Volume 3, No. 11, November 2021
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The western Post-World War II paradigm of ‘realism’ is facing challenges in view of the changes in the international system and emergence of new non-conventional threats. For example, climate change, terrorism, epidemics, poverty, food shortage, the rich-poor divide, nuclear threat, cyber security and others call for adoption of new approaches. This piece argues that realism as a ruling paradigm has held sway for more than six decades and postulates that in view of certain developments, the switch to new approaches is overdue. The question posed is: how ‘realistic’ is ‘realism’ today? As a paradigm of the western hegemonic order, it advocates imposed stability and maintenance of the status quo. The neo-liberal order is under stress and drawing suitable lessons from approaches such as Constructivism, feminism, Marxism and other paradigms is warranted.
‘Realism’, as a political theory in International Relations (IR), has been a mantra since the end of World War II (WWII). But in these times of globalisation, inter-connection, capitalism, ecological crisis, norms, beliefs, global civil society and world culture, it is seemingly becoming somewhat irrelevant. Realism’s associated concepts, such as ‘national security’, ‘national interest’ and ‘national sovereignty’ are commonly used by leaders, politicians, media and scholars. As umbrella terms, they encompass many things and can be instrumentalised to justify various national policies.
When one speaks of ‘national security’, ‘national interest’ or ‘realism’ in foreign or domestic policy, what does it signify? Does it convey the concerns of the common man, a particular class, or the ruling elite? Historically, wars have been fought and terminated, pacts and agreements signed and rescinded, policy initiatives taken and cancelled – all in the name of realism. The question posed is: notwithstanding the seeming durable nature of ‘realism’ as a theoretical construct, how ‘realistic’ is it in a changing, complex and multilayered post-WWII world?
Realism’s origins can be traced to the ancient writings of the Greeks when small warring states fought one another intermittently. It became stronger in the 18th century of lightly connected and sharply competitive dynastic states. Realists posit that human nature is unchanging: humans basically fight on the basis of greed, selfishness, aggression and domination. Man primordially has looked for danger and insecurity and these have come to be lodged in his subconscious.
Realism reached its height following the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which laid the basis of nation-states. By the end of WWII, the nation-state acquired sacrosanct status. Although other paradigms came into the picture, realism has endured. But times have changed and international relations have transformed the world. As far as Hobbes and other philosophers depicting human beings as basically selfish, aggressive and self-seeking, it can be challenged that other less malign tendencies also exist side by side with these.
Contemporary states remain territorial entities encompassing more or less well-integrated communities of humans with governments capable of mustering more resources and coordinated activity than any non-state actors. Thus, Waltz’s conception of the human, state, and international system at distinct levels remains a powerful intellectual framework for sorting out causal patterns in international relations.
Human beings have always yearned for order and peace and one of the redeeming aspects, if any, was in the post-WWII consensus to create a system where wars will be banished for good. The UN and many ancillary organisations at the international level, NGOs and NNGOs came into being. Ironically, many government think tanks on security matters always included in their manifestos peace, conflict-resolution and human development. They may not have delivered as expected, but their presence attests to man’s yearning for order and peace.
That human nature is intrinsically good or evil is an old debate. Many religious traditions treat it as basically benign while Christianity treats it as basically evil, leading to the original sin and fall of man. Where conditions are conducive, human nature has generally revealed its positive side. In the many scientific discoveries in fighting all kinds of disease, acts of philanthropy and help in time of wars, natural catastrophes like famines and epidemics, human nature is seen on the side of goodness. Charities, peace groups, foundations for peace and disaster relief reflect the benevolent side of human nature.
Numerous studies of wars and conflicts attest to a multiplicity of factors causing conflicts: individual, societal, regional and systemic. Misperceptions, wrong signals, lack of communication, ideologies, personal egos of rulers, new weapons – and not necessarily only greed or avarice – incite wars of all kinds. But to bring conflict and tensions under the rubric of realism suffers from weaknesses.
Realism has typically relied on the dark and gloomy view of human beings and is derived from assuming a supposedly unchanging conflict-prone ‘human nature’. Another weakness is the tendency to treat politics both within and between states as involving unending competition for advantage. Realists lack clearly articulated theories of how governments (or any other type of actor) make decisions. In addition, it spans state and international system levels and accords insufficient attention to the increased influence of non-state actors and international bodies. Conversely, realism’s continued strengths derive from the attention realists pay to structure and processes at the international system level. The shape of that systemic level does not directly determine the choices of governments and other actors but does constrain those choices.
Realists’ concerns with humans, and particularly ‘human nature’ as a starting point for theorising is well expressed in Hans Morgenthau’s claim that “Politics like society in general is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature” – a nature that has not changed since the classical philosophies of China, India and Greece. A singular human nature has been subjected to strong attack in the philosophy of science and psychological, feminist and anthropological literature. In recent decades the notion of a clear divide between the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’ is being bridged. Contemporary realists, like most IR theorists, avoid deep engagement with philosophical debates about the subjective and objective.
The question posed is why realism still persists? There are multiple reasons for this. Contemporary realists are less likely to invoke generalised notions of ‘human nature’ in their arguments, though identifying greed, aggressiveness and negative behaviour in both inter-individual and inter-group activity. Moreover, they sidestep debates about realism, pay little attention to changes and the study of human nature in cognition: whether there is in fact some overall ‘human nature’ and how processes of perception and misperception affect governments’ choices.
But realism has mutated over time into neo, critical, progressive and structural varieties. Thus, contemporary realists seem to be backing away from some of the strong assumptions about human nature – a distinct departure from classical and even traditional variants. As a good theory gets modified in the light of objective changes, this is true for traditional realism too.
A theory is convenient and broad-based, repeated, replicated ad infinitum. This is what is called ‘speech act’ and has its own logic, as Constructivists believe. In other words, terms invoked and used in discourse repeatedly over a period of time acquire their own usage, idiom, legitimacy and justification.
With societies becoming more complex, many factors have intruded. For example, realists’ low level of interest in the details of decision-making is not surprising. They generally regard explaining decisions and choices as less important than understanding the implications for states and other actors operating within global decentralisation and a thin set of shared norms. In their view, the competitive pressures that exist in a decentralised system are also characterised by few sources of normative restraint on conduct limiting alternatives available to any government concerned.
This stance is unsurprising in the light of the history of realism’s long gestation period over centuries. Insights that we now regard as elements of realist theory had emerged well before the interwar period. This was even before E. H. Carr (1939) launched his critique of what he regarded as the overly idealistic approach to international relations prevailing in the 1920s.
Another aspect is that realism happened to be the domain of the elite in the early ages; ‘high politics’ was reserved for the royalty and ‘low politics’ for the common man. This was a clear and neat division. Then focus on action within a highly competitive state system mirrored the concerns of rulers, ministers of state, diplomats and emissaries who did not interact with commoners as democracy was still nascent. However, with democratisation, people’s participation and the rise of the media, things have drastically changed.
The Peace of Westphalia (1648) established the basic outlines of the European system of territorial states. Notions of effective policy and negotiation techniques were expressed in the 17th and 18th century ‘manuals for princes’ and modes of coexistence through acceptance of common rules of conduct outlined in the early writings on ‘the law of nations’ (Grotius 1625, Pufendorf 1672, Vattel 1758).
Since most governments were not directly accountable to the populations of their states and since there was only a modest level of cross-border interaction, governments were able to maintain a fairly clear separation between ‘domestic politics’ and ‘foreign policy’ or ‘diplomacy’. Conditions, however, changed later. The late 18th and early 19th centuries were marked by the rise of democracy and nationalism. The mid- and late19th century was a period of increasing cross-border interactions in trade, finance, travel, science and culture. Greater ideological divergence occurred as the international milieu added a workers’ movement that posed strong challenges to the established ways. The 1930s were dominated by an intense three-sided ideological contention culminating in total war among the democratic, fascist and Leninist blocs.
The neat separation between ‘domestic politics’ and ‘foreign policy’ prevailing in the mid-18th century progressively weakened and even the governments of great powers were no longer as uniformly insulated from domestic or transnational influences as before. Under these circumstances, the realist theory’s lack of explanations for government decision-making increasingly appeared to be a weakness.
IR theorists reacted in one of two ways: some sought to expand the realist tradition by combining realist insights about the international system with particular theories of how governments perceive, choose, and act. Kenneth Waltz provided a rallying point for one such effort, using the rational choice conception of government decision-making in his Theory of International Politics (1979). Later efforts along these lines have reflected modifications of the rational choice theory propounded but also rest on making strong assumptions about governments as egoistic rational utility maximisers to act in a coherent way for their state (e.g. Fearon 1995, Grieco 1996). Other realists, most notably Robert Gilpin (1981, 2001), acknowledge linkages between international and domestic levels in their more theoretically eclectic approach to understanding state behaviour. Some IR theorists outside the realist camp went further, filling the gap by locating the primary influences on foreign policy within the domestic level. Foreign policy is a reflection of domestic policy, goes a common saying. This was most prominently expressed in the ‘democratic peace’ hypothesis; e.g. Doyle Lipson placing domestic regime-types at the centre of explanations on foreign policy decisions and outcomes in the international system.
Not all IR theorists are satisfied by either the Waltzian approach, ignoring of domestic factors, nor the claims that the primary causes of state behaviour exist at the domestic level. Some IR theorists inspired by historical sociology have focused analysis on the country-specific processes by which governments address the dual challenge of maintaining themselves domestically through a strong state-society connection and adjusting to challenges emanating from changing external socio-political and economic developments (e.g. Hobson 1997).
The repetition of standard terminologies, e.g. ‘national sovereignty’, ‘national interest’, constitutes a ‘speech act’ that is taken for granted. It grants legitimacy to the concept in the opinion of Constructivists, as stated by Alexander Wendt. Hegemonic ambitions are reflected by recourse to the employment of ‘speech act’. No wonder many Americans realise that the power of media and narrative of survival makes leaders take unrealistic actions. The speech act endures for its constant repetition as national leaders do not want to be judged as weak by their own public or the international community. They may lose future elections for loss of opportunities or be considered as weak by history. A vivid example is when the US undertook a series of military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya under the pretext of ‘global interest’, ‘reshaping the world order’ and ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P).
(To be continued)
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.