Critically evaluate post-war realist explanations of international politics with particular reference to power Essay

The following essay will critically examine post war realist thought with particular reference to power. Realist assumptions can be traced back to the political realism of Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes.1 Post-war classical realism, long the dominant perspective in International Relations, was dominated by scholars such as E. H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau and John Herz.2 As Gilpin argues, realism is a “general orientation, a philosophical disposition”, not a monolithic viewpoint.3 However, it expresses a distinctive set of assumptions about the nature of man and the world system. Along with its historicism, the main characteristic of classical realist thought is the emphasis on power politics among states.

Realism is overtly concerned with war and advocates believe that “they are facing the world as it is.”4 It is a problem-solving approach as opposed to a critical theory in that it takes the broad outlines of the present world to express unchanging facts about the human condition, and works within these outlines. It therefore claims to be “realistic” in the everyday as well as the technical sense. Although the focus in this essay is on classical realism, it should be noted that neo-realists broadly adhere to the same model of power. While theorists such as Waltz have challenged the exclusive emphasis on states in classical realism and recognise economic and other actors as power-holding units, they have not challenged the classical model of power.5 Therefore, this essay will not discuss neo-realism as a distinct perspective.

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Power is absolutely central to its perspective, especially in the form of realpolitik, i.e. power politics. As Morgenthau argues, “[t]he main signpost that helps political realism through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power.”6 Realists advocate a distinctive model of international power. For realists, power is something which sovereign states possess or strive to possess; it is conceived as an objective, limited and positive-sum resource.

According to Morgenthau, governments of states perceive the national interest as nothing more than a maximisation of their own power as a state. Morgenthau also asserts that national interest or power changes, although the drive for power is constant7. Realism is a state-centric approach based on the assumption that states are the main power-holders in a world system seen as anarchic. States fight to maximise their power capabilities such as territory, creating a dangerous, lawless world. Power therefore operates in a raw form, as physical violence and threat-capacity. Apart from the realist theory of the balance of power which will be evaluated later, realists assert that states determine their own destiny in this anarchic system.

The relationship of states with each other is dependent entirely on their power-relationship with each other. The realist account of power leads to a conservative attitude to the possibility of international change. Realism insists that critical theory’s preoccupation with global reform and the liberal preoccupation with trade are at best naive and at worst dangerous. By concentrating on the capacity to use force and by assuming that this capacity is unhindered, realists assume that other organisations cannot exercise forms of power sufficient to alter state actions. Power, treated as more-or-less synonymous with violence, is seen as the exclusive preserve of states.

The realist account of inter-state anarchy suggests that all states are potential enemies of any particular state. Thus, power is necessary in order for a state to survive or to defend itself against the encroachments of rival states. Thus, realism asserts that “the meaning of security is subsumed under the rubric of power”8. States have to rely on their own capabilities (i.e. their ability to exercise power) for their security.

War can be avoided by careful diplomacy or a state may be deterred by the size and capabilities (power) of another. The world is metaphorised as a “billiard ball model”. Billiard balls represent states conceived as sovereign independent units. As the balls (states) move around the table (anarchical world), only the hard exteriors (governments) touch. Power operates like physical force, as heavier and faster moving balls push smaller ones out of the way.9 This illustrates at least two crucial aspects of the realist theory of power: its representation of all power in terms of physical force, and its establishment of an exterior relationship between states. Realism analyses the behaviour of states entirely in terms of their power and their relationships to each other.

The billiard ball image of the world system is a simplistic representation and has been criticised for being so from advocates of liberal, critical, feminist and Marxist approaches. As the image assumes a world of functionally identical states, differences between capitalist, fascist and communist states and between developed and underdeveloped states are not taken into account. Neither are forms of power exercised by non-state entities such as multinational corporations (MNC’s). Liberal scholars, for instance, criticise the unawareness of economic factors in realist analysis. Classical realism asserts that the international economic system exists, but operates as a separate system within which economic interaction happens only within that system.

Hence, the international economic system is a separate entity and can be ignored as far as the relationships between states are concerned. This assumption is problematic, because the process of globalisation has changed the face of the international system. In contrast to the realist billiard ball model, Keohane and Nye have provided a metaphor that the international system is more like a ‘cobweb’10 in which the units of analysis are the links between actors such as international institutions and transnational economic forces.

There is some evidence for this claim. For example, recent decades have seen the rise of new international actors such as MNCs, global institutions and non-governmental organisations ranging from Christian Aid to the Zapatistas. Arguably, these new actors rival states in terms of power, often by exercising forms of power which are not captured by a realist emphasis on physical violence but which nevertheless influence state policy. For instance, realpolitik dictated that Turkey should have supported the recent war against Iraq to obtain economic and military assistance from America. The state of Turkey opposed the war, perhaps because of fears of domestic unrest or because of pan-Islamic sentiments of solidarity.

Neo-liberal perspectives argue that peace and progress in the international system is brought about by the facilitation of trade and the spread of liberal democracy. This theory of “democratic peace” challenges the idea that states are involved in a war of all against all. As Doyle argues, democracies don’t fight other democracies.11 Whatever the problems with this claim, it is true at least for northern “advanced” democracies, raising the question of how the destructive wars of the period 1871-1945 have been replaced by a sixty-year peace. There does not seem to be any reason why states driven by self-interest to maximise their power should behave in such a way. Neo-liberal perspectives also argue that globalisation is breaking down geographical borders, resulting in the emergence of a global civil society/culture.

This society/culture places limits on the ability of states to engage in realpolitical manoeuvres, and therefore exerts a variety of power unaccounted-for in the liberal model. However, the power of global civil society is more often asserted than demonstrated, and there are no obvious examples of states holding back from controversial actions because of fear of this society. Rather, slogans about humanitarianism and civil society are often appropriated to legitimate the realpolitical manoeuvres of great powers.

For instance, while humanitarian rhetoric was used to legitimate the western interventions in the former Yugoslavia, interventions which served western states’ regional interests in control, the same righteousness is notably absent in the case of Russia’s genocidal war in Chechnya, where realpolitik dictates that the west remains silent. The liberal account has also been widely attacked and its soundest claims accounted for by neo-realists, who argue that global linkages are too weak to transcend or constrain states12. As Hirst and Thompson argue, “rather than globalisation it is internationalisation as the later acknowledges the state’s central location in the international system.”13 The neo-liberal critique of realism is unable fully to answer this reply and is therefore only partially successful.

In realism, power is located at governmental level and projected outwards. What happens inside the state is of no concern. Hence realism is very much concerned with the foreign policy of states. Realist perspectives have dominated foreign policy analysis, both in terms of the strictly realist rational actor model and its close neighbour, the decision-making approach (which focuses on groups rather than individuals). 14 For realists, governments acting on behalf of states are to be treated for analytical purposes as unitary monolithic actors. The limitations of realist assumptions in foreign policy have been highlighted in relation to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For example, Graham Allison’s study shows how the decision-making approach alone cannot explain events in crisis management. Individual charisma, operational environments and bureaucracy are all played down and left out of realist analysis. The analysis of power as a property of unitary states is also problematised by analyses of the 1980 Iran hostage crisis.

This rescue mission highlighted the need for study of policy outcomes as decisions cannot always be implemented in a way the decision-maker intends, as well as problematising the idea that government decisions are rational.15 In other words, the state is neither unitary in its policy-making nor focused on power in the realist sense, suggesting that power should be viewed in more fragmentary and open-ended ways. Neo-realism has attempted to counterbalance criticisms of realist foreign policy. Waltz again has stressed the importance of the system as a generator of behaviour.16 However, this attempted rebuttal has failed to solve the problems raised by the various counterexamples.

Classical realism deduces the extent of a state’s power from the sum total of its capabilities (for example, geographical size, military capabilities and access to natural recourses). Realists can be criticised for this objective, positivistic process of measurement of state power. State power defined in this way does not always prevail in war. Jeffrey Race’s analysis of the Vietnam War suggests that a reliance on quantitative measures of power was one reason for the US failure. The US concentrated on securing fixed objectives such as the occupation of particular locations and the prevention of enemy movement within given areas, and ignored the wider context.

In contrast, the Vietcong/Vietminh defined power in a more open-ended way, conceiving of mass support as an important form of power and emphasising mobility and concealment as compatible with invisible forms of power17. The apparently powerless Vietcong/Vietminh were able to beat the world’s strongest army without ever challenging the US’s power in the sense understood by realists. The current situations in occupied Iraq and in the Israeli-occupied territories reveal a similar pattern, while the September 11th attacks reveal the possibility of formally “powerless” groups striking devastating blows against those supposedly protected by “power”.

Classical realism is overtly empiricist, but theorists are sometimes reluctant to engage in direct empirical analysis which could challenge their fundamental assumptions. Therefore, realism is open to criticism for making sweeping generalisations about how states act. Also, realism expresses a claim about states’ reasons to act. For example, a state may be driven by economic pursuits or ideological as opposed to security dilemmas. US policy in the Middle East can arguably be described as driven by economics or by ideological pressure groups, since (for instance) the invasion of Iraq is apparently irrational in terms of power capabilities. Arguably, Hitler’s movements in Europe, such as the invasion of Russia, can be seen as largely ideological and therefore similarly inexplicable on a realist model. Therefore realism can be accused of misjudging what motivates states and what factors influence state decisions.

Realism arguably can be thought of as being a normative theory in international relations as normative propositions can be made about how a state should behave to maximise power or to avert war. Morgenthau insists that international relations should be “consistent with the facts”18 and classical realism claims to be looking at the world as it is. It depends heavily on the claim that pervasive realpolitik is inevitable. If this claim is untrue, realism, to the extent that it influences governments, may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By telling states that they must act in line with a set of flawed assumptions, it may act as a barrier to more benevolent world orders, creating the very “war of all against all” it claims is a fundamental fact.

Post-war realism developed in “tandem with strategic studies”19 due to Cold War pressures. Realists claim that international relations is distinct and not related to any other intellectual discipline, such as political science, sociology or diplomatic history. To realists, international relations is a specialised field and methodologically should be studied as one. As Waltz argues, the international system is a “domain apart.”20 This disciplinary separatism is at least in part a function of the realist model of power, which denies links to internal politics, economics and other fields. By defining disciplinary boundaries rigidly and excluding other intellectual endeavours, realism limits inquiry and can be criticised for not embracing new research and marginalising and ignoring other perspectives. This criticism is linked to the view that power is broader and more fragmentary than realists believe.

Feminism, for instance, is not recognised or embraced by realist scholars, because feminist conceptions of gender power are incommensurable with the realist emphasis on the primacy of the state. Feminist critiques therefore impact on the realist view of power. For example, Ann Tickner has provided a feminist critique of Morgenthau’s six principles of political realism.21 Tickner is also critical of realism’s conception of security arguing “it is masculine and women have seldom been recognised in security literature.”22 Tickner believes that the analysis of gender inequality and including women’s experiences in security analysis can help to construct a more comprehensive understanding of security issues. This also implies that power operates in complex ways which cannot be reduced to the actions of states. Other dimensions of power, particularly gender, are also important for analysis.

In terms of the Hollis and Smith23 debate about understanding and explaining international relations, realism would certainly be said to explain international relations. Realism defined by Cox “is a problem- solving theory, which seeks to reify and legitimise the existing order”24. Realism as a positivist doctrine asks few epistemological questions as knowledge is considered to be constructed through an objective engagement with the subject-matter. For realists, there is a fixed reality, and an objective world exists which can be examined through a separation of subject and object. Thus for realists, power is part of the object, not the subject, of analysis. Realism takes for granted the state and international system, turning them into unquestionable observable facts.

The biggest criticisms of the realist conception of power stem from critical theories of international relations. A poststructuralist discussion of the relationship between power and knowledge provides a challenge to the idea that power can be objectified and assessed in narrowly-defined terms and raises the problem of realist analysts’ own involvement in the production of power/knowledge. For example, Michel Foucault rejected the realist assumption that power is centralised in the state. Instead, Foucault argued that power relationships are socially constructed and present in regimes of knowledge and subject-formation.

For Foucault power has no meaning accessible to positivistic analysis. Instead, “power must be analysed as something which circulates”25 and which is exercised in everyday situations such as hospitals and prisons. No metanarrative could explain how power works in all situations. Instead Foucault was concerned with the relationship between power and knowledge. He argued that “power produces knowledge, knowledge and power directly imply one another”26 and depend on each other in societies. Power/knowledge works in society through discourse (e.g. language, images and practices) and is exercised through communicative control and influence over definitions of reality. International power would therefore involve issues as diverse as global communities of scientists and media definitions of the “Third World”.

To take another example, the discourse of western foreign policy during the Cold War rested on the image of the good capitalist and the bad communist. Another critical theorist, Herbert Marcuse, makes this clear in his analyses of this discourse: ‘in the mouth of the enemy, peace means war, and defence is attack, while on the righteous side, escalation is restraint, and saturation bombing prepares for peace’27. ‘In the established vocabulary’, he adds, ‘”violence” is a term which one does not apply to the actions of the police, the National Guard, the Marshals, the Marines or the bombers.

The “bad” words are a priori reserved for the Enemy, and their meaning is defined and validated by the actions of the Enemy regardless of their motivation or goal’28. ‘Organised in this discriminatory way, language designates a priori the Enemy as evil in his entirety and in all his actions and intentions’29. It is these images which construct the way people act and which determine whether the people who make up the state act in the way alleged by realists. Hence power operates by constructing individuals of a certain type, a process Foucault terms “subjectification”. The importance of critical analyses such as Foucault’s, Marcuse’s and Cox’s is the emphasis on daily life, ideology, social relations and culture as opposed to a state-centric analysis.

Such analyses also have an ethical component. For Foucault the role and impetus of a theory in international relations is to understand rather than explain. This concern is echoed by other critical theorists such as postcolonial theorists and neo-Gramscians. All such approaches problematise the way in which realists ignore or naturalise the motivations of statist actors and the effects of their policies on the poor and the weak, suggesting that by naturalising power, realists reinforce it. A good example of an analysis of international issues which pursues this approach is Edward Sa�d’s book Orientalism, which criticises mainstream IR scholars and others for stereotyping Muslims and Arabs30. He portrays the power of the west as operating, not merely through governments, but also through media and cultural representations, regimes of knowledge and subtle influences on identities in both west and east.

World Systems Theory, one variant of critical theory, challenges the idea that power is held by individual states. As Wallerstein argues “there exists a world structure in which dominant interests located in the advanced industrial world dominate and exploit the rest of the world using economic, political and military means.”31 Against the billiard ball and cobweb models, this theory suggests a hierarchic arrangement of global power in which a few core or metropolitan states dominate an integrated system through means such as economic exploitation. Although the world system frequently experiences wars and conflicts, these are a result of the core states’ attempts to subordinate the rest of the world and therefore to keep the world system in place.

The frequency and structure of US interventions in the underdeveloped world tend to confirm this analysis and its implicit critique of realism. Far from operating merely to forward the interests of the US state as a distinct “billiard ball”, US power is deployed to construct relations of economic dominance, to remove leaders who threaten to nationalise US companies’ assets, to gain control of resources such as oil and to prevent the emergence of alternative models of development and of social organisation. Events such as the invasions of the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Panama, easily explained by World Systems Theory, are inexplicable in terms of realist explanations, as the invasions simply reaffirmed US hegemony in a region where it is already extremely powerful.

As I have already suggested, the understanding of the nature of power is central to realism. Power is both the endpoint of all state action and the motive which allows for the rational explanation of international relations. So how is constant state war avoided and how do governments manage power in the anarchic realist world? In order to be adequate, the realist account of power would have to explain peace as well as war. There have been attempts to address this problem. Realism asserts that despite anarchy and a basic pre -disposition to conflict, conflict is not the continual and universal norm in the international system.

Power itself acts as an ordering mechanism through what is termed the balance of power. The balance of power is a stabilizing condition that prevents the constant outbreak of war, discouraging states from attempting to alter the status quo through armed force. Balance of power theory asserts that, by balancing (allying with others or increasing power internally) against rising power, states prevent imbalances of power from threatening the system of sovereign states as a whole, or transforming the anarchic system into a world empire. Britain consciously acted as a balancer in the 19th Century, switching alliances to oppose any power that appeared to be developing a capability to conquer.32

According to realism the balance of power can take on two forms, the simple balance known as the bipolar system and the complex balance known as the multipolar, depending whether the balance occurs between two reasonably matched powers or many scattered ones.33 The Cold War era, when the bipolar model seemed useful, validated the dominance of the realist paradigm in International Relations. As Brown argues, “realism offered a conception of the world which defined the ‘common sense’ of the subject”.34 Neo-realists are such as Waltz are at the forefront of arguments for nuclear deterrence. “Firstly they [i.e. nuclear weapons] make the cost of war seem frighteningly high. Secondly they discourage states from starting any wars that might lead to the use of such weapons”.

35 However, contemporary changes in the international system have highlighted the flaws in realist analyses. For example, the idea of nuclear weapons being a deterrent to war is rendered obsolete due to the alleged increased capacity of rogue states and non state actors such as al-Qaeda for obtaining weapons of mass destruction. How can agreements such as mutually assured destruction be implemented in this context? Rather, the threat of sneak attacks leads to an escalating spiral of “pre-emptive” wars. This problem of “nuclear terrorism” is simply a special case of the problem of so-called “asymmetrical warfare”. Tactics such as guerrilla war, suicide bombing and terrorism suggest that power can be exercised outside systems of deterrence.

In any case, the idea of nuclear deterrence is problematic, since nuclear escalation has been an ongoing cause of instability in regions such as the Middle East, Korea and the Indian subcontinent. Arguably, the events of September the 11th have projected realism to the top of the agenda both with in the discipline of international relations and American foreign policy. This is ironic, since realists entirely failed to predict the attack, and since they continue to assume that a large capability is necessary for a state or group to constitute a threat. Al-Qaeda accomplished the September 11th massacre without any significant military capacity in the strict sense, and they are alleged to have spent only $100,00036 on the attack, far less than the cost of even a single warplane. This suggests that if anything, September 11th shows that realism misunderstands power and is obsolete.

This essay has critically evaluated the concept of power in realist analyses within international relations. The criticisms addressed with in this essay have portrayed the weaknesses in realist ideology regarding the fragmentary character of power, the complexity of the world system and the social construction of foreign policy.

However, realism still remains at the forefront of international relations. Students still continue to be taught realist principles before considering contemporary approaches. One explanation for this could rest upon the assumption that realism is very much embedded in American foreign policy. Certainly an analysis of realist conceptions of power does not suggest that realism understands the complexity of international phenomena. In order to deal more seriously with power in the global system, it is necessary to incorporate an awareness of a range of other issues, varying from gender inequalities to economic exploitation, and from media discourse to the role of international institutions.

1 See Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Machiavelli The Prince, Hobbes Leviathan.

2 Morgenthau Politics Among Nations presents six points which he considers to be the fundamental principles of his conception of realism. E H Carr 20 Year Crisis Hertz (1950) Security Dilemma

3Gilpin. (1986) The Richness of the Tradition of Political Realism, in. Keohane R (ed.) Neo-realism and its Critics, New York: Columbia press p304

4 Hollander 28/03/2000 Waltz’s Political Realism Wins James Madison Lifetime Achievement Award In Political Science. Columbia University Press available at URL ;http://www.columbia.edu/cu/pr/00/03/kennethWaltz.html; 5/11/)03

5 Linklater A, chapter 11 Neo-realism in Theory ; Practice in Booth ; Smith (1995) International Relations theory Today Oxford Blackwell Publishers.

6 Morgenthau (1954) cited in Donelly J (2000) Realism and International Relations Cambridge: Cambridge University Press p7

7 Morgenthau (1984) Politics of Nations: The Struggle For Power ; Peace six edition revised by Thompson Publisher McGraw-Hill Education.

8 Booth ; Smith (1995) International Relations Theory Today Oxford Blackwell Publishers p176

9 Burton J 1972 World Society Cambridge: Cambridge University Press p 27-28

10 ibid

11 Waltz (2000) Structural Realism after the Cold War International Security Vol 25 No 1 summer 2000 p6

12 Hirst ; Thompson (1999) Globalisation in Question The International Economy and the possibilities of governance 2nd ed Great Britain Polity Press

13 ibid p 7

14 Clarke ; White (1989) Understanding Foreign Policy the foreign policy systems approach Aldershot Edward Elgar Publishing.

15 Clarke ; Smith (1985) Foreign Policy Implementation George Allen ; Unwin.

16 Waltz (1967)foreign policy and Democratic Process Boston Little Brown

17 Race, Jeffrey, War Comes to Long An. Revolutionary conflict in a Vietnamese province Berkeley: University of California Press 1972, pp. 277-83.

18 ibid

19 Smith, Booth and Zalewski (1996) International Theory Positivism and Beyond UK Cambridge University Press p48

20 Burchill S (1996) Theories of International Relations Saint Martins Press p 21

21 Tickner (1992) Gender in International Relations a Feminist perspectives on Achieving Global Security New York Columbia University Press.

22 Booth ; Smith (1995) International Relations Theory Today Oxford Blackwell Publishers p190

23 Hollis ; Smith (1990) Explaining and Understanding International Relations Oxford; Oxford University Press.

24 Cox R, ; Sinclair T (1996) Approaches to World Order Cambridge

25 Foucault M (1980) Power /Knowledge selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977 Translated by Colin Gordon New York Harvester Wheatsheaf p 98

26 Ibid p 98

27 Marcuse, Herbert (1988) Negations London: Free Association Books (orig. 1968), p. 261.

28 Marcuse, Herbert (1969) Essay on Liberation Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 75.

29 Marcuse, Herbert (1988) Negations op. cit. p. 261.

30 Sa�d, Edward (1978) Orientalism Harmondsworth: Penguin.

31 Wallertein I (1979) The Capitalist World Economy London: Cambridge University press p.46

32 Berridge (1997) International Politics States Power ; Conflict Since 1945 Third edition UK Harvester Wheatsheaf p170

33 Bull, (1977)The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics London Macmillan p106-17

34 Brown C (1997) Understanding International Relations London Macmillan Press p31

35 Kenneth Waltz (1981) The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Mean Better, Adelphi Papers, Number 171 London: International Institute for Strategic Studies

36 Broullet C (2002) The Peoples Investigation of 9/11 available at URL http://www.worldnewsstand.net/history/9-11-02.htm )8/1103.

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