Friday, October 27, 2006

Realism in context: International Relations


















The cynical idea that the states will only intercede in the the affairs of others when their own vested interests are at stake is a restatement of Realism, one of the more influential theories in modern International Relations.

Realism describes international states as existing in a continual state of anarchy, provoked to action only in order to secure themselves from falling prey to the dominion of rivals. This is Realism at its most superficial reading but the theory has a complex history and has many different offshoots which reflect differing points of emphasis and context. To truly understand Realism it is important to follow it through its historical development and how it has come to be refined into new variations by the realities of historical change.

Origins of Realism

The theory of Realism has many precedents in history. The Peace of Westphalia was early evidence of Realism in acti
on in Europe; signed in 1648, it marked the end of the Thirty years war and recognized the Swiss confederation of States and the Dutch Republic. It is widely regarded as the beginning of the modern age for its recognition of the sovereignty of states rather than the old divisions based on religion.

The ideas of Realism were also heard in earlier intellectual works. Sun Tzu's The Art of War is a clear voice of Realism. The art of War laid out the principles that in war and in in
ternational diplomacy expediency was always to be exploited. This was in sharp contrast to the moral dictates that had underlined earlier philosophical works.

These ideas were echoed across cultures and time in many different forms. Thucydides in the History of the Peloponesian War called for a similar method of dealing with interstate tensions.

Machiavelli's The Prince dealing with the machinations of Medici rivalries in feuding Italian city states also saw the light in the idea of seeking new solutions in whatever means possible. (Jensen, 1960, p. 1)

The common thread in all these earlier works appears to be the exposure to a higher level of group conflict and the observatio
n of the cold realties that accompanied such events. It was from this source where the cynicism of the idea that the ends justifies the means first saw their rise.

Beginings of Modern Realism


Hans Mogenthau in his seminal work Politics among Nations first laid out a group of certain principles that he believed outlined the ideas of Realism. He believed that power was the main currency between nations. Political actions of states were therefore said to be governed by this need to acquire power, a supposedly rational impulse which was framed in terms of recognizable patterns.

The important distinction Mogenthau made from earlier ide
as was that morality was irrelevant. It was not that states were immoral but rather that they were amoral, because in being guided by the pursuit of power, morality played little role. Mogenthau's ideas are now often seen in conjunction with the thoughts of another influential thinker in the field at the time, Rhinehold Niebuhr.

Both theorists' ideas grew ou
t of the darker realities witnessed in World War II and the Cold War that followed. Observing the dangers of the escalating scale of nuclear armament throughout the Cold War both thinkers espoused what has come to be seen as Classical Realism where they warned against the dangers of a dual balance of power as was seen between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Further Meditations on Realism

Not all shared the distrust of the the bipolar theory of balance of power. Kenneth Waltz argued for the ve
ry bipolar balance of power that the previous two thinkers condemned. Kenneth Waltz focused on the anarchy among satellite states and called for that bipolar framework of power which allowed states to balance their interests in terms of well defined allegiances.

Because this theory tended to remove the behavioral aspects out of the framework of the argument it tended to be known as the Neoclassical Realist Approach.

Neoclassical Realism
looked at structural determinants rather than strictly focusing on the drive to acquire power as a behavioral expectation of individuals, and by extension states.

Whereas the Classical Realists looked at the idea of bipolarity leading to weaker states aligning along side more powerful ones creating instability the Neoclassical Realists thought the the more logical outcome was that weaker states would join and align together to balance the power thus leading to less instability. The appeal of Neoclassical Realist Theory to the area of research in the area was the apparent objectivity of its research design. The aspects of research of International relations could be framed in terms of certain balanced requirements. In other words foreign policy decisions could be viewed as dependent on the the needs of a particular nation with respect to the otherwise unpredictable nature of international relations.

There was therefore a sen
se that domestic forces were directly linked to the changes in foreign policy. While this approach suggests a scientific approach it has been harshly criticized for placing unrealistic limitations on the scope of International Relations as suggested here:
Clearly it is not realistic to reduce the exotically complex reality of international politics to a handful of variables, and to understand state behavior purely in terms of the competitive dynamics created by the anarchical structure of the international system. But being thoroughly unrealistic is exactly what Waltz intends, and exactly what deductive theory requires (Waltz 1990) (Crawford, 2000, p. 65)

Crawford is more an ex
ponent of the new approach to International Relations that requires a more varied approach to the study and will be discussed later.

In the context of Neoclassical Realism Offensive- Defensive variations on the theory also developed. Thinkers like George Quester and Robert Jervis were prominent among those arguing for these forms. They argued that conditions that allowed defensive positions to be maintained without the threat of escalation in turn allowed better relations between states to flourish. This was an interesting variation on the cynical premise of Realism that only pointed to constant anarchy in the world affairs.


This rise in faith in the state
of the worlds affairs was perhaps a projection of the the stable position of the United States later in the Cold War . These theories maintained that any aggression beyond that which was necessary to maintain a stable status quo could lead to more problems than it would solve. This was an assertion for the ideas of stability that would eventually lead to the more enlightened ideas of the Liberal Realists.

The strongest voice for the Liberal Realism doctrine was British thinker Hedley Bull, who in the tradition of Realism recognized the intrinsic anarchy that characterized the nature of International Relations but all the s
ame believed in a sense of order. His landmark work The Anarchical Society outlined his ideas of a society of states that form out of a mutual relationship based on common needs.
Bull's ideas echoed the driving forces of Liberal Realism theory, the twin ideas that economic interdependence and the widespread adoption of Democracy would create order in the previous state of anarchy.


Liberal Realism, and indeed all of the variations of Realism need to be placed in the historical context of the other presumptive theory about International Relations that influenced the emerging theory, that is Marxism. Marxism ,in its early form, clearly argued that conflict in International Relations arose out of the conflict between the capitalist owners that controlled their respective nations and the socialist nations that tried to change that order and bri
ng about an overthrow in the class structure of Capitalism.

A later version of Marxism suggested that it was a conflict between the capitalist owners of advanced industrial nations and the exploitation of the workers of under developed nations, framing the argument in nationalities. Both early Marxism and the newer adaptations have lost much of their persuasiveness in light of historical events. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the the ongoing industrialization of developing nations has removed much of the objective proof of these early views. It is, however, important to mention them since they have been the rationale for much of the source of international conflict in the recent past.

While Marxism, has been by a
nd large, discredited as a way of viewing international relations there are more recent events that have added new levels of subtlety to the ongoing development of theory in International Relations.

Realism is now sought to explain shades of meaning in International Relations. Realism is useful in distinguishing relative and absolute gains in world state affairs. Scholars such as Stephen Krasner have pointed out that certain international organizations such as the U.N do not offer a complete sense of security to nations.
There are as he points out the problems of how the distribution of the collective gains are distributed among the respective member groups. Even with collaboration there is a sense of the underlying anarchy of the system and therefore a sense of keen awareness of how much pow
er other nations will accumulate. (Krasner, 2001, p. 9)
This is believed by Bary Posen to have played an important role in the ethnic conflict that marked the break up of Yugoslavia. The conflicts of
this area arose out of the territorial awareness of neighboring groups and the recognition of the underlying anarchy, which led to groups effectively trying to eliminate each other to establish control. Meanwhile the U.N attempted to broker the entire debacle with constant sense of trying to contain a highly volatile brew of elements.

There has also been a more recent divergence between the Defensive and Offensive schools of thought in Neoclassical Realism. Where they were once thought of as a particular part of the whole, now pervasive stands have been taken on either side of the theoretical issue. Supporters of the Defensive view such as Jack Snyder have argued that states have ideally maintained a state of non-aggression because the cost of war was not answered by gains of new territory. (Snyder & Jervis, 1993, p. 78)
Examples of actual war taking place were, they believed mistakes
in foreign policy that were made and then regretted subsequently in economic and other terms.

The Offensive Neoclassical Realists have countered with arguments such as the intrinsic need for conquest, the actual gains being well worth the costs and the sense that in anarchical conditions more is better than less in the event of reversals in the future.


The theories of Realism are always being challenged by new global realities and this also offers new ways to test their validity as in the case of the application of Liberal Realism to the new world. In light of new research there has been some debate about one of the underlying assumptions of Liberal Realism, namely that Democracy is intrinsically a less anarchic state than any other alternative.


There have been those, David Spiro among them, who have suggested that much of this lack of conflict among democratic states has been more a matter of the short time frame of existence of many democratic institutions, that is since 1945, than any innate sense of order.

The other assumption, that of economic interdependence seems to have gathered more weight in recent years than others. Some have argued that this economic state of affairs is tenuous but the effects of globalisation are clearly becoming more and more apparent all of the time.


Apart from adaptation of established theories of Realism there ha
ve been new theories that have emerged in recent years.

Constructionism is a newly emerged theory of International Relations that has come into particular vogue. Constructionism places more emphasis on the role of changing ideas rather than the established set of conditions that marked Realism in the past, most significantly the sense of pervasive anarchy in the world.


Constructionism frames the rationale for International relation in a complex interplay of ideas and hist
orical conditions that develop in response to the changing demands placed on states. It is not that Constructionists deny the existence of anarchy as a motivating principle in International Relations but rather these theorists suggest the important consideration is the reaction to the anarchy that is the significant factor. Therefore they move away from the Realist approach that suggests the acquisition or barter of power as the commodity of exchange and suggest that it is the ideological stance that is just as important. For example, they suggest Japan's future approach to international relations is based more on its own approach to world affairs based on either progresive ideas or its past history, the process they contend depends on the Japanese themselves.

Constructionism by its very nature defies easy classification and there is a wide variety of thought on the subject. Interestingly Constructionism in many ways offers a way out of the previously mentioned criticism of Waltz :
Constructivist theories are quite diverse and do not offer a unified set of predictions on any of these issues. At a purely conceptual level, Alexander Wendt has argued that the realist conception of anarchy does not adequately explain why conflict occurs between states. The real issue is how anarchy is understood - in Wendt's words, "Anarchy is what states make of it." Another strand of constructivist theory has focused on the future of the territorial state, suggesting that transnational communication and shared civic values are undermining traditional national loyalties and creating radically new forms of political association. (Walt, 1998)


The study of International Relations is a very complex endeavour. The field has been changing and becoming more sophisticated and diversified to reflect a more complex understanding of the world. Modern Realism is a relatively new study even though the ideas have been seen in the works of much earler thinkers. Realism intially was shaped by the nature of Post World War II International Relations. Since that time much has changed.
The influence of Marxism has waned and out of the adapting variations of Realism which include Classical Realism and Neoclassical Realism and Liberalism there is yet another more radical approach, Constructionism.

All these approaches have been marked by varying degrees of success and criticism in explaining the complex nature of International Relations. Since the discipline is still in its infancy much work needs to be done to refine the understanding of the world. Today the nature of International Relations is overshadowed by the rapid interdependence of the world economies characterized by the phrase Globalisation. Further approaches to the field will have to account for this highly significant change in world polity.


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