Realism is a theory within international relations which predicts states will act in their own national interest in defiance of moral consideration. In general, this belief results from an observation of human nature and the perception of people as selfish and fiercely competitive. Realism regards the international arena as anarchic, governed by no authority overriding sovereign states. International institutions such as the United Nations are not afforded significant credibility from a realist perspective. Rather, influence is perceived to be held predominately by major powers such as the United States, whose dominance is a product of military and economic strength. Realists hold the primary interest of a state is survival; toward that goal states compete for available resources (Bacevich, 2005). Pioneers of Realism include Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes.
At the risk of oversimplification, realism's message can be summarized in the form of ten assumptions and related propositions:
People are by nature narrowly selfish and etically flawed and cannpot free themselves from the sinful fact that they are driven to watch out for themselves and compete with others for self-advantage.
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Of all people's evil ways, none are more prevalent, inexolerable, or dangerous than their instinctive lust for power and their desire to dominate others.
The possibility of erdicating the instinct for power is a utopian aaspiration.
International politics is- as Thomas Hobbes put it - a struggle for power, "a war of all against all."
The primary obligation of every state - the goal to which all other national objectives should be surbodinated - is to promote national interest and to acquire power for this purpose.
The anarchical nature of the international system dictates that states acquire sufficient military capabilities to deter attack by potential enemies and to exercise influence over others.
Economics is less relevant to national security than is military might; economic growth is important primarily as a means of acquiring and expanding state power and prestige.
Allies might increase a state's ability to defend itself, but their loyalty and reliability should not be assumed.
States should never entrust the task of self-protection to international security organizations or international law and should resist efforts to regulate international behavior through global governance.
If all states seek to maximize power, stability will result by maintaining a balance of power, lubricated by shifts in the formation and decay of opposing alliances.
Liberalism is a paradigm predicated on the hope that the application of reason and universal ethics to international relations can lead to a more orderly, just and cooperative world, and that international anarchy and war can be policed by institutional reforms that empower international organizations and laws. At the core of liberalism is an empahsis on the impact ideas have on behavior, the equality, dignity and liberty of the individual, and the need to protect people from excessive state regulation. Liberalism views the individual as the seat of moral value and virtue and asserts that human beings should be treated as ends rather than means. It emphasizes ethical principle over the pursuit of power and institutions over capbilities as forces shaping interstate relations, and defines politics at the international level more as a struggle for consensus than a struggle for power and prestige. Pioneers of Liberalism include David Hume, Jean Jacques Rosseau, Immanuel Kant.
Colletively, the post-World War 1 liberalists embraced a worldview that emphasized the power of ideas in controlling global destiny, based on the following beliefs:
Human nature is essentially "good" or altruistic, and people are therefore capable of mutual aid and collaboration through reason and ethically inspired education.
The fundamental human concern for others' welfare makes progress possible.
Sinful or wicked human behavior, such as violence, is the product not of flawed people but of evil institutions that encourage people to act selfishly and to harm others.
War and international anarchy are not inevitable and war's frequency can be reduced by strenghtening the institutional arrangements that encourage its disappearance.
War is a global problem requiring collective or multilateral, rather than national, efforts to control it.
Reforms must be inspired by a compassionate ethical concern for the welfare and security of all people, and this humanitarian motive requires the inclusion of morality in statecraft.
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International society must recognize itself in order to eliminate the institutions that make war likely, and states must reform their political systems so that democratic governance and civil liberties within states can protect human rights and help pacify relations among states.
I, however, do find realism more convincing. The following essay would justify my conviction.
Realism is a perspective dominated by cynicism, perhaps best exemplified in the tenants of pragmatism and amorality. Realists place each state in the position of having to closely observe the actions of neighbors to resolve problems effectively without regard to moral concerns. It is believed by realists that the creep of morality into international relations handicaps players from adapting to new conditions.
Realism can be further broken down into composite elements which are distinguished in various ways. However, for the sake of simplicity, this discussion will reference realism in general. Likewise, many of the international relations theories which compete with realism may be considered variations of liberalism. Yet, for the sake of simplicity, liberalism will also be discussed generally.
Though it may be an oversimplification, one could argue liberalism's chief distinction is its assertion that peace is possible and can result from interdependence. Liberalism asserts that the preferences of states, as manifest in their cultural, economic, and political entities, determine their actions on the international stage. Therefore, presumably, if two or more states share preferences, their aligned interests may result in "absolute gains" from cooperation. Realists, on the other hand, do not believe in the concept of absolute gains, instead viewing the international contest as a zero-sum game. For one player to win, another must lose (Bacevich, 2005).
This author believes realism to be the more useful of the two theories for understanding international relations. Robert Jarvis, a professor of international relations at Columbia University, tells us there are three basic levels of focus - the individual level, the state level, and the international level. Jarvis states the realists tend to focus on either the individual or international levels, while liberals tend to focus on the state level, believing "a certain type of domestic arrangement will lead to better international behavior (Schouten, 2008)." At the risk of oversimplifying Jarvis's argument, he cites the Bush administration's campaign in Iraq as an example of this state level thinking. The idea of nation-building is, if you can cobble together a favorable domestic arrangement in a previously hostile country, you will have a new ally, or at least a far less hostile state. Realism's focus on the individual and international levels would tend to reject the nation-building concept, because you cannot change individuals without an initiative originating from them, and no amount of domestic alteration will change the overall international forces. A crude metaphor for how realism regards nation-building might be the craft of a Frankenstein monster. No matter the intention of nation-building, a realist might say, the outcome cannot be controlled (Schouten, 2008).
This author has articulated views in the past which could be classified as realist, though the concept of realism was unknown to this author at the time. One of these views is the belief human beings are universally imperfect, deeply flawed, and prone to behavior which Western morality would judge as evil; in theological terms, human nature is a state of sin. This viewpoint underlies an entire paradigm. If human nature is flawed, than the concept of human-generated utopia is nonsensical. No institution can transcend the qualities of the parties which constitute it. Operating from this viewpoint, international peace becomes an objective outside the scope of any individual state party. One nation cannot alter the fundamental characteristics of another anymore than one individual can control another. Influence is possible, of course. But control rests with the unitary entity.
Danielle Costa demonstrated in a 1998 paper for Tufts University that the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union confirmed aspects of realist theory. Costa argued that the actions of the United States under President Ronald Reagan exemplified defensive realism, while the actions of the USSR under Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev exemplified offensive realism.
Nations which feel threatened will take aggressive military and diplomatic action to strengthen their position, defensive realism tells us. Costa points to the Iran hostage crisis of the 1970's and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan as evidence of the United States' threatened position. Perceived American weakness led to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, who proceeded with a campaign to effectively spend the Russians into oblivion. This effort culminated in the so-called "Star Wars" program, more officially called the Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI. Regan's pursuit of this technology pushed the arms race beyond the reach of the Soviets and threatened to unbalance the old stalemate of mutual assured destruction which deterred nuclear warfare (Costa, 1998).
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Costa also cites aggressive policies the Reagan administration pursued to subvert the interests of the Soviets in their satellites around the globe. Latin America served as a blatant example where the United States supported opposition to communist regimes, even going so far as to train Contras in Nicaragua. Similar power plays were affected in the Middle East, including the deployment of Marines to assist friendly elements in Lebanon (Costa, 1998).
Costa uses an inversion of offensive realism to account for the behavior of the Soviet Union during the same timeframe.
Offensive realism predicts that states try to maximize their influence in the international arena, especially when they feel that they have the power and the capability to do so. In other words, when a state feels that it can expand its influence without a significant risk, it will. The converse to this theory would therefore state that if a state is in relative decline, and it realizes that to pursue an expansionist policy is significantly risky, it will pull back from the international arena and reinvest its resources. Offensive realists would argue that a state in relative decline would pursue a policy of withdrawal because it is in the state's best interest (Costa, 1998).
Evidence suggests the Soviet Union did regard itself as in a state in decline. Again, the chief element worth considering is SDI. The introduction and relentless pursuit of this technology by the Regan administration outpaced the Soviets. More than that, they would not be able to catch up given available resources. The reaction of Gorbechev was to recall the Red Army from Eastern Europe, consistent with the expectations of offensive realism. Gorbechev also started to make diplomatic concessions to the United States (Costa, 1998).
Costa notes toward her conclusion that neither realism nor liberalism is equipped to predict the behavior or influence of strong visionary leaders like Reagan and Gorbechev. On this point, this author would agree. International relations appears on its face to have much in common with economics, in so far as both disciplines might be categorized as a pseudo-science with many parties attempting to apply theories derived from analysis of the past which remain inadequate to accurately predict the future. When it comes to markets, there are far more professors and analysts than successful traders. Likewise, it may be safe to say in reference to international relations there are far more pundits than visionary leaders.
That said, in retrospect (which is the direction these theories work best), realism seems vindicated over liberalism in the case of the Cold War. The liberal approach to the Cold War would not have advocated the pursuit of SDI, a pursuit which proved ultimately effective in ending the Cold War. Organizers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1985 rallied against SDI, stating "Antiballistic missile defense â€¦ is not technically feasible (Disarmament study group, 1985)." They believed pursuit if SDI would provoke more aggressive action from the Soviets and potentially destabilize international security. Apparently, unlike many MIT scientists, the Soviets were convinced of the feasibility of Star Wars.
The adoption of realism as a theory of choice for regarding international relations raises an interesting challenge. How can the morality of a nation be maintained if it conducts itself in an amoral fashion internationally? Since realism is a perspective steeped in pragmatism, a pragmatic answer seems appropriate.
As individuals dealing with each other, we recognize a necessity to temper our idealism with sensible skepticism. At the most basic level, we teach our children both to be kind and considerate, to share and say "please" and "thank you", and to avoid talking to strangers. Does the teaching to be kind conflict with the teaching to discriminate? Or is it simply that the capacity to be kind depends on the intentions of the party we are dealing with? Morality is a luxury afforded to those who exist and flourish. Threats to existence must be dealt with decisively before any consideration of morality can take place. This reality is reflected in our animalistic fight or flight response, which is as amoral and autonomic a process as any found in nature. Security enables one to apply higher reasoning to relationships. Absent security, the reasoning which prevails will be that of the victor.
That being the case, the presence of existential threats, be they real or merely perceived, threatens to degrade an otherwise moral society toward an unthinking amoral and unceasingly violent entity. It is therefore important, if a society wishes to retain some moral center in a world dominated by realist forces, for existential threats to be correctly identified and dealt with swiftly. Above all, a society should be wary of perpetual threats which are leveraged to circumvent moral considerations from ever affecting policy.