International Relations: The Realist Theories Variety

The field of International Relations (IR) is governed by many theories, which have striking contrasts and some similarities. Of the most popular ones, Realism has shown greater success compared to some other theories such as Liberalism, Institutionalism, Constructivism, and Marxism in its practical application to International Relations. Realism has many variations, which some decry to be its weakness in describing International Relations. This essay explains the main Realist formulations and its variations and the (in)efficacies of other IR theories followed by real world examples to argue that Realism possesses overwhelming validity in practical application of IR theory for managing state to state relations irrespective of its varied forms, all of which are equally applicable.

The Realist school believes in the Hobbessian construct that humans by nature are “apt to invade and destroy each other” (Hobbes, 1651, p. 86) and can only be controlled by coercive power. Hobbes, one of the earlier proponents of Institutionalism believed that it was necessary to build “strong institutions to save mankind from its own worst instincts” (Peters, 2005, p. 4). The Hobbessian constructs were readily adopted by the Realist school which deemed ‘institutions’ to be strong economic and military power aimed at preserving the core national interests of the state.

Adopting Hobbes, the realist theory posits that since humans are predisposed to disagreements, conflict is inevitable in human affairs. Hans Morgenthau, one of the best known theorists of Political Realism succinctly laid down six principles, which according to him clearly explained state to state relations. Firstly, according to Morgenthau, politics is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature and that such laws can be organized into a rational theory of politics that could drive politics among nations (1972, p. 4). Secondly, the central “concept of interest [which when] defined in terms of power” provides the understanding of international politics (Morgenthau, p. 5). Thirdly, this “key concept of interest defined as power is an objective category that is universally valid” (Morgenthau, p. 8). Fourthly, Realism recognises the importance of morality in political action but believes that “universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states” (Morgenthau, p. 10). Fifthly, the moral aspirations of a state cannot be referenced to the moral laws of the universe (Morgenthau, p. 10) and sixthly, the precepts of Political Realism are significantly different from other schools of thought which is more or less autonomous (Morgenthau, p. 11). A statesman must therefore “think in terms of the national interest, conceived as power amongst the other powers” (Morgenthau & Thompson, 1985, p. 165).

Morgenthau’s classical formulations had certain weaknesses as the concept of ‘power’ was left amorphous and not defined. Also, many realists felt that ‘human nature’ was too abstract a quantity to explain state to state relations. The Neorealist formulations of Kenneth Waltz refine classical Realist theories by replacing the centrality of human nature by a ‘systems’ approach where the anarchy of the world system becomes the key driver of conflict. Waltz then offers the importance of force in conduct of state to state relations. “Force is a means of achieving the external ends of states because there exists no consistent, reliable process of reconciling the conflict of interest that inevitably arise among similar units in a condition of anarchy” (Waltz K. , 2001, p. 238). Waltz theory was most dominant during the Cold War but had come in for criticism as one of Waltz’theorizations was that bipolarity was a more stable system (Waltz K. N., 1979, p. 136). This tenet was proven wrong with the collapse of the Soviet Union because the bipolar world did not survive; in fact it led to the formation of a unipolar world for some time to come. Obviously power was not constant that waxed and waned depending upon a number of factors and that power transitioned in scale and degree. To get over the weaknesses of Waltz’s formulations, other realist theorists looked at the dynamics of power transition. One such realist thinker was A.F.K. Organski who pointed out that “proponents of balance-of-power theory often fudge on the question of what kind of power distribution is necessary to assure the security of all its members” (Organski & Kugler, 1984, p. 16).

Organski’s Power Transition theory concludes that the world system is a pyramidal system of hierarchies with the top echelon occupied by a dominant power, followed by great powers, regional powers, minor powers and the dependants (Organski A. , 1968, pp. 368-370). In such a hierarchy, power struggle is endemic between the various echelons. Each hierarchical power forever strives to rise up the chain to achieve dominant status. However, it is the major powers that stand a better chance of success of doing so. Peace and international order is maintained as long as the hierarchical balance of power is maintained or rather enforced by the dominant state. It is during this climb up the hierarchy when a major power tends to challenge the dominant state, is the point where a major conflict can occur. The power transition theory clearly supports the example of America at the apex enforcing international order and prosecuting powers that try to change the power balance.

Deriving their basis from Organski’s work, the Long Cycle theorists apply the power transition theory to historical empiricism wherein the study of last 500 years of human conflict is examined to derive the conclusion that in a system of hierarchy, the dominant power is challenged by a rising great power leading to a major conflict which occurs once every 100 years. In the last thirty years of the 100 years cycle, a series of conflicts occur between the emerging power and the hegemon as a transition of power is sought (Modelski, p. 1). In such rise to eminence, sea power and technology are important ingredients in ensuring the rise. Realists have also added aerospace power to the list of attributes required to rise to the status of a dominant power. The last cycle saw the rise of the United States as the global hegemon in 1945, which is now being challenged by a rising China. The Chinese Defence White paper of 2006 proclaims that China aims “to reach the strategic goal of building informationized armed forces and being capable of winning informationized wars by the mid-21st century” (PLA, 2006). Goldman Sachs predicts that China will become the largest economy in the world overtaking the United States by 2027 (Goldman Sachs, 2007, p. 155). If one were to add 100 years to 1945 then the world can expect a major conflict in 2045 A.D between the United States and China starting from 2027 being the year when China is expected to cross economic parity with the United States. All these predictions are based on the Realist theories. Curiously, this systems approach seems to be coming true.

Opposing the Realist formulations are a host of liberal, social theories that decry the power focus of the Realists. Institutionalism as theorised by Keohane argues that international institutions have greater validity today as they continue to remain functional and valid even if the classic ‘balance of power’ as per the Realist theory changes (Lucarelli, 2000, p. 88). While such a statement seems facilely correct, the further development of the Institutional theory as a standalone construct separated from Realism has not been proved. This is because institutionalism requires power to enforce the institutional values. No state will agree to abide by institutional norms if its national interests are affected except when the institutional mechanism has ways and means of enforcing its rules and regulations. If mankind had been that reasonable then an international institution such as the United Nations would have had no need to create Chapter VI and Chapter VII in its charter which authorizes the use of force in case of violations of international law. Obviously, a healthy dose of Realist power is required.

Yet others, such as the Constructivists believe that the extreme views of the Realists in the importance of power is misplaced and that human interactions are determined and generated by these shared ideas rather than due to material forces and human nature to dominate (Zehfuss, 2002, pp. 38-39). They believe that the social structures of human society are the key drivers for understanding state to state relations (Wendt, 1999, p. 24). Constructivist theories unfortunately have not yet provided demonstrable practical instances for its acceptance though its proponents claim that the ‘middle ground approach’ (Zehfuss, p. 253) allows the theory greater validity as an alternative to mainstream IR theories.

Historical proof shows that the relative military and economic power determines the ‘Balance of Power’ of nations in the global order that helps prevent war (Brown, 2001, p. 103). Concepts of morality, ethics as understood by humanists, therefore take a back seat and are viewed in relative terms when compared to the fundamental national interests of the state (Baylis, Smith, & Owens, 2008, p. 127). Under such circumstances ‘self help’ (Baylis, Smith, & Owens, 2008, p. 103) is the best help that a nation can hope or aspire for. ‘Self help’ in such cases includes developing power in ways that best describe the interests of the nation even if it involves resort to use of force, turning a blind eye to ‘crimes against humanity’ if it does not directly or indirectly affect own state and propping up dictators and autocracies if it suits the purposes of the state.

Doyle has very aptly put it that “International anarchy precludes the effective escape from the dreary history of war and conflict that are the consequence of competition under anarchy” (Doyle, 1997, p. 51). Such a competition entails state to state relations where the necessity in warfare is never about inevitability but about probability and risks (Walzer, 1977, p. 8). States weigh the probability and risks and the possible ‘costs-benefits’ for going to war. At the core of any nation’s national interest lies its security and survival. Power, thus is a key constituent in a realist outlook. Power confers the endowed state an ability to control the behaviour of other states. In realist terms, such a power whether it is in the form of imperialism, traditional hegemony or extra-regional hegemony is an attribute that enhances the national security of a country. The realist school seeks for primacy of a state over other states. When there is parity among powers it leads to stability and then these powers prevent the rise of other powers to maintain stability and ensure their respective national security. According to Bull (1980), the smaller powers acquiesce to the great powers some special rights and responsibilities that helps maintain international order (p. 71).

Realism in all its forms has overwhelming validity because it has achieved significant success and progress for its practitioners. The U.S. has been a prime beneficiary of Realist policies. In the early years after its independence, America chose to stay away from European politics and meddling in the affairs of the world. American leadership at that point in time felt that it suited American national interests better if the country concentrated on nation building rather than involve itself in futile conflicts far removed from its shores. Geographical isolation, vast natural resources and the need to build a nation were realistically termed to be more important than seeking pre-eminence in the world. This isolationist policy gave rise to the Monroe Doctrine which firmly affirmed the principle that America would stay away from interfering in European affairs and would tolerate no interference by European powers in the Americas. The Monroe Doctrine was steeped in Realism because it laid down practical steps for limiting European power politics from spilling into America’s domain (Williams, 2007, p. 48). However, after the Second World War, the threat of expanding Soviet power forced America to conclude that it was a matter of national survival, of world freedom, of democracy that the U.S. rise up to contain the Soviet Union. This was a Realist articulation of foreign policy that led to the Cold War and endless proxy wars that dominated the next four decades (Little & Smith, 2006, p. 387). American Realist approach worked successfully as the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of it own contradictions and the economic strain of having to match the U.S. led Western Bloc militarily.

Issues such as global warming, climate change and global ecosystem for the Realist school are only important inasmuch as they can help further own national interests. For example if it is not in the interest of the United States to sign the Kyoto Protocol then it must be rejected (Roberts & Parks, 2006, p. 3) irrespective of its legitimacy and international acceptance. If the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) 1982, which has over 159 signatories is seen to impinge on the American notions of ‘Freedom of the Seas’, then it must be challenged and not be allowed to pass the Senate (Winkler, 2000, p. 1840).

While oil undoubtedly was a prime factor why the US invaded Iraq, other complex factors also played an important role. Since the end of the Cold War, US geostrategic experts had been arguing for a more muscular Grand Strategy since there existed no challenger to US might. Brzezinski postulated that the key to control the Eurasian landmass rested in the control over central Asia (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 31) that acted as a guard post over American control of the oil. In Brzezinski’s construct, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy were to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, and to keep the barbarians from coming together” (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 40). The Bush administration reportedly was heavily influenced by Brzezinski and hence embarked on a series of unilateralist measures to control Eurasia. Since Iran seemed too difficult to crack, Iraq with its ‘oppressive’ dictator, harbouring ambitions to acquire WMDs was an easier target. Iraq’s reported sponsorship of terrorist groups was another geostrategic factor viewed by US as a reason enough to invade the state to ensure security in the region. In the months leading up to the actual invasion, Saddam Hussein had reportedly been threatening to convert Iraq’s oil trade from trading in Dollars to Euros (Herod, 2009, p. 196). Such a move would have threatened the primacy of the Dollar as the global currency of choice and would have hurt American security seriously. Iraq’s acquiring WMDs would have seriously upset the ‘Balance of Power’ and thus needed to be constrained. Thus from the classical realist viewpoint, Iraq represented a threat to the survival of the American state, its way of life, its economic and physical security and hence needed to be neutralized.

The Democratic presidency of Obama, from party traditionally given to liberalism, has shown the continuing relevance of realist formulations. Though Obama’s speeches have an idealistic pitch, the foreign policy directions of his administration are very much rooted in realism. Obama has shifted the focus of the ‘war on terror’ from Iraq to Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) theatre. Despite knowing about the proliferation track record of the Pakistanis and their undeniable governmental links with the Taliban and other terrorist organizations, the Obama administration continues to shower aid on Pakistan in pursuit of the realist goal of ensuring American security. Realizing that American forces were getting stretched on a two war front, Obama has chosen to drawdown from Iraq to concentrate on the Af-Pak theatre. The decades old US policy of supporting Israel has not changed despite stratospheric rhetoric at Egypt. On China, American foreign policy is going the extra mile to accommodate Chinese concerns as they realize the crucial importance of Beijing continuing to buy US bonds if the US economy has to recover from its present slump. On Iran, while holding out an olive branch, America continues to urge Teheran to give up its quest for nuclear weapons to ensure security of American interests in the Middle East. America continues to treat Russia with kid gloves despite grave provocation by Moscow in its Georgian adventure. American planners realize that they need Russia’s cooperation if their quest to open an alternative supply route through central Asian countries to the Af-Pak theatre is to succeed. In the view of one foreign policy watcher “Obama’s foreign policy team seems to have abandoned the Democratic Party’s traditional liberal internationalist playbook in favour of hard-headed (some would say hard-hearted) realism. The administration has made clear its willingness to downplay human rights and to make whatever deals it can with Iran, Syria, Russia, and China” (Friedberg, 2009, p. 2). These are some examples of practical Realism has been successful so far in as much as the U.S. is concerned.

The Realist theory is not without flaws. The homogenisation of the concept of power ruling out their various forms and classes particularly in terms of domestic, social or ideological content of internal politics (Saull, 2001, p. 33) robs the theory of its comprehensiveness. Movements such as Feminism have added new dimension to social theories of international relations. However, the variations to traditional Realism, such as balance-of-power, Power transition, and long cycles make up for a verifiable ‘systems’ approach which is rooted in historical proof of analysis of human conflict. Such empiricism cannot be wished away. Nor can the fact that almost all recent trends in international relations have been about the exercise of power in its varied forms.

The nay-sayers to Realism say that liberalism has achieved greater relevance and cite the example of the formation of the European Union. The fact that European countries could get over their dearly held concepts of national sovereignty and form a Union is a startling testimony of what Liberalism can achieve (Ingham, 2003, p. 245). Liberalists claim that even more startling has been the fact that the former Communist countries have now lining up to join the Union, which proves the power of the liberal theory. Realists counter this argument by stating that the European Union resulted out of a Realist concern for the smaller European states to join hands to compete economically with the larger American economy and not out of any great altruistic wish for a better, more humane world. The inclusion of former Communist countries in the Union can be likened to Liberalism being coupled with the Realist strategy of bandwagoning (Waltz K. , The Theory of International Politics, 1979, p. 126) by the former communist countries to join up with the stronger, more prosperous bloc. The Realist observe that if Liberalism was indeed the way ahead to define state to state relations then what is the need for the European countries to continue subscribing to NATO- a Cold War Realist formulation. Realists call this liberal hypocrisy when European liberalists decry realism, especially American exercise of power and its unilateralist ways. The hypothetical question that begs answer is would the EU have spoken in the same vein had they possessed the national power resident in America? According to the Realists, the continued relevance of NATO in the E.U-U.S. partnership is an example of Realism coexisting with Liberalism in an external environment. The fact that liberal values can coexist in the larger framework of Realist dialogue is evident in the example of the United States of America. American domestic laws, and civil society interaction are based on a liberalist philosophy while its external interactions have for most part been based on a Realist approach.

It therefore can be concluded that Realism with all its variations has stood the test of practical application. Drawing from the writings of Thomas Hobbes and Hans Morgenthau, classical realism explained state to state relations down the ages to a large extent. Where gaps have been found, Realists variations stepped in such as Waltz balance-of-power theory and replacement of human nature with state power, Organski’s Power Transition theory to fill in the gaps left by Waltz and the Long cycle theories of Modelski, which offer exciting opportunity of being a predictive theory of international relations. Theory such as Marxism had its run of the day but could not stand the test of time which was demonstrated starkly by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its rejection by China. Liberalism seems to be the only theory which has shown demonstrable success in the formation of the E.U. but here too, liberalism has entered into a happy partnership with Realism as is demonstrated by the E.U – U.S. partnership, continued relevance of NATO and in case of the U.S. liberalism dominating its internal domestic policies and Realism its external interaction with the world. Undoubtedly, power is not everything and some gaps such as social interactions left out by realist formulations necessarily have to be filled in by social theories of IR. However, by and large in final analysis it can be concluded that Realism with all its variation is not a weak theory but the only theory that actually explains most of the larger issues of state to state relations.


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