Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
‘High politics’ comprises foreign relations and ‘low politics’ domestic affairs, with intermixing of the state-centric view and the transnational. Gone are the days when ambassadors and ministers used to be insulated from the public and unconcerned about public sentiment. Now, new means of communication through the press, internet and social media have considerably dented the monopoly of state narratives. Governments have to deal at two levels: with other governments, while at the same time remaining attentive to domestic public concerns.
The current debate is how far domestic politics and other interconnections among societies pose challenges to realist theorising by increasing the salience of politics within states and growing interconnections among societies. Both developments allow other theorists to make persuasive claims that realism is irrelevant today.
No one challenges the notion that the world remains politically decentralised. However, International Relations (IR) theorists disagree strongly on how IR plays out within that decentralised condition. Part of the debate involves how to define the most important element of the system structure. For realists, political decentralisation is primary as it means that the problem of assuring security must be solved by individual states through self-strengthening, alliances, or policies of neutrality.
Particularly in the neo-realist vision as propounded by Waltz (1979), this leads to a particular view of system-level processes as dominated by considerations of state power in a world where the possibility of war can never be ignored. International politics guide government decisions more than typically assumed in realist thinking (e.g. Bull 1977; Wight 1977) and are maintained through processes of mutual socialisation indicating what is or is not acceptable conduct.
Constructivist theorists, drawing on varying degrees of linguistic, cultural and cognitive theories of meaning, argue that the system process is malleable, or, as Alexander Wendt put it, ‘anarchy is what states make of it’ (1992). Though disagreeing on the precise pathways through which meanings are formed, constructivists, ranging from sociological institutionalism (e.g. Finnemore, 1996) to those inspired by critical theory (e.g. Fuchs and Kratochwil, 2002) all agree that there is no intrinsic political reason that decentralisation is always marked by thin sets of shared norms; governments and other actors can shape those norms as they remake their view of the world. For constructivists then, decentralisation is compatible with the operation of a thicker set of norms that provide more limits to choices and conduct than the realist version of unremitting security competition.
Realists on their part have a strong conviction that all international relations are necessarily conflictual and violence-prone and that international conflicts are ultimately only resolved by recourse to war. With this, realism is interlinked with nationalism and to some extent Imperial Conservatism for its tendencies of protectionism and expansionism. Realism in international relations displays protectionist tendencies, i.e. in the sense of protecting state interests and state dominance over other states; however, dominance over other states entails either hostile takeovers or economic superiority linking it with expansionism (Imperial Conservatism). Furthermore, in this sense realism fails to capture the extent to which international politics and relations are a different dialogue of voices and perspectives. Realism notably doesn’t capture all of IR or even most of its important aspects; it overlooks or ignores many important facets of international life, e.g. international business. In addition, the theory doesn’t take into account cooperation in human nature but rather labels humans as uncooperative, warlike and acquisitive. Realism ignores other actors besides states, such as human beings who in others’ eyes are seen with optimism and will overshadow state interests and actors like supranational organisations such as the EU, NATO, the UN and NGOs who believe that cooperation instead of only conflict can also prevail.
Realism has taken many forms, amongst them neorealist critical realism. Now classical realists like Kissinger generally abstain from the term and use instead ‘progressive realism’ or ‘ethical realism’ – a watered down version of classical realism. Put differently, realism does not capture the multifaceted type of international relations where cooperation and conflict co-exist.
The recent Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated that while nations have adopted anti-virus policies in their own national interest, nevertheless during the course of the pandemic they are mutually learning from each other’s experiences. President Trump seems to be an outlier, but even he has asked other nations for help, i.e. masks from South Korea and other countries. China is helping many nations in supply of masks and ventilators. Many US policy makers find themselves in a bind. They don’t want to associate themselves with the amoral (or, as they see it, immoral) realism of the Kissinger school, yet are turned off by what they consider as the ‘naive idealism’ of the Left.
The solution, if any, is to adopt versions of realism that try to soften some of realism’s harder edges. But keeping the ‘realism’ tag still concedes much to realism, which cannot be divorced from its ‘power-politics’ roots. Actually, the key problem centrists ought to have with realism is in the phrase: ‘power politics’.
One of realism’s key insights is summarised in the Clausewitzian dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means. When the phrase is turned around, one gets an idea how realists view international relations: politics is the continuation of war by other means. The US political centre would be far more comfortable with a theoretical construct in which politics is seen rather differently: as a product and expression of order, rather than a substitute for the exercise of strength. But international politics works this way only if one first agrees there is some kind of political order in the international sphere, rather than strength deciding the question.
Wars are triggered by systemic structures rather than aggressive or evil intentions. Marxists (e.g. Jessop, 1990; Rosenberg, 1994), world-systems (e.g. Wallerstein, 1974; Chase-Dunn and Hall, 1997, 2004) and dependency theorists (e.g. Amin, 1976, Cardoso and Felatto, 1979) all offer alternative views of systemic structure as created by the workings of a global capitalist economy.
The world remains politically decentralised. However, IR theorists disagree strongly on how international relations play out within that decentralised condition. Part of the debate involves how to define the most important element of the system structure. Continued practice makes and sustains the theory, instead of the other way around. Therefore in this case they tend to think that whatever foreign body they’re facing is hostile until proven otherwise.
The ideology of realism takes a pessimistic view of human nature, seeing man essentially as evil, individualistic, greedy and, what Hans Morgenthau calls animus dominandi, the human ‘lust’ for power. But realism is mostly concerned with the behaviour of a limited number of heads of state or other major policymakers – an extremely small portion of humankind in general. Generalising a small minority into the whole of mankind is stretching it too far. Agreed that it is the leaders who frame and implement policies. Once they become the leaders of a country and when the Sword of Damocles is hanging over them, their priorities change. Then one feels extreme responsibility to uphold the perceived security of their nation. No leader wants to be seen as too weak or indecisive in responding to a foreign threat; no leader wants to be remembered in history as weak-willed or incompetent and failing to capitalise on possible advantages that a crisis situation may offer; and no leader wants to jeopardise the safety of one’s regime or people. So they have to pose as tough and hard. It is not unreasonable but in a sense pragmatic as the leaders are putting the needs of their nation first.
Additionally, realism is objective and not subjective. History, philosophy, culture, ethics and literature make up the texture of life of a nation with all its nuances. Realism is deterministic in nature and reveals only one side of human nature that is constant and unchanging. Another objection against realism is that it is inclined towards the status quo. Seen as a product of western culture and the history of European wars, it does not allow other paradigms to grow and mature. Western philosophy colours many aspects of political thinking and is behind these paradigms. Sometimes it is argued that realism connotes an approach like a moral aphorism emphasising stability and order at the cost of creative societal change, justice and values. There are other views, e.g. Marxist and world systems by Southerners and some from the core-periphery that oppose the realists.
No doubt traditional wars have been replaced by internal wars that are embedded in psychological and socioeconomic roots of ethnic hatred, religious intolerance and human impulses that fuel internal strife. If there is a need for ‘enlightened realism’ it is in facing threats such as climate change, environmental degradation, pandemics, global poverty, food shortages, the nuclear threat, terrorism and cyber security. Transnational approaches are gaining ground and failing economies are staring nations obsessed with nationalism and national interests in the face.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a wake-up call that cries for dedicated cooperation, collaboration and knowledge-sharing rather than go-it-alone national policies. Realism has endured for centuries and might remain for the foreseeable future, albeit with some caveats. As for its relevance in present times, no paradigm is immutable.
In the last three hundred years, the world has transformed a lot: human nature has also learnt to cooperate, collaborate and share knowledge through regional and world bodies. If that were not so, human progress, as of today, would not have taken place. In other words the outlook of a better world economy will simply cease to exist due to impending distrust and conflicts. Technologies will thus be rendered a mere euphoria stemming from the Renaissance and ‘Age of Enlightenment’.
If there is a need for realism it is in the areas highlighted above that need transnational approaches. The Covid-19 pandemic calls for more dedicated planning, cooperation, collaboration and sharing rather than pursuing policies of national egocentrism.
For the hard-core realists, the world economy faces a dismal outlook due to intense competition and ongoing conflicts and those lurking in the future. As sceptics they tend to imagine the worst. Little realized is the fact that the latest discoveries in science and technology, health, psychology and better management systems in different walks of life are due to willing cooperation, sharing of ideas, innovation and learning the best practices from each other. Unlearning these hard earned gains makes little sense in this age.
In conclusion, while the debate on realism is ongoing, given the assorted challenges and intra-state issues, the paradigm is becoming less relevant in an era dominated by complexity and a layered international system. Cooperation and conflict shall co-exist, and this has been recognized by realists too, as they also want to avoid conflict. Used to relying on military force as deterrence, balance of power, alliance formation or piggybacking on major powers, they realize the rigidity of their approach and are not averse to cooperation.
The future world outlook envisages that globalisation shall continue with some pauses. It cannot be ruled out in the world system as realists tend to assume. At best, some degree of ‘national autarky’ with ‘gated globalisation’ shall characterize the future contours of IR. Other approaches such as constructivism, feminism and socialism most likely are making a comeback.
The writer is former President, Islamabad Policy Research Institute, ex-Adviser, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Islamabad; former Head, Department of International Relations, National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad, and until recently, Visiting Faculty, Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad