Realism and International Relations
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Realism is a theoretical approach to the study of international relations. Realism is believed to be around for a very long time. Considered one of the founding founders of Realism is Thucydides, the raconteur of the Peloponnesian wars. According to Thucydides, the war between Athens and Sparta was caused by the increase in Athenian military power and the insecurity that it created among the Spartans. Nicolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and Max Weber are all considered as pioneers of Realism. Among the first scholars to use the term “Realism” were E.H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau. Carr and Morgethau argued that states are inherently self-interested, power seeking rational actors, who aim to ensure security and their chances of survival. Both these writers claimed that there was no natural; harmony of interests among states and that it was foolish and even dangerous to hope that the struggle for power among states could be tamed by international law, democratization, and international commerce. All realists believe that the realm of interstate behavior is sufficient unto itself for the purposes of explanation and normative justification. Realism invokes a bleak picture of international politics. Within the territorial boundaries of the formally sovereign state, politics is an activity of potential moral progress through the social construction of constitutional government. Beyond the exclusionary borders of its sovereign presence, politics is essentially the realm of survival rather than progress. Any cooperation between two states is seen as functional, a move to ensure the security of each state (Griffiths and O’callaghan 2002, pp. 261-263).
The Realist tradition rests upon three scientific presuppositions. First, there is the mechanistic view of international politics, which views relations among states in terms of balance and equilibrium – balance of power. Second, there is the biological theory associated with Darwin and the infamous struggle for survival. The third theory upon which Realism rests is a psychological one – egoism (Boucher 1998).
Human Nature and International Anarchy
Realism believes that there are two major constraints on politics – human nature and the absence of international government. Because of these two factors, international relations is considered as a sphere of power and interest. One realist, Thompson (1985), states that human nature has not changed since the days of classical antiquity (cited in Donnelly 2000, p. 9). Realists view human nature is primarily egoistic. Realists agree that human nature contains a permanent core of egoistic passions; that these passions define the central problem of politics; and that diplomacy is dominated by the need to control this side of human nature.
The absence of international government is also a constriction on politics. Realists believe that within the state, human nature can be curb and controlled by the political authority and rule. This changes outside the where anarchy seems to encourage the expression of worst sides of human nature. Realism, as an International Relations theory, suggests that states are always finding ways to gain power and will do anything to keep that power. States will always engage in conflicts and they will continue to challenge one another. As a mitigating factor, diplomacy is established.
Realism accepts three fundamental assumptions about international anarchy. First, that the world is composed of sovereign nation-states; second, that there is no world government; and third, that the absence of world government means that international politics is anarchical (Weber 2005, p. 15). Realists believe that the prevailing goal of states in an environment where anarchy is present is to survive. Survival is the overriding interest of each state. The only way that states can reasonably ensure their survival is to increase their power. Power protects states because states with less power might fear those with more power and therefore be less likely to attack them.
Additionally, realists believe that there is no way out of international anarchy. It is unrealistic to think that a world government could be formed because states would never be secure enough. Each state will continue to be suspicious toward other states and they will never give up their power to a world government. It is also the belief of realists that world politics will continue to be anarchical and conflict-laden because of the nature of man (Weber 2005).
Centrality of the State
The group is considered as the essence of social reality. Human beings will always strive for group membership and groups challenge other groups. Realists believe the primary component of political organization from the beginning of civilization up until now is the nation state. The state is considered as the principal actor in the international arena and the nature of the state and way states deal with one another define the characteristic of the international relations (Grieco 1997).
Realists also believe that that states co-exist in a world where there is international anarchy. According to proponents of realism, international anarchy exists and that states cannot appeal to any single international body regarding grievances and protection.
Realists work with a cluster of three interrelated assumptions about states. The first part of this cluster is the assumption that states are rational actors. State rationality, from a realist viewpoint, has at least three elements.
- Realists assume that states are goal oriented. Realists assume that states have such goals and devise strategies specifically aimed at their achievement.
- Realists assume that states have consistent goals. That is, state preferences are ordered and transitive in the sense that outcome A is preferred to B, and B is proffered to C, then A is preferred to C.
- Realists assume that states devise strategies to achieve their goals. These strategies take into account the rank ordering by states of these goals.
Characteristics of States: Realist View
1. The main interest of every state, according to realists is security. It has been argued that security is the highest end of anarchy. States need to ensure their survival first before they commit to other goals such as tranquility, profit and power. States according to the realist theory are defensive actors. They are agents concerned first and foremost with their survival and security.
2. States according to realists are concerned about their relative capabilities. States seek power because it enables them to deal with actual or potential threats posed by other states. Power is considered relative. Because power is relative, states tend to be positional actors. States, as realists view them, compare themselves to others and assess their own actions, the actions of others and their relationships and interactions from the viewpoint of their effect on relative capabilities.
3. States, value security more than anything. In general, states seek to be free to employ strategies that will ensure security, increase their power and maintain their position in the international scene. States employ such strategies in order to ensure safety. Because of the absence of a single international government, states tend to give importance to autonomy of decision and independence of action. In addition, states, according to realist theory, seek in the self-help context of anarchy to retain a capacity to carry out those functions that are conducive to security, survival and maintenance of relative position.
Criticisms against Realism: Weaknesses of the Theory
The Issue of International Change
One of the biggest criticism against Realism as an international relations theory is its inability to recognize and explain international change, especially the events that mark the end of the Cold War. Realism, according to its critics is not able to anticipate and explain the end of Cold War because of its too much focus on structural constants. Realism fails to recognize the importance of domestic change and the evolution of norms among nations. Realism comes short when it comes to explaining change especially when the change in propelled by world political economy or when change occurs due to changes in the structure of states. Another weakness of realism is its failure to explain how the interstate system developed from feudalism. According to the critics, realism is not able to explain these developments because of its ignorance of the progressive increases in domestic integration.
The Issue of Unit-Level Variables
Another criticism about realism is it fails to take into account the impact of domestic factors such as political, economic, and social processes, on the foreign behavior of states. One of the core assumptions of realism, is that states are rational entities. They are rational when it comes to their goals and policies. This is highly influenced by international anarchy. According to the Realist perspective, because of the danger posed by international anarchy, states are extremely hesitant to give importance to international institutions. States, according to realists will resist being controlled and constrained by international institutions.
According to Ashley (1984) the realist tradition faced different challenges. One of the most prominent was the end of Cold War. The realist tradition, according to its critics, have failed, despite changes, to explain the emergence of problems that became prominent after the Cold War. These problems are ethnic tensions, nationality issues, religious fundamentalism, international drug trafficking, foreign investment, technology transfer, migration and refugee problems, environmental and demographic problems, international terrorism, hunger, poverty and debt (Palmer 1990; Ferguson and Mansbach 1991 cited in Yaffe 1994, p. 82).
Realism according to Donnelly (2000) presents laws of international relations that are not timeless. Realism identifies constraints, not unbreakable barriers. There are also different processes, activities and developments that are happening in the international relations that are beyond the scope of realism. There are also some realists that admitted that some of their passages tend to be one-sided. Realism’s principal purpose is to warn against moralism, progressivism, and similar ‘optimistic’ orientations. It emphasizes what is unlikely or difficult in international relations, rather than what is worth striving for. Realism depicts international affairs as a struggle for power among self-interested states and is generally pessimistic about the prospects of eliminating conflict and war. Realism is a continuing tradition of argument. However, the changes in social and political environment has led to the its declining prominence. Donelly also added that realism is rooted in enduring insights into the constraints posed by human nature and international anarchy. Problems arise when they are allowed to squeeze out other no less important insights - which is especially likely when realism is treated as a general theory of international politics. Even among “realists” such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, Carr, and Herz we have seen the centrality of “non-realist” insights. Without that sense of balance - which is sorely lacking in leading figures such as Morgenthau, Waltz, and Mearsheimer - realism's insights are more likely to create than to solve theoretical and practical problems (p. 195).
In Defence of Realism
Realism continues to exist because it regularly offers insights into recurrent sources and patterns of conflict rooted in anarchy, competition and diffidence. According to Donelly (2000) realism tells little about cooperation, which many analysts find a no less important part of international relations. This according to Donelly cannot be considered as a failure. Realism, like other philosophies, traditions, or research programs, is an aid to understanding. Realism is a tool that works well for certain purposes and not at all for others. Realism has been able to adapt to different developments and to give birth to different theories. According to Yaffe (1994) a modified realism emerged under the rubric of ‘structural realism’. Realists took up the challenge of adapting the theory to account for such phenomena as cooperation between states, arms control regimes, and the suppression of outward conflict between superpowers in the condition of systematic anarchy.
Realism can be applied to foreign policy making. Realism is not only an approach to the theory of foreign policymaking, but also to the study of the making of foreign policy. Realism as applied to policymaking is used as a tool that aids in the systematic analysis of foreign policy decisions. The key is the result of the policy, not the objectives or the intentions. The policy-makers evaluate alternatives according to their result. With the advantage of observation, the predicted result can be measured and the policymaking can be repeated to yield a more favorable policy. Realism cam also is used as a method in making foreign policy. Realism as a method for foreign policy is established on basic assumptions about the conflicts that exists between nation states, their national interests, the relative balance of power, and the relationships between intentions and capabilities.
The realistic approach to foreign policy recognizes that the world is an will the future will continue to be made up of individual nation states. The international relations arena will continue to be influenced by nation states. Despite competition for loyalties from regional alliances, international organizations and global economics, nation-states are here to stay. Realism proposes that nation-states will always prioritize their security above all. Every country has only one goal – that is to ensure security; to protect its territory and institutions. Secondary interests for nations of the world include such matters as peace and security elsewhere, the protection and promotion of democratic governments, the containment of aggressive ideologies and other expansionist governments, and the relief of poverty. These are not pursued at the expense of the primary interest of national security and can be pursued only within narrow limits of available power (Stupak and Leitner 2001).
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Ashley, R. K. (1984). The Poverty of Neorealism. International Organization 38, 255-86.
Donnelly, J. (2000). Realism and International Relations. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Ferguson, Y. H., and R. W. Mansbach. (1991). Between Celebration and Despair: Constructive Suggestions for Future International Theory.
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Yaffe, M. D. (1994). Realism in Retreat?The New World Order and the Return of the Individual to International Relations Studies, Perspectives on Political Science, 23(2), 82+.
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