Power play in IR

*********************this was meant to be posted last night, but I couldn’t get the form to submit on the Uni network*********************

This evening I was listening to the BBC news and they were talking about how Venezuela has recently introduced a ‘ration’ system for it’s citizens petrol use. While there is an abundance of oil in the country- meaning that petrol costs on average 2 US cents a liter. The Chavez Government has decided to combat the billion dollar losses they incur from people smuggling oil into neighboring countries such as Colombia, by only allowing each car to purchase 40 liters a day (which still seems excessive in my opinion). Oil production is naturally a massive source of revenue for Venezuela, yet it doesn’t seem to have helped the country as much as one would assume it could (in terms of levitating poverty, increasing development etc like it has done in other states in the area such as Trinidad and Tobago). Placing this in the context of our course, oil can have some (hopefully) interesting insights.

Theories of International Relations attempt to understand and explain world affairs by analysing events through particular lenses. Using conclusions drawn from why occasions such as wars and global crises occurred, they attempt to generate broader theories that can be used to explain global trends, structures, and actors, elaborating on how these actors do and should behave (Dunne, Kurki and Smith 2010, Hollis and Smith 1990). Of these theories, Realism has a particular fascination with ‘hard power’ , which it uses to explain state behavior in the international arena. Realists stress that military and economic power (hard power) ‘affect [a states] ability to ensure its security and survival within a global system of sovereign states, each of which seeks [to further] its own national interest’ (Braveboy-Wagner 2010, 407). To realists, states exist within an anarchic system, and they exert hard power to achieve their national interests (Morgenthau 1967, Wendt 1994).

In general the lack of hard power within states correlates to a lack of ability to achieve foreign policy objectives, and in a primordial sense means that those states lacking such persuasive means of diplomacy are continually worried about their survival. Such a conception of the world would lead to the view that small states’ actions in the international arena are immensely limited due to their lack of hard power (Braveboy-Wagner 2010, Chong 2010, Wendt 1994). To realists, these often economically or militarily limited ‘small’ states must align themselves with ‘global powers’ or ‘bandwagon’ together in order to achieve their national interests (Braveboy-Wagner 2010, Wendt 1994).

The problem with such a fixation on ‘hard power’ means that realism often struggles to explain how small states, which despite often lacking these traditional capacities, do manage to exert power and influence on the international stage (Chong, 2010). Realists can explain the actions of some small states, specifically ‘small powers’. Singapore for example, is a significant trading hub and can accumulate power and foreign policy influence in almost the same manner as large states by using it’s economic might. Other small states can exploit natural resources such as oil and copper to the same effect. Oil is an interesting resource, as not only does it generate vast wealth for countries which give them economic power, but it in itself is often used as a hard power tool (withholding supplies etc). To small or weak States oil can give them a significant degree of power on the international stage which they would otherwise lack- either that, or it can get them invaded.

Where Realists struggle, is explaining small states that can exert influence by using ‘soft’ power- especially normative power. Here, states such as Switzerland and New Zealand can be seen as two relatively good examples of states who manage to use their image of ‘good global citizens’ to their advantage. But is soft power really a substitute for hard power?

Just because a small state doesn’t possess ‘hard’ power, doesn’t necessarily mean that it wouldn’t like too (as evidenced by New Zealand’s continual probes into oil around it’s coast- I believe this was mentioned in my original blog about Space/Antarctica/ Russian Space dogs). Small states who, regardless of whether or not they are primarily concerned with survival, are arguably ruled by the same motivations as large ones, in that they are continually seeking to accumulate power (both hard and soft)….. Or are they?

If small states were concerned with increasing their power, exploiting oil reserves would arguably be a ‘quick fix’, generating a quick source of revenue for the country all the while offering the potential to being used as a tool in the international arena within itself. So why have states such as Costa Rica decided against using their natural energy resources?

Costa Rica is situated in Central America, bordered by two nations who have had an immensely bloody history which have often threatened to spill out. It has large oil deposits along its coast which it has vowed not to touch, and last century it formally abolished its military. Thus Costa Rica has deliberately chosen against using two traditional, and according to Realists, vital ways of gaining power.

Instead, it has attempted to go the soft power route. Developing a green and neutral state image it is known for its adherence to international norms such as a long standing commitment to Human Rights, and its emphasis on democracy, environment, and pacifism (Hurwitz, Peffley and Seligson 1993, von Feigenblatt 2009). Costa Rica emphasises education as a road to development, and subsequently has one of the highest literacy rates within the developing world (Hurwitz, Peffley and Seligson 1993, von Feigenblatt 2009). While Costa Rica is clearly not as powerful as China or the United States, it seems to be fairing a lot better than many of its neighbours that have attempted to accumulate more traditional concepts of power.

What does this mean for Realism and ‘hard power’? Can soft power ever trump hard power? Is the accumulation of only soft power a strategy that only small states can use? Or is this a simple case of Realists ‘wait and see’, where we should wait until all other oil reserves have ran out just to be sure that Costa Rica really is that committed….I believe that the obsession that realists have for hard power shows just another instance of why our theories of IR are Western centric to the point of fault. While using these theories to analyse the world is all well and good, applying the findings to developmental practices and techniques could be dangerous. The failure of Realism to account for why Costa Rica has abolished its military and chosen not to use its most potent natural resource shows that there are many things these theories can fail to account for, and while other theories can potentially pick up the slack, it is not difficult to envision an instance in which we miss something vital due to our narrow shutters (like the end of the Cold War). What about states foreign policy power?

Braveboy-Wagner, Jacqueline. “Opportunities and limitations of the exercise of foreign.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 2010: 407-427.

Chong, Alan. “Small state soft power strategies: virtual enlargement in.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, September 2010: 383-405.

Costa Rica. “Country Strategy Paper 2002-2006.” European Union External Action. 4 July 2010. http://eeas.europa.eu/costarica/csp/02_06_en.pdf (accessed September 22, 2012).

Dunne, Tim, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith. International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Hollis, Martin, and Steve Smith. Explaining and understanding international relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Hurwitz, Jon, Mark Peffley, and Mitchell Seligson. “Foreign Policy Belief Systems in Comparative Perspective: The United States and Costa Rica.” International Studies Quarterly,, September 1993: 245-270.

Morgenthau, Hans. Politics Among Nations. The Struggle for Power and Peace. New York: Knopf, 1967. Seligson, Mitchell. “Popular Support for Regional Economic Integration in Latin America.” Journal of Latin American Studies, Febuary 1999: 129-150.

von Feigenblatt, Otto. “Costa Rica’s Neo-realist Foreign policy: Lifting.” 2009.

Walt, Stephen. The Origins of Alliance. New York: Cornell University Press, 1990.


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