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International Relations Theory and the Apparent Dangers of Realism

Updated on February 11, 2012

Critics of realism may identify it as a ‘deeply flawed and dangerous theory of world politics.’ However this would be an erroneous suggestion with its roots in the misconception that theory dictates practice which the realist may argue is an inversion of cause and effect. The importance of challenging the criticisms aimed at realism can be illustrated by a contextual analysis of both history and current international relations, as this will reveal realism in fact often prevents or obstructs danger in world politics rather than being dangerous itself. For sake of the limited scope of this piece it will be necessary to focus analysis on the classical and structural strands of the realist tradition. With the structural strand being far more appealing than the primitive classical realism.

Firstly, classical realism rests upon the claim of a predominantly egoistic human nature. In practice this means humans are primarily driven to action by desire and the passions, not logic, reason or any other causal factor. A second basic tenet of classical realism which stems from this is to emphasize “the primacy in all political life of power and security”. A final basic realist principle is that there are “constraints imposed by international anarchy”. From this basic principle it is often derived that “universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states”.

A fixed egoistic account of human nature means an actor is inclined towards self interested motives of action. This when applied to international relations makes conflict a standard condition as a multitude of actors will act in their own interest which will be contrary to the interest of others. Accounting for the interest of others is a moral principle and morality is a feature missing from the realist position. Furthermore, the anarchic make up of the international community means there is no source of authority to appeal to which in turn must further conflict. This happens as at the state level, the egoistic nature of man is restrained by a political and legal hierarchy which is missing in international relations and so the evil side of human nature is more freely and frequently applied to action. Without an authority sitting on top of an international hierarchy morality cannot be enforced and so loses its “binding character.

The anarchic international system then has similar appearance to a Hobbesian state of war and so security is necessarily at the forefront of international relations. As there is no internationally binding authority states act to protect themselves from danger and even if this is a strictly defensive measure it can appear aggressive and threatening to other states who will act in turn, drawing power themselves, thus producing a “constant fear and an incessant need to acquire, maintain, demonstrate, and exercise power“. No period of history illustrates this process so much as the cold war with its NATO/Warsaw Pact and West/East splits in a bi-polar world and unparalleled build of arms. On the surface this would then appear to support the claim of realism being a dangerous theory of international politics. However, the relatively equal bi-polarity highlighted by M.A.D, produced what was effectively a stand off rather than the guaranteed destruction of war. The cold war produced no mass destruction and danger as such but instead relative peace. There may have been Korea, Vietnam, The Bay of Pigs and other conflicts, but in relative terms the cold war period produced greater peace than the 45 years of the century which preceded it.

In the post cold war years it may be argued that the importance of realist theory in the world is in decline. There is no multi polar world, instead US hegemony and so no great stand off or balance will occur. However, realists may claim to have time on their side and that the twenty years following the cold war is a transitional stage of history. This does seem highly likely with the decline of US power, the growth of China and a further integrated Europe, this added to Russian/Chinese cooperation and the growth of the Latin American left which also has ties to China and Russia will see a clash of interests in the global community that will produce a multi polar or at least bi-polar world. In such circumstances a new cold war may be the best way to avoid danger as the battle of ideas takes place once again.

The realist approach can also be defended on the basis that it is a reflection of history. It is because history has happened that the theory takes shape rather than the theory being the maker of history. Critics may point to the lack of a moral code or the struggle for political power as a dangerous thing, but this criticism would seem to be an inversion of cause and effect as the theory is merely a reflection of reality, it comes out of what has happened rather than being the cause of events.

No Amount of Talking Will Remove These.
No Amount of Talking Will Remove These.

The state of war as advanced by Hobbes and Rosseau is not manifested by continual battlefield engagement, but rather differences of interests between states mean that “conflict may break out into battle at any time". Again there is a lack of authority to appeal to and so states are bound to protect themselves. When there is a resemblance of an authority or a collective of states, it inevitably fails to protect states from aggression as what binds states together is weaker than the inherent conflict between them. In history this has been made evident by the failure of the League of Nations to protect Abyssinia from Italian aggression, the failure to solve the Manchurian crisis or to aid the Spanish government in the civil war. The idealism of the western Bourgeoisie did little to curb Fascism. No, it was Soviet Realism which mobilized tens of millions of political warriors. These were the weapons which destroyed what Molotov called the "illiterate misanthropic theory of the German master race". This is in stark contrast to the Idealist international talking shops of the bourgeoisie.

This failure of idealism can be seen to continue in the present day by the inaction of the UN in so many areas. This collective of nations will pass resolutions which highlight a moral condemnation of a state and its actions, but it is inevitably too weak and fractured to act. Such failures include the inability to enforce the many resolutions passed against Israel or the incoherence of opinion and lack of action in the Iraq war. Under these circumstances states can only provide their own security as no international body is able to act. This point was perhaps made evident by Russia’s intervention to protect Russian citizens in South Ossetia from Georgian aggression. An idealist approach would almost certainly have been able to provide no security for the victims of aggression and so Russian action was the only way to provide security. Russian action was swift and effective, making for a quick battle rather than allowing any kind of long running battle of national resistance to begin. By doing this ultimately less lives were lost than would have been and the period of insecurity was short rather than prolonged. In this way the realist approach is far from deeply flawed and dangerous but has actually provided for the removal of danger.

The aforementioned examples of Abyssinia, Manchuria and Spain had the potential to be like the Russian example and remove a danger. Each incident provided an opportunity for the so-called democratized states to step in and tackle fascism in its infancy. Instead the fantasy of political Liberalism becomes exposed. It is the realist “medieval” and “authoritarian” approach like that advanced by Machiavelli which shows its superiority. He argued in favour of pre emptive war and the success of the Romans provided good cause for this. They would attack a perceived threat first and ignore any moral implications which was a basis of Rome’s power. Had the Romans obeyed moral rules they would have been punished by the “natural order” felt Machiavelli. This would seem to be evident in the case of the events mentioned prior to World War II. Had the states who would become enemies of the fascist powers highlighted the danger posed and acted swiftly in these incidents perhaps this war could have been avoided as battle would have happened before the Axis powers grew in strength, so victory could have been swift. It could also have given the Nazi’s sufficient reason to fear sparking war in Czechoslovakia or Poland for fear of the repercussions. Instead indecision and inaction was how the soon to be allied powers and League of Nations responded. If this was because of their moral approach to international relations, the result was what Machiavelli suggested; the “natural order” punishing the adherents to moral rules.

The importance of the anarchic system is particularly stressed by structural realists as opposed to the human nature stressed by the classical realist, although anarchy is important to the latter also. The structural form then can account for “the expression of nonrealist elements in human nature and international politics” as the structure though anarchic, can have order imposed upon it “which has the effect of reducing temptation”. Machiavelli’s structural account however is less optimistic about the potential for order, He argues that conflict and anarchy are necessary conditions that coupled with the ambition of men makes pre emptive war strategically justifiable.

Realists then are not an entirely homogenous group and there are variations in theory. With this variation there will also be variation in criticisms levelled at each. Offensive realists are seemingly more susceptible to criticisms of being a dangerous theory. The offensive realist is concerned with expanding power and so seems more aggressive and so one may be less hopeful of security. On the other hand defensive realism is concerned with one’s own security and maintaining their power rather than taking risky steps to advance their position. Defensive realism then can provide for a security against threats without being aggressive and bringing danger to the world. It may be noted that there is a difference between Russia fighting Georgia in defence as opposed to the offensive US invasion of Iraq and so defensive realism seems much more safe from criticisms of being a dangerous theory.

With such considerations it seems apt to suggest realism need not be a dangerous theory in world politics. In fact realism can be a counter to danger and in particular defensive realism has solved problems rather than causing them. Realism within an analysis of history and present events has been shown to have countered danger in the practical sense as Russia did, but also theoretically could have prevented great tragedy as the build up to World War II suggests. Critics of realism also appear to be guilty of an inversion of cause and effect and thus misrepresent realism as a causal force rather than a product of the history of international relations. With these factors in mind it would appear very unfair to call realism a dangerous theory, while there is a case against offensive realism that may be made, realism as a whole cannot fall victim of such criticism.


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