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Bringing the National Interest Back In: Lessons for Neorealism from the Former Soviet Area

Robert M. Cutler

This article sets out an analytical international-theoretical perspective drawing upon events in the former Soviet areas during first half of the 1990s. The argument develops in four parts. An introduction establishes the purpose of the project and justifies it. The next part of the article inspects the intellectual genealogy the marriage of neorealism to neoliberalism under the tent of rational choice theory. It traces objections to that betrothal back to the depsychologization of logic nearly a century ago by Bertrand Russell, and insists rather on the role of cognition and consciousness in world politics. The third part of the article focuses on the former Soviet area, so as to develop the theoretical and practical significance of the sphere of finance in particular. It demonstrates the surprising agreement on some basic issues between a major neorealist application of regime theory (Krasner) and a particular variant of historical materialism (Cox). It also illustrates the practical utility of this synthetic approach for national interest analysis, and it justifies the epistemological basis for this. The last section of the article sketches avenues for the further development of this approach and provides an answer to the question why recent variants of neorealism have inexcusably neglected the national interest as an analytical category. The reply to that question sketches a basis for considering geography and demography to be the first principles of the study of international politics; it likewise establishes the place of the international financial sphere in such a theoretical framework. The epigraph and first paragraph are reproduced below. The full text is available on line. [Printer friendly Full 


1. Introduction
2. The Emerging Entente Cordiale between Neorealism and Neoliberalism
2.1. Problematizing Relative vs. Absolute Gains
2.2. Misconceptions behind Rational Choice Theory
3. The Intersection of Policy and Research Concerns
3.1. The Principal Question for Policy and Research
3.2. Its Practical Solution
3.3. Its Theoretical Significance
4. Conclusion
4.1. Post-Soviet International Relations in the Context of Current Social Science Theory
4.2. Environment and Agency in International Space-Time
Suggested citation for this webpage:
Robert M. Cutler, “Bringing the National Interest Back In: Lessons for Neorealism from the Former Soviet Area[; Abstract],” Cosmos: The Hellenic Yearbook of International Relations 1 (1995): 61–89; reprinted in S. Brown, R.M. Cutler, M. Evangelista, R. Gilpin, J.D. Grieco, P. Ifestos, S.D. Krasner and A. Platias, International Relations Theory at a Crossroads (New York: Caratzas, 1996); available at <http://www.robertcutler.org/ar95cos.htm>, accessed 25 March 2017.

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Bringing the National Interest Back In

Lessons for Neorealism from the Former Soviet Area[1]

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The psychology of the actors in the international arena, instead of operating in limitless space, is confined in its impact on policy by the limitations that external conditions—the distribution of power, geographical location, demography, and economic conditions—place on the choices open to governments in the conduct of foreign relations. Moreover, the international position of the country goes far in defining its interests and in determining, thereby, the outcome of the rational calculus of interest by which statesmen may generally be assumed to be guided.

— Arnold Wolfers[2]

The category of “national interest” has recently enjoyed a renaissance in certain fields of discourse on international relations. “Bringing the state back in” has been a strong trend in recent comparative political studies, despite the increasing importance of supranational and transnational (as well as subnational) actors.[3] Moreover, the state remains the juridical foundation upon which modern international law and international relations are inevitably based. The reason for the renaissance of this concept in policy-oriented U.S. geopolitical thinking is of a different origin. It has been a response to the need to redefine an American role in international affairs after the end of the Cold War, and to produce a programmatic justification for reducing that role. The concept of “national interest,” which predates that of “national security,”[4] is assuming again its proper place in American political discourse. It should do so too in the theory of international relations. For various reasons this has not happened as widely as might be justified. The present article investigates those reasons and proposes a solution to the problem: for even in a world where the international system may appear to be moving “beyond sovereignty,”[5] the category of national interest retains a special significance. With that in mind, this article concludes by proposing systematic schematic framework based upon the citation of Wolfers taken for the epigraph above.

[Note 1] This article is based on a paper presented to the Workshop on International Relations Theory after the Cold War, held at the Institute of International Relations, Pantheois University (May 1994). It draws on material presented to the Seminar of the Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies, University of Maryland (March 1992), an Annual Congress of the American Political Science Association (September 1993), and the Workshop on Social Science Theory and Post-Soviet Realities, The Harriman Institute, Columbia University (December 1994). For the last three opportunities, the author thanks Karen Dawisha, Edward Kolodziej, and Alexander Motyl. The author also thanks Mark Blyth and Alexander Wendt for detailed comments on a previous draft. This research was supported through a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

[Note 2] Arnold Wolfers, “The Determinants of Foreign Policy,” in Wolfers, Discord and Collaboration: Essays on International Politics (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1962), p. 45.

[Note 3] See Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (eds.), Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), for the origin of this literature.

[Note 4] See Arnold Wolfers, “National Security as an Ambiguous Symbol,” in Wolfers, Discord and Collaboration, pp. 147–166. Required reading should also include Charles A. Beard, The Idea of National Interest: An Analytical Study in American Foreign Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1934); Nicholas J. Spykman, America's Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1942); Hans J. Morgenthau, In Defense of the National Interest: A Critical Examination of American Foreign Policy, [1st ed.] (New York: Knopf, 1951); Lincoln P. Bloomfield, The United Nations and U.S. Foreign Policy: A New Look at the National Interest (Boston: Little, Brown, [1960]); and Wolfers, “The Pole of Power and the Pole of Indifference,” in Wolfers, Discord and Collaboration, pp. 81–102.

[Note 5] Marvin S. Soroos, Beyond Sovereignty: The Challenge of Global Policy (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1986).

Dr. Robert M. Cutlerwebsiteemail ] was educated at MIT and The University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in Political Science, and has specialized and consulted in the international affairs of Europe, Russia, and Eurasia since the late 1970s. He has held research and teaching positions at major universities in the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, and Russia, and contributed to leading policy reviews and academic journals as well as the print and electronic mass media in three languages.

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