Realist international relations theory. Paul Bacon SILS, Waseda University. Realism. Realism has been easily the most influential theory of international relations.
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Realist international relations theory Paul Bacon SILS, Waseda University
Realism • Realism has been easily the most influential theory of international relations. • Most diplomats, politicians and professors have, implicitly or explicitly, believed that realism provides the best account of how international relations work. • It is a quite simple commonsense theory. • It can be explained in a few straightforward propositions.
Hans Morgenthau and Realism • Professor Hans Morgenthau is regarded as the father of modern realism. • He published several books, including Politics Amongst Nations. • This book is acknowledged as the ‘bible’ of modern realist thought. • It should be noted that the book is about politics between states. • Realists often define themselves as students of international politics, not international relations. (They are actually students of interstate politics).
Hans Morgenthau and Realism • Morgenthau discusses many issues in Politics Amongst Nations, but the core arguments can be stated as follows: • 1. States are the most important actors in international politics. • 2. International politics and domestic politics are different. • 3. International politics is a competitive struggle for power.
1. The importance of states • If we want to understand how international politics work, we should study the relations between states. • In particular, we should study the international relations between the most powerful and wealthy states in the world. • At present, these states would perhaps include: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, India and Iran.
The roles of the state • According to realists, states possess three elements – a government, a population and a territory. • Realists assume that states have effective governments. • It is the role of the government of a state to provide security for the people living in that state. • This security has two elements. • 1. Internally, the state should provide public goods such as order, an education system, medical services, a transport network and a social welfare system. • 2. The government should also attempt to protect the state from external attack.
External security provision • It is important that the state develops as strong an army as possible, for the purpose of self-defence. • The government should also try to build solid alliances with other powerful states in the international system. • Good diplomacy is essential to this task.
Anarchy • Realists assume that states have efficient governments. • They also assume that states have effective police forces and legal systems. • Because of this they argue that domestic politics are different from international politics. • For realists, the world is an anarchy. • Anarchy is a Greek word which means ‘absence of government’, or ‘absence of authority’. (It does not mean chaos).
Features of international anarchy • Several features which are present in a domestic political order are absent from international politics, according to realists. For example: • 1. realists argue that there is no world government; • 2. realists argue that there is no international police force; • 3. realists believe that international organizations such as the United Nations are not effective; • 4. realists believe that international law is weak. This is because existing international law reflects the interests of the most powerful states in the system. Also, if a state is powerful, it can simply ignore international law if it chooses to.
Inside and outside • Realism is often referred to as an ‘inside-out’ theory. • This is because realists argue that domestic and international politics are different. • The ‘inside’, domestic politics, is a domain of peace, order, and safety. • Threats to security come from the world ‘outside’, international politics, which is a domain of competition, threat, conflict and war.
Power • Realists claim that in order to understand international politics, it is necessary to understand which states are the most powerful, and what their interests are. • Power is the study of who gets what, and how. • Put simply, the most powerful states control international politics. • It is often claimed that the ancient Greek scholar Thucydides is the first systemic realist thinker. • In The History of the Pelepponesian War he argued that ‘The strong do what they will (want), and the weak suffer what they must’.
Resources • In order to be powerful, it is necessary to own, control, or have access to, important resources. • The easiest way to define a resource is as ‘something which can be used to achieve an objective’. • In international politics, resources can take a variety of forms.
Natural resources, such as oil, pig iron, water, uranium, gas. Size of national population. Size and quality of armed forces. Possession of nuclear weapons. Strategic location. Quality of government. Size of territory. Flexibility and creativity of national population. Prestige and status. Size and level of development of economy. Types of resource
Scarcity • International politics is a competitive struggle for power and resources. • But there is a problem. The most important resources are SCARCE. • If something is scarce, this means that there is not enough supply to satisfy demand. • This scarcity means that there will be winners and losers in the struggle for resources.
Human nature • According to Morgenthau, the most important fact about human nature is that human beings are selfish, and they have a desire to dominate. • In Latin this is referred to as an animus dominandii. • States are groups of human beings, operating in a world of anarchy and scarcity. • It is therefore reasonable to expect that states will compete in a selfish manner for prestige and resources, according to realists. • According to realists, then, we live in a world of anarchy and scarcity, and humans are motivated by an animus dominandii.
Gilpin’s law • Robert Gilpin is a well-known American realist professor of international relations at Princeton University. • He takes the argument a stage further, and argues that states will try to expand their power and control as much as they can. • Put simply, if a state is powerful enough to do something, and it wants to do it, then it will. • We might refer to this as Gilpin’s law.
The ‘security dilemma’ • States are aware of anarchy, scarcity, and the animus dominandii. • As a result of this, they are always worried that they will be attacked. • The rational response to this is to arm and to form alliances. • However, such behavior causes other states to worry. • Realists believe that in this way states find themselves in a ‘security dilemma’.
A ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’? • The only way in which a state can provide for external security is to build up its own military forces, or to form alliances with other countries. • But this behavior reduces security, because other states respond by arming against you. • This is how arms races begin and develop. • The security dilemma creates a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.
Outcomes in the international system • The fact of competition can lead to three different types of outcome in the international system, according to the French realist Raymond Aron. • 1. Empire • 2. Hegemony • 3. A Balance of Power
Empire • An empire exists when one country has official political control of other countries. • These countries become colonies of the imperial power. • Use of the term ‘empire’ also implies that the imperial power exercises a high level of real control over the activities of its colonies. • In the past, for example, India has been a colony of Britain.
Hegemony • This term comes from the Greek word for leader. • The word actually has two elements – leadership and control. • A hegemon does not officially possess colonies. But a hegemonic state is clearly more powerful than all of the other states in a given international system. • A hegemon also exercises a high level of control over the behavior of other states in the system. • Many commentators argue that the current international system is hegemonic, and that the US is the hegemonic state. • The US can strongly influence the behavior of other states in the system, such as Japan and the UK.
Balance of power • A balance of power is the most ‘normal’ situation in the international system. • This occurs when there is no state which is significantly more powerful than all of the other states in the international system. • To use the definition of Hedley Bull, ‘a balance of power exists where no one state or group of states has more power than any other state or group of states’. • To explain how the balance of power works, I will discuss the historical example of Europe between 1870 and 1914.
Changes in relative power • Each of the three outcomes is possible, according to Aron. • But it is important to note that states develop at different rates in the international system. • As a result, states are always adjusting to accommodate the rise and fall of great powers. • For example, at the moment the long-term relative power of China and India is increasing, and that of Japan is falling. • This will make it necessary for there to be adjustments in the system.
Progress? • Realists take a longer view of international relations. They count in tens and hundreds of years, rather than months and years. • Realists argue that in the long run, history always repeats itself. • Progress in the international system is not possible. • The English realist Martin Wight offers an interesting thought experiment. He suggests that if Thucydides were to travel in time to the 21st century, he would be in awe of some of the technological progress that humans have made. In this sense, there have been profound changes in human life. • But Wight suggests that Thucydides would recognize similar realist patterns of competition in international relations. Just as in Ancient Greece, it is still relevant to talk of arms races, balances of power, deterrence and war.
The realist cycle • Despite all of our progress in other areas of human existence, then, our patterns of international politics are just the same as they were in ancient Greece. • The anarchical structure of the international system is the same as then, and, according to realists, it will always remain the same. • This is because the facts of anarchy and scarcity create a security dilemma that states always respond to in the same way, by arming, and forming alliances. • In this way, they continue to create empires, hegemonic systems or balances of power. • These always collapse in the long run, and the mistakes are repeated.
Realism and democracy • Realists also argue that the domestic regimes of states are not relevant to their international relations. • For example, realists believe that it does not matter whether a country is democratic or authoritarian. • The behavior of states can simply be explained by the amount of power they possess. • I will discuss this issue in much more detail when I talk about liberalism…