The Variation of Realism

First, I should be clear with what I currently perceive to be my puzzle:

What explains the occasional peaceful outcomes[1] within Allison’s conception of Thucydides’ Trap?

The first source I read was the third chapter of Charles Kupchan’s book, whose title, How Enemies Become Friends, also describes his research puzzle. Kupchan, drawing from the existing literature and his observations, describes a four-phase process for stable peace among former enemies and identifies three causal links. The third chapter of the book was an in-depth analysis of Anglo-American relations around the turn of the 20th century. This case study relied heavily on speeches of leaders, pieces from national media, and government/military documents. Given this methodology, I am inclined to put it in the interpretivist camp, and likely would if his work only pertained to this one case. However, there are numerous cases in his book from which he constructs the four-phase process theory. This assurance in larger trends and patterns is by no means part and parcel of the constructivist/interpretivist camp. Therefore, it seems more apt to describe him and his work as more realist and positivist. He agrees with general balance of power theories in the first phase of his theory but aims to go beyond and explain the success of cases of rapprochement.

The second source I read was Alliance Formation and War Behavior: An Analysis of the Great Powers, 1495-1975 by Jack S. Levy. This source aimed to examine the correlation between Great Power alliance-formation and war. It employed a statistical approach that nullified what it described as the “popular hypothesis” that more alliances are formed during times of war. Instead, alliances tend to emerge from times of peace. This is all determined with quantitative data and empirical observation. Without a doubt, this source is deeply situated in the realist and positivist philosophical tradition. What is interesting is how much it differs from the Kucphan chapter, despite also being realist.

In terms of how these sources will inform my research project, I think that Kupchan’s work has more utility. As of now, I am leaning toward a methodology like his and applying it to the cases listed in footnote one. Furthermore, its reference to “stable peace” has piqued my interest and I will likely be reading more on this. Levy’s piece, although interesting and well designed, seems to offer less methodological guidance as it has a larger pool of cases for which statistics is justified. Broadly speaking, I think I will be focusing more on the Kupchan direction, trying to build off his work and possibly construct a bridge between him and Allison.


Kupchan, Charles, Kupchan, Charles A. A., and Kupchan, Charles A.. How Enemies                                                       Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.                           Accessed September 22, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Levy, Jack S. “Alliance Formation and War Behavior: An Analysis of the Great Powers, 1495-1975.”                             The Journal of Conflict Resolution 25, no. 4 (1981): 581-613.                                                                 


[1] Cases: Portugal vs Spain; Britain vs United States; United States vs Soviet Union; Britain & France vs Germany

One thought on “The Variation of Realism

  1. These are both good sources for the theoretical foundation of your project, Jordan. Both authors are in fact neopositivist/realist in their orientations towards knowledge and research as you note (both are decidedly so, as a matter of fact). Even a single case study could well be a neopositivist study (the deciding factor is what kind of knowledge is generated, not how many cases/instances are examined or the type of evidence used). With this in mind, some more detail on the specific methodological elements that each piece examines would be good. In particular for the Kupchan piece, what is the DV in each article? What key IVs are identified? What hypotheses are tested?

    Going forward I would pay extra attention to journal articles (and recent articles in particular) as per Clement’s advice to further establish the relevant theoretical conversations/debates for your projects. These debates play out mostly in journals. Keep reading and researching–I look forward to seeing how the project develops!

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