Guest blogger: Structural feminist critique of the realist perspective on international politics and war

May 2012, guest article written by Ciwan Maksut Can
- Master of International Studies, PRIO/University of Stellenbosch

Human nature, Structure, and War in Realism

Through his influential book `Politics Among Nations´ Hans Morgenthau wrote down his central thoughts about politics and the core principles of what he termed as `Political Realism´ (Morgenthau, 1948, 1973). What Morgenthau did was to paint a picture of international politics that would present its rational essence, and, as realists argue, abstract it from everything that impair its rationality (Waltz, 1990). According to Morgenthau the locus of the key causes of international politics is found in the nature of human behaviour (Waltz, 1979:16), and that in order to understand politics we have to understand the objective laws that have their roots in human nature (Morgenthau, 1948, 1973:4).

The condition of order, which men created by trading their natural liberty for security by the sovereign state (the social contract), could not be realized in the international realm, and therefore there still exists anarchy in the international system, and it is in this anarchical inter-state system Morgenthau’s political realism unfolds itself (Jackson and Sorensen, 2007).

Moral principles in international relations should not consider anything else than the national interest, and should not be blended by domestic moral principles  (the dual moral standard), even if this means to violate human rights. In an anarchical system power becomes important for Morgenthau because there is a competition for scarce resources and there is no one to serve as arbiter between the competitors. This competition, according to Morgenthau, is the key cause of conflict in the inter-state system (Waltz, 1979). Conflicts and wars occur simply because men want things (and there is scarce resources), but also because of animus dominandi; the lust of power in man´s nature to dominate others (Morgenthau, 1948, 1973)(Mearsheimer, 2007). Power becomes (1) an instrument for winning the competition for scarce resources, and (2) power becomes an end in itself. Since every state acts to maximize power, like men in the `state of nature´, there will always be conflicts and wars in the inter-state system.

According to Kenneth Waltz, human nature has little or nothing to do with why states want power, and that analyzing the cause of war from the `structural level´ is ontologically superior (Pashakhaniou, 2009) than Morgenthau´s inductive approach (Waltz, 1990). To define what a structure is Waltz urges us first to ignore how states relate to each other, and rather focus on how they stand in relation to another and how they are arranged or positioned, because this will tell much more about their behaviour than `the human nature´ does (Waltz, 1979:80). Structure is defined by three principles; (1) the ordering principle, (2) the functioning of the units (states), and (3) the distribution of capabilities (Waltz, 1979:87).

The ordering principle of the system is in Waltz´s perspective anarchic (1979, 1990, 1993, 2000). Anarchy leads all the units (states) in the system to rely on their own power for survival. Self-help and survival becomes a priority for all states, which means that all states function the same way in an anarchical environment (Waltz, 1979:160). With other words, it is the structure, or architecture of the international political system (anarchy) that forces states to pursue power, and not animus dominandi (Mearsheimer, 2007). The only factor that differs states from each other is in Waltz principle the  `distribution of capabilities´ across units in the structure, in which capability is defined in terms of; size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence (Waltz, 1993) (Dunn and Schmidt, 2001). Level of capability in a given state determines it’s positioning within the structure, and by comparing different units´ capabilities we can estimate the relative power of states (Waltz, 1979: 98-99). Subsequently, when we find the superpowers in the structure we can also define the structure; when there are three or more superpowers the structure is multipolar, if there are two superpowers the structure is bipolar, and if there are only one superpower the structure is unipolar.  This makes great powers the main actors in world politics (Mearsheimer, 2007), and the reason for this is that they are marked off from the other powers by the combined capabilities they command (Waltz, 1990:31).

The security of the state can only be realized through self-help behaviour which becomes the necessarily principle of action in Waltz theory (Dunne and Schmidt, 2001). This approach to security leads all states to pursue a zero-sum strategy in their relation to other states; therefore, one states gain is someone else´s loss. Like Thucydides said for 2500 years ago; that the rise of Athens meant the loss of Spartan power, and that this was the key cause of the Peloponnesian war[1], Waltz today argues for that great wars is caused by the rise and fall of great powers. The only thing that can prevent the security dilemma to unfold into a war is the principle of `balance of power´.

If any state becomes so powerful that it poses a threat to other states´ security they will join alliance in order to balance the power of the powerful state (Waltz, 1979:168). Successful balancing is dependent of successful gain of capabilities, but even if the balance of power is achieved there is always a possibility of war (Jackson and Sorensen, 2007). Kenneth Waltz refers to the Cold War as “ the longest peace yet known”, and that this peace rested on  “two pillars; bipolarity and nuclear weapons” (Waltz, 1993:44).


1.1. Human nature, Structure and War in Feminism

An important component of both Morgenthau´s and Kenneth Waltz´s theory is their intellectual lineage to early realist thinkers such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Feminist analysis of this pedigree has shown us that the feminine always has been a symbolic threat to the militarized conceptualization of Leviathan from early human history to the political-thinkers of the twentieth century; Aeschylus´s Furies and Machiavelli´s Fortuna are some of the examples (Blanchard, 2003). As a historical matter, early state formation marked the effective centralization of political authority and accumulation processes, the institutionalization of gender and class exploitation, and ideological legitimization of these transformations (Youngs, 2004:81) by the Sumerian male Priests (Ocalan, 2009).

Not only national politics, but also the theory and practice of international war and peace has been gendered throughout modern history, and the gendered elements at all levels of world politics are crucial causal and constitutive factors in causing war (Sjoberg, 2012). Recently feminists have also argued that the structure of the international system is gender-hierarchical and not anarchical as Waltz argues. With this they have taken a first step to create a theoretical groundwork for a `structural level´ or `third-image´ approach in feminism which differs from the `second-image´ approach; sees gender inequalities within a state as a predictor of that particular states level of aggressiveness in international relations, and from the `first-image´ approach; which argues that gender subordination is a constant part of human nature and therefore a constant part of international interaction (Blanchard, 2003:1296) (Tickner, 1992:58) (Sjoberg, 2012)

Feminist  `structural level´ theory characterizes the gender hierarchy in the structure as a socio-political ordering principle rather than something rooted in human nature, and by borrowing from feminist sociologists, who has provided analytical tools for understanding the impact of gender hierarchy and its structural feature in organizations, feminists have made an attempt try to make the gendered structure of the international system more `visible´. Acker (1990) says that a gendered structure means that” advantage and disadvantage, exploitation and control, action and emotion, meaning and identity, are patterned through and in terms of a distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine”, Acker further argues that “gender occurs in at least five interacting processes, first is the construction of divisions along lines of gender – division of labour, of allowed behaviours, of locations in physical space, and of power, second; is the construction of symbols and images that explain, express, reinforce, or sometimes oppose those divisions, third: interactions between women and men, women and women, men and men, including all those patterns that enact dominance and submission, fourth; these processes help to produce gendered components of individual identity, finally; gender is implicated in the fundamental, ongoing processes of creating and conceptualizing social structures…a constitutive element in organizational logic (Acker, 1990: 146-47) (Sjoberg, 2012:12) . What is common between Acker (1990) and Waltz (1979) is that they both see structure as a factor that impacts both the function/behaviour of the units and the distribution of capabilities.

For Waltz a factor should influence the behaviour of all states and not some of them to be considered as a structural feature (Waltz, 1990). One factor that clearly influences all the states in the system is their common construction of identities, and nationalism’s. (Steans, 2006: 39), but it is important to note that not all nationalism’s are the same (Sjoberg, 2012: 25), some are aggressive and projected, others are stoic and reversed, while others can be though and tender. However, feminists have shown us that the construction of all national identities is highly gendered. Gender has been essential to defining state identity in Turkey, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Bengal, Indonesia, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Lebanon, and many other countries, and Laura Sjoberg argues that the “ mechanism through which gender hierarchy can be seen to influence national identity and state function in the structure is through the link between any given state´s national identity and the `hegemonic masculinity´, or particular ideal-typical gender that is on top of the gender hierarchy” (2012:20). Hooper (1998) further has shown us how important role differences between hegemonic masculinities and subordinated masculinities play in the positioning of states in the international structure (pp.33-34), and consequently the impact a gender-hierarchical structure has on the functioning of units which are positioned as super – or subordinated to each other (Hooper, 2000: 70). Some are earlier colonizers, some earlier colonized and still struggling with the problems caused by colonialism, some are protectors, some aggressors, some are victims of this aggression, others are peacekeepers, and provide humanitarian aid and assistance while other states does not serve functions like this. The gendered hierarchy, in this perspective, “defines the function of the units in the structure by diving labour, constraining allowed behaviour, producing gendered components of unit identity, positioning units as dominant and subordinate, and influences or dictates the ongoing processes of organizational function” (Sjoberg, 2012:13-14).

According to (Allen, 2000) there are three sorts of power which are highly gendered in international relations; Power-over (the power to dominate over others), power-to (the ability to act contrary do dominant forces despite their preponderance or power-over), and power-with (the ability of weaker actors to act together for counter-hegemonic purposes (Sjoberg, 2012). In Waltz theory about international politics states are primarily concerned with `power-over´ in their relations with other states (Waltz, 1979:168). Policies concerning empathy, positive-sum collaboration, care, or empowerment are non-existent in states´ toolboxes (Sylvester, 1994) in Waltz theory (1979, 1990) because “the gendered system selects power-over rather than power-to or power-with as a political process among units”, and “ feminist work suggest that the source of the dominance of these approaches is in gendered competition as a political process, possibly inspired by structural gender hierarchy in the international system” (Sjoberg, 2012:26). Therefore, we can assume that conflicts do not occur simply because of the competition for survival caused by the anarchy, but because of competition between gendered actors in a gendered system that are out to dominate (power-over) rather than to survive (Sjoberg, 2012:28).

The relative symbolic equality between states, and their `actual´ capabilities prescribed by those masculinities (Banerjee, 2005), can be seen as a predictor of war(s). The occurrence of war(s) is illustrated by Heeg Maruska (2010) on her analysis on how the American hegemonic masculinity after the 9/11 attacks took on hypermasculine characteristics obsessed with order, power, and control as a result of America feeling `threatened´, `undermined´ or `vulnerable´ and that this was the key cause for the massive investment in the military-complex and the intervention in `Saddam Hussein´s Iraq (the counterposed masculinity and one of the `Axis of Evil´) (Heeg Maruska, 2010). Another clash between hegemonic masculinities is closer studied by Banerjee (2005) who looks at the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir as a `clash between masculinities´ where both sees their own constructed ideal-typical masculinity as superior, and where the Indian Hindu ideal-type and Pakistani Muslim ideal-type of hegemonic masculinity are locked in a `cage´ where they are struggling without compromise or any attempt to accept subordination (give up the fight for Kashmir, the feminized innocent territory). Sjoberg also gives an example of this when she illustrate how Soviet World War II – era socialist realist films characterized the Nazi breaking of the non-aggression pact in terms of gender where Nazi Germany´s hypermasculinity is linked with the breaking of the pact, which also, ultimately, meant its downfall (2012:28).

Before the Second World War, the Belgians fought the war against Germany in 1914, even if they knew they would lose, to protect the `honour of the Belgian flag´, and `avenge Belgian honour´ (the attack is today named as `the rape of Belgium´). In this particular war the hegemonic masculinity of Belgium consisted of masculine conceptions of honour, chivalry, protection, and pride, just as the American in the run up to the war in 2001 and 2003, and the Soviets after Nazi Germany´s break with the Ribbentrop-Pact (Sjoberg, 2012:19), and before Belgium it is very clearly that the Melians fought the Athenians to protect their `feminine values´; their neutrality, honour and innocence and the protection of justice and morality which they accused the Athenians to undermine.

When we think of structural gender hierarchy as a key part of explaining state behaviour, governments that risk their survival for honour do not appear so singular, and we get the opportunity to account for when states fight and do not fight at the same time as it provides an ordering principle which is constant, even as the genders and their orders are fungible (Hooper, 1998:33). In this perspective, we can expect that units with relative equal symbolic and `actual´ properties can be expected to have high tension between each other (Pakistan and India), while conflicts between symbolically unequal units will be less frequent, but if masculinities are insulted asymmetric conflicts can also occur (Belgium and Germany, Athenians and Melians).

[1] The rise of Germany in continental Europe and Britain’s reaction to this `threat´ in the run up to the First World War is another example of the `security dilemma´.

Om forfatteren

Seyran Khalili

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05 2012

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