1st draft, prepared for guest lecture in Pols. 630 International Relations, Sept. 9, 2003
2nd draft, prepared for Pols. 635F lecture, Sept. 10, 2003

Systems Approaches to Understanding International Relations

Richard W. Chadwick
Professor, Political Science, University of Hawaii
September, 2003

As Donald T. Campbell, one of my old professors quipped in a social psychology introduction to theory, “the quickest way to traumatize a discussion is to ask people to define their terms.” Nevertheless, “modeling international systems” (the title of one of the courses I teach), not to mention the subject I’ve been asked to talk on, begs for an answer to the question, what is a system? Please bear in mind that there are many definitions of such, each contextual to the very system within which its author is embedded or the system which is the author’s research focus.

The one I prefer grew out of decades of W. Edwards Deming’s practical application of systems theory to management of corporations and governments; paraphrasing: a system is a network of interdependent components working together to achieve a collection of common aims. As with most such definitions intended for practical application, it sets up a standard which is variably approximated by its empirical referents. The governments of Pakistan and the USA for instance, are “flawed” systems in the sense that there are few if any “common aims” to which all its component organizations would agree. I like this definition because it can be applied to empirical observations, because it focuses on some central features of human motivation, and because it encourages recognition of what is non-trivially universal to human organization. Deming himself describes the understanding of human organizational systems as “profound knowledge” which has four components: a theory of knowledge, how and why we learn; a theory of psychology, how we are motivated; how systems handle variation in components and interactions; and appreciation for a system, how the component parts are integrated and aligned to achieve a common purpose or purposes. Businesses, for instance, should be but normally are not, headed by leaders with “profound knowledge;” their societies pay a price: workers lose jobs and corporations go bankrupt. Nations’ leadership groups without such profound knowledge often lead their countries to impoverishment if not ruin. History teaches such leadership groups nothing because without appropriate theory they can learn nothing from their mistakes. Corporations urge workers to work harder, governments urge citizens to greater and greater sacrifice. Ultimately such pleading cannot take the place of profound knowledge, but only lead to their destruction by repeatedly wrong decisions.

Henry Teune, an integration theorist, has put systems approaches to globalization in a larger framework of integration theory, focusing on the “dimensions” of

strength of relationships among their components, the inclusiveness of the components being impacted by whatever happens elsewhere in the system, and how much and how important the system is for the component, the extensiveness of what is impacted.
Notice that these three concepts are core to Robert Dahl and Karl Deutsch’s dimensions of power: scope (issues), domain (population), weight (strength) (Deutsch adds a fourth, range or variety of sanctions available to governments). Systems theorists employ or appropriate many of the concepts used in political science, to create larger frameworks of analysis.

David Easton proposed a conceptual framework for all political systems: in a political system, decision makers are faced with inputs which are classified as either demands or supports; they use support to cope with demands, the result of which coping is policy. Policy impacts their political environment (local, national, international), in turn altering the demands and supports experienced by leaders. “Policy” consists of actions which authoritatively reallocate values. (See the following URL for detailed links to Easton).

Harold Lasswell took a systems approach to understanding human interaction a step further by identifying (and elaborating with the help of Abraham Kaplan) a checklist of “basic values” pursued in varying degrees by people and their institutions. These values may be either the object of demands for the redistribution between “haves” and “have nots” (élites and mass, as Lasswell would say), or the capital used to support such authoritative relocations. Lasswell’s eight basic values are divided into two types: “welfare” and “deference” values, which I refer to as attributes and relations, respectively. Attributes: wealth, health (“well-being”), enlightenment, and skill. Relational (“deference”) values: power, affection, respect, and rectitude. (For a general introduction to this value framework and sources of more information, see the following for Lasswell ).

Abraham Maslow to a step further yet by identifying not the means by which demands and supports were made manifest in politics, but rather for what aims or purposes, ends rather than means if you will. His “hierarchy” consists of five identifiable goals: survival, safety, belongingness, self-esteem and self-actualization. I have reinterpreted these somewhat as, respectively, survival (physiological needs), security (anticipated survival), community (currently referred to as “identity” politics), responsibility (the role-component of social positions, the successful performance of which yields status and self-esteem), and fulfilment (the sense of completion in life that Maslow referred to as self-actualization). When you juxtapose Maslow’s motivational framework and Lasswell’s value framework, you can probably see why I choose to refer to them as ends and means, respectively. (For more details see the following link for Maslow).

Talcott Parsons, in The System of Modern Societies (Prentice-Hall, January, 1971) hypothesized that all societies of necessity must perform four basic functions or perish: adaptation to their environment (adaptive subsystem), agree on and pursue common aims (goal-attainment subsystem), integrate new members of society into their culture (integrative subsystem), and maintain the pattern by managing tensions produced by subsystem breakdowns or decay (pattern maintenance subsystem). To perform these functions societies have specialized their organizations to perform, respectively, economic, political, educational, and physical and mental health functions. Analogously, international systems, to be stable, must have components that perform these functions at the regional and/or global levels. For instance, for the European nations to successfully eliminate the scourge of war and come to terms with their colonial past, they needed to developed regional institutions which would help them to adapt to each other economically, arrive at commonly pursued international policy goals, educate each other and new members into their common international culture, and manage a wide variety of tensions. (For more details on Parsons’ framework see the following link on Parsons).

We’re now ready to examine some of the early systems theorists in international relations.

Morton Kaplan’s widely quoted work, System and Process in International Politics (Wiley, 1957), related what has became decades later a facet of regime theory, namely cultural norms and expectations for conduct in international affairs, to the distribution of one particular value, power (consider: this is only one of Lasswell’s eight). Depending upon the distribution of power, he asserted that normative systems would emerge that would adapt nations’ leadership groups to the reality of that power distribution. For instance, when power was distributed among 3-5 dominant actors, a “balance of power” ethos would emerge, e.g., fight rather than pass up an opportunity to increase your power, but negotiate rather than fight, and cease fighting if an essential actor is threatened. Other systems normatively examined: unit-veto system, loose bipolar system, tight bipolar system, multipolar system, hierarchical and universal.

To understand Kaplan and others whose focus has been and is primarily on the value of power, one must understand the context of their concerns, namely, the state and warfare. One of many authors who have devoted their professional lives to examining the nature of power and the political culture of decision makers around problems of the creation and use of power, was Hans J. Morgenthau in his classic Politics Among Nations (Knopf, 1948). Although criticisms of Morgenthau abound, especially focused on the wide variation in the use of the term power, one can I believe understand it most succinctly with a variation of Robert Dahl’s approach. Power (my rendering of it) is the ability to attain goals against resistence. Lasswell defines power as coercive influence. Within Easton’s framework above, power would then be something like to ability to attain regime stability by using supports to coerce those making demands. This only touches the surface. Years ago as a classroom project, I search the social sciences literature and found at least thirty distinct definitions of power.

Perhaps the best know systems theories in international relations are Kenneth Waltz’s in Man, the State, and War (Columbia University Press, 1959); and A.F.K. Organski’s power transition theory (see Tammen et al., Power Transitions (Seven Bridges Press, 2000).

In Waltz’s “structural realism,” a number of key questions are posed and answered:

  • First level (human nature), second level (state structure), and third level (system structure) “images” must be included, but what are they?
  • What principle(s) order or structure the system? (e.g., anarchy or hierarchy?)
  • What is the distribution of capabilities among actors in the system? Ole Holsti (http://www.duke.edu/~pfeaver/holsti.pdf) has a good review online of Waltz’s theory as well as the context of much modern debate.

    The other widely known systems theory is explicitly about war. Created by †A.F.K. Organski and originally published in his textbook, World Politics (1958), power transition theory today describes international politics as a hierarchy with (1) a "dominant" state, the one with the largest proportion of power resources (population, productivity, and political capacity meaning coherence and stability); (2) "great powers," a collection of potential rivals to the dominant state and who share in the tasks of maintaining the system and controlling the allocation of power resources; (3) "middle powers" of regional significance similar to the dominant state, but unable to challenge the dominant state or the system structure, and (4) "small powers," the rest. The principle predictive power of the theory is in the likelihood of war and the stability of alliances. War is most likely, of longest duration, and greatest magnitude, when a challenger to the dominant power enters into approximate parity with the dominant state and is dissatisfied with the existing system. Similarly, alliances are most stable when the parties to the alliance are satisfied with the system structure. There are further nuances to the theory: for instance, the sources of power transition vary in their volitility, population change being the least volatile and political capacity (defined as the ability of the government to control resources internal to the country) the most volatile.

    Some writers, particularly around the time of Morton Kaplan’s work in the 1960s, attempted to apply a form of systems theory to foreign policy decision making, namely game theory. The classic example, researched extensively by Rapoport and Chammah in their monograph, The Prisoner’s Dilemma (University of Michigan Press, 1965). The classic form as applied to arms races looks like this:

    Arm-5 / -5+100 / -100
    Disarm-100 / +100+5 / +5

    (with payoffs for A / B). If one applies the game theory norms of trying in each play to maximize your possible gain and minimize your possible loss, the two actors A and B remain locked in struggle indefinitely, each side continuing to lose (here “-5"). The “solution” is to trust one another, so neither size arms, thereby saving the cost of armament (+5) for more productive purposes.

    This decision situation approach to understand international systems focuses on changes in actors’ power potential and distribution of power potential much in the same way Kaplan did, but leaves the logic of decision making in the hands of individual actors, free to exercise their perceptions and misperceptions of each others’ motives, in a context that constrains or limits their options to those provided by their environment. As Holsti noted, however, Waltz asserted that this foreign policy level of analysis is unlikely to be interpretable by systems level theories.

    I’ll end this discussion with a reference to one of those who I consider a founder of international relations systems theory, Lewis Fry Richardson (Statistics of Deadly Quarrels and Arms and Insecurity). Richardson, a 19th and early 20th Century British meteorologist and a Quaker, was deeply concerned with war and its prevention. He applied the mathematics he know–the differential calculus–to an examination of armament patterns of competing nations and found that three simple factors–fear of being attacked, fatigue with competition, and ambitions or grievances, seemed to propel nations into arming (or potentially vice versa, into disarming). Depending upon the weight of each of the above factors, it was possible that the system would stabilize into a state of permanent hostility, escalate until one side or the other would either preempt or collapse, or de-escalate into a condition of permanent peace. The key characteristic of his work that puts in into the systems theory category is that actors are propelled into different states of hostilities or peace, not by their aim to do so, but by the constraints placed on them by the systems in which they operate. The determinative factor isn’t their individual ambitions or capabilities, but rather the characteristics of the interaction processes they all contribute to. In this sense they are victims or beneficiaries as the case may be, of the system which they only in part define. (For a similar approach, see Richard Rosecrance’s Action and Reaction in World Politics (Greenwood Publishing, 1977).

    Richardson, however, had a major caveat which when properly understood, puts him in what has come today to be known as constructivist theory. Let him speak for himself:

    Critic: Can you predict the date at which the next war will break out?
    Author: No, of course not. The equations are merely a description of what people would do if they did not stop to think. ...they follow their traditions, ...and their instincts…because they have not yet made a sufficiently strenuous intellectual and moral effort to control the situation. The process described by the ensuing equations is not to be thought of as inevitable. It is what would occur if instinct and tradition were allowed to act uncontrolled.
    Lewis Fry Richardson, Arms and Insecurity (Boxwood Press, 1960)
    From a game theory viewpoint, he’s saying the players can and should change the rules (the regime) to suit the pursuit of their common aims. They should not allow the logic of distrust (e.g., the Prisoner’s Dilemma) to blind them to the opportunity they have to redesign. They should not accept dominant normative structures.

    I began this essay with reference to Deming’s theory of management for business and governments. It’s fitting that I end with him, too. Deming used to say, we all live in systems; systems determine our average behavior and the typical variation in that behavior. We create these systems and we maintain them to suit our individual and collective needs as we perceive them. What systems approaches to war and peace have taught us is that we do have and always have had, the possibility of reshaping our systems and hence our destinies. Benefits, costs, opportunities, and risks (a decision system approach developed by Tom Saaty; see CreativeDecisions.net and/or SuperDecisions.com ) are the key elements of which to be aware in the reshaping process, not simply demands and supports, threat perceptions and so on. Existing pressures do not create the visions of alternative futures, nor the strategies we invent to attain such visions against the resistance or inertia of current events. As Barry Hughes puts it (International Futures, Ch. 1), we cannot predict the future but we usually have to act as if we could; we constantly have to ask ourselves, where are we headed, where do we want to go, and what leverage do we have now to change direction to a more preferable one? To do that Saaty tells us that we need to calculate the benefits and costs and weigh anticipated changes in opportunities and risks. A systems approach to personal and collective decision making offers hope for unraveling the complexities of international affairs enough to find solutions that resolve current problems and even transcend them so they don’t return.


    Here are some related, interesting articles I ran across on the 'net while putting the above together:

    1. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, "Neorealism’s Logic and Evidence: When is a Theory Falsified?" http://www.ciaonet.org/isa/deb02/

    © 2003 Richard W. Chadwick