Theories provide something better than just guessing, they offer a systematic and coherent way of conceptualizing about the world we live in. Theories act as ‘lenses’ through which we look at and understand the social phenomena and the dimensions that characterize Politics and International Relations. Every theory is based on an assumption and backed by facts. Theory is a testable concept or idea. In science, a theory is not merely a guess. A theory is a fact-based framework for describing certain occurrence.
Scholars have tried to systematize ideas in a more consistent and more logical way than just intuition, and this results in theories in general. The advantage of studying theories of International Relations is that it allows to conduct a more sophisticated analysis of thought about International Relations. Certain theories highlight several things and can also act as ‘blinkers’ that do not allow scholars to look beyond a specific range, theories ask certain questions and leave some untouched. Theories of International relations are divided into two groups, problem solving and critical ones.
Problem solving theories look at the world as it is and address issues according to existing system, critical theory on the other hand asks the questions of origin of the existing system and may challenge them. Both of the theories that this essay will concentrate on belong to the problem solving group of concepts. Realism is the oldest and probably most commonly adopted theory of international relations, highly valued among scholars and students. The author of this essay will analytically discuss the key differences between realism and neo-realism, by comparing and contrasting the two.
Classical Realism “Realism is a term that is used in a variety of ways in many different disciplines. In philosophy, it is an ontological theory opposed to idealism and nominalism. ‘Scientific realism’ is a philosophy of science opposed variously to empiricism, instrumentalism, verificationism and positivism. ‘Realism’ in literature and cinema is opposed to romanticism and ‘escapist’ approaches. In international Relations, political realism is a tradition of analysis, which stresses imperatives that states face to pursue a power politics of the national interest. (Jack Donnelly, 2005:29)
Although. Political Realism as a study of International Relations did not emerge until after WWII, it is possible to trace its roots in the history within the intellectual works of Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes. Realism is based on an assumption that men as a unit is selfish and egocentric by its nature and is driven by the desire of power. Units are organized into states from which each and every one acts in their own national interest. This self interest can be defined in terms of power. States exist in an international society characterized by the lack of superior and hierarchal defined authority (anarchy).
Under such conditions states are forced to rely purely on their own capabilities. Their main task is to deal with the uncertainty caused by the anarchic system; therefore states do everything to stay ahead of, or at least balance out the power of other states. “Statesmanship thus involves mitigating and managing, not eliminating, conflict; seeking a less dangerous world, rather than a safe, just or peaceful one”. (Jack Donnelly, 2005:29) At least four of the primary assumptions of Realism can be found in Thucydides Peloponnesian War.
Firstly, for Thucydides state (Athens or Sparta) is the main actor and decision maker in regards to war or politics – exactly the same as what modern realists claim. They acknowledge involvement of other participants in the affairs (for example international institutions), but do not find them to be of any importance or influence. Secondly, Thucydides assumes that state is a unitary actor. Despite describing fascinating disputes between citizens of the same state, he claimed that once the decision of going to war or capitulation was made, the state acts and speaks as one.
Thucydides excludes the possibility of existence of participants on level lower than state, whom might undermine or cancel the decision made by the state. Thirdly, it is established that decision makers acting in the name of the state proceed rationally. Similarly to most of educated Greeks, Thucydides thought that humans are rational beings. Therefore, they make their decisions by comparing the strong and weak sides of different possibilities of proceeding with the problem they face. He also acknowledged the existence of multiple factors that impede the making of rational decisions.
Among those factors are desires of the leaders, unclear national intentions and interests or deceived image of fellow decision makers. Albeit all of this, he continued to believe that fulfilling of the national interest is achieved by rational decision making process. This way of thought is similar to modern realist: rational decisions benefit the national interest no matter how ambiguous this interest is formulated. Furthermore, Thucydides similarly to the present realist was interested in the issues of security: state must defend itself from the possible domestic and international threats and enemies.
State boosts its security by improving its internal capabilities, developing its economical strength and forming allays with other states who share similar interests. Thucydides believed that in the period before the war and during it, the fear of enemies was driving states into forming allies – for the states leader it was a rational decision. In the Melian Dialog presented in the Peloponnesian War Thucydides presents classical realists vs. liberals’ dilemma: do states follow laws based on the concept of set international moral and ethical principles, as liberals suggest?
Or facing the lack of superior international arbitrator is state power the key factor? Thucydides did not present all of the axioms of realism. Concepts of realism were developing through centuries and not all realists agree with each and every one of them. This way, six hundred years after Thucydides, Christian Bishop and philosopher St. Augustine supplements realism with fundamental assumptions about human behavior. Humans are free to choose between good or evil, but they are infected with the lower desires of excessive materialism and pleasure, as a result of which war occurs.
Although realist question St. Augustine’s biblical explanation of human rotten and egocentric nature, they do not deny the fact that mankind fundamentally is self-centered and strive towards power. The consequences, which the corrupt human nature has for the State were further developed in the works of Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli wrote in the “Prince” that the leader must be constantly aware of the fact that his person, as well as his country is under threat and that no moral principles oblige when the state is at stake.
Machiavelli was also a supporter of treaties and various offensive and defensive strategies of protection of the state. Central to, and widely accepted by all theorist truism of realism declares that states exist in an international system which is in constant state of anarchy. There is no higher authority that is able to control states’ interactions. This idea was first formulated by Thomas Hobbes, who believed that Men in the state of nature have to defend themselves and they are fully entitled to do so, and hat the same rule applies to any country in the international system. “The right of nature, which Writers commonly call Jus Naturale, is the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own Judgement, and Reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto”. (Pt. I, Ch. 13) Hobbes also describes the condition of international anarchy, in which states behave like Gladiators facing each other.
Facing the lack of superior power in the international system, there is no rules or norms binding the State. After the WWII the disappointment with liberalism reached its climax, and that is when a theorist of international relations Hans Morgenthau presented his significant synthesis of political realism and his views on the power politics. For Morgenthau, just like for Thucydides and Hobbes, international politics is a struggle for power. This struggle can be explained in three levels of analysis: unit in the state of nature fights to continue its existence.
Autonomous and unitary state continuously engages itself in battles for power, opposing power with another power and reacting in the purpose of protection its national interest. Because the international system is anarchic – there is no higher power to end rivalry – struggle continues. Due to the imperative of state survival, its leaders are guided by morality completely different to ordinary person. According to realist, moral values are to be evaluated accordingly to the consequences of politics practiced by the state.
After WWII Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations became a ‘Bible’ for realists. The book presented realist view of power politics and the idea of political realism. It is known that George Kennan (writer, US ambassador in USSR) and Henry Kissinger (National Security Advisor and Secretary of State for R. Nixon and G. Ford) were proponents of political realism. Kennan was one of the architects of the American politics and programs during the Cold War period, which were meant to contain the spreading influence of USSR further than already controlled Eastern Europe.
Although realism proposes simple guiding principle, not all realists agree which policy is the correct one. For example, defensive realists assume that most of the states can strengthen their security and take a defensive attitude without being a threat to other states – particularly if the evaluation of power between the offensive and defensive forces indicates superiority of the defensive side. Unfortunately, distinguishing between a defensive and offensive weapon is difficult, sometimes even impossible, and arming with defensive weapons can be seen by the opposing site as a threat.
On the other hand offensive realists argue that State can never be entirely certain of the intentions of other states, and that they should always try to maximize their power and improve their position in relation to other states. Neo-realism “Although definitions of realism differ in detail, they share a clear family resemblance, ‘a quite distinctive and recognizable flavour’. ” (Jack Donnelly, 2005:30) Realism embraces a whole group of similar notions of thought, based on common assumptions and sharing similar thesis, but it does not form a homogenous theory.
Neo-realism (also structural realism), among many interpretations of realism, can be perhaps claimed to be the most influential one, and was first outlined in the groundbreaking Theory of International Politics by Kenneth Waltz. “Structural realism attempts to ‘abstract from every attribute of states except their capabilities’ (Waltz 1979:99) in order to highlight the impact of anarchy and the distribution of capabilities. ‘International structure emerges from the interaction of states and then constrains them from taking certain actions while propelling them towards each others’ (1991: 29).
Therefore, despite great variations in the attributes and interactions of states, there is a ‘striking sameness in the quality of international life through millennia’ (1979: 66)” (Jack Donnelly 2005:35) Kenneth Waltz conducted his interpretation of ‘classical’ realism in order to make the politic realism a more ‘rigorous’ theory of international politics. Some of the neo-realists even try to present general rules explaining events in the international system: by doing so, they are hoping to foresee and justify general tendencies.
Structural realists in their analysis treat the structure of the international system as a fundamental explanatory key to the theory, and in opposition to classical realist position it above States and human nature. According to Waltz the structure of a particular system is defined by the lack of overriding power and by the capabilities of an individual state. Those capabilities define the position of the state in the system. The international structure is a power itself and has the potential to constrain actions of the states, but can be not controlled by them.
According to neo-realist it is the structure of international system not the characteristic of states that determine the world order. One of the principles of both structural and classical realism is the balance of power. Although in comparison to classical realist structural realists believe that the balance of power between the states is in a great degree determined by the structure of the system. From the logical point of view, in such a system the possibilities of international cooperation are very slim.
States considering the possibility of cooperation fear about how are the gains going to be divided. It is not a question of: ‘will both sides gain? ’ but ‘who will gain more? ’. If the expected gain is to be shared, for example, in the proportion of two to one, then the state gaining more could desire to harm or destroy the other with the resources the state has gained. Sometimes even the perspective of enormous gains for both sides does not encourage states to cooperate, they fear about what will the other state do with it increased capabilities. Given the irreducible uncertainty about the intentions of others, security measures taken by one actor are perceived by others as threatening; the others take steps to protect themselves; these steps are then interpreted by the first actor as confirming its initial hypothesis that the others are dangerous; and so on in a spiral of illusory fears and ‘unnecessary’ defenses” (Snyder quoted by Jack Donnelly 2005: 38) The states dilemma of relative gains takes it shape from the fact that states in order to maximize their chances of survival, tend to maximize their power in comparison to other states.
The ‘weight’ of the relative power makes the states hesitate to start any cooperation if the gains from it might be divided unequally among the collaborating sides. Even if cooperation might bring absolute gains to both sides, the states will not align if one gains outweigh the gains of the other. In the neo-realistic world of balance of power, states survival depends on the power and capabilities it possesses, therefore power and it increase must be considered in the relative terms. Structural realists are also interested in the problem of dishonesty.
States are tempted to deceive their associates while executing the agreement, by doing so they can gain relative advantage over other states. This fear can be most often seen in the domain of military, where any changes to levels of armaments or agreement on reducing the number of nuclear warheads can quickly shift the balance. Self interest is a great stimulus that pushes states to seek to gain advantage over others. Existence of such a motivation factors, combined with the rational urge to protect self existence, usually excludes any possibility of international cooperation.
Countries form alliances to balance the power of aggressor, a good example of this can be found in the case of USA and USSR forming an alliance against Hitler’s Germany. Other principal contribution to the neo-realism theory is the distribution of capabilities. Jack Donnelly outlines that there are effectively three systems existing: Unipolarity consisting of one great power and many smaller states, which in order to balance the power will align and aid the rise of new great powers.
Bipolarity, which consists of two great powers and is the more stable than a Multipolar system, because there are no additional super powers to form alliances with and any conflicts on the outskirts will have little impact on the general balance. Multipolar system which consists of three or more super powers and is more prone to shifts of balance, where a conflict on the outskirts can have a noticeable impact on the general balance. Jack Donnelly, 2005:36/37) Conclusion Realism and neo-realism have a rich history and strongly influence the subject of international relations. Both theories present a strong critique of liberalism as a utopian dream, providing an alternative that presents things the way they are. Critics of realism and neo-realism give an account of the European Union, which as an institution embracing the notion of liberalism as the leading theory.
It opposes an idea that states and human beings are inherently bad, aggressive and selfish, but they rather have an intellect, good will and are interested in gaining relative gains for everyone concerned. Both realism and neo-realism have strong sides and drawbacks, like neglecting economic or social factors in shaping policies or their inability to alter the international system structure. Both realism and neo-realism will find their effects in economic policy of mercantilism, spying on others, businesses and everyday human relations.