Realism in contemporary politics
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Published: Thu, 18 May 2017
“Which international relations theory best describes the world’s events?” This is plainly a question highly likely to be exclusively asked by an international relations professor to his/her international relations students during a lecture. The students have to be analyzing this question very critically by taking all the found facts into careful consideration before deciding on anything. Not surprisingly, whilst some students will probably decide to choose interdependent liberalism or classical realism as their preferred answers, some others, by contrast, might prefer another distinguishable theory, for example, Marxism or Mercantilism. Yet, none of them nevertheless are either completely right or wrong. They all have their own supporting evidence based on passed histories and/or today world’s ongoing events to illustrate their own particular arguments. However, some – if not all – of the evidence is not concrete or convincing enough which can potentially draw criticisms or rebuts from those who are in an opposition side. As an international relations student, I to my preference will select neorealism or structural realism of Kenneth Waltz as the best international relations theory to explain the world’s political practices and tendency.
Neorealism specifically refers to a theory which tries to explain that the state system, not human elements, is the mere determinant of the state behaviors. It whispers to the ears of all the states that they all have to act in accordance with the anarchy of the system to survive and prosper. People can act morally and ethically in their society within their confined territory. But states cannot and should not do the same thing otherwise they could treacherously place themselves in danger and more execrably in demise. This is chiefly because within a sovereign state, there is a central government or authority standing by to help regulate peoples’ social behaviors so that social order and peace can prevail and thereby peace and harmony. That is why we can see there are great lots of nice people whose good deeds override and outweigh bad deeds as they interact with one another in society. But we can also see that states more often than not fight, kill, destroy or sack each other for its own exclusively personal gains. Some states, such as Morn, Charm Civilizations, were already unmade. Albeit the League of Nations, Japan embarked on invading countries in Asia, and Germany in Europe; no (world) government or effectively strong international organization disciplined them. The US, despite disagreement from other big powers and UN, did stage war against Iraq. Recently, North Korea has bombed the South. This is not to mention many other cases. These highlight and exemplify ever-lasting anarchy of the system wherein (destructive) attacks and wars are always possible.
The so-called Balance of Power widely known to be originally developed by Kenneth Waltz is a paradigmatically typical example of the world’s political trends. Balance of power specifically refers to the means by which a state in the anarchical state systems is highly likely to manipulate its ability, for example by forming an alliance with another or other states, simply in order for itself to better – if not best – stand up to a more powerful or superior state by which it feels threatened. Relative gains, which mean one state feels insecure when another has gained something out of the anarchical state system, and the endeavors to increase power to well ensure national interests, security, and survival can also potentially lead to balance of power. A sheer number of events demonstrate this mere claim.
Recently, the USA has been to Indonesia and India and pledged to strengthen their mutual existing ties and relationships. From the political perspectives, we can see that the US does so simply and mainly to balance its power with China who apparently seems cunning and bullying over many world’s issues. European Union is also another supporting example. EU member states are bound and tied together not only economically, but also politically by pooling some of their sovereignty chiefly in order to balance its economic and political power with the rest of the world, including the US, the Oriental, and the developing countries which are emerging as potential challenging competitive rivals both economically and politically. One more relevant example falls on the case of ASEAN. ASEAN has called for the intervention from the US and Russia in the South China Sea issues, and this is perceived by the world as sort of balance of power by ASEAN with more economically and militarily powerful China. A main and original objective of ASEAN on which it has still centrally focused to-date is to strengthen its intra-regional economy so that it can well compete with the rest of the world, in particular the developed countries. This can also be viewed as balance of power.
China is also a particularly obvious example of balance of power. China who used to be much inferior to the US economically and militarily now has virtually become the only US’s equal. China has strived so hard for ages and for generations to build its powerhouse in order that its power can be balanced with the US so that China will never ever be easy to be threatened or coerced by the world’s only superpower. That is the very reason why China has been so wily in playing political and economic games in the international arena. China has publicly and secretly supported and granted military and economic aids without strings attached to the authoritarian and corrupt states (governments) who are often condemned and warned by the West to sever development aids on the ground of human rights violations or economic or political concession. It is not only that, China has also manipulated its skills to depreciate its own currency and thus increase its exports at the expense of others particularly the US. The US has heavily responded to China. That is why the main item in the agenda of this year G-20 summit held in Seoul is surely currency issue.
Neorealists can also be reasonably right to argue that the world can be characterized by security dilemma. Security dilemma specifically means that whilst a state is building its defensive capabilities, others will follow suit by building their own, and more often than not defensive capabilities can potentially be converted into the offensive, so wars or armed conflicts are more prone to be escalated then. Trying to shift balance of power and to protect national interests can potentially result in security dilemma as well. There are many of world’s emerging issues acting as clear cut examples to illustrate the point.
The US was the first-ever state to introduce nuclear weapon. And then, USSR stool the nuclear technology from the US and built its own nuclear weapon. Facing the security dilemma, the two did compete with each not only over nuclear weapons, but also over other military technologies. After Cold War between these two superpowers came to the demise, other smaller states especially the authoritarian states started building nuclear weapons as well, leading to nuclear proliferation and spread. North Korea, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, India, China are believed to possess nuclear weapons. Taiwan, Japan, Viet Nam and a few others are also believed to be ready and willing to produce nuclear weapons also. Thus, we can say the US has been encountering even greater security dilemma. The US has been so tricky and pragmatic in maintaining its global-scale powerful position, role and influence so that it can ensure its own national interests; the US has manipulated oil politics in the Middle East. Given this behavior, China has been trying to be as powerful as the US through whatever sly means it can access; China supports the corrupt states whilst the West does not; China depreciates its national currency for its economic gains in spite of subsequent undesirable results to other economies; China becomes extremely starving for oil and natural resources; that is why South China Sea has been claimed by the newly emerging power. Not only China, others will also follow suit what China has done. Then, the US meets with another security dilemma. States seek for material power and capability in order to insure for states’ survival and defend their security in an uncertain and anarchy world. Due to this reason, Israel possessed monopoly nuclear weapon in Middle East mainly because she wants to defend herself from her neighbor countries who always want to revenge with for times. However, Iran viewed that Israel building nuclear weapon is not for defensive, so Iran strives very hard to develop nuclear program and claim that she will wipe out the Jewish state out of the map one time.
Self-help is also a characteristic feather of the world’s politics. A country in this anarchical state system must largely rely on itself; it would be too risky for her to trust others. The country must then build its own defensive capabilities to enhance its ability to protect itself from any aggression by any other state. Albeit a democratic state, the US built nuclear weapons simply to ensure its postwar national security and survival. China also spends more of its national budget on its national defense or military. It is mainly because they both and others are aware of possible danger or attacks in this anarchical international system. They must be always ready for any possible attacks.
Kenneth Waltz can also be logically correct to convince that great power relations can potentially lead to international change especially more often than not at the event that great powers fall, rise, or their balance of power shifts. The great powers set the world scene for the rest. Cold War, WW I and II, UN (P-5), LN, colonialism, globalization are all the world’s milestones which were all initiated by the great powers who dominated the world at each time. Modern state system at the very beginning was exclusively in Europe, but now it has spread all over the world. In the past, the powerful states (European states) used military as their tool to harm the weaker (in Asia and Africa) by coming and colonizing those weak, vulnerable states, and now they use economy or globalization, instead; the developing or poor countries are more or less at the mercy of those developed countries; only a few Asian states, such as Japan, could help themselves get out of the apparent exploitation by the developed. The infamous and famous Cold War was the mere product of ideological conflict between the two superpowers – the US and the USSR at the time. Japan and Germany who were great powers gave birth to WWII.
Pursuing national interests and seeking to augment power to ensure greater national security and survival also highlights the fact that neorealism and realism in general are applicable in the today world. No any single state in this anarchical system would let her national interests left behind and thus her national survival endangered. She must fight and struggle for the better. She would prefer declaring war to placing her state interests in danger. Armed conflicts between India and Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore, Cambodia and Thailand, and South Korea and North Korea all emphasize the priority state interests. Endangered by terrorism, the US has taken actions to fight war on terror across the globe; a good example is the US invaded Afghanistan. Modeled by the US trick in world politics such as oil politics, China is doing the same thing; China has been known to be so cunning in increasing its global power; it supports the corrupt states; it manipulates its currency; it improves its military sector and so forth.
Kenneth Waltz argues that world is also characterized by the uneven distribution of capabilities and this can lead to international war or conflicts. This point is strong. Of course, the state capabilities are never ever equal. If all the states of the system had the equal capabilities, then the world’s genuine peace could exist. Because of unequal capabilities, ASEAN and China who seems much more powerful are having long-standing conflicts with each other over South China Sea. WWI and II can also understood to have caused by the shift of balance of power to Germany and Japan, making the two become more powerful than other powers at the time. China and the US seem not to end up with any war with each other as they both have similar capabilities. But they both still have some sort of peaceful conflicts which are not yet international conflicts, but need international precaution or proactive solution, for example over the issue of currency and democracy. During cold war, the US and Soviet maintained some type of peace as they did not escalate to war because they both had similar ability to destroy each other, yet some international happenings also explained Cold War, such as civil wars in Viet Nam, Korea, Cambodian, and so on.
International competition claimed by neorealists can also be a true feather of world politics. In the past, we can see the competition between Sparta and Athens. And now we can see the resembled relations between the US and Soviet during cold war and betwixt the great powers before and during World Wars. They used military as their tools to compete or fight each other. Now that military tools have become obsolete, they used different tools in this different world context. They use economy or globalization or tree market/trade to compete with each other. China is competing with the rest of the world especially the potential region such as ASEAN, the US, Japan, and EU. That is why we can see there have emerged the group of eight, regional organizations, the group of twenty, free trade agreements, and so on and so forth.
Realism argues that the theory well explains the actions of the middle and great powers who always act in reference to the anarchy of the system. They will always use balance of power methods to survive any danger or threat potentially posed by a more powerful or superior. However, the small or the weak vulnerable states are another different story. They are actually on the margins of the systems; their actions must be guided by the principle of bandwagon; they must bandwagon or side with the great powers, for example in an international crisis, to protect themselves from as well as to survive other superiors’ aggressive power. And these actions, as neorealists argue, are perceived to be negligible or insignificant. When the US illegally invaded Iraq, some less powerful countries such as Australia supported the US by sending some of their troops to help the US fight in Iraq as well.
Kenneth Waltz also argues that domestic politics is in no sense relevant in intentional system. No matter whatever regime type or domestic political methods and/or whoever statesman a state has, she must ensure her national security, survival, and interests in the system. A state has to act in the system differently from what a person is expected and supposed to act in a confined territory. These two aspects cannot and should not be applied to each other’s context, for the two contexts are really differentiated. A state must act with accordance to this world’s anarchy. A democracy might fight a war if necessary notwithstanding her firmly held belief in human rights or peaceful problem-solving principles. A number of evidence from what states used to practice and have practiced support the claim.
South Korea has been militarily threatened by North Korea. The former therefore readies itself for any possible attack or war from the latter. That is why we can see a sheer number of military maneuvers of friendship between the US and South Korea in her territory. The US is worldwide known to be the father and the biggest proponent of democracy. Yet, it has nonetheless been repeatedly and allegedly accused of having committed human rights infringements in the Middle East. It was not only that; the US used to be condemned for covertly and overtly advocating authoritarian states for its own personal gains, for example, by helping support (even bloody) military coup d’états to topple democratically elected leaders.
Cambodia is a democratic country, yet it has better relations with authoritarian states such as China and Vietnam than the democracies such as Thailand, the US and the West which are known to be strong democracies and democracy advocates. Singapore and Malaysia, India and Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand warned each other to fight a war if no concession has not made as demanded. China and Viet Nam more often than not have had bitter relations with each other for ages though they both have shared the same communist ideology and similar culture and so forth.
International cooperation, international institutions, non-state actors such as NGOs, civil society, and other international actors still cannot fully and totally replace the position, role, and importance of states as the main actors in the system. IGOs such as UN and international law are just like scrap paper for the great powers, who use them as tools to gain global powers and influence. Those newly emergent actors are of course increasingly challenging the states actors, but still states have a shelter to protect itself, i.e. state sovereignty principle. If a state does not consent or mandate another state or other actor to intervene into its own internal affairs, they will never ever be eligible to do anything, but just passively condemn. States cooperate with one another only on the basis of self-interests. Whatever concession and policy a state has made must be attributable to its national interests, indeed. If states are aware of losses or setbacks in the cooperation or some kind of agreements or treaties, then as a matter of fact they will never ever do so.
Too vast body of innocent people were brutally and callously crushed to die or harmed in such countries as Botswana, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Burma, China, and others else where, where exist ethnic cleansings, genocides, internal conflicts, human rights contravention, and the like. This is simply because other states or actors especially the West and UN cannot do anything practically with the issues, but just passively condemn, as the hosts do not consent them to do so.
UN is largely influenced by the great powers. Thus, it should not be a surprise that UN can be reflected as the great powers’ interests. UN has failed to deal successfully with many important issues as to address those issues was believed to be at the expense a great power’s interests. UN has been successful in solving many issues, but mainly on the ground that to resolve those issues was believed to serve the great powers’ interests.
Bipolar state system is logically claimed by the father founder of neorealism – Kenneth Waltz – to be more stable than the multi-polar one. The outbreaks of WWI and WWII and cold war are concrete examples to explain this mere fact. WWI and II broke out because of the multi-polarity at each of the time; there were greater suspicion, mistrust, and higher chance for shift in power. As a result, those great powers declared wars against each other. Cold war was a contrasting story. It was a period of peace for the world though it seems not.
In conclusion, we can see that the world is best explained by neorealism rather than any other theories. Many events both in the past and now glorify and magnify the theory. The theory is more practical and applicable than the others. Therefore, it is highly-recommended that new international relations learners and scholars as well as the foreign policy-makers must be really careful in making any decisions. And the decisions are to be made on the basis of and in careful light of neorealism, otherwise overwhelming losses and regrets and more tragically demise can be made available for your states. Be careful and bear in your mind that your country’s future is in your hands. Firmly hold realism principles and prosper.
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