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Does Realism Help Us To Understand International Relations Politics Essay

Info: 2560 words (10 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in Politics

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The study of International Relations regroups a large range of theorists who have different opinions about the way international politics are organised. Among these theorists, you can generally distinguish three main schools of thoughts, the liberals, the Marxists and the realists. They all help to seize different features of the interactions on the international level but what is noteworthy is that Realism tends to be in the dominant position in the study of international relations.

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Realism is based on some key assumptions such as the fact that the nation state remains the key actor in the international system and that international politics is essentially conflictual. The international system according to realists is anarchical, which means that there are no supra-bodies above the nation states because the latter are sovereign. The concept of sovereignty refers to the ultimate source of authority in a society; the sovereign is the highest and final decision maker within a community (Hague, Harrop, 2007, 16). Consequently, here the nation state is the highest and final decision maker and according to realists, there are no international institutions questioning its sovereignty. Unlike liberals, realists are pessimistic concerning the establishment of moral principles that justify that the nation state surrenders a part of its sovereignty to a superior body. The state ultimately relies on its own means to ensure its survival (Baylis, Smith, Owens, 2008, 93). The realists argue that their theory is the best one to explain the state behavior, its motivations and the organization of the international system. They also offer a range of solutions designed to maximize the interest of the state in a hostile context. Sometimes deemed as a pessimistic theory, its advocates argue that it simply wants to look at the way the world is and not how it should be. Consequently we can wonder to what extent the concepts lying in Realism help us to get a better overview of international relations and what its contribution to this discipline is.

In the first part, we will analyze the roots of realism, some of the main theorists behind it and the core assumptions of this school of thought in International Relations and then in the second part, we will put it into perspective with other international relations, theories to assess its contributions.

Realism is a theory that has its roots in the work of many authors throughout the centuries. One of them, Thucydides, is considered as one of the first main contributors to the Realist thought. He is famous for his analysis of the Peloponnesian War, a war which saw Athena and Sparta fighting each other. Thucydides explains that “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta” (Frankel, 1996, 18). Noticing that the Athenians started to gain more and more power, the Spartans decided to challenge it to preserve their own. Here, we find one of the classical realist assumptions that competition between states is viewed in ‘zero-sum terms, more for one actor means less for another’ (Baylis, Smith, Owens, 2008, 100). Also, at one point, the Athenians came to present their domination on the Melians, Spartans’ allies, as a fait accompli, explaining that the latter will have to respect this domination because ‘The strong do what they have the power do to and the weak accept what they have to accept’ (Frankel, 1996, 19) Here, the Peloponnesian War helps to seize some of the key concepts of Realism. In a hostile context, the states try to maximize their interest and their power by asserting their domination over the others, the most powerful state has the means to do it and tries to impose its views over a weaker one. To challenge this domination, the states can rely on war which is seen as a way to prevent another state to become too powerful. This is a principle known in the Realist theory as the balance of power, ‘the most common definition holds that if the survival of a state or a number of weaker states is threatened by a hegemonic state or coalition of stronger states, they should join forces, establish a formal alliance, and seek to preserve their own independence by checking the power of the opposing side’ (Baylis, Smith, Owens, 2008, 94). Thucydides in his studies was the first to expose that, which explains that he is often considered as ‘the fountainhead of the realist tradition’ (Frankel, 1996, 25).

Thomas Hobbes also made a big contribution to Realism, he notably brought and explained the idea that Man has a ‘perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceases only in death’ (Dougherty, 1997, 63). So, if we want to find out why international relations are always conflictual, according to the realist thought, it is because it has to do with human nature, always looking for more and more power. It’s something that we also find in Morgenthau’s thought which states ‘Politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature’ (Baylis, Smith, Owens, 2008, 95). Hobbes, like many Realists was really sceptical about alliances between states and the commitments on common laws to guarantee safety without power and the means to guarantee it, “If there be no power erected, or not great enough for our own security, man will and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art for caution against all other men”. (Dougherty, 1997, 63)

Realism, even if it is a term regrouping several theories and different views about the world, is can be defined by many shared assumptions. First of all, as stated in the introduction, the nation state remains the main actor in the international level. Realists do not give so much importance to actors such as NGOs or companies and argue that international politics are defined by the nation state. One of the main features that affect state behaviour is that the international system is conflictual, it is a permanent state of war where the states cannot trust each other, and they have to rely on their own capabilities to ensure their survival. Even if we can notice some alliances or coalitions between states, as the last resort they ultimately rely on their own means, ‘The international system leads states to engage in self-help’ (Dougherty, 1997, 59).

Furthermore, the states have to rely on their own means because there is no supra body above them, they all exist in condition of legal sovereignty, even if there are some differences in their capabilities, some states are obviously greater or lesser actors, they are all sovereign. This statement dates back from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, a Treaty that recognised the sovereignty of the state within its boundaries and on the international level. Foreign policy and domestic politics can be separated, but the state remains as an unitary actor. One of the main goals of the state leaders is to maximize the state interest, for that they will try by diverse means to gain more power, one of the most important concepts to predict their behaviour. Indeed, power is in the centre of the Realist thought, the main goal pursued by state leaders, helping them to ensure the survival of the state, power can be defined as the capacity to bring about intended effects, the impact of an actor on another (Hague, Harrop, 2007, 10).

Finally, another key concept in the realist theory is the security dilemma, based on uncertainties about other state’s armament. Each state tries to arm itself against other states but the main problem is that when a state enhances its weapons to ensure its security, it can be perceived by other states as a threat to their own security and therefore leads to an arms race which makes the international environment even more hostile (Dougherty, 1997, 59).

When we look at the Realist way of seeing the world, we can notice that it is relevant to explain many of the issues encountered on the international level. It is trying to describe the way things are and not how they should be, which is presented by its advocates as more pragmatic.

For example, every time there were hopes that the world will work towards peace and international collaboration, the hopes lasted only a few years and the realist thought came back to the forefront. After World War I, many countries created under Wilson’s leadership, the League of Nations, it created many hopes but it turned out to be a failure with the emergence of fascism and Nazism in the 1930s. The problem there was that there may have been a harmony of interest after World War I between states such as Great Britain and United States satisfied with the outcome of the war but it did not apply to dissatisfied states such as Germany, Italy and Japan. Therefore, they could not establish a common system to ensure mutual interests and rely on each other (Dougherty, 1997, 61). Germany, Italy and Japan could not accept the fact that they were left weak and they wanted more power and influence in the international level. After World War II, a new attempt was made with the United Nations and the world nations were hoping again to work towards a united world with common principles and alliances to avoid the war. But USSR and USA desire for power brought the world into confrontation logic once again, with two superpowers trying to expand at the expense of the other, confirming again the zero sum term of the Realist theory.

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To assert the relevance of Realism with a current example, we can also take the example of the current ‘subprime crisis’. It has been noticed that in these difficult contexts, states tend to be protectionists and adopt plans that serve their own interest, like the American stimulus package was denounced by many as a protectionist measure. This issue is becoming a growing concern of the World Trade Organization (Abdelal, Segal, 2008), but it is something expectable according to the Realists. We can also notice the same thing happening in Europe, where France for example, adopted a plan to save the car industry that is primarily made to save French jobs and that may lead to the closure of factories in Eastern Europe or the reluctance from European Countries to financially help Eastern European countries (Charter, 2008).

On the other hand, Realism is not perfect and it has gone through several criticisms. For example, the outcome of the Cold War, one superpower collapsing and the other one ending up as the only superpower left, was not predicted by anyone and cannot be explained by the Realist theory. ‘Many scholars argue that Realism cannot even account for the seemingly wilful decision of the leaders of the Soviet Union to abdicate their superpower status’ (Frankel, 1996, 194). It is something that Realists could not see coming, and it does not have to do with any of their assumptions and the way this conflict should have ended according to this theory. Realism was adapted to the Cold War situation, with two superpowers struggling for power and trying to assert their domination.

Furthermore, in a new globalized world, we saw the emergence of a whole new range of actors not taken into account by the Realists. The action of NGOs on issues such as human rights is important and they have the means to exercise pressure on the states to see their wishes realised. They have a growing influence on the international level and their observations, even if they are not always listened to, are often taken into account when it comes to finding solutions to humanitarian crises. Also the transnational companies are now able to make the states change their working legislations by threatening to set up in other countries where their interests would be treated in a better way. Indeed, many argue that because of globalization new forces are threatening the nation state but this aspect, if not recognized well by the Realist theory, denies the action of other actors and focuses on the states.

Another problem is that the Realist theory is quite pessimistic about international politics, and it is sometimes denounced by some as a theory that favours the maintenance of the status quo, because they argue that the world is in a permanent state of war and that we cannot really do anything about it. It is also accused of making ‘self fulfilling prophecies’, for instance, its emphasis on power in International Relations tends to make people act in a way that makes power the key to human relations (Smith, Booth, Zalewski, 1996, 54). There may be a risk of reproducing this system over and over and giving it legitimacy. The liberal theory, even if it can be considered as too idealistic, is at least optimistic about human nature and argues that we can put an end to this permanent state of war by cooperation. If we take the example of the European Union, the nation states manage to create a union that makes the opportunity of a war not very likely to happen and they cooperate on many issues. Again, in the context of the current crisis, the situation could be more difficult for the country members of the Eurozone, because they would probably be ‘fighting’ each other with competitive deflation and it could make the situation even worse. Even if the states try to maximize their interest, there is at least some space for optimism and it recognizes that the nation states can work together in international institutions such as the European Union or to a certain extent, the United Nations to ensure cooperation and a common interest.

To conclude, Realism is a school of thought that helps to understand many of the major issues happening on the international level. Its key concepts such as the importance of the state sovereignty or the states leaders’ quest for more power and influence over the other states often explain the reasons behind the main conflicts that the world has encountered, such as the two world wars and the Cold War. It also explains partly the failures of institutions such as the League of Nations after World War I, explaining that we have to be careful with ideals like world cooperation. Even today, with the subprime crisis hitting the whole world, it is tempting some states to be protectionists, Realism is relevant. However, we have to be cautious and consider the other views. There happens to be some success in state cooperation, such as the European Union, which proves that cooperation can be successful. And it is important to show some optimism because states can avoid war with some cooperation. What matters it to understand that every theory helps to understand a different side of International Relations, and there is not a thing such as a definite truth. The realist view about states egoism and their quest for power happened to be true at some points, but it does not mean that you have to forget the hopes of liberalism. As George Schwarzenberger notes “it was necessary to be on guard against naive day-dreaming on international politics. Now it is imperative to be so against the other pernicious extreme: unrestrained cynicism” (Donnelly, 2000, 193).


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