The End of IR Theory as we Know it, Again

June 4, 2014

Randall Schweller, Maxwell’s Demon and the Golden Apple: Global Discord in the New Millennium (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014)


The study of international relations (IR) has produced a heavy body count. From formal rational choice theory to the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” nearly every theory that has been utilized to explain international outcomes has also been declared dead, fatally flawed, or otherwise in danger of impending demise. The life of an IR theory is truly nasty, brutish, and short. Scholars periodically check even well-established theories for a pulse. More recently, however, some political scientists have advanced a broader claim: traditional IR theory itself is dead.

The end of traditional IR theory does not mean that IR scholars will cease to theorize. On the contrary, new theories will be necessary to replace old ones that have been rendered irrelevant by a changing international system. According to proponents of this argument, traditional IR theories—often divided into three broad classes of realism, liberalism, and constructivism—have yielded much internecine fighting and little theoretical progress. The field made war, but war did not make the field much better. IR theory thus failed to keep up with a rapidly evolving international system. So say the heralds of traditional IR theory’s death.

In Maxwell’s Demon and the Golden Apple: Global Disorder in the New Millennium, Randall Schweller makes his entry into this debate, arguing in support of the thesis that IR theory as we know it is finished. While acknowledging that previous declarations to this effect have proven premature, he warns that, “The sky may indeed be falling this time.” An extension of a 2010 article, the argument is couched in terms familiar to students of IR. Anarchy, polarity, and other such fixations of IR scholars are well represented here, and given Schweller’s contributions to the realist tradition, his sympathy for that school of thought will come as no surprise. More central to the argument than any particular concept from IR theory, however, is a novel scientific metaphor.

Schweller utilizes the second law of thermodynamics, which states that closed systems tend toward maximum entropy, to contend that the international system is now heading in that direction. Though entropy has been defined differently in various fields, Schweller delineates two principal conceptions of entropy. Thermodynamic entropy is defined as the tendency of energy to be “converted into irrecoverable forms” as work is performed; as information entropy increases, a system “can be composed of a greater number of specific configurations, and accordingly it reveals less information” about the units within that system. Schweller relates thermodynamic entropy to the structure of the international system and information entropy to international processes. Rising structural entropy thus lowers structural constraints, and rising process-level entropy makes unit interactions less predictable.

It is Schweller’s contention that entropy is increasing on both levels, and international politics is therefore becoming less predictable. Power will diffuse, no hegemon will be able to shape a generally accepted international order, and traditional balancing behavior will cease to operate as states come to focus primarily on internal issues. Thus, traditional IR theory will gradually lose its explanatory power.

According to Schweller, two features of the international system yield increased entropy—the impossibility of hegemonic war and the closed state system. First, Schweller posits that hegemonic wars, a topic most famously theorized by Robert Gilpin, are necessary for the regular maintenance of world order. These calamitous conflicts between dominant powers and rising challengers leave the victor with an institutional tabula rasa and clarify the pecking order among the remaining great powers. That is, a hegemonic war presents an opportunity to impose order. If no such conflict comes to pass, entropy will continue its otherwise inexorable rise.

Second, Schweller argues that the international system is a closed one, which means that entropy is now rising. In thermodynamics, a closed system is one that can exchange energy but not matter with its surroundings—the universe being the only truly closed system in nature. For Schweller, a closed international system is one in which “no new information is yet to be discovered, all actors are known, and the space is clearly defined.” The international system composed of sovereign states was initiated with the Peace of Westphalia, a series of treaties concluded in 1648, but this system was largely confined to Western Europe in its early days. The state system, however, continued to spread until the wave of decolonization in the 1960s turned former colonies into states. “It was only then that the world system—almost every territorial inch of it—was composed of states and nothing but states”: a truly closed system. For Schweller, a closed international system inevitably tends toward increasing entropy. A hegemonic war is necessary and sufficient to restore order, but even such a drastic event can only temporarily forestall entropy.

Nuclear weapons, however, have made hegemonic war unthinkable. While Schweller grants that low-level conflict between aspiring hegemons may occur, he does not see full-scale war as a possibility. The world will not see a typical power transition in the twenty-first century, but power diffusion. Entropy will relentlessly increase, and the international system will tend toward maximum entropy. Though various catastrophes could imitate the destructive effects of a hegemonic war, none would produce political order. The world needs a hegemonic war, but it is not going to get one.

With hegemonic war an impossibility, a new incarnation of Maxwell’s demon becomes necessary. The demon involved in this thought experiment is a superhuman entity that can violate the second law of thermodynamics by sorting fast and slow-moving molecules without expending energy. Schweller suggests that in international politics, Maxwell’s demon is Big Data, a “super-intelligent sorter” that both makes it possible to observe people as if they were molecules and provides information that allows individuals to become entropy-reducing demons. Alas, this apparent solution is soon declared to be just as much of a problem. In the absence of hegemonic war, there is no Maxwell’s demon that will stave off entropy. The manner in which Schweller approaches this section of his argument, briefly introducing Big Data as a potential savior and quickly dismissing it before returning to the necessity of hegemonic war, makes for a jarringly disjointed conclusion.

The final chapter, like the rest of the book, is also filled with strained metaphors and bizarre pop culture references. The popularity of Tetris, a game in which “the enemy is disorder,” is taken as evidence of increasing entropy in the international sphere. Though Schweller may have a powerful argument on his hands, supporting evidence like that prevents him from doing much with it. The book ultimately fails to convince the reader of its main premises—that entropy in the international sphere is inevitably rising, that a hegemonic war is the only means to ameliorate this situation, that no such war is possible, and that relations among states will consequently change fundamentally.

A more thorough examination of some of the book’s principal assumptions could lend some credence to the argument. For example, the impossibility of hegemonic war in the face of nuclear weapons is a widely but not universally held belief. This assumption plays a major role in the argument and requires more than the confident assertion that, “Nuclear weapons have rendered war among the great powers unthinkable.” This statement is not even afforded a footnote. Likewise, the contention that the international system can be modeled as a closed system seems dubious; why this should lead to increasing entropy at the international level is even less clear. Even in a closed international system with no hegemonic war on the horizon, there are many variables that will affect the international distribution of power. Schweller provides no compelling reason to believe that the emerging multipolarity will become a permanent condition of the international system.

Nonetheless, Schweller is to be commended for taking on some of the most compelling questions in IR theory today. Naturally, he is not alone in his attempts to address long-term questions about the future of international politics. His argument echoes recent works proclaiming the emergence of a “G-Zero World” or “No One’s World”, in contrast to the more optimistic analyses of scholars like G. John Ikenberry, who argues that the United States can preserve its status as the guarantor of world order or at least leave that liberal order intact. The book is not, however, a rigorous exercise in theory-building. The argumentation is loose, the assumptions are unclear, and the supporting evidence is lacking. Nonetheless, if there is anything to the entropy metaphor, Schweller at least provides IR scholars with a reason to maintain an open and eclectic field.

Schweller presents an original argument that policy-makers and students of international relations will find intriguing, if not altogether convincing. The book remains compelling despite its flaws, and in this respect, it embodies the best and the worst aspects of grand theory in international relations. It is vague yet thought-provoking, alternately exciting and frustratingly indeterminate. In order to corroborate (or refute) his claims, further research, as always, is needed. Thankfully, given Schweller’s relative prominence in the field, this book will most certainly face a good deal of scrutiny, and it is likely that other scholars will subject his claims to more rigorous tests and thereby shed light on the future of international politics. The final line in the book (spoiler alert) is taken from an R.E.M. song—“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” We cannot be sure of that, however, until more extensive research can test Schweller’s claims. Traditional IR theory may not be dead yet.


Andrew Szarejko is an incoming doctoral student in Georgetown University’s Department of Government. A recent graduate of the University of Miami, he is currently an intern at the Bipartisan Policy Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Bipartisan Policy Center.


Photo credit: Tambako The Jaguar