Is Realism Still a Valid Tradition in International Relations?

4099 words (16 pages) Essay in International Relations

08/02/20 International Relations Reference this

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The realist tradition has been the dominant theory in the international relations for more than half a century. The end of the Cold War had led to the suppositon that realism was no longer a trend in understanding the pratice of international relations. Howerver, the incident of September 11th, 2001, together with other recent international events that will be discused in this essay have falsified that assumption. Realism thus remains the leading theory in explaining what are happening in the world politics. Inspite of the emergence of numerous international institutions and organisations that could provide new regulations in the global system, and the globalisation, states still control and influence the situations in the system. Several scholars such as Schweller, Zakaria, Wohlforth have emphasised on combining systemic and unit-level variables as a must, although they are not completely rejecting the systemic explanations.[1] As Fareed Zakaria has remarked, “a good account of a nation’s foreign policy should include systemic, domestic, and other influences, specifying what aspects of the policy can be explained by what factors”.[2] These concerns were consolidated and explained by Gideon Rose in his review article Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy, to demonstrate its connection with classical realism. While neorealists focus on the structure as the main influence and almost forget the role of the states, neoclassical realism emphasises the importance of states and their extenal behaviours. The international behaviours of states, which are showed through their foreign policies, can affect the international system and its movement, and it is also considerable that they can influence other states to make changes in their current policies.

Indeed, realism is still one of the essential theory in explaining, understanding and forming international relations because in the twenty-first century, the international system will probably remain anarchical. The states are the main factors with military capabilities and power competition between them. This is what policymakers of all states must understand thoroughly to make the decisions on how their forreign policy should be, because the followers of neoclassical realism argue that the scope and purpose of a country’s foreign policy is firstly based on its position in the international system and especially on the relative material power that country owns. The countries can thus maximize their interests, ambition and make strong influence to others. Therefore, this essay will emphasise the importance of the states and explain more about how states react to the international system through their foreign policy together with increasing their influence and reinforce their positions as well as power in the international community, with neoclassical realism as the main approach.

What traditional realism mainly focus on are anarchic international system and how states use their national power in that kind of system. Realist scholars concern about the distribution of power of units within the system, as well as relation of state’s character with the society. In Waltz’s work, realism is considered at a system level.[3] Waltz believes that the external forces make the sturcture of the international system, not internal characters of states themselves.[4] Therefore, neorealism in Waltz’s argument does not develop explanation of analysis at the unit or state level, but at the systemic level, and that is enough to answer for the central developments in international politics. In fact, neorealism rejects the roles of states. However, another important element that could express state’s actions and its impact on international relations is foreign policy. Neoclassical realists mainly focus on the impact of relative power on foreign policy of states. Because realists have ignored the foreign policy, the role of states and their internal and external power are forgot. Meanwhile, neoclassical realists reaffirm the role of states through their foreign policy behaviour, so it could be classified “as being a theory of foreign policy”[5]. In order to get supreme preciseness, neoclassical realists engaged domestic-level in their explanation of international politics.

The interest of neoclassical realists is to explain the foreign policy behaviour of states individually rather than creating a general theory. The main principle of neoclassical realism is that foreign policies are made based on international structure and domestic influences, and the complicate relation between these two.[6] Whereas it is believed that decisive factors in making a state’s foreign policy are national power of that state and its position in the international system, domestic variables play an important role in forming a state’s foreign policy. Neoclassical realisms offer a more clear connection between the relative power of a country in the anarchic system, the domestic-level variables which is dependent on the system[7], and its foreign policy result.

Neoclassical realists believe that the principal actors of domestic-level variables are statesmen and their perceptions are momentous.[8] The importance of perception was illustrated through the Cold War with the United States (the US) and the Soviet Union. These great powers rendered their actual capabilities in different ways, so they responded to each other and the world differently, which is contradictory with the neorealist’s prediction that ‘units’ would react the same way to systemic pressures if their positions in the system are similar.[9] The Cold War, therefore, is best comprehended as an in-process dispute between the US and the Soviet Union.[10] The main concern of the dispute is how much power each country has and what influence that they can be entitled to exercise to the international system.[11] The Soviet Union was trying to raise their prestige in international community, while the US with their belief in their strong and diverse power was trying to prevent the rise of a power that could be another polar making a strong influence over the world.[12]

The decisive important of the perceptions of statesmen is also illustrated in the recent situation of Iran and Israel. They worry about the nuclear capability of each other. Israel believes that Iran’s nuclear program threatens its existence and willing to include the use of millitary force to stop it if the international sanctions are unsuccessful.[13]Then the policy of Israel government is guided by the idea that “it is concrete power in the end that settles great international issues”.[14] In the contemporary international system, states are still try their best to ensure their security, and their international positions for powerful states. Another example is that the rise of China and its recent actions make other powerful country such as Japan and the US, with its controversial claims of sovereignty over contested islands in the South China Sea. China also built artificial islands for military purpose in contested waters in this area. This catched the attention of the US and its allies, with the “Pivot to Asia” announced by President Obama in 2013. The US policy was reoriented that American military and diplomatic efforts would focus on Asia. The US always want to maintain its dominant in the region.[15] International community believed that target of US actions are on China although US officials deny that. This proved that China threatened US policy and the US had to reform its foreign policy to react to the situation as well as defend its international power.

Neoclassical realists consider relative power their principal independent variable. They generally point out that the term “power” refer to “the capabilities or resources…with which states can influence each other”.[16] They indicate the different between these power resources and foreign policy “interests” of a country, by which they mean the objectives or advantages that help showing the method to form the country’s external behavior. Neoclassical realists assume that states try to find the way to control and shape their external environment in order to react to the incertitude of international anarchy instead of seeking security.[17] States desire to make the most of their capabilities to increase their influences in the international system.[18] Hence, the prediction of neoclassical realism is that the magnitude and ambition of countries are formed by the relative amount of material power resources they possess.[19] States will try to spread their influence abroad as their relative power increase, and when they are losing their power, they will narrow their ations and ambition. If a state become more powerful, they will have more demands in security and interests.Take foreign policy of the US during the early Cold War for instance, their relative power was increasing at that time according to Leffler’s study.[20] Which set a foundation for the policies of the Truman administration was their concerns about the Soviet Union; those concerns, however, resulted in increasing American strength.[21] Policymakers of the US stayed focused not only on the upcomming or dominant military threat but also on their potential future challenges to the broader environment of the US.[22] As their power is increasing, the US have wider vision in the future and prepare to face their challenge such as security, look for more interests and desire to control the system.

Together with the US foreign policy in the Cold War, some authors and their researches such as “Fareed Zakaria on the United States; William Curti Wohlforth on the Soviet Union; Thomas J. Christensen on the United States and China; Randall L. Schweller on the belligerents of World War II”[23] have discussed issues ranging from the constitution of coalitions to the role of domestic politics to the launch of warfare in response to the challenges faced by the US policymakers.[24] Their studies show some of the important and complex aspects of currently foreign policy.

Foreign policy of the countries is chiefly driven by their positions in the international system and their relative power as well. A country’s foreign policy will change if the power of that country is moved from one position to another.[25] This change follows what Kennedy wrote, “the historical record suggests that there is a very clear connection in the long run between an individual Great Power’s economic rise and fall and its growth and decline as an important military power (or world empire)”.[26]

Another intervening element that is emphasised by neoclassicalists is the power of the state apparatus of a country. Neoclassical realists also explain its relation to the surrounding society. According to Zakaria, the US should have been the wealthiest country during the time before the first World War but could not expand its power to the world and lagged behind eventhough it became more active at that period of time.[27] The reason for that was that behaviour to the world of the US depends on the available means American decision makers could use. Then it was affirmed that “foreign policy is made not by the nation as a whole but by its government”, what should be considered here thus is “state power”, not “national power”.[28] “State power is that portion of national power the government can extract for its purposes and reflects the ease with which central decisionmakers can achieve their ends”.[29]

Neoclassical realism is also a convincing appoach to the changes in military of states. After the Cold War, US defence and military reformed, which could be considered under neoclassical realism, as the US took risk to initiate military innovation so as to ensure its regional as well as global leadership to adapt to external alteration.[30] Great powers often use large resources to their defence. They believe that supporting and increasing their military capability can help them stay at the higher position than other competing power in international system. Besides, all of the other opposing countries will also develop the strategy with the least risks, and base on that to compete with the leading states.[31] When this kind of emulation gather over time, it can lead to general military isomorphism, and the result is the similarity in the weapons and strategies of the major powers.[32] It was emphasised that “as in any competitive system, successful practices will be imitated. Those who fail to imitate are unlikely to survive.”[33] To summarise, states tend to be imitative of the victorious powers, thus producing effective military for themselves.[34]

Some scholars are doubtful about the accuracy of the results of neoclassical realism, which is that the prediction is not really exact. However, the theory of neoclassical realism “indicates that some factors are more important than oth ers and specifies relations among them”, “arranges phenomena so that they are seen as mutually dependent”; “shows how changes in some of the phenomena necessarily entail changes in others.”[35] Therefore, neoclassical realism is one of the foreign policy theory. It not only indicates the importance of domestic politics, but also explain in which situations it signifies.[36] Hence, neoclassical realists forecast that a rise in relative power will ultimately lead to respective enlargement in a country’s ambition and domain of its external activities.[37]

The world in the recent years has seen the apprearance of a number of international organisations (IO) and institutions. However, these will not challenge the dominant status of states in the system and will not have capability to dampen anarchy as becoming new global regulation. Consider some major international organisations such as the United Nations (UN), states continue to play the primary role. In the UN, states still make considerable decisions on UN resolutions because they are representatives in the General Assembly and the Security Council. In such organisations, there also are secretariats and departments, but they do not have much power in making decisions.[38] Furthermore, the UN use “binding” regulations on states. The UN could not do much to stop the invasion of the US to Iraq in 2003.[39] The significant role of states, therefore, remain the major impact on the international system.

Neoclassical Realism was formed through the theoretical comprehension and rigidity of the neorealism which is presented by several scholars such as Waltz, Gilpin; it still focuses on the practical insights about foreign policy of states and the complicacy of how to rule the country of statesmen, which is found in the classical realism of Wolfers, Morgenthau, Kissinger and other scholars.[40] Creating a grand theory for international relations and international politics is not the intention or ambition of neoclassical realists. Instead of that, they express their interest in explaining the foreign policy behaviour of individual state and its relations to the international situations in any period of time. Neoclassical realists bring the international system and states together attempt to solve a problem in international relations research by building a bridge between the international system and the state.

Neoclassical realists emphasised the eventuality of the history and the seriousness of the way the foreign policy is actually conducted. They consider the fact that China is emerging in a multipolar environment laking most of the constituents to reduce conflicts can make the situation in the East Asia become more problematic as a trend, and the way that the US, China and other powerful states manage their relations can decide whether there will be conflicts in this area or not.[41] One of the major responsibilities of US policymakers over the next few years will be to analyze the nature and scope of revisionism in China and to find a time when coexistence based on compromise with China is no longer suitable.[42] The difference between a weak and strong revisionist powers needs to be responded to by different foreign policies.[43]

Realism, especially neoclassical realism gives policymakers in the world a rigorous academic theory to base on to develop their foreign policy. It is better than using their subjective assumptions to understand the international system, especially in the comtemporary anarchy where the tension is increasing between the relationships among states.

Bibliography:

  1. Baylis, J. Smith, S. and Owens, P. (Eds) (2008) ‘The Globalization of world politics’ New York, Oxford University Press Inc.
  2. Blackwill, R. and Tellis A. J. (2015) ‘Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China’ [Online]. Washington, D.C.: Council on Foreign Relations Press.
  3. Christensen, T. J. (Winter 1997) ‘Perceptions and Alliances in Europe, 1865-1940’  International Organi zation 51.
  4. Farrell, T. (2005) ‘World Culture and Military Power’ Security Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3.
  5. Juneau, T. (2010) ‘Neoclassical Realist Strategic Analysis: A statement’ In: European Consortium on Political Research Graduate Student Conference, Ottawa, 30 August-1 September, Canada: Carlton University.
  6. Kennedy, P. (1987) ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ New York: Random House, xxii phasis in original.
  7. Knell, Y. ‘Israeli PM Netanyahu ‘ready’ to order strike on Iran’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20220566, Date accessed: November 14, 2018.
  8. Leffler, M. P. (1992) ‘A Preponderance of Power tional Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War’ Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
  9. Mandelbaum, M. (1988) ‘The Fates of Nations: The Search for National Security in the Nineteen Twentieth Centuries’ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  10. Pearson, A. M. ‘Realism and Politics Among States in the 21st Century’, Centre for Geopolitics & Security in Realism Studies, p.5.
  11. Posen, B. (1993) ‘Nationalism, the Mass Army, and Military Power’ International Security, Vol. 18, No. 2.
  12. Resende-Santos, J. (1996) ‘Anarchy and the Emulation of Military Systems: Military Organization and Technology in South America, 1870-1930’ Security Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3.
  13. Rose, G. (1998) ‘Review: Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy’ World Politics, 51(1).
  14. Schweller, R. L. (1998) ‘Deadly Imbalances: Tripolarity and Hitlers Strategy of World Conquest’ New York: Columbia University Press.
  15. Schweller, R. L. (2004) ‘Unanswered Threats: A Neoclassical Realist Theory of Underbalancing’ International Security, 29(2).
  16. Taliaferro, J. W. (2000) ‘Security Seeking under Anarchy: Defensive Realism Revisited. International Security’, 25(3).
  17. Waltz, K. (1979) ‘Theory of International Politics’ Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
  18. Waltz, K. (2000) ‘Structural Realism after the Cold War’ International Security, 5(1).
  19. Wight, M. (1995) ‘Power Politics’ London: Leicester University Press.
  20. Wohlforth, W. (1993) ‘The Elusive Balance: Power and Perceptions During the Cold War’ New York, Cornell University Press.
  21. Zakaria, F. (1998) ‘From Wealth to Power. The unusual origins of America’s world Role’, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[1] See more at Randall Schweller ‘Unanswered Threats: A Neoclassical Realist Theory of Underbalancing’ International Security, 29(2) (2004); Fareed Zakaria ‘From Wealth to Power. The unusual origins of America’s world role’, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1998); William Wohlforth ‘The Elusive Balance: Power and Perceptions During the Cold War’ New York, Cornell University Press (1993).

[2] Fareed Zakaria ‘From Wealth to Power. The unusual origins of America’s world role’, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1998), p.198.

[3] Kenneth Waltz ‘Theory of International Politics’ Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley (1979).

[4] Kenneth Waltz (1979), p.80.

[5] Gideon Rose ‘Review: Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy’ World Politics, 51(1) (1998) p.145.

[6] John Baylis, Steve Smith, Patricia Owens ‘The Globalization of world politics’ New York, Oxford University Press Inc (2008), p.99.

[7] Randall Schweller ‘Unanswered Threats: A Neoclassical Realist Theory of Underbalancing’ International Security, 29(2) (2004), p.164.

[8] Fareed Zakaria ‘From Wealth to Power. The unusual origins of America’s world role’, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1998), p.42.

[9] Kenneth Waltz ‘Structural Realism after the Cold War’ International Security, 5(1) (2000), p.13.

[10] Gideon Rose (1998), p.159.

[11] Gideon Rose (1998), p.159.

[12] Gideon Rose (1998), p.159.

[13] Yolande Knell ‘Israeli PM Netanyahu ‘ready’ to order strike on Iran’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20220566, Date accessed: November 14, 2018.

[14] Martin Wight ‘Power Politics’ London: Leicester University Press (1995), p.27.

[15] Robert Blackwill, Ashley J. Tellis ‘Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China’ [Online]. Washington, D.C.: Council on Foreign Relations Press (2015), p.3.

[16] William Wohlforth ‘The Elusive Balance: Power and Perceptions During the Cold War’ New York, Cornell University Press (1993), p.15.

[17] Gideon Rose (1998), p.152.

[18] Gideon Rose (1998), p.152.

[19] Gideon Rose (1998), p.152

[20] Melvyn P. Leffler ‘A Preponderance of Power tional Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War’ Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press (1992).

[21] Gideon Rose (1998), p.156.

[22] Gideon Rose (1998), p.156.

[23] Gideon Rose (1998), p.154.

[24] Gideon Rose (1998), p.154.

[25] Michael Mandelbaum ‘The Fates of Nations: The Search for National Security in the Nineteent Twentieth Centuries’ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1988), 4, p.2

[26] Paul Kennedy ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ New York: Random House, xxii phasis in original (1987).

[27] Fareed Zakaria ‘From Wealth to Power. The unusual origins of America’s world role’, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1998), p.5.

[28] Gideon Rose (1998), p.162.

[29] Fareed Zakaria ‘From Wealth to Power. The unusual origins of America’s world role’, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1998) p.9.

[30] Theo Farrell ‘World Culture and Military Power’ Security Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (2005), p. 454.

[31] Joao Resende-Santos ‘Anarchy and the Emulation of Military Systems: Military Organization and Technology in South America, 1870-1930’ Security Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3 (1996), p. 210.

[32] Theo Farrell ‘World Culture and Military Power’ Security Studies,  Vol. 14, No. 3, (2005), p. 454.

[33] Barry Posen ‘Nationalism, the Mass Army, and Military Power’ International Security, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1993), p. 82.

[34] Theo Farrell ‘World Culture and Military Power’ Security Studies,  Vol. 14, No. 3, (2005), p. 454.

[35] Kenneth Waltz (1979), p. 8-10.

[36] Thomas J. Christensen ‘Perceptions and Alliances in Europe, 1865-1940’ International Organi zation 51 (Winter 1997), p.252.

[37] Gideon Rose (1998), p.167.

[38] Alexander M. Pearson ‘Realism and Politics Among States in the 21st Century’, Centre for Geopolitics & Security in Realism Studies, p.5.

[39] Alexander M. Pearson ‘Realism and Politics Among States in the 21st Century’, Centre for Geopolitics & Security in Realism Studies, p.5.

[40] Jeffrey W. Taliaferro ‘Security Seeking under Anarchy: Defensive Realism Revisited. International Security’, 25(3) (2000), p.4, cited in Juneau, T. Neoclassical Realist Strategic Analysis: A statement’ In: European Consortium on Political Research Graduate Student Conference, Ottawa, 30 August-1 September, Canada: Carlton University (2010), p.5.

[41] Gideon Rose (1998), p.171.

[42] Gideon Rose (1998), p.171.

[43] Randall L. Schweller ‘Deadly Imbalances: Tripolarity and Hitlers Strategy of World Conquest’ New York: Columbia University Press (1998), p.32.

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