For this essay I have been asked to describe one theoretical approach in the study of the world arena, and how this theory recognizes and deals with problems that might occur within the world arena. I have chosen to describe the approach taken by realist theories because I believe that realism still has a profound role in society today; with the ‘War on Terrorism’, nuclear expansion in the middle-East and Asia and the religious civil wars still evident in Israel, from all corners of the globe states are continuously trying to maximize their national power and influence within the world arena.
Since the beginning of academic study realism has arguably been the dominate theory of world politics. Why is this the case? Maybe it is the only plausible explanation for the wars which have been so regular and influential in shaping the world arena. Nevertheless, over the last decade realists have come under immense criticism as new world leaders fight for international democracy, and that most problems within world politics are now controlled by international organizations such as the United Nations.
Realism in a broader sense is ‘how the world is and not what we would like it to be’. To some extent, the US may be entering a new era of foreign policy under soon-to-be president Obama, changing from arguably one of the most idealistic administrations under President Bush to a more realistic approach from Obama whilst seeking idealistic aims of complete diplomacy.
The aim of this essay is to outline the major developments of realism throughout history and how this theory deals with problems that commonly occur in the world arena. I believe views of realism and the approach taken by realists has changed over the last century, with comparison to other theories and major events, this paper will try to outline my point of view.
The problem faced with people when trying to comprehend world politics is the amount of material to look at due to the contemporary world arena continuously changing. It is hard to come to a comprehensive explanation of events without the use of theories. Thus, all theories suggest which factors are more important than others in the world arena in explaining what actions take place. I believe Balyis, Smith and Owens best describe theories:
“theory is a kind of simplifying device that allows you to decide which facts matter and which do not”
International relations is characterized by the great debates and the approach in which they are taken, this is why theories have such a profound role in the world arena.
The origins of realism can be found back to the fifth century, where Thucydides who is often portrayed as the founder of the theory. His analysis of the Peloponnesian War was the first of any exposition of realist concepts. For Thucydides;
“the real reason… [for the war]… was the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta.”
It was not until the early 1500s that the realist theory was further developed by a political philosopher known as Machiavelli, who was widely condemned at the time for his cynical and amoral advice on the way governments should be conducted. Nevertheless, what was written in his book “The Prince” became the essence of what we know today as realism:
“But since my intention is to say something that will prove of practical use to the inquirer, I have thought it proper to represent things as they are in real truth, rather than as they are imagined. Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist; the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than self-preservation. The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Therefore if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must learn how not to be virtuous, and make use of this or not according to need”
Although realism has to some extent travelled throughout ancient and modern history, it was not until the early twentieth century when Edward.H.Carr contributed to the foundation of what is now known as Political Realism in International Relations.
For Carr, politics was the combination of two key elements; utopia and reality where in his well know book The Twenty Years’ Crisis, Carr described the opposition of realism and utopianism in international relations as a ‘dialectic progress’
Carr argued that in realism there is no moral dimension, and that what is successful is right, and what is unsuccessful is wrong. Realism under Carr underwent a new incarnation in the form of social darwinism.
So what is Political Realism? Other than knowing it is a theory of world politics, Political Realism was the dominate theory of international relations in the 20th century. Realism is not a single theory but a family of theories due to the changing perception realists have, ranging from Defensive realism; Liberal realism; Neorealism; Offensive realism and Subaltern realism. International relations constitutes a largely autonomous sphere of political action; realists identify the international system as anarchic, meaning there is no authority or organization above the state, signifying sovereign states are the principle actors in the world arena. In comparison, liberalists identify a mixture of actors (state and non-state) within the international system and marxists focus on classes and the role of economic power. This does not mean realists ignore the status of international or non-government institutions and classes, they are just viewed as having less independence and influence than states in the world arena.
Nevertheless, why is this important for realists? One role of the state is the protection of citizens living within the community from outside threats from other nations or rogue actors, like terrorists. Due to international anarchy it is important for a nation to have as much power as it can to ensure that it’s citizens are protected. To most realists, the ‘struggle for power’ amongst states is at the core of International Relations
. As Morgenthau describes:
“International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power. Whatever the ultimate aim of international politics, power is always the immediate concern”
For realists, boundaries have always been very important to the state and of the workings of the mechanism known as the balance of power. Historically, boundaries have been associated with major conflicts and if boundaries are contested, like in both World Wars, realists believe the most appropriate tool under a state’s umbrella is military force. In contrast, liberalists argue for the pursuit of democracy and international management of global problems, which since the Cold War, organizations like the United Nations have insisted states and international relations have considerably changed policies from realism to a more liberal and constructive approach.
The need for security and sovereignty is another important factor for explaining the realist theory. States are very competitive, but to remain sovereign, they pursue their own domestic destinies. If states are consistently battling the imposition of another, it cannot focus on it’s own domestic affairs. The German term Realpolitik, so central to realist thought, refers to security and high politics among states. Ironically, when all states demand national security it can cause a ‘recipe for insecurity’. Hence, the international arena is a paradoxical view, states want to be secure and compete fairly but always feel insecure due to everlasting challenges from other states.
Historically states have generated and to some extent controlled events, locations and flows of people; communication and resources by means of force. However, I believe that in this present climate, realists see the world not as Mr. Morgenthau did, as an anarchic system in which states consistently pursue national interest, but as a world of converging interests, in which economics, not power, is the primary driving force.
The importance of location of people; states or events are still viewed important for realists, but they are observed and responded in terms of economic security and stability and not national security.
The basic assumption of realist theory would lead us to believe that sovereign states would act according to their national interest on flows of capital; goods or people. Such interest might include a desire to regulate the supply of and demand for labour or capital, limit population growth or maintain the cultural ‘balance’ in society.
As regards to events such as the Cold War, realists view the conflict as a political competition between the US and USSR with their development of new and more powerful weapons. Recently, the conflict in Georgia between the US and Russia has been described as the start of another “Cold War’, but in terms of realism, how important are the two breakaway areas to the national security of the U.S? The answer: not very. However, the US realists are concerned about the two areas because of their location in the world arena (they lay above raw materials) and the flow of oil. Russia is trying to dictate who controls Georgia, and with it an energy pipeline which would further their attempts to intimidate the US by threatening to cut off oil supplies (economic stability)
If you consider the War on Iraq, another major event in the last five years, the realist approach would understand the U.S. invasion as a “natural” behavior of any great power seeking to accumulate its dominance or acting to events which they deemed has change the balance of power . My argument is that the realist approach has changed. Before the war began realists anticipated large problems if the US involved themselves in the Middle-East, just like they did with the war in Vietnam. To the extent war can be purposeful, realists now see it’s utility as almost entirely negative. Politically, it can intimidate or eliminate a government, but as a means of spreading democracy, which President Bush would have people believe the United States is doing in Iraq, it only gets you so far, and then the costs tend to outweigh any benefits which could be achieved.
Recently, realism has had its critics, with increasing globalization combined with the success of the European Union some argue that multinational corporations are more powerful than the state. The international system now has MNCs which have economies and possibly military force larger than states, undermining realist views of states being the only influential actors in the world arena.
Nevertheless, realists maintain that MNCs and the EU are legitimized by states and thus cannot be considered independent entitles, and states may just be joining in pursuit of their own rational self-interest. Yet, this places doubt on the state as a unitary actor – as interaction between non-state actors (for example, between MNCs) is becoming increasingly commonplace.
In Conclusion, the contemporary world arena is continuously changing. The Realist theory has always been the dominate force in modern history, where realists see the international system as anarchic with states competing against other states for national security within the world arena. Boundaries, events and locations are all regarded as important on the agenda if they challenge national security, where usually realists argue states use military force if they feel threatened.
However, as I have shown in the essay, the views of realist theories are changing. In another sense realism has pulled itself inside out. The victory of democratic powers over fascism and nazism in World War II followed by victory of democracies over communism in the Cold War sparked off the historical shift in the balance of power towards nations and citizens who favored the liberal democratic idea. Maybe realists have accepted that the bases of their theory laid by the founders like Morgenthau and Carr is no longer suitable for international thinking and that contemporary realists need to widen their views to still have a major impact in the future of the world arena.
Baylis, Smith, Owens; The Globalization of World politics
Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War
Machiavelli: The prince
Walter Laqueur: The Fate of the Revolution
Hans J. Morgenthau: Politics among Nations,
Lecture notes week 6 & 7
Kenneth N. Waltz: Theory of International politics
Richard Rosercrance: Long Cycle Theory in International Relations
Young & Kent: International Relations since 194