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ECN 306
Tim Dunne

Chapter 5 Realism Tim Dunne · Brian C. Schmidt Introduction: the timeless wisdom of realism 86 One realism or many? 89 The essential realism 93 Conclusion: realism and the globalization of world politics 96 Reader’s Guide Realism is the dominant theory of International Relations. Why? Because it provides the most powerful explanation for the state of war that is the regular condition of life in the international system. This is the bold claim made by realists in defence of their tradi- tion, a claim that will be critically examined in this chapter. The second section will ask whether there is one realism or a variety of realisms. The argument presented below suggests that despite important differences, particularly between classical and structur- al realism, it is possible to identify a shared main set of assumptions and ideas. The third section outlines these common elements, which we identify as self-help, statism, and survival. In the final section, we return to the question of how far realism is rele- vant for explaining or understanding the globalization of world politics. Although there are many voices claiming that a new set of forces is challenging the Westphalian state system, realists are generally sceptical of these claims, arguing that the same basic pat- terns that have shaped international politics in the past remain just as relevant today. Introduction: the timeless wisdom of realism The story of realism most often begins with a mythical tale of the idealist or utopian writers of the inter-war period (1919–39). Writing in the consequences of the First World War, the ‘idealists’, a term that realist writers have retrospectively imposed on the inter-war scholars, focused much of their attention on understanding the cause of war in order to find a remedy for its existence. Yet, according to the realists, the inter-war scholars’ approach was imper- fect in a number of respects. For example, they ignored the role of power, overestimated the degree to which human beings were rational, mistakenly believed that nation-states shared a set of interests, and were overly optimistic that humankind could overcome the scourge of war. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 confirmed, for the realists at least, the shortages of the idealists’ approach to studying international politics. A new approach, one based on the endless visions of realism, replaced the discredit- ed idealist approach. Histories of the academic field of International Relations describe a Great Debate that took place in the late 1930s and early 1940s between the inter-war ideal- ists and a new generation of realist writers, which included E. H. Carr, Hans J. Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others, who all emphasized the ubiquity of power and the competi- tive nature of politics among nations. The standard account of the Great Debate is that the realists emerged victorious, and the rest of the International Relations story is, in many re- spects, a footnote to realism. It is important to note, however, that at its beginning, there was a need for realism to define itself against an alleged ‘idealist’ position. From 1939 to the present, leading theorists and policy-makers have continued to view the world through real- ist lenses. Realism taught American leaders to focus on interests rather than on ideology, to seek peace through strength, and to recognize that great powers can live together even if they have opposing values and beliefs. The fact that realism offers something of a ‘manual’ for maximizing the interests of the state in a hostile environment explains in part why it re- mains the dominant tradition in the study of world politics. The theory of realism that tri- umphed after the Second World War is often claimed to rest on an older, classical tradition of thought. Indeed, many contemporary realist writers often claim to be part of an ancient tradition of thought that includes such famous figures as Thucydides (c. 460–406 BC), Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712– 78). The visions that these realists offered into the way in which state leaders should conduct themselves in the realm of international politics are often grouped under the doctrine of raison d’état, or reason of state. Together, writers associated with raison d’état are seen as providing a set of sayings to leaders on how to conduct their foreign affairs so as to ensure the security of the state. According to the historian Friedrich Meinecke, raison d’état is the fundamental principle of international conduct, the state’s First Law of Motion. ‘It tells the statesman what he must do to preserve the health and strength of the State’ (1957: 1). Most importantly, the state, which is identified as the key actor in international politics, must pursue power, and it is the duty of the statesperson to calculate rationally the most appropriate steps that should be taken in order to preserve the life of the state in a hostile and threatening environment. For realists of all stripes, the survival of the state can never be guaranteed, because the use of force culminating in war is a legitimate instrument of statecraft. As we shall see, the as- sumption that the state is the principal actor, coupled with the view that the environment that states inhabit is a dangerous place, helps to define the essential core of realism. There is, however, one issue in particular that theorists associated with raison d’état and classical realism more generally, were concerned with: the role, if any, that morals and ethics occupy in international politics. Realists are doubtful of the idea that universal moral principles exist and, therefore, warn state leaders against sacrificing their own self-interests in order to obey to some un- specified notion of ‘ethical’ conduct. More­over, realists argue that the need for survival re- quires state leaders to distance themselves from traditional morality, which attaches a posi- tive value to caution, virtue, and the greater good of humankind as a whole. Machiavelli ar- gued that these principles were positively harmful if obeyed to by state leaders. It was im- perative that state leaders learned a different kind of morality, which in harmony not with traditional Christian virtues but with political necessity and carefulness. Proponents of raison d’état often speak of a dual moral standard: one moral standard for individual citizens living inside the state and a different standard for the state in its external relations with other states. Justification for the two moral standards stems from the fact that the conditions of international politics often make it necessary for state leaders to act in a manner (for exam- ple, cheating, lying, killing) that would be entirely unacceptable for the individual. But before we reach the conclusion that realism is completely immoral, it is important to add that pro- ponents of raison d’état argue that the state itself represents a moral force, because it is the existence of the state that creates the possibility for an ethical political community to exist domestically. Preserving the life of the state and the ethical community it envelops becomes a moral duty of the statesperson. Thus it is not the case that realists are unethical; rather they find that sometimes ‘it is kind to be cruel’ (Desch 2003). Although the advanced student might be able to detect some subtle differences, it is fair to say that there is a significant degree of continuity between classical realism and modern variants. Indeed, the three fundamental elements that we identify with realism—statism, survival, and self-help—are present in the work of a classical realist such as Thucydides and structural realists such as Kenneth Waltz. Realism identifies the group as the fundamental unit of political analysis. When Thucydi- des and Machiavelli were writing, the basic unit was the polis or city-state, but since the Peace of Westphalia (1648) realists consider the sovereign state as the principal actor in in- ternational politics. This is often mentioned to as the state-centric assumption of realism. Statism is the term given to the idea of the state as the legitimate representative of the col- lective will of the people. The legitimacy of the state is what enables it to exercise authority within its domestic borders. However outside the boundaries of the state, realists argue that a condition of anarchy exists. By anarchy what is most often meant is that international poli- tics takes place in an arena that has no overarching central authority above the individual group of sovereign states. Thus, rather than necessarily meaning complete chaos and law- lessness, the concept of anarchy is used by realists to emphasize the point that the interna- tional realm is distinguished by the lack of a central authority. Following from this, realists draw a sharp distinction between domestic and international politics. Thus, while Hans J. Morgenthau argues that ‘international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power’, he goes to great lengths to illustrate the qualitatively different result this struggle has on international politics as compared to domestic politics ([1948] 1955: 25). A prominent explanation that realists provide for this difference in behaviour relates to the different organizational structure of domestic and international politics. Realists argue that the basic structure of international politics is one of anarchy in that each of the independent sovereign states considers itself to be its own highest authority and does not recognize a higher power. Conversely, domestic politics is often described as a ranked structure in which different political actors stand in various relations of super- and subordination. It is largely on the basis of how realists portray the international environment that they conclude that the first priority for state leaders is to ensure the survival of their state. Un- der anarchy, the survival of the state cannot be guaranteed. Realists correctly assume that all states wish to preserve their existence. Looking back at history, however, realists note that the actions of some states resulted in other states losing their existence (for example, Poland has experienced this fate four times in the past three centuries). This is partly explained in light of the power differences of states. Naturally, states with more power stand a better chance of surviving than states with less power. Power is crucial to the realist lexicon and has traditionally been defined narrowly in military strategic terms. However regardless of how much power a state may possess, the core national interest of all states must be surviv- al. Like the pursuit of power, the promotion of the national interest is, according to realists, an iron law of necessity. Self-help is the principle of action in an anarchical system where there is no global gov- ernment. According to realism, each state actor is responsible for ensuring its own well-being and survival. Realists do not believe it is practical for a state to trust its safety and survival on another actor or international institution, such as the United Nations. States, in short, should not depend on other states to ensure their own security. Unlike in domestic politics, there is no emergency number that states can dial when they are in mortal danger. You may at this point be asking what options are available to states to ensure their own security. Consistent with the principle of self-help, if a state feels threatened, it should seek to expand its own power capabilities by engaging, for example, in a military arms build-up. However this may prove to be insufficient for a number of smaller states who feel threatened by a much larger state. This brings us to one of the crucial mechanisms that realists throughout the ages have considered to be essential to preserving the liberty of states—the balance of power. Although various meanings have been attributed to the con- cept of the balance of power, the most common definition holds that if the survival of a state or a number of weaker states is threatened by a hegemonic state or alliance of stronger states, they should join forces, establish a formal alliance, and seek to preserve their own independence by checking the power of the opposing side. The mechanism of the balance of power seeks to ensure a stability of power in which case no one state or coalition of states is in a position to dominate all the others. The cold war competition between the East and West, as institutionalized through the formal alliance system of the Warsaw Pact and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), provides a prominent example of the balance of power mechanism in action. The peaceful conclusion of the cold war caught many realists unprepared. Given that many realists claim a scientific basis to their causal explanation of the world, it is not sur- prising that their inability to predict the dynamics that led to the end of the bipolar cold war system flashed the publication of several powerful critiques of realist theory. Critics also maintained that realism was unable to provide a persuasive explanation of new develop- ments such as regional integration, humanitarian intervention, the emergence of a security community in Western Europe, and the growing occurrence of intra-state war wracking the global South. In addition, proponents of globalization argued that realism’s privileged actor, the state, was in decline relative to non-state actors such as transnational corpora- tions and powerful regional institutions. Critics also contend that realism is unable to explain the increasing incidence of intra-state wars plaguing the global South. As Box 5.1 discusses, realists claim that their theory does indeed explain the incidence of intra-state conflicts. The increasing weight of these criticisms led many to question the analytical and moral adequacy of realist thought. By way of a response to the critics, it is worth reminding them that the death-knell of real- ism has been sounded a number of times already, by the scientific approach in the 1960s and transnationalism in the 1970s, only to see the rebirth of a robust form of structural realism in the 1980s. In this respect realism shares with conservatism (its ideological godfather) the recognition that a theory without the means to change is without the means of its own preservation. The question of realism’s resilience touches upon one of its central claims, namely, that it is the embodiment of laws of international politics that remain true across time (history) and space (geopolitics). Thus while political conditions have changed since the end of the cold war, realists believe that the world continues to operate according to the logic of realism. The question whether realism does represent ‘timeless truths’ about politics will be returned to in the conclusion of the chapter. Key Points • Realism has been the dominant theory of world politics since the beginning of academic International Relations. • Outside the academy, realism has a much longer history in the work of classical political theorists such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Rousseau. • The unifying theme around which all realist thinking converges is that states find themselves in the shadow of anarchy such that their security cannot be taken for granted. • At the start of the new millennium, realism continues to attract academicians and inform policy-makers, although in the period since the end of the cold we have seen heightened criticism of realist assumptions. One realism or many? The intellectual exercise of articulating a unified theory of realism has been criticized by writers who are both sympathetic and critical of the tradition (M. J. Smith 1986; Doyle 1997). The be- lief that there isnot one realism, but many, leads logically to a description of different types of realism. A number of thematic classifications have been offered to separate realism into a va- riety of different categories. The most simple distinction is a form of peri­odization that differ- entiates realism into three historical periods: classical realism (up to the twentieth century), which is frequently portrayed as beginning with Thucydides’ text on the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and incorporating theideas of many of those included in the clas- sic canon of Western political thought; modern realism (1939–79), which typically takes the so-called First Great Debate between the scholars of the inter-war period and a new wave of scholars who began to enter the field immediately before and after the Second World War as its point of departure; and structural or neo-realism (1979 onwards), which officially entered the picture following the publication of Kenneth Waltz’s landmark text Theory of International Politics (1979). While these different periods suggest a well-ordered historical classification, they are problematic in so far as they close down the important question about divergence within each historical phase. Rather than choose for the neat but intellectually unsatisfactory system of historical periodization, we outline below our own representation of realisms that makes important connections with existing categories organized by other thinkers in the field. A summary of the varieties of realism outlined below is contained in Table 5.1. Classical realism The classical realist ancestry begins with Thucydides’ representation of power politics as a law of human behaviour. The drive for power and the will to dominate are held to be fun- damental aspects of human nature. The behaviour of the state as a self-seeking egoist is understood to be only a reflection of the characteristics of the people that comprise the state. It is human nature that explains why international politics is necessarily power politics. This reduction of realism to a condition of human nature is one that frequently reappears in the leading works of the realist canon, most famously in the work of the high priest of post-war realism, Hans J. Morgenthau. Classical realists argue that it is from the nature of man that the essential features of international politics, such as competition, fear, and war, can be explained. Morgenthau notes, ‘politics, like society in general, is governed by objec- tive laws that have their roots in human nature’ (Morgenthau *1948+ 1955: 4). The important point for Morgenthau is, first, to recognize that these laws exist and, second, to formulate the most appropriate policies that are consistent with the basic fact that human beings are flawed creatures. For both Thucydides and Morgenthau, the essential continuity of the pow- er-seeking behaviour of states is root­ed in the biological drives of human beings. Another distinguishing characteristic of classical realism is its supporters’ belief in the an- cient character of power and ethics. Classical realism is fundamentally about the struggle for belonging, a struggle that is often violent. Nationalistic virtue is required in order for communities to survive in this historic battle between good and evil, a virtue that long pre- dates the emergence of sovereignty-based notions of community in the mid-seventeenth century. Classical realists therefore differ from contemporary realists in the sense that they engaged with moral philosophy and sought to rebuild an understanding of virtue in light of practice and historical circumstance. Two classical realists who wrestled with the degree to which state leaders could be guided by ethical considerations were Thucydides and Machia- velli. Thucydides was the historian of the Peloponnesian War, a conflict between two great powers in the ancient Greek world, Athens and Sparta. Thucydides’ work has been admired by following generations of realists for the insights he raised about many of the returning issues of international politics. Thucydides’ explanation of the fundamental cause of the war was ‘the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta’ (1.23). This is considered to be a classic example of the impact that the anarchical structure of internation- al politics has on the behaviour of state actors. On this reading, Thucydides makes it clear that Sparta’s national interest, like that of all states, was survival, and the changing distribu- tion of power represented a direct threat to its existence. Sparta was, therefore, compelled by necessity to go to war in order to prevent being defeated by Athens. Thucydides also makes it clear that Athens felt equally compelled to pursue power in order to preserve the empire it had acquired. The famous Athenian leader, Pericles, claimed to be acting on the basis of the most fundamental of human motivations: ambition, fear, and self-interest. (See our case study, The Melian dialogue.) Later classical realists—notably Machiavelli and Morgenthau—would agree with Thucydi- des’ suggestion that the logic of power politics has universal applicability. Instead of Athens and Melos, we could just as easily replace the vulnerability of Machiavelli’s beloved Florence to the colonialist policies of external great powers. In Morgenthau’s era, there were many examples where the innate drive for more power and territory seemed to confirm the realist iron law: for example, Nazi Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1939, and the Soviet Union and Hungary in 1956. The seemingly endless cycle of war and conflict confirmed in the minds of twentieth-century classical realists the essentially aggressive desires in human nature. How is a leader supposed to act in a world animated by such dark forces? The answer given by Machiavelli is that all obligations and treaties with other states must be ignored if the secu- rity of the community is under threat. Moreover, imperial expansion is legitimate as it is a means of gaining greater security. Other classical realists, however, advocate a more tem- perate understanding of moral conduct. Mid-twentieth-century realists such as Butterfield, Carr, Morgenthau, and Wolfers believed that anarchy could be eased by wise leadership and the pursuit of the national interest in ways that are compatible with international order. Taking their principal from Thucydides, they recognized that acting purely on the basis of power and self-interest without any consideration of moral and ethical principles frequently results in self-defeating policies. After all, as Thucydides showed, Athens suffered an epic defeat while following the realist theory of self-interest. Structural realism (Neo-Realism) Structural realists agree that international politics is essentially a struggle for power but they do not approve the classical realist assumption that this is a result of human nature. Instead, structural realists assign security competition and inter-state conflict to the lack of a central authority above states and the comparative distribution of power in the international system. Waltz defined the structure of the international system in terms of three ele- ments—organizing principle, differentiation of units, and distribution of capabilities. Waltz identifies two different organizing principles: anarchy, which relates to the decentralized realm of international politics; and hierarchy, which is the basis of domestic order. He argues that the units of the international system are functionally similar sovereign states; hence unit-level variation is irrelevant in explaining international outcomes. It is the third tier, the distribution of capabilities across units, that is, according to Waltz, of fundamental importance to understanding crucial international outcomes. According to structural realists, the comparative distribution of power in the international system is the key independent variable in understanding important international outcomes such as war and peace, alliance politics, and the balance of power. Structural realists are interested in providing a rank-ordering of states in order to be able to differentiate and count the number of great powers that exist at any particular point in time. The number of great powers, in turn, de- termines the structure of the international system. For example, during the cold war from 1945 to 1989 there were two great powers—the USA and the Soviet Union—that constituted the bipolar international system. How does the international distribution of power impact the behaviour of states, particu- larly their power-seeking behaviour? In the most general sense, Waltz argues that states, especially the great powers, have to be sensitive to the capabilities of other states. The pos- sibility that any state may use force to advance its interests results in all states being worried about their survival. According to Waltz, power is a means to the end of security. In a signifi- cant passage, Waltz writes ‘because power is a possibly useful means, sensible statesmen try to have an appropriate amount of it’. He adds, ‘in crucial situations, however, the ultimate concern of states is not for power but for security’ (Waltz 1989: 40). In other words, rather than being power maximizers, states, according to Waltz, are security maximizers. Waltz ar- gues that power maximization often proves to be dysfunctional because it causes a coun- ter-balancing coalition of states. A different account of the power dynamics that operate in the anarchic system is provided by John Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism, which is another variant of structural realism. While sharing many of the basic assumptions of Waltz’s structural realist theory, which is frequently, termed defensive realism, Mearsheimer differs from Waltz when it comes to describing the behaviour of states. Most fundamentally, ‘offensive realism parts company with defensive realism over the question of how much power states want’ (Mearsheimer 2001: 21). According to Mearsheimer, the structure of the international sys- tem compels states to maximize their relative power position. Under anarchy, he agrees that self-help is the basic principle of action. Yet he also argues that not only do all states possess some offensive military capability, but there is a great deal of uncertainty about the inten- tions of other states. Consequently, Mearsheimer concludes that there are no satisfied or status quo states; rather, all states are continuously searching for opportunities to gain power at the expense of other states. Contrary to Waltz, Mearsheimer argues that states recognize that the best path to peace is to accumulate more power than anyone else. In- deed, the ideal position, although one that Mearsheimer argues is almost impossible to achieve, is to be the global hegemon of the international system. Yet because Mearsheimer believes that global hegemony is impossible, he concludes that the world is condemned to perpetual great power competition. Contemporary realist challenges to structural realism While offensive realism makes an important contribution to realism, some contemporary realists are sceptical of the notion that the international distribution of power alone can ex- plain the behaviour of states. Since the end of the cold war a group of scholars have at- tempted to move beyond the parsimonious assumptions of structural realism and incorpo- rated a number of additional factors located at the individual and domestic level into their explanation of international politics. While systemic factors are recognized to be an im- portant influence on the behaviour of states, so are factors such as the perceptions of state leaders, state–society relationships, and the motivation of states. In attempting to build a bridge between structural and unit-level factors (which many classical realists emphasized), this group of scholars has been characterized by Gideon Rose (1998) as ‘neoclassical realists’. According to Stephen Walt, the causal logic of neoclassical realism ‘places domestic politics as an intervening variable between the distribution of power and foreign policy behavior’ (Walt 2002: 211). One important intervening variable is leaders themselves, namely how they perceive the international distribution of power. There is no objective, independent reading of the distri- bution of power; rather, what matters is how state leaders derive an understanding of the distribution of power. While structural realists assume that all states have a similar set of in- terests, neoclassical realists such as Randall Schweller (1996) argue that historically this is not the case. He argues that, with respect to Waltz, the assumption that all states have an interest in security results in neo-realism exhibiting a profoundly status quo basis. Schweller returns to the writings of realists such as Morgenthau and Kissinger to remind us of the key distinction that they made between status quo and revisionist states. Neoclassical realists would argue that the fact that Germany was a revisionist state in the 1930s and a status quo state since the end of the Second World War is of fundamental importance to understanding its role in the international system. Not only do states differ in terms of their interests; they also differ in terms of their ability to extract and direct resources from the societies they rule. Fareed Zakaria (1998) introduces the intervening variable of state strength into his the- ory of state-centred realism. State strength is defined as the ability of a state to mobilize and direct the resources at its disposal in the pursuit of particular interests. Neoclassical realists argue that different types of state possess different capacities to translate the various ele- ments of national power into state power. Thus, contrary to Waltz, all states cannot be treated as ‘like units’. Given the varieties of realism that exist, it is hardly surprising that the overall coherence of the realist tradition of enquiry has been questioned. The answer to the question of ‘coher- ence’ is, of course, contingent upon how strict the criteria are for judging the continuities that underpin a particular theory. Here it is perhaps a mistake to understand traditions as a single stream of thought, handed down in a neatly wrapped package from one generation of realists to another. Instead, it is preferable to think of living traditions like realism as the embodiment of both continuities and conflicts. Despite the different strands running through the tradition, there is a sense in which all realists have a common set of propositions. Key Points • There is a lack of agreement in the literature as to whether we can meaningfully speak about realism as a single coherent theory. • There are good reasons for defining different types of realism. • Structural realism divides into two camps: those who argue that states are security maximizers (defensive realism), and those who argue that states are power maximizers (offensive realism). • Neoclassical realists bring individual and unit variation back into the theory. The essential realism The previous paragraphs have argued that realism is a theoretically broad church, embracing a variety of authors and texts. Despite the numerous denominations, we argue that all real- ists subscribe to the following ‘three ss’: statism, survival, self-help. Each of these elements is considered in more detail in the subsections below. Statism: For realists, the state is the main actor and sovereignty is its distinguishing trait. The meaning of the sovereign state is inextricably connected with the use of force. In terms of its internal dimension, to explain this relationship between violence and the state we need look no fur- ther than Max Weber’s famous definition of the state as ‘the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’ (M. J. Smith 1986: 23). Within this territorial space, sovereignty means that the state has supreme authority to make and impose laws. This is the basis of the unwritten contract between individuals and the state. According to Hobbes, for example, we trade our liberty in return for a guarantee of security. Once security has been established, civil society can begin. But in the absence of security, there can be no art, no culture, no society. The first move for the realist, then, is to organize power domestically. Only after power has been organized can community begin. Realist international theory appears to operate according to the assumption that, domes- tically, the problem of order and security is solved. However, on the ‘outside’, in the rela- tions among independent sovereign states, insecurities, dangers, and threats to the very ex- istence of the state appear large. Realists largely explain this on the basis that the exist- ence of a sovereign is missing from the international realm. Realists claim that, in anarchy, states compete with other states for power and security. The nature of the competition is viewed in zero-sum terms; in other words, more for one actor means less for another. This competitive logic of power politics makes agreement on universal principles difficult, separately from the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other sovereign states. But even this principle, designed to facilitate coexistence, is suspended by realists, who argue that in practice non-intervention does not apply in rela- tions between great powers and their ‘near abroad’. As evidenced by the most recent be- haviour of the USA in Afghanistan and Iraq, powerful states are able to abolish the non-intervention principle on the grounds of national security and international order. Given that the first move of the state is to organize power domestically, and the second is to accumulate power internationally, it is self-evidently important to consider in more depth what realists mean by their universal mixture of politics with power. It is one thing to say that international politics is a struggle for power, but this mer
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