Beyond Power Politics: How Ideology Motivates Threat Perception—and International Relations

Published date01 October 2022
Date01 October 2022
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
59(4) 289 –314, 2022
© 2022 Jawaharlal Nehru University
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DOI: 10.1177/00208817221132147
Research Article
Beyond Power Politics:
How Ideology Motivates
Threat Perception—and
International Relations
Peter Gries1
A growing literature demonstrates that ideology shapes international relations.
But just how does ideology have its effect? This article develops an integrated
model of mediators and moderators of the impact of ideology on foreign policy.
Specifically, it hypothesizes that ideologically motivated perceptions of threat and
national power sequentially mediate the impact of individual-level ideologies on
foreign policy preferences, and that in/out-group social categorization processes
moderate the relationship. We interrogate these propositions with three
plausibility probe case studies. The conclusion discusses which aspects of the
model were best supported by the plausibility probes—and suggests hypotheses
for future causal testing.
Ideology, liberal, conservative, foreign policy, power, threat
I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like
North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.
—Henry Kissinger (1969; cited in Burr & Kimball, 2006)
1 Manchester China Institute, The University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
Corresponding author:
Peter Gries, Manchester China Institute, The University of Manchester, 178 Waterloo Place,
Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, United Kingdom.
290 International Studies 59(4)
Power politics (German: Machtpolitik) approaches to international relations
(IR)—from classical realism (e.g., Morgenthau, 1948/1985) to the realpolitik
Henry Kissinger practiced while leading US foreign policy under Presidents
Nixon and Ford in the 1970s, to structural (e.g., Waltz, 2000) and offensive (e.g.,
Mearsheimer, 2001) realism—have long held that states that act on sentiment or
ideology, rather than the dispassionate pursuit of national power, will perish. An
influential variant argues that states balance against threat rather than power
(Walt, 1987). Michael Barnett (1996) has argued, however, that ‘balance of threat’
approaches largely reduce threat to power: nations fear more powerful nations.
They too, therefore, fall within the power-centric Machtpolitik school of IR.
An equally lengthy liberal IR tradition argues that ideological differences
between states powerfully shape war and peace. Immanuel Kant (1795/1983) and
later ‘Democratic Peace’ theorists (e.g., Doyle, 1983; Russett, 1994) argue that
democracies do not usually fight each other because of their shared liberal values
of compromise and non-violence. Mark Haas (2005) uses case studies from the
French Revolution to the end of the Cold War to argue that how leaders perceived
the ideological distance between each other shaped perceptions of mutual threat—
and cooperation/conflict. Michael Desch (2007–2008) has argued in his
provocative ‘America’s Liberal Illiberalism’ that liberalism at home promotes
illiberal foreign policies. And scholars have begun exploring the micro-foundations
of the democratic peace, such as the underlying drivers of both international amity
and enmity among democratic publics (Gries et al., 2020).
Another IR literature strongly suggests, furthermore, that ideological
differences within states also shape foreign policy (for a review, see Gries & Yam,
2020). Conservative/right-wing governments are generally more war-prone. US
Republicans usually take a tougher line on foreign affairs than Democrats do
(Dueck, 2010; Gries, 2014). Electing right-wing leaders is associated with state
aggression (Bertoli et al., 2019). Right-wing legislators in Europe vote more
frequently to support military deployments (Wagner et al., 2018), and to increase
military budgets (Bove et al., 2017), than left-wing legislators do. Left-leaning
governments favour foreign aid, while right-leaning governments favour military
spending (Wenzelburger & Boller, 2020).
These partisan differences in foreign policy are rooted in ideological
differences. Liberal and conservative Americans are systematically divided in
their views of foreign countries and international organizations—and both the
means and ends of US foreign policy (Gries, 2014). In the West, conservatives/the
right are more likely than liberals/the left to oppose immigration (Gries, 2016;
Homola & Tavits, 2018; Stewart et al., 2019; Zmigrod et al., 2018), prefer
excluding refugees (Van Prooijen et al., 2018) and support lethal drone strikes
(Ceccoli & Bing, 2018). They are also more tolerant of enemy collateral casualties
(Schori-Eyal et al., 2019).
There are widespread exceptions, however, to the rule of tougher conservative/
right foreign policy preferences. In the USA, over the past several decades, it is
Republicans who have become more pro-Israel, while Democrats have become
more critical (e.g., Carter, 2006; Cavari & Freedman, 2020; Mearsheimer & Walt,
2007). In Europe, anti-Americanism is more consistently located on the left than

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