Structure, its transformation and “life cycle” within the neorealist approach: An Overview

Kenneth N. Waltz’ book “The Theory of International Politics” still causes lively discussions in the scientific world due to its originality, certain consistency and logic. In fact, he brought realism out of the crisis. Waltz’s work fit well into the political situation, when, after a short détente, a new round of the Cold War began in Soviet-American relations.

K. Waltz believed that the system of international relations cannot be explained based only on the characteristics inherent in individual participants (actors) or a group of actors. Therefore, a significant step in the development of the theory of neorealism was the claim that the global level of the system of international relations, that is, the international structure itself, is of decisive importance in modern international relations.

Structure refers to the arrangement and distribution of power in the international system and consists of actors, which form the existing order. The structure of the international system plays an important role in determining the behavior of the actors, thus, that any change in the structure results in the shifting of the behavior of these actors. In fact, power-centeredness and power-seeking are the main characteristics of the actors in the anarchic system and structure. Power is nothing but “control over resources”. Increasing control of an actor over more resources will increase its “imposing” power and the ability to adjust the behavior of other actors in line with its own interests.

What transforms the structure is the change in the distribution of power, which is usually studied within the neorealist theories of International Relations. As the founder of neorealism, Waltz believes that an anarchic structure prevails in the international system and what determines the behavior of governments is imposed on them by the structure, and its main basis is ensuring survival and gaining, maintaining and increasing the power. The structure of the international system changes when the distribution of power among actors changes. The structure of the international system is defined by the three components: (a) the organizing principle, (b) determining the functions of the units/actors, and (c) the distribution of capabilities. Waltz formulated three main principles of the structure of international relations. According to the first principle, states in international relations are guided by the motive of survival: states can have many different goals; however, the basis for achieving them is survival. The second principle is to determine the actors in international relations, which for K. Waltz are only states. States are influenced and coerced by the system of international relations, but they have the right to decide how they will act in these conditions. Finally, the third principle is that states are not homogeneous, but have different capabilities, or potential. They are trying to increase it, which can (and does) lead to a change in the structure of international relations.

A structure goes through five stages of its “life cycle”:

The first stage, is the emergence or the beginning of the structure: at this stage, which usually occurs after the occurrence of fundamental changes and transformations in the system, considering that the roles or even the behaviors have not taken a model state and organizational status.
Actors have a wide freedom of action in the process of policy making and action, and each one, especially the big powers, have tried to stabilize their position in the system and want to change the structure to their advantage.

The second stage is growth and evolution of the structure. At this stage, the structure is formed but not stabilized. The freedom of action of the actors is more limited than the stage of the emergence of the structure, but it still does not limit the structural rules within system.

The third stage is maturity of the structure: at this stage, the structure has been established and the freedom of action of the actors is completely limited, and any decision that is against the structural rules will fail. In other words, in this situation, the structure of the system imposes its fundamental rules on the actors. .

Decline of the structure is the fourth stage of its “life cycle”. At this stage, the rules governing the structure become more flexible. The actors have more freedom of action compared to the previous stage, but the structure still imposes its own rules on the actors.

The final stage is the collapse of the structure: during this stage, the existing and governing rules of conduct are weakened and do not play a decisive role in the behavior of the actors, or new principles and rules are gradually formed. At this stage, the actors enjoy freedom of action and the important point is that this freedom of action is increasing. After this stage, actors face fundamental changes in the system.

In the stage of emergence and collapse, big and small actors misunderstand the process of changes and transformations and engage in chaotic behavior. Such behaviors can take place in a context where the actor seeks to increase power or control power sources, which is mainly done to change the structure.

Thus, structural realism can be considered a powerful tool in predicting the behavior of small states in the system. It is important to pay attention to these generally weak states when their position has certain implications for great powers or bigger states.


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