The Islamic State through Three Waltzian Lenses: An Analysis in IR Theory

In 1959 heavy-hitting, contemporary political scientist Kenneth Waltz published Man, the State, and War, a required reading for both undergraduate and graduate students in international politics. It’s often the fist book students of politics read because it gives them an accurate overview of the different levels of analysis, called “images,” we use when explaining major global and interstate events. In his book, an adaptation of his doctoral thesis, Waltz identifies three schools of thought in the study of international relations (from here on out, referred to as “IR theory”).

This rather long post examines the Islamic State (IS) situation in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and, some fear, its spread to Europe, using Waltzian IR theory to best explain the situation and make predictions. Please note this is merely a blog post. Therefore, this is not to be taken as gospel, but simply to begin a dialog. Still, this would be a very fun and interesting research topic, and some day one of you might write your own dissertation about the Islamic State using this kind of analysis (if so, feel free to mention me in the acknowledgements section).

The three images

First Image: Human Nature

This level of analysis looks at individuals in international politics. Proponents of this level might make the assertion — when discussing war — that conflict is deeply imbedded in human nature. That is, we are a violent species. Some might not wish to generalize all humans and would therefore assert that some humans are violent by nature. They might cite examples of Hitler and Napoleon, while contrasting them with Icelandic or Danish state leaders (who generally don’t fight wars).

Takeaway: Individuals matter in IR theory.

Second Image: State Behavior

This is a state level of analysis. That is, it disregards individual people but still focuses on individual states. This level analyzes to what extent states are self-regarding. Some might assert that war is caused by states’ needs to expand, grow economically, or prevent external conflict spillover or mitigate internal conflict.

Takeaway: Individuals are less important in IR theory. States behave according to their own needs.

Third Image: The Anarchical System

This is Waltz’s major contribution to IR theory, which he would develop by 1978 as his own theory called neorealism. This level of analysis asserts that war is systemic because states exist in a world without a global authority to reward good states and punish bad states. There is no sovereign global government to oversee international relations. In other words, if state A wrongs state B, who is state B going to call to arrest state A? The answer is ultimately no one. They have to handle the situation themselves, and that leaves them with limited options; one of those options being war. You might argue they could go the the UN or ask allies to help them force state A to make up for its wrongdoing, but the UN could refuse to hear the case, and allies could decline to get involved. We call this a self-help system. In a self-help world, states’ issues at the highest tier of importance offer the easiest and most likely path to war.

Takeaway: State behavior is systemic.

The Islamic State through three lenses

First Lens: Human Nature

We might say the Islamic State’s aggressive behavior towards non-Sunni Muslims and governments is a natural product of human nature. This level of analysis leaves room for (in my opinion) bad ideas about how to handle IS. Some proponents of the first image might argue that, while some humans are inherently evil, they have the potential to become good. This means that IS members can be socialized and educated enough to mitigate their own violent tendencies. Proponents might argue that in a perfect world, we can potentially live peacefully with the group.

I’m not saying they can’t be socialized and educated enough to mitigate their own violence; rather, I feel the methods we would use to get to that point are based on long-term commitments of appeasement and coexistence with people willing to murder innocent civilians and sell their organs on the black market. I’m not sure the families of future victims will appreciate a strategy in terms of years.

My problem, however, is that this level of analysis is the only level of analysis that even leaves room for non-state actors. IS is not an actual state. It is a non-state actor acting across international lines. For the sake of my argument, however, let’s pretend IS is a sovereign state, which allows us to examine it from the…

Second Lens: State Behavior

If, for the sake of argument, we assume IS is a sovereign state, then we can examine it based on its needs. Well, what are they?  IS needs territory, resources, and a people to govern. At this level, analysis and predictions begin to look moderately better. For example, proponents of the second level might propose that international law, social norms, and institutional liberal economies might mitigate IS violence. IS, as a sovereign state, can enjoy friendships with neighbors, trade in goods and wares, and identity as a contributing member of the international community. Furthermore, if it needs territory, resources, and a population, then it can achieve all of these things by playing nice (and not attacking innocent neighbors or murdering its own people).

While there is a bright side to this approach, the State Behavior level does not necessitate that states will play nice. Indeed, if a state needs resources badly enough, it might take them by force. And as far as I can tell, IS is not the kind of state that would play nice.

Bad behavior on IS’s part might be a compelling reason to go to war with it, which brings us to the…

Third Lens: The Anarchical System

Still assuming that IS enjoys state sovereignty (for the sake of argument), through this lens we can easily explain IS’s behavior. In this self-help world, IS has no one to go to to express its grievances with other states (or people). Therefore, it can only count on itself. And while neighbors enjoy the excess of military resources (especially Naval forces and Air forces) [note: this is bringing me closer to neorealism than Waltz planned in 1959] IS has no choice but to balance against its neighbors in order to protect itself. IS will seek to balance the distribution of power and share of resources. One way to do that is by force.

Thankfully IS is not a state. We can stop assuming it is. That part of the argument is complete. And because IS is not a state, IS is completely irrelevant in international politics! We have no expectation that IS will grow sufficiently enough that it poses a threat to the survival of neighboring states. While IS might be knocking at Turkey’s door, they would be rather irrational and stupid to attempt to overthrow the Turkish government and assume authority over Turkish lands. Indeed, IS is so insignificant that — even if it could collapse the Turkish state — it would be spread so thinly across the Levant and into Europe that it would collapse under its own weight (or at least, that’s my hypothesis).

In other words, if we view IS through this lens then IS becomes merely an incredibly annoying group of thugs and criminals who are completely incapable of changing the world in any meaningful way. Indeed, people who adopt the anarchic view of IR theory would say (as horrible as this sounds) 9/11 was irrelevant in regards to the state of the international system. To use a milder example, they would say the collapse of the Soviet Union was equally as inconsequential. We have no reason to expect a group of terrorists can have more impact than the end of the Cold War.

So which lens is correct?

I would say that’s up for you to decide. In my view, however, the evidence tends to suggest that an evolutionary theory based on an anarchical global reality is probably the correct one. I also think it gives us the best possible prediction: IS is irrelevant and will continue to expand its irrelevance. This is not to say it doesn’t matter that they’re killing innocent people; that’s a very relevant situation. But bad ideas are bad ideas. But a worse idea is when IS tries to play state in an anarchical world filled with heavily-armed states willing to fight back.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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