“The strong do what the what they have the power to do, and theweak accept what they have to accept”1. Nothingbut Realism resonates from Thucydides’ honoured phrase. It is a phrase that hastranscended time and can be applied to all facets of life without losing meaning.
Realism is an international relations theory that has dominated theinternational scene. It is the most discussed theory that can adequately interpretand explain behaviours and current affairs in politics. Realism consistentlyappears to be an unbroken theory in the political spectrum however, it hasfailed to explain and predict noticeable changes in the present day. It isknown that realism stems on pessimism thus, it was not able to predict thecontinued sustenance of international systems like NATO, prosperousinternational organisations such as the IMF, WHO and the UN as well as theall-important significant end of the Cold War. Therefore, does realism stillhold power in the 21st Century when dramatic changes have occurred inthe political structure? It irrefutable to say that realism was not paramountin the war ages however, it can be argued that the international system is now changingfor the better; towards peace and harmony rendering realism as an archaictheory. Yet, with the conflict between the United States and North Korea,realism could very much come back into play.
Nevertheless, the overarchingquestion is has realism got the big things right enough?Realism is an umbrella concept of many derivatives such asclassical realism, the two features of neorealism (offensive and defensive) aswell as structural realism. Firstly, Morgenthau’s classical realism depicts atragic outlook of the world. This theory sees states as rational actors thatare power hungry even if they believe themselves to be moral in the doings. Ina world where there is no overall governance to subdue states in their actions,states act in their own self-interest2. The 3S’s of realism summarise state behaviour.
Firstly, there is Statism which isthe belief that the state should be able to control the economic or social policyof the nation. The 2nd S is Survival. This is the highest priorityfor states as states strive to be relevant in the international system. Theonly way to survive in anarchic international system is to maximize absolutepower. The last S is self-help. In a world where survival is crucial, statesonly endeavour to do what they deem as essential to making sure the statesurvives. As they say, God helps those that help themselves.
In Neo-realism, the two branches are offensive and defensiverealism. Both derivatives of neo-realism comply with the argument of classicalrealism that because of no overall governance, the international system isanarchic. However, even though there is anarchy in the international system, itdoes not directly depict chaos.
It is only an ordering principle with nocentral authority3. The perceptionof power in offensive realism is extreme to say the least. It proclaims thateven when states achieve military advantage other states, the hunger for poweris not satiated. The pursuit of power only ceases when hegemony is achieved.The argument is not that domination is good in itself, but attainingoverwhelming power is the best way to achieve state survival4. Offensiverealists do understand that sometimes conquest does not pay. Imperial Germany,Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany’s ( 1933 – 1945 ) expansionist behaviour can beused as examples of how actors strived but ultimately failed to achieveregional hegemony.
Essentially, great powers have a zero-sum mentality whendealing with each other with security as their main objective5. Itis an understood fact that defensive realists believe that great powers usuallybehave in ways that contradict themselves. Even though realism depicts statesas rational actors, in their strive for hegemony, Imperial Germany, ImperialJapan and Nazi Germany were behaving irrationally, pre-empting their obliterationin the horrendous conflicts they initiated. Ultimately, states that seek tomaximize their power do not enhance their advantage for survival but ratherundermine it6.By looking at Nazi Germany and their pursuit for regional hegemonyduring the war ages, it is probable to contend that the rebuild of power forNazi Germany stemmed from humiliation and not from the pure pursuit of power.Germany voluntarily giving up the war through the Treaty of Versailles gaveincentive to ignite the most extreme and dangerous form of nationalism asGermany was publicly humiliated. It would have been more accepted to lose thewar on the field of battle.
Nevertheless, their pride was injured which freelyopened the floodgates to the psyche of Hitler, namely his fascists ideals. Inthis respect, it is more suitable to attribute defensive realism to the rise ofpower of Post-war Germany as we can assume that the rebuild of power was forthe state’s own protection so that Germany would not be taken advantage of.However, greediness for powers amounts to destruction.To be frank, defensive realism suggests that states seek onlysecurity in the anarchic international system as the main threat to theirwell-being comes from other states7. Itscales geostrategic power to deter invasion. Also, states will deny the pursuitof hegemony. Defensive realism suggests that states only go into war for theirown safety and build military and/or nuclear capabilities for security. Aspreviously mentioned before, states that are entirely motivated to attainhegemony undermine their own survival as they become targets for other greatpowers in which alliances will be formed as states will seek to balance power.
As much as realism does not advocate cooperation, it does not mean thatalliances are not possible. It can be seen a “marriage of convenience”8. Anexample of these convenient alliances is when the United States, China and theSoviet Union fought against Germany during World War 2. However, during theCold War, the United States, West Germany and China opposite the Soviet Union.Nevertheless, defensive realists argue that even when conquest is possible, itis a risk as the costs outweigh the benefits.
Due to nationalism, it is mostlyimpossible for the conqueror to appease to the conquered as citizens of thetaken state would not like to be ruled by a foreign invader. Nationalism is prevalentand invites self-determination, sparking uprisings and revolutions againstforeign ruling. In sum, for sophisticated power maximization, states mustfigure out when to raise and when to fold9otherwise they risk elimination. If all states had the ability to recognisethis logic, seeing as they are rational actors, the competition for securityshould not be intense and there would be no wars between great powers.In terms of structural realism, human nature is not consideredwhen explaining why states strive for power. It is very much the structure ofthe international system itself that motivates states to pursue power.
In aworld where there is no higher authority, states are never certain about eachother’s intentions10 sothere is no guarantee that one state will not attack another. Thus, it makesperfect sense for states to maximize their power in event of having to protect themselvesin case of an attack. Ultimately, states are trapped in an “iron cage”11where peace and harmony is futile if they hope to survive. As Waltz states “inanarchy, there is no automatic harmony”12. Also,cultural differences in structural realism are also not a factor because theinternational system creates the same motivations for all great powersregardless of whether the state is autocratic or democratic.
The lack of world governance gives means to states to pursue theirown interests. Alex Bellamy accurately highlights the features of currentaffairs, denoting that the “display of theoverwhelming might by the world’s most powerful state, the persistence of theuse of violence for political ends… and the seeming inability of internationallyagreed norms and rules…constrain powerful actors”13.Even though there is no world governance, there is international law. Even ifgreat powers do act in accordance to international law, it can be assumed it isbecause they partook in creating the law thus, constantly benefiting from it hence,encouraging them to stand by it. Participation only occurs when it isproductive for the state. For example, the United States refused to sign theOttawa treaty to remove landmines as it affected U.S security interests butfavoured the Chinese Trade Agreement as it would reduce China’s trade surplusas well as allowing the U.S to gain access into Chinese markets14.
Uncertainty surround states’ intentions are inherent in an anarchical structureto which John Herz labels as the “security dilemma”15.In this sense, it is not states using physical force to increase its ownsecurity by decreasing another but abusing the enforcement of international lawto change state behaviour and influence policies. Another example of this isthe Nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) negotiating the terms and conditionsof this agreement for numerous states yet weighing in the favour of greatpowers, such as the U.K, U.S, China, Russia and more.
However, structures donot determine outcomes.Thus, is realism applicable in the current age?According to Buzan, “realism reinvents itself and establishes and indispensablerelevance”16.Realists would argue that institutions, states, nations and even people ceaseto exist – this is the natural course of events. Inevitably, the only thingthat is unchangeable is human nature which is inherently selfish, wicked and complex.If we reduce human nature to our basic instincts, it spurs humans to survivethus, there will certainly be competition to ensure the optimum level ofsurvival. From just translating the analysis of basic human instincts into the internationalsystem, it is credible to contend that anarchy would prevail.
Yes, there may becorporation but it would be limited as well as no higher authority as peopleand/or states are not submissive.It is fair to say that Realism can explainbehaviours. However, it has been mistaken in explaining corporation. Thesuccessful corporations and organisations of the EU, UN, ASEAN and NATO areunexplainable using Realism as the main theory.
For a theory that is solid tomost, Realism has cracks. It could be argued that cooperation is an expressionof humanity – for this was not pre-empted by Realism. In a world where economicsystems have become integrated and the influx of globalisation, leaders of greatpowers are becoming more compassionate rather that reducing to conflict. Realismis based upon a spectator’s construction of knowledge. We are in a “threateninganarchical world marked by an endemic struggle for power and survival byasserting control over others to maintain order and security.
Realism dictatesstates to discipline and control each other for the common good however,realism reduces complex issues and ignores the needs of human beings”17. Realismignores the needs of human being rendering it unable to explain corporation socan we truly say that is has got the big things right? Arguably, in the modernages, liberalism is the key theory as it supports growing regional corporation.According to liberalism, anarchy can be moulded. In the 21stCentury, liberalism paints a much more progressive picture that realism whichis likely to become the dominant theory as war is not ideal anymore.Nevertheless, “realism should not be discarded since its insights arefundamental to understanding world politics”18.Subverting Realism would cast doubt upon the entire canon of 21stcentury realist thought19.
In reference to answering the overall question of whether realismhas got the big things right, it certainly has in most aspects. It analyseshuman nature, basic world order and supplies reasons as to why nations havegone to war and why it will always be a possibility. Yes, it does not explain cooperationhowever, the fundamentals of Realism are still very much applicable to 21stcentury thought. Humanity has developed to a level where leaders of greatnations possess ulterior motives to their humanitarian operations and promiseglobal happiness. Due to check and balances, war is not the outcome of conflict.The outcome of conflict is now the refusal of trade deals and free roam whichis more imperative in the 21st century. Regardless of whether we aremoving into a less conflictual age, the world remains a dangerous place even ifthe level of threat varies over time.
States will always be preoccupied withsurvival rendering realism as perpetually pertinent. As Hobbes states, “thelife of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”20: theonly way to survive is to be selfish.1Thucydides, The Melian Dialogue, 19542Buzan, Timeless Wisdom of Realism,19963Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great PowerPolitics, 2001 4Mearsheimer, Structural Realism, 20065Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great PowerPolitics, 20016Ibid.7Elman, Jensen, Realism, 20138Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations,19489Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great PowerPolitics, 200110Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great PowerPolitics, 200111Ibid.12Waltz, Man, The State & War, 195413Bellamy, International Society & itsCritics, 200514BBC, US and China sign trade agreement,201715Herz, Idealist Internationalism and theSecurity Dilemma, 195016Buzan, Timeless wisdom of realism?,199617Bain, William, Deconfusing Morgenthau,200018Dunne, McDonald, The Politics of liberalinternationalism, 201319Bain, William, Deconfusing Morgenthau,200020Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651