a fundamental law of
international politics, the balancing of power, and (2)
delineating the differing effects of bipolarity and mul-
tipolarity on system stability. While the latter has
recently given rise to some vehement debates about the
future of the post-Cold War era (see Mearsheimer
1990, Van Evera 1990/91; see also Kegley and Ray-
mond 1994), it has not yet generated a sustained
research program. In contrast, the first area has. The
focus of this appraisal will be .not so much on Waltz
himself as on the neotraditional research program that
has taken his proposition on balancing and investigated
it empirically. This work is fairly extensive and appears
to many to be both cumulative and fruitful. Specifically,
the analysis will review the work of Walt (1987) and
Schweller (1994) on balancing and bandwagoning, the
work of Christensen and Snyder (1990) on “buck-
passing” and “chain-ganging,” and historical case stud-
ies that have uncovered discrepant evidence to see how
these works have been treated in the field by propo-
nents of the realist paradigm.
In addition, unlike the work on polarity, that on
balancing focuses on a core area for both classical
realism and neorealism. It is clearly a central proposi-
tion within the paradigm (see Vasquez 1983, 183-94),
and concerns with it can be traced back to David Hume
and from him to the Ancients in the West, India, and
China. Given the prominence of the balance-of-power
concept, a research program devoted to investigating
Waltz’s analysis of the balancing of power, which has
attracted widespread attention and is generally well
treated in the current literature, cannot fail to pass an
examination of whether it is degenerating or progres-
sive without reflecting on the paradigm as a whole-
either positively or negatively.
Before beginning this appraisal it is important to
keep in mind that the criterion on research programs
being progressive is only one of several that can be
applied to a paradigm. A full appraisal would involve
the application of other criteria, such as accuracy, to all
6 For reason of space I also do not examine formal models of the
balance of power, such as those of Wagner (1986) or Niou, Orde-
shook, and Rose (1989).
American Political Science Review Vol. 91, No. 4
areas of the paradigm. Clearly, such an effort is beyond
the scope of this analysis. This article provides only one
appraisal, albeit a very important one, of a number that
need to be conducted. As other appraisals are com-
pleted, more evidence will be acquired to make an
overall assessment.
Likewise, because only the research program on
balancing is examined, it can be argued that logically
only conclusions about balancing (and not the other
aspects of the realist paradigm) can be made. This is a
legitimate position to take in that it would be illogical
(as well as unfair) to generalize conclusions about one
research program to others of the paradigm. Those
obviously need to be evaluated separately and ap-
praised on their own merit. They may pass or fail an
appraisal based on the criterion of progressivity or on
other criteria, such as empirical accuracy or falsifiabil-
ity. Nevertheless, while this is true, it is just as illogical
to assume in the absence of such appraisals that all is
well with the other research programs.7
In fact, the conclusions of this study are not incon-
sistent with other recent work which finds fundamental
deficiencies in the realist paradigm on other grounds,
using different methods and addressing different ques-
tions-for example, that by Rosecrance and Stein
(1993), who look at the role of domestic politics (cf.
Snyder and Jervis 1993); Lebow and Risse-Kappen
(1995), who examine realist and nonrealist explana-
tions of the end of the Cold War; and George (1994),
who examines the closed nature of realist thinking and
its negative effects on the field.
Logically, while this analysis can only draw conclu-
sions about the degeneracy (or progressiveness) of the
research program on balancing, the implication of
failing or passing this appraisal for the paradigm as a
whole is not an irrelevant issue. If Waltz’s neorealism is
seen as reflecting well on the theoretical robustness
and fertility of the realist paradigm (Hollis and Smith
1990, 66), then the failure of a research program meant
to test his theory must have some negative effect on the
paradigm. The question is how negative. The conclud-
ing section will return to this issue, since such matters
are more fruitfully discussed in light of specific evi-
dence rather than in the abstract.
THE BALANCING OF POWER:
THE GREAT NEW LAW THAT TURNED
OUT NOT TO BE SO
One of Waltz’s (1979) main purposes was to explain
what in his view is a fundamental law of international
politics: the balancing of power. Waltz (pp. 5, 6, 9)
defines theory as statements that explain laws (i.e.,
regularities of behavior). For Waltz (p. 117), “whenev-
er agents and agencies are coupled by force and
competition rather than authority and law,” they ex-
hibit “certain repeated and enduring patterns.” These
he says have been identified by the tradition of Real-
politik. Of these the most central pattern is balance of
7 I am currently engaged in a project to appraise various aspects of
the realist paradigm on a variety of criteria; see Vasquez n.d.
power, of which he says: “If there is any distinctively
political theory of international politics, balance-of-
power theory is it” (p. 117). He maintains that a
self-help system “stimulates states to behave in ways
that tend toward the creation of balances of power”
(p. 118) and that “these balances tend to form
whether some or all states consciously aim to estab-
lish [them]” (p. 119). This law or regularity is what
the first six of the nine chapters in Theory of Inter-
national Politics are trying to explain (see, in partic-
ular, Waltz 1979, 116-28).
The main problem, of course, is that many scholars,
including many realists, such as Morgenthau ([1948]
1978, chapter 14), do not see balancing as the given law
Waltz takes it to be. In many ways, raising it to the
status of a law dismisses all the extensive criticism that
has been made of the concept (Claude 1962; Haas
1953; Morgenthau [1948] 1978, chapter 14) (see Waltz
1979, 50-9, 117, for a review). Likewise, it also side-
steps a great deal of the theoretical and empirical work
suggesting that the balance of power, specifically, is not
associated with the preservation of peace (Organski
1958; Singer, Bremer, and Stuckey 1972; see also the
more recent Bueno de Mesquita 1981; the earlier work
is discussed in Waltz 1979, 14-5, 119).
Waltz (1979) avoided contradicting this research by
arguing, like Gulick (1955), that a balance of power
does not always preserve the peace because it often
requires wars to be fought to maintain the balance.
What Waltz does here is separate two possible func-
tions of the balance of power-protection of the state
in terms of its survival versus the avoidance of war or
maintenance of the peace. Waltz does not see the latter
as a legitimate prediction of balance-of-power theory.
All he requires is that states attempt to balance, not
that balancing prevents war.
From the perspective of Kuhn ([1962] 1970, 24,
33-4) one can see Waltz (1979) as articulating a part of
the dominant realist paradigm. Waltz is elaborating
one of the problems (puzzles as Kuhn [1962] 1970,
36-7, would call them) that Morgenthau left unre-
solved in Politics among Nations; namely, how and why
the balance of power can be expected to work and how
major a role this concept should play within the
paradigm. Waltz’s (1979) book can be seen as a
theoryshift that places the balance of power in much
more positive light than does Morgenthau (cf. 1978,
chapter 14). This theoryshift tries to resolve the ques-
tion of whether the balance is associated with peace by
saying that it is not. Waltz, unlike Morgenthau, sees the
balance as automatic; it is not the product of a partic-
ular leadership’s diplomacy but of system structure.
The focus on system structure and the identification of
“anarchy” are two of the original contributions of
Waltz (1979). These can be seen as the introduction of
new concepts that bring novel facts into the paradigm.
Such a shift appears progressive, but whether it proves
to be so turns on whether the predictions made by the
explanation can pass empirical testing.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the
proposition on balancing is the focus of much of the
research of younger political scientists influenced by
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The Realist Paradigm and Degenerative versus Progressive Research Programs December 1997
Waltz. Walt, Schweller, Christensen and Snyder, and
the historian Schroeder all cite Waltz and consciously
address his theoretical proposition on balancing. They
also cite and build upon the work of one another; that
is, those who discuss bandwagoning cite Walt (e.g.,
Levy and Barrett 1991, Schweller 1994; those who talk
about buckpassing cite Christensen and Snyder, 1990).
More fundamentally, they generally are interested
(with the exception of Schroeder, who is a critic) in
working within the realist paradigm and/or defending
it. They differ in terms of how they defend realism.
Because they all share certain concepts, are concerned
with balancing, and share a view of the world and the
general purpose of trying to work within and defend
the paradigm, they all can be seen as working on the
same general research program. Thus, what they have
found and how they have tried to account for their
findings provide a good case for appraising the extent
to which this particular research program is progressive
or degenerating.
Balancing versus Bandwagoning
A passing comment Waltz (1979, 126) makes about his
theory is that in anarchic systems (unlike domestic
systems), balancing not bandwagoning (a term for
which he thanks Stephen Van Evera) is the typical
behavior.8 This is one of the few unambiguous empir-
ical predictions in his theory; Waltz (p. 121) states:
“Balance-of-power politics prevail wherever two, and
only two, requirements are met: that the order be
anarchic and that it be populated by units wishing to
survive.”
The first major test is conducted by Walt (1987), who
looks primarily at the Middle East from 1955 to 1979.
He maintains that “balancing is more common than
bandwagoning” (Walt 1987, 33). Consistent with
Waltz, he argues that, in general, states should not be
expected to bandwagon except under certain identifi-
able conditions (p. 28). Contrary to Waltz, however, he
finds that they do not balance power! Instead, he shows
that they balance against threat (chapter 5), while
recognizing that for many realists, states should bal-
ance against power (pp. 18-9, 22-3).9 He then extends
his analysis to East-West relations and shows that if
states were really concerned with power, then they
would not have allied so extensively with the United
States, which had a very overwhelming coalition
against the USSR and its allies. Such a coalition was a
result not of the power of the USSR but of its
perceived threat (pp. 273-81).
8 For Waltz (1979, 126), bandwagoning is allying with the strongest
power, that is, the one capable of establishing hegemony. He
maintains that such an alignment will be dangerous to the survival of
states. Walt (1987, 17, 21-2) defines the term similarly but introduces
the notion of threat: “Balancing is defined as allying with others
against the prevailing threat; bandwagoning refers to alignment with
the source of danger” (italics in original).
9 Walt (1987, 172) concludes: “The main point should be obvious:
balance of threat theory is superior to balance of power theory.
Examining the impact of several related but distinct sources of threat
can provide a more persuasive account of alliance formation than can
focusing solely on the distribution of aggregate capabilities.”
904
Here is a clear falsification of Waltz (in the naive
falsification sense of Popper 1959; see Lakatos 1970,
116), but how does Walt deal with this counterevidence
or counterinstance, as Lakatos would term it? He takes
a very incrementalist position. He explicitly maintains
that balance of threat “should be viewed as a refine-
ment of traditional balance of power theory” (Walt
1987, 263). Yet, in what way is this a “refinement” and
not an unexpected anomalous finding, given Waltz’s
prediction? For Morgenthau and Waltz, the greatest
source of threat to a state comes from the possible
power advantages another state may have over it. In a
world that is assumed to be a struggle for power and a
self-help system, a state capable of making a threat
must be guarded against because no one can be assured
when it may actualize that potential. Hence, states
must balance against power regardless of immediate
threat. If, however, power and threat are independent,
as they are perceived to be by the states in Walt’s
sample, then something may be awry in the realist
world. The only thing that reduces the anomalous
nature of the finding is that it has not been shown to
hold for the central system of major states, that is,
modern Europe. If it could be demonstrated that the
European states balanced threat and not power, then
that would be a serious if not devastating blow for
neorealism and the paradigm.10
As it stands, despite the rhetorical veneer, Walt’s
findings are consistent with the thrust of other empir-
ical research: The balance of power does not seem to
work or produce the patterns that many theorists have
expected it to produce. For Walt, it turns out that states
balance but not for reasons of power, a rather curious
finding for Waltz, but one entirely predictable given the
results of previous research that found the balance of
power was not significantly related to war and peace
(Bueno de Mesquita 1981; see also Vasquez 1983,
183-94).
The degenerating tendency of the research program
in this area can be seen in how Walt conceptualizes his
findings and in how the field “refines” them further.
“Balance of threat” is a felicitous phrase. The very
phraseology makes states’ behavior appear much more
consistent with the larger paradigm than it actually is.
It rhetorically captures all the connotations and emo-
tive force of balance of power while changing it only
incrementally. It appears as a refinement-insightful
and supportive of the paradigm. In doing so, it strips
away the anomalous nature and devastating potential
of the findings for Waltz’s explanation.
This problemshift, however, exhibits all four of the
characteristics outlined earlier as indicative of degen-
erative tendencies within a research program. First, the
new concept, “balance of threat,” is introduced to
explain why states do not balance in the way Waltz
theorizes. The balance of threat concept does not
appear in Waltz (1979) or in the literature before Walt
introduced it in conjunction with his findings. Second,
the concept does not point to any novel facts other than
10 Schroeder (1994a and b) provides this devastating evidence on
Europe (see also Schweller 1994, 89-92).
American Political Science Review Vol. 91, No. 4
the discrepant evidence. Third, therefore this new
variant of realism does not have any excess empirical
content compared to the original theory, except that it
now takes the discrepant evidence and says it supports
a new variant of realism.
These three degenerating characteristics open up the
possibility that, when both the original balance of
power proposition and the new balance of threat
proposition (T and T’, respectively) are taken as two
versions of realism, either behavior can be seen as
evidence supporting realist theory (in some form) and
hence the realist paradigm or approach in general.
Waltz (1979, 121) allows a clear test, because bandwag-
oning is taken to be the opposite of balancing. Now,
Walt splits the concept of balancing into two compo-
nents, either one of which will support the realist
paradigm (because the second is but “a refinement” of
balance-of-power theory). From outside the realist
paradigm, this appears as a move to dismiss discrepant
evidence and explain it away by an ad hoc theoryshift.
Such a move is also a degenerating shift on the basis of
the fourth indicator, because it reduces the probability
that the corpus of realist propositions can be falsified.
Before Walt wrote, the set of empirical behavior in
which states could engage that would be seen as
evidence falsifying Waltz’s balancing proposition was
much broader than it was after Walt wrote.
The danger posed by such theoryshifts can be seen
by conducting a mental experiment. Would the follow-
ing theoretical emendation be regarded as a progres-
sive shift? Let us suppose that the concept of bandwag-
oning now becomes the focus of empirical research in
its own right. Waltz (1979, 126) firmly states: “Balanc-
ing not bandwagoning is the behavior induced by the
system.” (Walt 1987, 32, agrees.) If someone finds
bandwagoning to be more frequent, should such a
finding be seen as an anomaly for Waltz’s T, Walt’s T’,
and the realist paradigm, or simply as the foundation to
erect yet another version of realism (T”)? If the latter
were to occur, it would demonstrate yet further degen-
eration of the paradigm’s research program and an
unwillingness of these researchers to see anything as
anomalous for the paradigm as a whole.
By raising the salience of the bandwagoning concept
and giving an explanation of it, Walt leaves the door
open to the possibility that situations similar to the
experiment may occur within the research program.
Through this door walks Schweller (1994), who argues
in contradiction to Walt that bandwagoning is more
common than balancing. From this he weaves “an
alternative theory of alliances” that he labels “balance
of interests,” another felicitous phrase, made even
more picturesque by his habit of referring to states as
jackals, wolves, lambs, and lions. Schweller (1994, 86)
argues that his theory is even more realist than Waltz’s,
because he bases his analysis on the assumption of the
classical realists-states strive for greater power and
expansion-and not on security, as Waltz (1979, 126)
assumes. Waltz is misled, according to Schweller (1994,
85- 8), because of his status-quo bias. If he were to look
at things from the perspective of a revisionist state, he
would see why they bandwagon: to gain rewards (and
presumably power).
Schweller (1994, 89-92), in a cursory review of
European history, questions the extent to which states
have balanced and argues instead that they mostly
bandwagon. To establish this claim, he redefines band-
wagoning more broadly than Walt; it is no longer the
opposite of balancing (i.e., siding with the actor who
poses the greatest threat or has the most power) but
simply any attempt to side with the stronger, especially
for opportunistic gain. Because the stronger state often
does not pose a direct threat to every weak state, this
kind of behavior is much more common and distinct
from what Walt meant.
Two things about Schweller (1994) are important for
the appraisal of this research program. First, despite
the vehemence of his attack on the balancing proposi-
tion, this is nowhere seen as a deficiency of the realist
paradigm; rather, it is Waltz’s distortion of classical
realism (however, see Morgenthau [1948] 1978, 194).
The latter is technically true, in that Waltz raises the
idea of balancing to the status of a law, but one would
think that the absence of balancing in world politics,
especially in European history, would have some neg-
ative effect on the realist view of the world. Certainly,
Schweller’s “finding” that bandwagoning is more prev-
alent than balancing is something classical realists, such
as Morgenthau ([1948] 1978), Dehio (1961), or Kiss-
inger (1994, 20-1, 67-8, 166-7) would find very dis-
turbing. They would not expect this to be the typical
behavior of states, and if it did occur, they would see it
as a failure to follow a rational foreign policy and/or to
pursue a prudent realist course (see Morgenthau
[1948] 1978, 7-8).
Second, and more important, Schweller’s theoryshift
(T”) has made bandwagoning a “confirming” piece of
evidence for the realist paradigm. So, if he turns out to
be correct, his theory, which he says is even more
realist than Waltz’s, will be confirmed. If he is incor-
rect, then Waltz’s version of realism will be confirmed.
Under what circumstances will the realist paradigm be
considered as having failed to pass an empirical test?
The field is now in a position (in this research program)
where any one of the following can be taken as
evidence supporting the realist paradigm: balancing of
power, balancing of threat, and bandwagoning. At the
same time, the paradigm as a whole has failed to
specify what evidence will be accepted as falsifying
it-a clear violation of Popper’s (1959) principle of
falsifiability. Findings revealing the absence of balanc-
ing of power and the presence of balancing of threat or
bandwagoning are taken by these researchers as sup-
porting the realist paradigm; instead, from the perspec-
tive of those outside the paradigm, these outcomes
should be taken as anomalies. All their new concepts
do is try to hide the anomaly through semantic labeling
(see Lakatos 1970, 117, 119). Each emendation tries to
salvage something but does so by moving farther and
farther away from the original concept. Thus, Waltz
moves from the idea of a balance of power to simply
balancing power, even if it does not prevent war. Walt
finds that states do not balance power but oppose
905
The Realist Paradigm and Degenerative versus Progressive Research Programs December 1997
threats to themselves. Schweller argues that states do
not balance against the stronger but more frequently
bandwagon with it to take advantage of opportunities
to gain rewards.
Walt and Schweller recognize discrepant evidence
and explain it away by using a balance phraseology that
hides the fact the observed behavior is fundamentally
different from that expected by the original theory. The
field hardly needs realism to tell it that states will
oppose threats to themselves (if they can) or that
revisionist states will seize opportunities to gain re-
wards (especially if the risks are low). In addition, these
new concepts do not point to any novel theoretical
facts; they are not used to describe or predict any
pattern or behavior other than the discrepant patterns
that undercut the original theory.
Ultimately, under the fourth indicator, such theory-
shifts are also degenerating because they increase the
probability that the realist paradigm will pass some
test, since three kinds of behavior now can be seen as
confirmatory. While any one version of realism (bal-
ance of power, balancing power, balance of threats,
balance of interests) may be falsified, the paradigm
itself will live on and, indeed, be seen as theoretically
robust. In fact, the protean character of realism pre-
vents the paradigm from being falsified because as
soon as one theoretical variant is discarded, another
variant pops up to replace it as the “true realism” or
the “new realism.”
The point is not that Walt or others are engaged in
“bad” scholarship or have made mistakes; indeed, just
the opposite is the case: They are practicing the
discipline the way the dominant paradigm leads them
to practice it. They are theoretically articulating the
paradigm in a normal science fashion, solving puzzles,
engaging the historical record, and coming up with new
insights-all derived from neorealism’s exemplar and
the paradigm from which it is derived. In doing so,
however, these individual decisions reflect a collective
degeneration.
Even as it is, other research on bandwagoning (nar-
rowly defined) has opened up further anomalies for the
realist paradigm by suggesting that a main reason for
bandwagoning (and indeed for making alliances in
general) may not be the structure of the international
system but domestic political considerations. Larson
(1991, 86-7) argues antithetically to realism that states
in a similar position in the international system and
with similar relative capabilities behave differently with
regard to bandwagoning; therefore, there must be
some intervening variable to explain the difference. On
the basis of a comparison of cases, she argues that
some elites bandwagon to preserve their domestic rule
(see also Strauss 1991, 245, who sees domestic consid-
erations and cultural conceptions of world politics as
critical intervening variables). Similarly, Levy and Bar-
nett (1991, 1992) present evidence on Egypt and Third
World states showing that internal needs and domestic
political concerns are often more important in alliance
making than are external threats. This research sug-
gests that realist assumptions-the primacy of the
906
international struggle for power and the unitary ration-
al nature of the state will lead elites to formulate
foreign policy strictly in accord with the national inter-
est defined in terms of power are flawed. Theories need
to take greater cognizance of the role domestic con-
cerns play in shaping foreign policy objectives. To the
extent bandwagoning is a “novel” fact (even if not a
predominant pattern), it points us away from the
dominant paradigm, not back to its classical formula-
tion.
Buck-passing and Chain-ganging
The bandwagoning research program is not the only
way in which the protean character of realism has been
revealed. Another and perhaps even more powerful
example is the way in which Christensen and Snyder
(1990) have dealt with the failure of states to balance.
They begin by criticizing Waltz for being too parsimo-
nious and making indeterminate predictions about
balancing under multipolarity. They then seek to cor-
rect this defect within realism, by specifying that states
will engage in chain-ganging or buck-passing depend-
ing on the perceived balance between offense and
defense. Chain-ganging occurs when states, especially
strong states, commit “themselves unconditionally to
reckless allies whose survival is seen to be indispens-
able to the maintenance of the balance”; buck-passing
is a failure to balance and reliance on “third parties to
bear the costs of stopping a rising hegemon” (Chris-
tensen and Snyder 1990, 138). The alliance pattern that
led to World War I is given as an example of chain-
ganging, and Europe in the 1930s is given as an
example of buck-passing. The propositions are applied
only to multipolarity; in bipolarity, balancing is seen as
unproblematic.
This article is another example of how the realist
paradigm (since Waltz) has been articulated in a
normal science fashion. The authors find a gap in
Waltz’s explanation and try to correct it by bringing in
a variable from Jervis (1978; see also Van Evera 1984).
This gives the impression of cumulation and progress
through further specification, especially since they have
come up with a fancy title for labeling what Waltz
identified as possible sources of instability in multipo-
larity.
A closer inspection reveals the degenerating charac-
ter of their emendation. The argument that states will
either engage in buck-passing or chain-ganging under
multipolarity is an admission that in important in-
stances, such as the 1930s, states fail to balance the way
Waltz (1979) says they must because of the system’s
structure. Recall Waltz’s (1979, 121) clear prediction
that “balance-of-power politics will prevail wherever
two, and only two, requirements are met: anarchy and
units wishing to survive.” Surely, these requirements
were met in the period before World War II, and
therefore failure to balance should be taken as falsify-
ing evidence.
Christensen and Snyder (1990) seem to want to
explain away the 1930s, in which they argue there was
a great deal of buck-passing. Waltz (1979, 164-5, 167),
American Political Science Review Vol. 91, No. 4
however, never says that states will not conform over-
all) to the law of balancing in multipolarity, only that
there are more “difficulties” in doing so. If Christensen
and Snyder see the 1930s as a failure to balance
properly, then this is an anomaly that needs to be
explained away. The buck-passing/chain-ganging con-
cept does that in a rhetorical flourish that grabs
attention and seems persuasive. Yet, it “rescues” the
theory not simply from indeterminate predictions, as
Christensen and Snyder (1990, 146) put it, but explains
away a critical case that the theory should have pre-
dicted.
This seems to be especially important because, con-
trary to what Waltz and Christensen and Snyder pos-
tulate, balancing through alliances should be more
feasible under multipolarity than bipolarity, because
under the latter there simply are not any other major
states with whom to align. Thus, Waltz (1979, 168) says
that under bipolarity internal balancing is more pre-
dominant and precise than external balancing. If under
bipolarity there is, according to Waltz, a tendency to
balance (internally, i.e., through military buildups),
and under multipolarity there is, according to Chris-
tensen and Snyder, a tendency to pass the buck or
chain-gang, then when exactly do we get the kind of
alliance balancing that we attribute to the traditional
balance of power Waltz has decreed as a law? Chris-
tensen and Snyder’s analysis appears as a “protean-
shift” in realism that permits the paradigm to be
confirmed if states balance (internally or externally),
chain-gang, or buck-pass (as well as bandwagon, see
Schweller 1994). This is degenerative under the fourth
indicator because the probability of falsification de-
creases to a very low level. It seems to increase greatly
the probability that empirical tests will be passed by
some form of realism.11
Imprecise measurement leaving open the possibility
for ad hoc interpretation is also a problem with iden-
tifying buck-passing and chain-ganging. Were Britain,
France, and the USSR passing the buck in the late
1930s, or were they just slow to balance? Or were
Britain and France pursuing an entirely different strat-
egy, appeasement, because of the lessons they derived
from World War I? If the latter, which seems more
plausible, then buck-passing is not involved at all, and
the factor explaining alliance behavior is not multipo-
larity but an entirely different variable (see Rosecrance
and Steiner 1993). What is even more troubling is that
while Christensen and Snyder (1990) see pre-1939 as
buck-passing and pre-1914 as chain-ganging, it seems
that Britain was much more hesitant to enter the war in
1914 than in 1939, contrary to what one would expect
given the logic of Christensen and Snyder’s historical
11 Of course, one may argue that Christensen and Snyder’s (1994)
proposition on offense-defense is falsifiable in principle, and that is
true, but this points out another problem with their analysis; namely,
Levy (1984) is unable to distinguish in specific historical periods
whether offense or defense has the advantage (see Christensen and
Snyder 1990, 139, 6 and 7). They, in turn, rely on the perception of
offense and defense, but such a “belief’ variable takes us away from
realism and toward a more psychological-cognitive paradigm.
analysis.12 After Hitler took Prague in March 1939,
domestic public and elite opinion moved toward a
commitment to war (Rosecrance and Steiner 1993,
140), but in 1914 that commitment never came before
the outbreak of hostilities (see Levy 1990/91). The
cabinet was split, and only the violation of Belgium
tipped the balance. Thus, the introduction of the new
refinement is far from a clear or unproblematic solu-
tion to the anomaly on its own terms.
The refinements of Waltz produced by the literature
on bandwagoning and buck-passing are degenerating
because they hide, rather than deal directly with, the
seriousness of the anomalies they are trying to handle.
A theory whose main purpose is to explain balancing
cannot stand if balancing is not the law it says it is. Such
an anomaly also reflects negatively on the paradigm as
a whole. Even though Morgenthau ([1948] 1978, chap-
ter 14) did not think the balance of power was very
workable, power variables are part of the central core
of his work, and he does say that the balance of power
is “a natural and inevitable outgrowth of the struggle of
power” and “a protective device of an alliance of
nations, anxious for their independence, against an-
other nation’s designs for world domination” (Mor-
genthau [1948] 1978, 194, and see 173, 195-6). Waltz’s
(1979) theory, which has been characterized as a
systematization of classical realism (Keohane 1986, 15)
and widely seen as such, cannot fail on one of its few
concrete predictions without reflecting badly (in some
sense) on the larger paradigm in which it is embedded.
Historical Case Studies
Unlike the explicitly sympathetic work cited above,
several historical case studies that focus on the balanc-
ing hypothesis give rise to more severe criticism of
realist theory. Rosecrance and Stein (1993, 7) see the
balancing proposition as the key prediction of struc-
tural realism. In a series of case studies, they challenge
the idea that balancing power actually occurs or ex-
plains very much of the grand strategy of the twentieth-
century major states they examine; to explain grand
strategy for them requires examining domestic politics
(Rosecrance and Stein 1993, 10, 17-21). In contradic-
tion to structural realism, they find that balance-of-
power concerns do not take “precedence over domestic
factors or restraints” (Rosecrance and Stein 1993, 17).
Britain in 1938, the United States in 1940, and even the
Soviet Union facing Reagan in 1985 fail to meet
powerful external challenges, in part because of do-
mestic political factors (Rosecrance and Stein 1993, 18,
and see the related case studies in chapters 5-7). States
sometimes under- or overbalance. As Rosecrance
(1995, 145) maintains, states rarely get it right-they
either commit too much or too little, or they become so
concerned with the periphery that they overlook what
is happening to the core (see Kupchan 1994, Thomp-
son and Zuk 1986). And, of course, they do this
12 Christensen and Snyder (1990, 156) recognize British buck-passing
in 1914, but they say Britain was an outlier and “did not entirely pass
the buck.”
907
The Realist Paradigm and Degenerative versus Progressive Research Programs Liecemoer if’ /
because they are not the unitary rational actors the
realist paradigm thinks they are. Contrary to Waltz,
and even Morgenthau, states engage in much more
variegated behavior than the realist paradigm suggests.
This last point is demonstrated even more forcibly by
the historian Paul Schroeder (1994a and b). He shows
that the basic generalizations of Waltz-that anarchy
leads states to balancing and to act on the basis of their
power position-are not principles that tell the “real
story” of what happened from 1648 to 1945. He
demonstrates that states do not balance in a law-like
manner but deal with threat in a variety of ways; among
others, they hide, they join the stronger side, they try to
“transcend” the problem, or they balance. In a brief but
systematic review of the major conflicts in the modern
period, he shows that in the Napoleonic wars, Crimean
War, World War I, and World War II there was no real
balancing of an alleged hegemonic threat-so much for
the claim that this kind of balancing is a fundamental
law of international politics. When states do resist, as
they did with Napoleon, it is because they have been
attacked and have no choice: “They resisted because
France kept on attacking them” (Schroeder 1994a, 135;
see also Schweller 1994, 92). A similar point also could
be made about French, British, Soviet, and American
resistance to Hitler and Japan.
Basically, Schroeder shows that the historical record
in Europe does not conform to neorealists’ theoretical
expectations about balancing power. Their main gen-
eralizations are simply wrong. For instance, Schroeder
does not see balancing against Napoleon, the prime
instance in European history in which it should have
occurred (see also Rosecrance and Lo 1996). Many
states left the First Coalition against revolutionary
France after 1793, when they should not have, given
France’s new power potential. Periodically, states
bandwagoned with France, especially after victories, as
in late 1799, when the Second Coalition collapsed.
According to Schroeder (1994a, 120-1), hiding or
bandwagoning, not balancing, was the main response
to the Napoleonic hegemonic threat, the exact opposite
of the assertions not only by Waltz but also by such
long-time classical realists as Dehio (1961). For World
War I, Schroeder (1994a, 122-3) argues that the bal-
ancing versus bidding for hegemony conceptualization
simply does not make much sense of what each side
was doing in trying to deal with security problems. With
World War II, Schroeder (1994a, 123-4) sees a failure
of Britain and France to balance and sees many states
trying to hide or bandwagon.13
For Schroeder (1994a, 115, 116), neorealist theory is
a misleading guide to inquiry:
The more one examines Waltz’s historical generalizations
about the conduct of international politics throughout
history with the aid of the historian’s knowledge of the
actual course of history, the more doubtful-in fact,
strange-these generalizations become…. I cannot con-
struct a history of the European states system from 1648 to
1945 based on the generalization that most unit actors
13 Numerous other deviant cases are listed in Schroeder (1994a,
118-22, 126-9, 133-47).
908
within that system responded to crucial threats to their
security and independence by resorting to self-help, as
defined above. In the majority of instances this just did not
happen.
All this suggests that the balancing of power was
never the law Waltz thought it was. In effect, he offered
an explanation of a behavioral regularity that never
existed, except within the logic of the theory. As
Schroeder (1994b, 147) concludes:
[My point has been] to show how a normal, standard
understanding of neo-realist theory, applied precisely to
the historical era where it should fit best, gets the motives,
the process, the patterns, and the broad outcomes of
international history wrong … it prescribes and predicts a
determinate order for history without having adequately
checked this against the historical evidence.
SHIRKING THE EVIDENCE AND PROVING
THE POINT
How have scholars sympathetic to realism responded
to Schroeder? They have sought to deny everything
and done so precisely in the degenerating manner that
Lakatos (1970, 116-9) predicted. The reaction by
Elman and Elman (1995) to Schroeder in the corre-
spondence section of International Security illustrates
best the extent to which the last ten years of realist
research have cumulated in degenerating problem-
shifts. Elman and Elman (1995) make three points
against Schroeder (1994a). First, although his evidence
may challenge Waltz’s particular theory, it still leaves
the larger neorealist approach unscathed. Second,
Waltz recognizes balancing failures so that not every
instance of these necessarily disconfirms his theory.
Third, even if Schroeder’s evidence on balancing poses
a problem for Waltz, “only better theories can displace
theories…. Thus, Waltz’s theory should not be dis-
carded until something better comes along to replace
it” (Elman and Elman 1995, 192).
The first point somewhat misses the mark, since so
much of neorealism is associated with Waltz. There
remains mostly Gilpin (1981) and Krasner (1978). It is
primarily Gilpin whom Elman and Elman have in mind
when they argue that Schroeder’s “omission of entire
neo-realist literatures” leads him to fail to understand
that “balancing is not the only strategy which is logi-
cally compatible with neo-realist assumptions of anar-
chy and self-help” (Elman and Elman 1995, 185, 186;
see also Schweller 1992, 267, whom they cite).14 They
argue that for Gilpin (1981) and power transition
theory “balancing is not considered a prevalent strat-
egy, nor are balances predicted to occur repeatedly”
(Elman and Elman 1995, 186). The problem with using
Gilpin and the more quantitatively oriented power
transition thesis of Organski and Kugler (1980) is that
the two main pillars of neorealism predict contradic-
14 By saying that Schroeder leaves much of the neorealist approach
unscathed, Elman and Elman (1995) seem to fall into the trap of
assuming that Gilpin (1981) is empirically accurate unless proven
otherwise. In fact, as related to security questions, Gilpin (1981) has
not been extensively tested, and existing tests are not very encour-
aging (see Spiezio 1990, as well as Boswell and Sweat (1991) and the
discussion in Vasquez 1993, 93-8).
American Political Science Review Vol. 91, No. 4
tory things. Thus, between Waltz and Gilpin, threat can
be handled by either balancing or not balancing. It
certainly is not a very strong defense of neorealism to
say that opposite behaviors are both logically compat-
ible with the assumptions of anarchy.
The Elmans are technically correct that evidence
against balancing does not speak against all the larger
realist paradigm in that neorealism also embodies
Gilpin. But it is this very correctness that proves the
larger point being made here and illustrates what so
worried Lakatos about degenerating research pro-
grams. At the beginning of this article, four indicators
of a degenerating research program were presented.
Elman and Elman (1995) serves as evidence that all
these are very much in play within the field. On the
basis of their defense of neorealism and the review of
the literature above, it will be shown that the protean
nature of realism, promulgated by the proliferation of
auxiliary hypotheses to explain away discrepant evi-
dence, has produced an unwillingness to specify what
evidence would in principle lead to a rejection of the
paradigm. The result has been a continual theoretical
articulation but in the context of a persistent dearth of
strong empirical findings.
Using Gilpin and power transition in the manner of
the Elmans is degenerating because permitting the
paradigm to be supported by instances of either “bal-
ancing” or “not balancing” reduces greatly the proba-
bility of finding any discrepant evidence. As if this were
not enough to cover all sides of the bet, Elman and
Elman (1995, 187-8) maintain that, within the neore-
alist assumption of self-help, threat can be handled by
bandwagoning, expansion, preventive war, balancing,
hiding, and even what Schroeder has labeled “tran-
scending.”’15 In other words, there is always some
behavior (in dealing with threat) that will prove realism
correct, even though most versions will be shown to be
incorrect, and even though neorealists “often consider
balancing to be the most successful strategy for most
states most of the time” (Elman and Elman 1995, 187).
But if this caveat is the case, then why do states not
regularly engage in this behavior? Elman and Elman
rightly capture the theoretical robustness of the realist
paradigm-showing that Waltz, Gilpin, and others are
part of the paradigm-but they fail to realize the
damning protean portrayal they give of its research
program and how this very theoretical development
makes it difficult for the paradigm to satisfy the crite-
rion of falsifiability.
Instead, they conclude about Schroeder’s (1994a)
historical evidence that “no evidence could be more
compatible with a neo-realist reading of international
relations” (Elman and Elman 1995, 184). They con-
clude this because each of these strategies (bandwag-
oning, etc.) does not challenge the realist conception of
a rational actor behaving in a situation of competition
and opportunity. For them, so long as states choose
strategies that are “consistent with their position in the
15 Transcending is seen by Schroeder (1994a) as particularly discrep-
ant for realism, but Elman and Elman (1995, 188) view it as part of
the realist approach.
global power structure and pursue policies that are
likely to provide them with greater benefits than costs”
(Elman and Elman 1995, 184), then this is seen as
evidence supporting the broad realist approach. Only
Wendt’s (1992) claim that states could be “other-
regarding” as opposed to “self-regarding” is seen as
discrepant evidence (see also Elman 1996, Appendix,
Diagram 1). Basically, these are “sucker bets” of the “I
win, you lose” variety. Let it be noted that these are not
bets that Elman and Elman are proposing; they are
merely reporting what, in effect, the entire realist
research program has been doing-from Walt, to
Christensen and Snyder, to Schweller, and so forth.
Collectively, the realist mainstream has set up a situa-
tion that provides a very narrow empirical base on
which to falsify the paradigm.
What kinds of political actors would, for example,
consciously pursue policies that are “likely to provide”
them with greater costs than benefits? To see only
“other-regarding” behavior as falsifying leaves a rather
vast and variegated stream of behaviors as supportive
of the paradigm. Schroeder (1995, 194) has a legitimate
complaint when he says, in reply: “The Elman argu-
ment .., appropriates every possible tenable position
in IR theory and history for the neo-realist camp.” He
concludes: “Their whole case that history fits the
neo-realist paradigm falls to the ground because they
fail to see that it is their neo-realist assumptions, as
they understand and use them, which simply put all
state action in the state system into a neo-realist mold
and neo-realist boxes, by definition” (Schroeder 1995,
194, emphasis in the original).
Instead of defending the paradigm, Elman and El-
man (1995) expose the degenerating nature of its
research program and the field’s collective shirking of
the evidence through proteanshifts. Many neotradi-
tionalists, such as Mearsheimer (1990), have eschewed
quantitative evidence challenging the adequacy of the
realist paradigm; if realists will now refuse to accept
historical evidence as well, then what kind of evidence
will they accept as falsifying their theories? Only
“other-regarding” behavior? That simply will not do.
The cause of this problem is the lack of rigor in the
field in appraising theories. The nature of the problem
can be seen in Elman and Elman’s (1995) second point
against Schroeder. Drawing upon Christensen and
Snyder (1990), they note that balancing under multi-
polarity, for Waltz, is more difficult than balancing
under bipolarity: “Thus Schroeder’s finding that states
failed to balance prior to World War I (pp. 122-3) and
World War II (pp. 123-4) does not disconfirm Waltz’s
argument…. In short, a failure to balance is not a
failure of balance of power theory if systemic condi-
tions are likely to generate this sort of outcome in the
first place” (Elman and Elman 1995, 190-1). This sets
up a situation in which any failure to balance under
multipolarity can be taken as confirmatory evidence
because, according to Elman and Elman (1995, 90),
“Waltz’s theory also predicts balancing failures” (em-
phasis in the original). This again poses an “I win, you
lose” bet. If the periods before World War I and World
War II are not legitimate tests of Waltz’s prediction of
909
The Realist Paradigm and Degenerative versus Progressive Research Programs December 1997
balancing, then what would be? The implication is that
balancing more easily occurs under bipolarity, but here
external balancing is structurally impossible by defini-
tion. If this is the case, how is balancing a “law,” or the
main outcome of anarchy? This is especially problem-
atic because there is a tendency in Waltz to see only the
post-1945 period as a true bipolarity (see Nye 1988,
244), which means the rest of history is multipolar and
subject to balancing failures.
In the end, Elman and Elman (1995, 192) concede
that Waltz does believe that, “on aggregate,” states
should balance, so “Schroeder’s evidence that states
rarely balance does indeed pose a problem for Waltz’s
theory.” They conclude, however, by citing Lakatos-
only better theories can displace theories-and there-
fore Waltz’s theory should not be discarded until
something better comes along. They then outline a
general strategy for improving the theory, namely,
adding variables, identifying the domain to which it is
applicable, and broadening definitions (especially of
threat). All these, however, are precisely the tactics
that have produced the degenerating situation the field
now faces. Thus, they say, by broadening the definition
of threat to include internal threats from domestic
rivals, decision makers could still be seen as balancing,
and bandwagoning “would not necessarily disconfirm
the prediction that balancing is more common” (Elman
and Elman 1995, 192). This would take the discrepant
evidence of Levy and Barnett (1991, 1992) and of
Larson (1991) and make it confirmatory. This is pre-
cisely the kind of strategy that Lakatos (1970, 117-9)
decried.
What is also evident from this appraisal of the realist
paradigm is that Lakatos’s (1970, 119) comment that
“there is no falsification before the emergence of a
better theory” can play an important role in muting the
implications of a degenerating research program, espe-
cially when alternative paradigms or competing mid-
range theories are ignored, as has been the case in
international relations. There have been too many
empirical failures and anomalies, and theoretical
emendations have taken on an entirely too ad hoc
nonfalsifying character for adherents to say that the
paradigm cannot be displaced until there is a clearly
better theory available. Such a position makes collec-
tive inertia work to the advantage of the dominant
paradigm and makes the field less rather than more
rigorous.
If one wants to take the very cautious position that
Schroeder’s historical evidence affects only Waltz, one
should not then be incautious and assume that other
research programs within the realist paradigm are
doing fine. A more consistent position would be to hold
this conclusion in abeyance until all aspects of the
paradigm are appraised. The lesson from Schroeder’s
(1994a and b) discrepant evidence should not be that
his “article leaves the general neo-realist paradigm
unscathed” (Elman and Elman 1995, 192), but that a
major proposition of the paradigm has failed to pass an
important historical test.
910
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
It seems that the internal logic of the Lakatos rules
requires that a warning flag on the degenerating direc-
tion of the research program on balancing be raised.
Theorists should be aware of the pitfalls of setting up
realist variants that produce a “heads, I win; tails, you
lose” situation, which makes realism nonfalsifiable. In
addition, greater efforts need to be made in specifying
testable differences between realist and nonrealist ex-
planations before the evidence is assessed, so as to limit
the use of ex post facto argumentation that tries to
explain away discrepant evidence.
If one accepts the general thrust of the analysis that
the neotraditional research program on balancing has
been degenerating, then the question that needs to be
discussed further is the implications of this for the
wider paradigm. Two obvious conclusions are possible.
A narrow and more conservative conclusion would try
to preserve as much of the dominant paradigm as
possible in face of discrepant evidence. A broader and
more radical conclusion would take failure in this one
research program as consistent with the assessments of
other studies and thus as an indicator of a deeper,
broader problem. It is not really necessary that one
conclusion rather than the other be taken by the entire
field, since what is at stake here are the research bets
individuals are willing to take with their own time and
effort. In this light, it is only necessary to outline the
implications of the two different conclusions.
The narrow conclusion is that Waltz’s attempt to
explain what he regards as the major behavioral regu-
larity of international politics was premature because
states simply do not engage in balancing with the kind
of regularity that he assumes. It is the failure of
neotraditional researchers and historians to establish
clearly the empirical accuracy of Waltz’s balancing
proposition that so hurts his theory. If the logical
connection between anarchy (as a systemic structure)
and balancing is what Waltz claims it to be, and states
do not engage in balancing, then this empirical anom-
aly must indicate some theoretical deficiency.
The neotraditional approach to date has muted the
implications of the evidence by bringing to bear new
concepts. The argument presented here is that such
changes are primarily semantic and more clearly con-
form to what Lakatos calls degenerating theoryshifts
than to progressive theoryshifts. If this is accepted,
then at minimum one would draw the narrow conser-
vative conclusion that the discrepant evidence (until
further research demonstrates otherwise) is showing
that states do not balance in the way Waltz assumes
they do. Realists then can concentrate on other re-
search programs within the paradigm without being
susceptible (at least on the basis of this analysis) to the
charge of engaging in a degenerating research pro-
gram. Those who continue to mine realist inquiry,
however, should pay more attention to the problem of
degeneration in making theoretical reformulations of
realism. Specifically, scholars making theoryshifts in
realism should take care to ensure that these are not
just proteanshifts.
American Political Science Review Vol. 91, No. 4
The implication of the broader and more radical
conclusion is to ask why a concept so long associated
with realism should do so poorly and so misguide so
many theorists. Could not its failure to pass neotradi-
tional and historical “testing” (or investigation) be an
indicator of the distorted view of world politics that the
paradigm imposes on scholars? Such questions are
reasonable to ask, especially in light of appraisals that
have found other aspects of realism wanting (see
Lebow and Risse-Kappen 1995, Rosecrance and Stein
1993, Vasquez 1983), but they are not the same as
logically compelling conclusions that can be derived
from the analysis herein. It has been shown only that
one major research program, which has commanded a
great deal of interest, seems to be exhibiting a degen-
erating tendency.
Such a demonstration is important in its own right,
particularly if analysts are unaware of the collective
effect of their individual decisions. In addition, it shows
that what admirers of the realist paradigm have often
taken as theoretical fertility and a continuing ability to
provide new insights is not that at all, but a degener-
ating process of reformulating itself in light of discrep-
ant evidence.
Regardless of whether a narrow or broad conclusion
is accepted, this analysis has shown that the field needs
much more rigor in the interparadigm debate. Only by
being more rigorous both in testing the dominant
paradigm and in building a new one that can explain
the growing body of counterevidence as well as pro-
duce new nonobvious findings of its own will progress
be made.
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Issue Table of Contents
International Security, Vol. 25, No. 1, Summer, 2000
Front Matter [pp.1 – 2]
Editors’ Note [pp.3 – 4]
Contemporary Conflict in Theory and Practice
Structural Realism after the Cold War [pp.5 – 41]
The Banality of “Ethnic War” [pp.42 – 70]
Grasping the Technological Peace: The Offense-Defense Balance and International Security [pp.71 – 104]
Norms and Security: The Case of International Assassination [pp.105 – 133]
Understanding Decisionmaking, U.S. Foreign Policy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis: A Review Essay [pp.134 – 164]
Correspondence
Brother Can You Spare a Paradigm? (Or Was Anybody Ever a Realist?) [pp.165 – 193]
Back Matter
The Realist Paradigm and Degenerative Versus Progressive Res.pdf
Article Contents
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Issue Table of Contents
American Political Science Review, Vol. 91, No. 4, Dec., 1997
Volume Information [pp.1021-1028]
Front Matter [pp.i-vii]
Editor’s Notes [pp.viii-x]
The Gains Debate: Framing State Choice [pp.789-805]
Hegel and the Ontological Critique of Liberalism [pp.807-817]
Schumpeter, the New Deal, and Democracy [pp.819-832]
The Boundaries of Public Reason [pp.833-844]
A Not-so-distant Mirror: the 17th Amendment and Congressional Change [pp.845-853]
The “Veepstakes”: Strategic Choice in Presidential Running Mate Selection [pp.855-864]
Distance versus Direction: The Illusory Defeat of the Proximity Theory of Electoral Choice [pp.865-883]
Culture and the Environment in the Pacific Northwest [pp.885-897]
The Realist Paradigm and Degenerative versus Progressive Research Programs: An Appraisal of Neotraditional Research on Waltz’s Balancing Proposition [pp.899-912]
Evaluating Theories [pp.913-917]
Progressive Research on Degenerate Alliances [pp.919-922]
Lakatos and Neorealism: A Reply to Vasquez [pp.923-926]
New Realist Research on Alliances: Refining, Not Refuting, Waltz’s Balancing Proposition [pp.927-930]
The Progressive Power of Realism [pp.931-935]
Book Reviews
Political Theory
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American Politics
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Comparative Politics
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International Relations
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Back Matter [pp.1015-1020]
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