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Within the last few decades we have seen the world modernise and globalise at a rapid pace, and in many ways this has challenged the status quo and other established systems and theories, including that of realism. In this essay I will be exploring not only what globalisation and realism actually mean, but how globalisation has threatened realism to the point of near invalidation, eventually drawing a conclusion as to whether globalisation has negated realism altogether.
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Firstly, I think it is worth noting what we mean by the term ‘globalisation’, because this term has various meanings, referring to economic, cultural, environmental, military and political globalisation. Tony Schirato refers to how globalisation is often used as a name ‘used to designate power relations, practices and technologies that characterise, and have helped bring into being, the contemporary world’ (Schirato and Webb, 2003, pp 1). To an extent this is very true, globalisation has seen a vast increase in the interdependence of economies between foreign countries and powers with an increasingly unregulated single free market which encourages technological competition. But questions arise over whether this is a good or questionable thing; it has been said that an ‘overreliance on the rhetoric of interdependence not only may blind us to the legitimate concerns of other nations, but it can obscure our own choices at home’ (Nye, 2004, pp 154) and we’ll look at a critique of the globalisation model a little later on in the essay.
Turning now to realism, again there are different interpretations depending on whether you look more at classical realism or neo-realism, offensive realism or defensive realism. Overall, realism can be seen as the belief that there will inevitably be conflict among actors pursuing power. Applying realism to the modern day, Nye alludes to realism as being ‘parsimonious, intuitive, sometimes historically grounded, and often provide useful rules of thumb for policy makers’ (Nye, 2004, pp 1) going on to cite that there are three assumptions that realists (rightly or wrongly) make: ‘that states were the only significant actors, that force was the dominant instrument, and that security was the primary goal’ (Nye, 2004, pp3) and for the most part I agree with this analysis of realism, however as previously mentioned there are alternate definitions of realism, for example offensive realists will tell you that states are power-maximisers and that their goal is for absolute power, otherwise known as a hegemony, versus defensive realists who will say that states are security maximisers, focusing on preserving the status quo. For the most part, we will be using the idea that realism is the emphasis of the role of a nation state, and thus the state’s own interest, as our definition.
So now we have a rough understanding of what both globalisation and realism entail, it makes sense to now look at the arguments for why the globalisation of world politics might in fact have invalidated realism. It has been noted by writers that realists feel threatened by globalisation, saying: ‘To realists, globalization reflects the hegemonic influence of the major powers in international politics’ (Kay, 2004, pp 11) Kay goes on to explain how realists can view this proximity of power as creating vulnerability. The diffusion of power and culture that has taken over with this wave of globalisation has meant that the systems that realists prefer, those which protect nation-states and domestic interests, have been replaced by these internationalist policies. Many will point to the increasing number of institutions such as the IMF, WTO, EU and UN as examples of powers moving away from states towards international systems, arguing that this can cause smaller economies to become dependent on larger economies for trade. However, this argument can also work the other way around, meaning that larger economies which perhaps used to be more autonomous and independent are now reliant on more foreign manufactured goods and aid.
Citing an example of this, Douglas Irwin looks at the change in approach to trade that the US has taken, saying that despite how in the past the US economy was not particularly reliant on foreign trade, ‘Today, the situation is dramatically different: the United States imports toys from China, clothing from Costa Rica, and steel from Germany; it exports aircraft from Washington, wheat from Kansas, and machinery from Illinois’ (Bauman et al., 2005, pp 19), going on to say that virtually no corner of the country remains unaffected by international trade markets. This can be viewed as either a good or bad thing, but this spread of globalisation used in this example does help prove the case that globalisation has been invalidating realism to an increasing extent, seeing as we’ve been seeing a growth in intergovernmentalism, meaning that governments from around the world rely on each more and more, for example the dependence on foreign trade from the US can show how the realist idea of nation-states having absolute sovereignty has been somewhat eroded in favour of internationalism.
After having now looked at why globalisation could in fact be making realism irrelevant, I think it is also important to look at perhaps why this is actually not the case. Despite what we’ve already looked at in this essay, other writers might tell you that regardless of the increasing autonomy of economic relations, and in spite of the globalisation of capitalist production, we have merely moved on to a new form of sovereignty, saying: ‘Our basic hypothesis is that sovereignty has taken a new form, comprised of a series of national and supranational organizations united under a simple logic of rule’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000, pp xi-xii) -they go on to name this new form ‘Empire’, making it clear to distance this theory from imperialism by explaining that this Empire we are heading towards is one which ‘does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentred and de-territorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers’.
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For the most part I find it difficult with this argument, we have been heading towards further and further decentralisation and the loosening of borders- i.e the European Union and freedom of movement. Hardt and Negri make a unique point that the undoubted decline in the sovereignty of nation states ‘does not mean that sovereignty as such has declined’ (2000, pp xi), while also later caveating this by alluding that the Westphalia model of sovereignty has been in jeopardy since the early 20th century, starting most notably with the founding of the League of Nations and continuing with the development of technology and further shifts in power to bodies such as the United Nations.
Schirato and Webb, mentioned previously, echo some of these thoughts, saying that ‘the claims nation-states have become irrelevant are exaggerated’ (Schirato and Webb, 2003, pp 125), calling into question how exactly working together more closely with other countries is automatically supposed to mean reduced sovereignty, as I mentioned in the definition of globalisation using Nye’s quote as an example, meeting the concerns of another country, concerns which could be entirely legitimate, should not serve as an excuse to turn a blind eye to domestic issues. However, the crux of Hardt and Negri’s argument is that this current shift is just natural progression and therefore not the replacing or invalidation of realism with total market integration, but instead just a new and more modern form of rule, so realism itself is perhaps just evolving rather than becoming obsolete.
In closing, after defining what globalisation and realism mean, we looked at how globalisation might be challenging some of the principles of realism, using the US as an example of how interdependence on trade and foreign manufactured goods could equate to a loss of autonomy a nation state holds, with intergovernmentalism posing a threat to the more inward-looking views of realists. We also looked at the other side of this argument and analysed Hardt and Negri’s idea of ‘Empire’ and their argument that globalisation is not a replacement of realist ideas, but merely an evolution of them. On balance I think I would take the view that globalisation has done a very good job of making realism look outdated, and many of the isolationist realist ideas of the past have undeniably been taken over by a more global outlook, and so despite the fact that I don’t think this has meant a total loss in sovereignty of nation states, it seems clear that there has been some transfer in power and a transition away from realism towards the internationalism of globalisation.
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