Stephen M. Walt

IR Theory and the future of the EU: A response to critics

My previous post on the future of the Euro has attracted some critical comments from various parts of the IR/IPE community, see here and here. My critics make some interesting points (though I found them a bit hard to follow), but their central argument is that these broad paradigms don’t make sharply differing predictions about ...

My previous post on the future of the Euro has attracted some critical comments from various parts of the IR/IPE community, see here and here. My critics make some interesting points (though I found them a bit hard to follow), but their central argument is that these broad paradigms don’t make sharply differing predictions about this issue. In other words, what happens to the Euro (or the EU itself) would be consistent with any of these paradigms, and so my original question was misplaced.

What’s perhaps most interesting about the comments is that none of respondents seem to have gone and looked at the realist work that is most germane to this issue, and to which I alluded in one of my links.  I refer to the work of Sebastian Rosato of the University of Notre Dame, who has recently published an important book entitled Europe United: Power Politics and the Making of the European Community. (Full disclosure: Rosato took a course from me at the University of Chicago over a decade ago, but I left Chicago before he wrote his thesis. His book was published in the book series that I co-edit, but I wasn’t the editor who handled his manuscript)  

In any case, Europe United is a decidedly realist account of the EU’s formation and evolution.  Rosato is also a pessimist about the fate of the Euro, on both purely economic but also what might be termed "power-political" grounds. Critics of my original post are correct that I don’t have a "realist" theory on this issue, but Rosato does. (He also has a forthcoming article in International Security that lays out his arguments regarding the euro in more detail).

Without presuming to speak for him, I’d just make two points. First, as I made clear in my original post, I don’t think the evolution of the euro or the EU will decide the validity of rival theoretical approaches to international relations. Despite my realist proclivities, I actually see some virtue in most approaches to international relations, and the trick is determining what weight to give each one and how to adjust the weights in different circumstances. In short, I stand by the views I expressed here.

Second, I still believe these rival perspectives do lead to different expectations about Europe’s future course. Realism, liberalism, and constructivism all agree that states will cooperate in some circumstances, but realists are more skeptical about the scope and extent of cooperation and tend to see underlying power distributions and security concerns as central to the process, especially between major powers. Accordingly, a realist account of the EU would stress that these states agreed to constrain their own autonomy and sovereignty largely in response to an unusual power configuration (i.e., the Cold War), and as much for security reasons as for purely economic ones. The end of the Cold War removed that power configuration, and we have seen the EU both expand and fray ever since. Germany’s unwillingness to keep subsidizing profligate countries and European concerns about the implications of Germany’s increasingly dominant role (as highlighted in this NYT article) are consistent with that view.

By contrast, liberal accounts of the EU emphasize the role of economic interdependence and welfare concerns as the main driving factor.  In this view, so long as high interdependence obtains, the EU has little choice but to find a way to stagger forward. Constructivist approaches offer a third alternative: the EU will survive because it has led to the emergence of a nascent "European" identity that is gradually trumping national loyalties, and so distributions of power and other traditional realist concerns aren’t really relevant anymore.  

So we do have three contrasting views-one of them generally pessimistic about the EU and the euro, and two of them generally optimistic-and we can now wait for the passage of time to reveal which prediction is correct.

Bottom line: I don’t think my original question was silly, but I am glad to have stimulated a bit of discussion.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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