It is the amalgam of political theory and a central understanding of ‘the self’ that makes the doctrine of realism so potent and universal. Indeed, it was realism, manifest in foreign policy that catapulted the likes of Adolf Hitler and Otto von Bismarck to eminence. In fact, one would go as far to say that it is the very implementation of Real Politik that has provided the fuel needed for the locomotion of history. It was once aptly put by Leon Trotsky that ‘war is the locomotive of history’; and the locomotive of war is very often the implementation of state-centric action, i.e. power politics. The theory of realism is so powerful because it purports to explain the ‘struggle amongst human beings’i, a struggle which was borne out of our very evolution. For human beings are remarkably selfish.
Each of us strive to further our own interests and give ourselves an advantage in everyday life; indeed, it is that motivation which leads many young school-leavers to go on to university, and to aspire to high paid and influential positions. Writing this essay and understanding the focus of realism not only broadens one’s knowledge base, it represents a furtherance of one’s interests (in the form of marks towards the final assessment). And it is this basic, and very primal, mindset that affords the theory of political realism so much weight. It is that self-same reason which ensures that realism will always remain the dominant political theory; the fact that it is rooted in the dynamics of human nature. Building upon this fundamental point, this essay aims to illustrate the major assumptions of the realist theory, and how the assumptions embolden the doctrine of the theory itself.
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The fundamental assumption of realism, as previously highlighted, is the basis upon which the theory was founded: the notion that action on a global stage is dictated by self-interest. Realism sees the global stage as a series of competing power bases, where the acquisition and exercise of power is the sole means of pursuing interests. Indeed, realists believe that power is the primary end of any political action and this notion must be adhered to on an international stage if interests are to be pursued. This idea is evident in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War and Machiavelli’s The Prince. Hobbes and Spinoza followed and the notion was given great dramatical portrayal in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the notion began to be viewed in a different way, due to its incarnation in the form of social Darwinism. Social Darwinism sees social, and hence political, growth as an enduring struggle where only the fittest and most resolute polities will survive and prosper (Moseley, 1). The theory now appears opaque, as it is no longer seen relevant in today’s world.
However, when humans first evolved it was very much the case. As for any other species, evolution represents an enduring struggle where only the strongest survive and where there will always be a dominant force (i.e. the United States). But humans in the last two hundred years have altered the natural evolution of the planet, and so history. Evolution, it can be argued, did not intend for us to make advances in medicine and technology: we have manipulated the planet in order to acquire resources. In the same vein, regimes aim to manipulate each other for the acquisition of power. It has been the same for centuries. The appetite for power can never be sated and so there will always be, in the words of Marx and Engels, ‘haves and have-nots’ in the international arena. The haves will dictate the passage of history, and the have-nots will be pliable to the wants of the haves; hence creating a power complex evident in today’s society. Nobody can refute that this is the case; hence emboldening the theory and generating conviction behind the other major assumptions of realism.
Expanding on the last point, it is important to recognize the realist view that interests can only be advanced against the interests of other nations: implying that the international environment is inherently unstable. For the typical realist this instability exists only in the international domain, a contrast to the realist view of the domestic domain. Where the international domain is classified by its static nature, the contrasting domestic domain is viewed as progressive: it is considering the only medium in which the members can evolve mutually. This realist assumption is rooted in tribalism. That is, where outside actors are treated with contempt and extreme suspicion, the members of the internal domain interact harmoniously and aim to further their interests collectively. In this way, the tribal notion of ‘state-centricity’ is mirrored by the realist notion of state-centric activity.
However, it has been argued that realists have ignored the impact of Intergovernmental Organizations and Nongovernmental Organizations. It is argued that these institutions build bridges between peoples of differing nations, and between nations themselves, hence creating a problem for the realist argument. The proposed argument has been baulked at by realists, claiming that such organizations are vehicles of superpowers anyhow, aiming to extend influence globally, whether the issue be welfare-based or otherwise. An example would be the United Nations, which is seen as a vehicle of the United States, and is perhaps only a participant as it affords them a greater sphere of influence within the more prosperous European arena. As the U.S has already secured omnipotence in the Americas, perhaps they view such Intergovernmental Organizations as providing new avenues with which to extend power, and for that matter, acquire it.
By forwarding the notion of a state-centric policy, the assumption is made that the state is self-sufficient economically, as the idea of an autonomous nation-state would suggest. But increasingly during the last thirty years this assumption has been challenged as the globalization of the world economy has continued. Indeed, the consensus of opinion now is that ‘very few, if any, states now have any pretence at all to autarky or a self-contained economy’ii, although this may be disputed. The powerful realist argument is that perhaps the globalization of the economy has created a level playing field: that is, states are reverting to the new-fangled economic theories of trade for the same realist self-serving reasons.
More global trade means a better domestic economy, and competition on the global scale is good news for the consumer. For the government it means more money on public spending. A clear example of the benefits for the state is that of Egypt. Under Mubarak the exported amount of oranges has multiplied to the stage where approximately 70% of all British-consumed oranges are Egyptian-grown, which has subsequently led to higher standards in schools, and better equipped hospitals. So, as is evident, the realist is not truly taxed on this issue either. This issue clearly galvanizes the argument of the traditional realist, although critics would suggest that realism is ‘a closed theory… as it can refute all counter-factual evidence on its own terms’iii.
The criticism that there can exist no true ostensible act of altruism has led many eminent anti-realists to question the morality of realism, and subsequent studies have found the theory to be riddled with amorality. But how can one ever define ‘morality’ on a political stage when there exists no body to regulate a universal code of ethics? The argument that realism is amoral is based upon the premise that acting purely out of self-interest is wrong, yet would it be classified as amoral, or immoral for that matter, if one was to be seen to be acting self-servingly on a personal level? It is only right that a nation-state acts in a manner that will secure and further its vested interests, just as it is right that you should want the best for your children. And it is this poignant argument that ensures, and embosses, the nature and impact of realism. For it is not possible to refute that acting purely in the interest of your people is reprehensible. In essence, it is on this foundation that realism asserts its prowess as a theoretical basis upon which to base foreign policy.
Whilst there are nation-states there will always be politics; whilst there are politics there will always be power politics. Where there is power politics there is a realist. To strive for the furtherance of your nation by acquiring power will never truly be considered wrong, although the means by which it is obtained may be. Realism is based upon the notion that power and influence are essential for the security of interests, and it is augmented by the irrefutable nature of the major assumptions. Rooted in human nature and the primal desire to succeed and exert power, there will never exist an explanation so focused on ‘the self’. ‘The self’ shall always have a primacy that is unparalleled, and so the possibility of friction will always be existent. It has been said that, ‘without a supreme international power or tribunal, states view each other with fear and hostility, and conflict, or the threat thereof, is endemic to the system’iv. Until such a body is institutionalized, power politics will remain a permanent condition of human existence.