Astronomers would describe outer space as infinite, varied, and astonishingly complex. However, when it comes to international relations (IR), the immense world of extra-solar planets and gigantic galaxies is rather irrelevant to theorists. Although the Space Age (the mid-20th century) has raised several important questions for foreign policy scholars, the revitalization of the space conquests due to the rise of SpaceX and Virgin Galactics remains irrelevant to IR theorists. As a result, there is no existing public consensus, which would dictate state behavior in case of possible contact with an extraterrestrial alien species. Various theoretical approaches to international relations propose different predictions about the response of states and non-state actors to the discovery of sentient beings, who are not human. This essay is going to focus on dissecting offensive realism and classical liberalism as IR theories, which could suggest their predictions regarding the behavior of states under this unique set of circumstances. The paper argues that while offensive realism predicts violent conflict and powerful nations’ fight for hegemony, classical liberalists’ prediction of international cooperation and somewhat peaceful communication with aliens is more convincing.
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Explanations of the Theories
Realists view power as the currency of foreign affairs, which is why they explain international conflict as a strategy to secure the balance of power. However, there is a divide between realist theories as they try to answer why states want power in the first place (Mearsheimer, 2016). This paper examines offensive realism, which is a part of the neorealist theory. A theory is “a logically consistent set of statements that explains a phenomenon of interest” (Frieden et al., 2018). Neorealists (structural realists) justify states’ desire for power as a self-preservation technique since no country wants to be weak enough to become an easy target for attacks (Mearsheimer, 2016). Therefore, an existing system of international relations traps states in a cycle of constant competition, which seems to be the only way to survive. Structural realism functions upon the assumption that all states are alike, no matter their political system or culture (Mearsheimer, 2016). The only thing that defines the global arena of foreign relations to structural realists is the amount of power each state has. As for offensive realism, in particular, it is rooted in the assumption that states use every opportunity to maximize their share of power in world politics. Offensive realists argue that pursuing hegemony is the ultimate goal since it ensures survival (Mearsheimer, 2016). Moreover, they believe that weaker states often allow great powers to fight each other, while remaining on the sidelines themselves, to minimize losses, which is referred to as buck-passing. Unlike liberals, offensive realists claim that balancing coalitions are strategically ineffective.
Liberal theories emphasize the relevance of social interests and values of states when it comes to international relations. For liberals, world politics can be characterized by a single concept known as globalization (Moravczik, 2010). Liberalism argues that states that engage in foreign affairs are under pressure from their domestic institutions to act in accordance to the state preferences – “the set of substantive social purposes that motivate foreign policy” (Moravczik, 2010, p. 1). Thus, states operating based on the goal of meeting the needs (of domestic groups) that transcend borders provide them with an incentive to engage in global politics. As a result, intense state preferences are some of the key motivations for international conflict or cooperation. Andrew Moravczik (2010) describes liberalism as a theoretical framework where ends are much more significant than means, which is why state preferences are “a fundamental cause of state behavior in world politics” (p. 1). Classical liberalism laid the foundation of democratic peace, which is the assumption that democratic states do everything in their power to keep peace among each other (van de Haar, 2009). Democratic peace is based on the liberal proposition that states decide to wage wars under the influence of domestic institutions, and not the external pressures of the international community.
In addition, liberals argue that economic independence contributes to the sustainment of world peace. Moravczik (2010) argues that two primary assumptions underlie liberalism, including the assumption that the views of domestic society shape state preferences. Therefore, to predict a liberal theorist, it is important to view states as representatives for domestic social groups. The second assumption is that the interdependence among state preferences impacts the decisions of states regarding foreign policy. This means that liberal theorists believe that the more conflicting goals states have, the bigger their incentive for aggression against one another.
Applying the Theories
Realist theorists look at the arena of international relations through the prism of power and influence. Therefore, they would most likely make their predictions following the assumption that extraterrestrial beings would become another actor in global politics, which would be considered a major threat by humanity. The basis of offensive realism lies in the idea of striking first to achieve a competitive advantage and ensure that the “victim” will not be a threat in the future. When it comes to aliens, offensive realists would suggest that humans would be the ones attacking first and being an aggressor. It is impossible to look at alien populations as a complex system since humans do not have any insights regarding the structure of politics among these species. Humans, however, form states, which are connected through a global network. The task of IR scholars is to predict how various actors (state or non-state) are going to respond to the possible contact with a different species.
The theoretical framework of offensive realism suggests that powerful states will be the first ones to want to secure their dominance by using force. As of 2020, the most influential states globally are China, Russia, and the United States due to several factors, including economic prosperity, military capabilities, size, population, and technological advancement (Baker, 2020). Historically, a great example that illustrates the competitive aspect of space exploration is the Space Race (Erickson, 2018). Realists argue that the United States and the Soviet Union both wanted to dominate the discovery of space to establish which country has more power once and for all. Rationally, neither America nor USSR needed to compete with each other by spending millions of dollars on technological demonstrations. Offensive realism, however, explains why two of the world’s most influential states have decided to stake a claim on the uncharted territory. Therefore, it would be logical for realists to suggest that the United States, China, and Russia would most likely want to assert their dominance by attacking the newly discovered species. As for the other states, they would probably remain on the sidelines and engage in buck-passing, according to the theory of offensive realism.
Liberal theorists argue that every one of the actors in the IR arena depends on state preferences dictated by domestic social coalitions. Since it is hard to follow the changes in the political climate in every single state, the prediction of classic liberals will most likely be less concise than that of realists. However, it would be wise for liberals to suggest that the majority of states with similar interests would cooperate and form coalitions to face the extraterrestrial alien species (Tallberg et al., 2020). Isolated states would remain rather apathetic, allowing the most engaged countries to contact the aliens through a newly formed cooperative organization. Lastly, the classical liberal theory would predict that states that decide to communicate the extraterrestrial beings would try to promote liberal ideas.
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Evaluating the Predictions
Both offensive realism and classic liberalism provide rather plausible predictions about the possible contact of humans with extraterrestrial beings shortly. Despite this, realists are rigid in their portrayal of the global dynamics between states. It is unlikely that the discovery of an alien species is going to immediately lead to military conflict without any attempts at communicating with the extraterrestrial. Classical liberalism does a much better job at showcasing how each state’s interests play into the collective decision to reach out to the unknown species.
Baker, S. (2020). The most powerful countries on earth in 2020, ranked. Business Insider. Web.
Erickson, A. S. (2018). Revisiting the U.S.-Soviet space race: Comparing two systems in their competition to land a man on the moon. Acta Astranautica, 148, 376-384.
Frieden, J. A., Lake, D. A., & Schultz, K. A. (2018). World politics: Interests, interactions, institutions (4th ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.
Mearsheimer, J. J. (2016). International relations theories: Discipline and diversity (4th ed.). Oxford UP.
Moravczik, A. (2010). Liberal theories of international relations: A primer.
Tallberg, J., Lundgren, M., Sommerer, T., & Squatrito, T. (2020). Why international organizations commit to liberal norms. International Studies Quarterly, 64(3), 626–640.
van de Haar, E. (2009). Classical liberalism and international relations. Policy: A Journal of Public Policy and Ideas, 25(1).