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Analyzing the Relevance of Realism in Contemporary International Relations
There are many different theories that are often used to analyze situations in the realm of international studies. These theories have been in the works for hundreds of years and although they were not as self-aware as they are now, they have been shaped by different events in history which scholars have tried to explain using these. One of the earliest international relations theories was realism. Realism got its start as early as 420 B.C. when Thucydides was theorizing about the causes of the Peloponnesian wars and giving some sense of reasoning behind them. Thucydides believed that, “the cause of the war between the Athenians and the Spartans was an increase in Athenian military power and the insecurity that it created among the Spartans.” This belief is deeply engrained in the theory of realism and Thucydides is often believed to be one of the first people to use what we now call realism as a way to analyze wars and human conflict. Realists consider themselves to be more unidealistic than other theorists and also believe to be more accurate when analyzing international relations situations. Additionally, many realists believe in certain rules in the behaviors of states and individuals describing “states [to be] like men, by ‘nature’ self-interested and aggressive” and ones who will “pursue their interests to the detriment of others and without regard to the constraints of law or morality.”
Most predominantly, realists also believe that the international community’s natural state is that of anarchy. This constant state of anarchy can be attributed to the inability to enforce any type of law or punishments for unruly states. According to Tim Dunne and Marianne Hanson, “the realist world is one where rules are regularly broken, and agreements last only as long as they benefit contracting parties” adding that “as Hobbes put the problem with characteristic clarity, treaties that are not imposed by force ‘are but words’.” Not only is this inability to enforce laws a problem, realists believe that it is inflated by the fact that it is impossible to create a global sovereign power due to states’ unwillingness to give up their own national sovereignty. These concepts can undoubtedly be applied to modern day international relations and be used to explain the state in which the international system is in right now.
Realism’s relevancy in contemporary international relations can be shown through various instances in modern day conflict that align with the central beliefs of realism. The issue of anarchy in the international system will be addressed with instances such as the Russian invasion of Crimea, the Sergei Skripal situation in the U.K, and the recent Jamal Khashoggi mystery in Turkey. Additionally, the idea that states are self-interested and look to control as many resources as they possibly can will also be explored through the world’s negligence of the Rwandan genocide as well as the Saudi Arabia-U.S. deals that continue to occur despite Saudi Arabia’s not-so-peaceful behavior. While mentioning all of these topics, the critiques of the different types of realism will also be addressed.
The belief that the international system is constantly in a state of anarchy is one of the identifying features of the realist ideology and it is what most people think of when they think of realists. This characteristic of realism is very much still applicable in the analysis of the state of the contemporary international atmosphere. This can be demonstrated through recent events such as the Russian invasion of Crimea, the incident with Sergei Skripal and Russia, and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. Although very different, the circumstances and responses by international actors to these three events all support the belief in the international system’s inevitable and perpetual state of anarchy.
The Russian invasion of Crimea is a situation in which a state has decided to ultimately ignore an established rule in the international system without regard for previously established standards. As Michael S. Kochin puts it, “post-Soviet Russia has intervened many times in the “near abroad,” but Crimea is the first annexation to Russia since 1945 and the first attempt of a major power to break the “1945” norm against the inviolability of mutually recognized borders.” This shows Russia’s complete disregard for rules set forward to avoid conflicts between states over territory. Russia was not worried about the turmoil that their decision to invade Crimea would bring to the international system and they knew that they would be relatively under-punished for doing this. Russia’s actions in this instance unequivocally display a certain level of anarchy that the international system is currently in. This however, does not mean that Russia did not face any repercussions at all. The annexation of Crimea was only one of the few things that sparked the U.S. to expel sixty Russian diplomats, the U.K. twenty-three, and Germany four. These decisions to expel Russian diplomats caused tension between the states and it is speculated that this is what led Russia to retaliate and poison a former Russian double-agent and his daughter in March of 2018. Russia was to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter due to the usage of a nerve agent that had been discovered and utilized by the Russians around fifty years ago. Despite the criticism that Russia received for their actions, it did not seem like such a big deal to them and it ultimately sent the message out to other state actors that their actions would go relatively unpunished.
Roughly eight months after the Skripal incident, prominent Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered during a visit to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Khashoggi was previously involved with the Saudi government and the royal family, but eventually got in their bad side due to his adamant opposition to them and their actions. Khashoggi was at the consulate to retrieve a document that certified his divorce to his previous wife, which he needed in order to marry his current fiancée. Khashoggi entered the consulate at 13:14 local time and had advised his fiancée to call Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan if he did not return after his visit. His fiancée waited more than ten hours for Khashoggi to exit the consulate and she returned the next morning to find no sign of Khashoggi. Suspicion started to raise about his whereabouts while the Saudi Arabian government continued to deny any knowledge about his ‘alleged’ disappearance for the two weeks that followed the incident.
There were conflicting stories about what had happened to Khashoggi. The first accounts described his death as resulting from a fight inside the consulate, the second account described it to be a “rogue operation” to murder the journalist. Later on, the Saudi government alleged that Khashoggi was suffocated and later rolled into a rug and his body was disposed of, but once again, the story changed. According to a Saudi public prosecutor, “Khashoggi was given a lethal injection after a struggle and his body was dismembered inside the consulate after his death.” Despite these allegations, the Saudi Arabian government continues to deny that the crown prince had orchestrated Khashoggi’s murder and the only people facing prosecution are the individual men seen at the consulate on the CCTV footage. This situation is also a perfect example of a state acting without regard for consequences and getting away with it. Since the incident is rather recent, there is still more information to be discovered and repercussions are yet to be seen for Saudi Arabia as many states continue to perform deals with them despite the multiple human rights violations that Saudi Arabia continuously commits. These two examples strongly reinforce the idea of anarchy as the natural state of the international system and that it is almost impossible to control what states do or do not do.
Self-interest in relation to resource gathering and retainment
The idea of self-interested states is also a fundamental part of the theory of realism and the following situations describe instances in contemporary international relations in which states were acting in their own self-interest without regard for how it may affect others. The lack of intervention in the Rwandan genocide and the United States’ continued collaboration with Saudi Arabia are great examples as to how states and individuals tend to act in their own self-interest. In the case of the Rwandan genocide, many scholars believed that the United Nations did not intervene due to lack of interest in what Rwanda had to offer, which was nothing. On the other hand, the United States’ insistence on making deals with Saudi Arabia despite their refusal to comply with international law is a great example of a state refusing to take into account another state’s unlawful activity because it is more beneficial to work with them rather than not.
The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is often recognized as one of the “worst mass atrocities of the second half of the twentieth century” in which between 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsis were brutally murdered by the Hutu government forces. Growing tension between the two groups intensified after years of conflict and culminated in the horrific genocide mentioned previously. In the months leading up to the genocide, the United Nations sent a small group of peacekeepers to help ease the situation in the country due to accounts that there were active training missions of militia with the goal of exterminating Tutsi civilians. With this information, the leader of the peacekeeping forces General Dallaire, attempted to lead an operation to rid the militias of their weapons but was denied authorization by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The United Nations also ignored an assessment conducted by the human rights investigator assigned to the Rwanda situation which predicted a possible genocide as far back as August of 1993. Once the genocide had begun, General Dallaire was still unauthorized to directly interact with the militias and intervene in any way. Instead, the U.S. and other major European states removed their stationed nationals from the country and ultimately let the genocide occur uninterrupted.
Rwanda had nothing of interest for the United Nations and due to this, an intervention was nowhere near being their top priority. In fact, Rwanda was not a well-known country, did not have any major resources, and had no strategic or political power that was of interest to the United Nations. Even Belgium, the one European state that had any interest in Rwanda, removed their own peacekeeping forces and encouraged the United Nations to remove theirs as well, allowing the situation to unfold as it did. Additionally, the United States refused to label the situation in Rwanda as ‘genocide’ in fear that they would be obligated to intervene under the Genocide Convention. In this instance, the international community decided to ignore a major violation of human rights simply because they could not be bothered to intervene. There was confirmed genocide occurring somewhere and nothing was done about it simply because there was nothing to gain from it. It is clear here that the moral way of thinking was second to the self-interested way of thinking, reinforcing once again the belief that realists hold.
Another major demonstration of self-interest overriding morality is the United States’ decision to continue to collaborate with Saudi Arabia despite their violent and antagonizing behavior. Saudi Arabia’s criminal behavior in the war in Yemen and the recent murder of Jamal Khashoggi are not a secret to the international system, but surprisingly certain states continue to deal with them. Saudi Arabia has been proven to have committed various war crimes while fighting in Yemen, but they have not been very harshly criticized or punished for it. In fact, despite the known actions of Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and contributing to their involvement in the war in Yemen. These two states account for 70% of all of Saudi Arabia’s weapons supply and the United Kingdom has certainly faced criticism for this. In Anna Stavrianakis’s analysis of United Kingdom’s choice to supply weapons to Saudi Arabia, she says that “the government’s shift in public messaging came in the run‐up to a judicial review of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Held in February 2017 at the High Court in London, the case was brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), who argued that the ongoing supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia breaks UK law, which stipulates that the government will not export weapons if there is a clear risk that they might be used in serious violations of [International Humanitarian Law].” Despite this, it was determined that the arms deal was completely legal and that there was no issue with this sale. This behavior can be attributed to them weighing their “benefits”, whether it be economic or military, and determining that the deal is worth more than the lives that may be at risk.
The United States’ decision to continue selling weapons to Saudi Arabia is not surprising though. The United States does enjoy relatively good relations with Saudi Arabia, although it was not always this way. The Saudi-American relations have had a tendency to improve and worsen depending on the current president’s policies and beliefs. In the public sector, Saudi-American relations were not particularly good during Obama’s presidency. As Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and counterterrorism expert, phrases it, “On the surface, Obama’s relations with Salman were marred by some scratchy public spats… [but] behind the public war of words, however, the Saudi-American connection remained strong in critical areas.” However, towards the end of Obama’s presidency, Saudi-American relations were not so great due to Obama’s reluctance to support Saudi Arabia while ignoring major issues such as “religious freedom, freedom of the press, gender equality, and political reform” which Saudi Arabia is not particularly well-known for prioritizing. The Saudis prefer an American president who will do business and cooperate with them without thinking about such issues, and luckily for them, they got president Donald Trump.
President Trump’s first meeting with King Salman seemed to be more for show than for actual international cooperation. They were apparently in the talks of a $110 billion arms deal, but nothing was finalized in the form of a contract or on their joint statement. Additionally, they inaugurated a new center focused on “countering violent extremist propaganda” but there were no talks of major issues such as human rights, democracy, or political reform. The reality is that Saudi Arabia was happy to be rid of Obama and be greeted with the likes of president Trump who is willing to overlook their clear problems in the human rights area, for example, and still collaborate with them. This way, Saudi Arabia can continue doing whatever they want with no repercussions from major international powers such as the United States because they know that the state’s leader simply does not care. For the United States, it is very important to maintain a strong relationship with the Saudis due to the benefits this brings them in the Arab region, so ignoring human rights violations and the lack of democracy and freedom in Saudi Arabia seems like the likely course of action for what the United States has to gain from working with them. The United States shows a perfect example of what realists describe when talking about the tendency of states and individuals to be self-interested and do things that benefit them regardless of consequences for others.
While realism is often considered a very dominant ideology in international relations, it tends to go through periods of high support and marginalization. Often times, it seems as though realism’s popularity is correlated to the current global environment, whether it be an interwar period or a time of war and conflict. Given this argument, realism can be observed to take on different shapes during different times of the global political cycle, changing its effects on the current issues and impact on international affairs. This idea shows that realism is not just one solid theory that has ‘law-like regularities’, but that it evolves over time and that “the substantial differences among, for example, Thucydides, Carr, Morgenthau, and Waltz suggest that the perennial truths some realists claim to offer are far more contextually specific than they would like to admit.” Due to realism’s contextual fluidity, this ideology continues to impact modern day international interactions between states and global policy making procedures.
The basic principles of realism are ever present in contemporary international relations as shown through different situations and times which demonstrate a state of anarchy and the unforgiving self-interest of states when making decisions. The situations described have no sense in being the way they were through another way other than realism. The anarchy of the international system is very clearly existent and prevalent and not going anywhere any time soon. This is just the same for self-interest as it is in human nature to pursue what is at best interest. Due to this unchanging factor, the realist ideology will always be in the arsenal of scholars when they look to analyze the foreign policy of states and their behavior in general. Realism is a theory which is very versatile and can often be applied throughout various periods in history, including now. Although traditional realism has evolved and turned into different types of realism and has been criticized for having fundamental flaws in its beliefs, the core values of realism can almost always be found in the way that scholars analyze international interactions and are constantly being utilized to develop new ideas to explain states’ behavior. Ultimately, realism is and always will be a theory on which scholars will rely on to explain the world and how it functions.
- Griffiths, Martin, et al. International Relations: The Key Concepts. 3rd ed., Taylor & Francis, 2014
- Steans, Jill, et al. An introduction to international relations theory: perspectives and themes. Routledge, 2013.
- Dunne, Tim, and Marianne Hanson. “Human Rights in International Relations.” Human Rights: Politics and Practice, by Michael E. Goodhart, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2016. 46
- Donnelly, Jack. Realism and International Relations. Cambridge University Press, 2000. 195.
- Straus, Scott. “Genocide and Human Rights.” Human Rights: Politics and Practice, by Michael E. Goodhart, 351-69. Third ed. London: Oxford University Press, 2016.
- Goodhart, 351-69. Third ed. London: Oxford University Press, 2016.
- Winfield, Nicole. “UN Failed Rwanda.” Global Policy Forum. December 19, 1999. Accessed April 09, 2018. http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/201-rwanda/39240.html.
- Kochin, Michael S. “Nations Unchained: Revolution, Empire, and the Collapse of the Westphalian Order.” Perspectives on Political Science 47, no. 1 (January 2018): 38-47. Accessed November 21, 2018.
- Wood, Steve, and Otto Henke. “The Sailsbury Poisoning Case and German-Russian Relations: Ambiguity and Ambivalence.” Political Quarterly 89, no. 4 (October 2018)
- “Jamal Khashoggi: All You Need to Know about Saudi Journalist’s Death.” BBC News. November 16, 2018. Accessed November 24, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-45812399.
- Bruce Riedel. Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabie and the United States Since FDR. Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2017. https://muse.jhu.edu/ Accessed December 1, 2018
- Stavrianakis, Anna. “Playing with Words While Yemen Burns: Managing Criticism of UK Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia.” Global Policy, no. 4 (2017) Accessed December 1, 2018
 Griffiths, Martin, et al. International Relations: The Key Concepts. 3rd ed., Taylor & Francis, 2014. 291
 Steans, Jill, et al. An introduction to international relations theory: perspectives and themes. Routledge, 2013.
 Dunne, Tim, and Marianne Hanson. “Human Rights in International Relations.” Human Rights: Politics and Practice, by Michael E. Goodhart, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2016. 46
 Steans, 53
 Kochin, Michael S. “Nations Unchained: Revolution, Empire, and the Collapse of the Westphalian Order.” Perspectives on Political Science 47, no. 1 (January 2018): 38-47. Accessed November 21, 2018.
 Wood, Steve, and Otto Henke. “The Sailsbury Poisoning Case and German-Russian Relations: Ambiguity and Ambivalence.” Political Quarterly 89, no. 4 (October 2018)
 Stone, Richard. “U.K. Attack Puts Nerve Agent in the Spotlight.” Science. March 23, 2018. Accessed November 24, 2018. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6382/1314.
 “Jamal Khashoggi: All You Need to Know about Saudi Journalist’s Death.” BBC News. November 16, 2018. Accessed November 24, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-45812399.
 Straus, Scott. “Genocide and Human Rights.” Human Rights: Politics and Practice, by Michael E. Goodhart, 351-69. Third ed. London: Oxford University Press, 2016.
 Ibid, 363
 Winfield, Nicole. “UN Failed Rwanda.” Global Policy Forum. December 19, 1999. Accessed April 09, 2018. http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/201-rwanda/39240.html.
 Straus, 364
 Stavrianakis, Anna. “Playing with Words While Yemen Burns: Managing Criticism of UK Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia.” Global Policy, no. 4 (2017) Accessed December 1, 2018
 Ibid, 178.
 Donnelly, Jack. Realism and International Relations. Cambridge University Press, 2000. 195.
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