The theory of Political Realism in International Relations (IR) revolves around the principle of dominance, and alternatives based on reciprocity and identity. In this article, you will learn about the theory of political realism in IR.
International Politics revolves around different theories. These theories can be tested by realistic and practical approaches rather than mere theoretical knowledge. A theory must not be judged by some preconceived or general ideas or concepts that are not connected with reality.
Theory of Political Realism in International Relations (IR)
There is no single theory that can explain the wide range of international interactions in a lucid manner, but a theoretical framework has traditionally held a control position in the study of IR. This approach is called realism and is favored by a number of IR scholars and intensely challenged by others. But almost all consider it a valid approach. Political Realism s basis is the principle of dominance, and alternatives based on reciprocity and identity.
Realism or political realism is a school of thought that explains international relations in terms of power The exercise of power by states toward each other is sometimes called real politics or power politics.
Realism, in fact, developed in response to a liberal tradition that the realists called idealism. Idealism lays emphasis on international law, morality, and international organizations, rather than power alone, as key influences on international events. For idealists, human nature is fundamentally righteous. They consider that the international system comprises a community of states which has a great capacity to work together to solve mutual problems. For idealists, the principles of international relations emanate from morality.
Political realism finds politics, like society in general, is managed and run by actual laws which are ingrained in human nature. For making society happy and livable, it is essential to understand the laws by which society is governed. If the said laws are good and meant to protect and safeguard the citizens, no one would dare to break them as doing so would only fail in this act.
Realism, as its belief in the objectivity of the laws of politics, must also behave in evolving a sensible and reasonable theory that throws back the objective laws. It also believes in the feasibility of differentiating politics from trust and opinion and what is true objectively and rationally. It must be backed up by evidence and projected by reason.
The theory of realism discovers facts and gives them meaning through reason. It takes for granted performed that the nature of a foreign policy can be gathered only through analysis of political acts and of predictable ramifications of these acts. Thus, we can conclude what politicians’ statesmen’s objectives have might be done actually and from the anticipated outcome of their acts, we can guess what has been.
However, the scrutiny of facts is not the only way to determine the purpose of foreign policy. To give purposeful meaning to the contents of foreign policy, there is a need to apprehend foreign political reality with a kind of reasonable outlay i.e., a map that shows the political meaning of a foreign policy.
Realists place themselves in a long tradition. The chines statesman Sun Tzu, some two centuries ago, the rulers of states how to survive in an era where war had become an effective instrument of power for the first time. Sun Tzu said that “moral reasoning was not always useful to state rulers who were surrounded by heavily armed and dangerous neighbors”. He demonstrated to the rulers how to use power to push their interests and preserve their existence.
At the same time in Greece, Thucydides wrote an account of the Peloponnesian War (431- 404 B.C.) focusing on relative power among the Greek city-states. He stated that “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept”.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbs in the 17th century discussed the free-for-all that exists when the government is absent and people seek their own self-interest. He called it “the state of nature” or “law of the jungle” in contrast to the rule of law. Hobbs favored a strong monarchy, which he labeled Leviathan to name this condition, essentially advocating a dominant approach to solve collective goods problems in domestic societies. ”
Realists consider political power separate from and predominant over, morality, ideology, and other social and economic aspects of life. For realists, ideologies do not matter much, nor do religious or other cultural factors with which states may explain their actions. Realists see states with different religions, ideologies, or economic systems as quite similar in their actions with regard to national power.
The concept of interests defined in terms of power is the main indication that leads political realism to find its way on the political path. This concept provides the link between reason trying to understand international politics and the facts to be understood.
It sees politics as an independent sphere of action and understanding apart from other spheres such as economics, ethics, religion, or aesthetics.
With such a concept, a theory of politics, international or domestic, can never exist because without it, it will neither be possible to differentiate between political and non-political facts nor it would be possible to bring systematic order to the political sphere.
Whenever there are differences, all realists share a common belief that the realm of interstate behavior is sufficient in itself for the purpose of explanation and justification.
Realists depict a grim image of international politics. Within the territorial boundaries of the formally sovereign state politics is an activity of potential moral progress through the social inception of constitutional government.
Beyond the prohibited borders of its sovereign presence, politics is essentially the realm of survival than progress. Necessity, not freedom is the appropriate or realistic starting point for understanding international relations.
A precarious form of order through the balance of power, not universal justice is the best we can hope for in international anarchy, a realm of continual struggles for power and security among states. Thus realism contains both descriptive and prescriptive insights into international relations.
Realists love history very much. According to them, history teaches us that war and conflicts are the patterns in international relations. Proposals for perpetual peace simply exist in the pages of history.
Human nature is fundamentally flawed. It is the hard-nosed and uncompromising view of international relations that has presented the realists as conservatives and complainants.
The realist theory of international politics will keep apart the inconsistencies of the foreign policies of statesmen from their philosophic or political sympathies and will not assume the philosophic tendencies from the sympathetic sentiments.
The statement usually formulates their foreign policies in view of their philosophic and political sympathies in order to gain popular support. Political realism does not need nor does it approve of indifference to political goals and moral principles, but it does look for a sharp distinction.
between the desirable and the possible i.e., what is desirable everywhere and at all times and what is possible under the circumstance of time and place.
After World War II, famous scholar Hans J. Morgenthau stated that international politics is governed by objective, universal laws based on national interests defined in view of power.
He said, “God did not help any nation and that every nation had to take actions intelligently and pragmatically. ” Morgenthau opposed Vietnam and said that a communist Vietnam would not have done any harm to the US national interests.
Similarly, in 2002, notable realists opposed the US invasion of Iraq and warned that Iraq was not in US interest. It shows that the realists do not always favor war and the use of military power, although, at times, they acknowledge the need of doing so.
Foreign policies do not always necessarily follow the rational, objective, and unemotional path. The uncertain elements of personality, prejudice, and emotional preference lay their impact and are bound to divert the course of foreign policies.
Particularly, if the foreign policy is formulated under democratic control, there is then a need to accumulate popular emotions to back up the foreign policy which does not damage the sensibility and judicious elements of the foreign policy.
Political realism not only contains theoretical substance but also contains the normative element. It understands that political reality is full of accidental possibilities, and systematic irrationalities and indicate the influences that exert pressure on foreign policy. Political realism makes available the theoretical foundation of national foreign policy which can never be accomplished through experience.
Political realism admires a rational foreign policy as being good and beneficial, because only a rational foreign policy reduces the risks and increases the benefits and, therefore, addresses both the moral principle of wisdom and the political requirements of success. Political realism not only holds that theory must rest upon the rational elements of political reality, but also that theory must keep the rational elements of political reality.
Realism believes that its main interest, defined as power, is another objective category that is universally acknowledged, but it does not give that concept the meaning that lives forever. The concept of power is the gist of politics and is not affected by the environment. The only factor which keeps the nations together is the absence of all conflicting interests.
However, the kind of interest that forms political action in a particular period of history, depends upon the political and cultural context within which foreign policy has formulated the targets that the nations aim to accomplish through their foreign policies can manage the whole range of objectives any nation would have liked to pursue.
Hans J. Morgenthau believes that “the content of the power and the manner of its use are determined by the political and cultural environment. Power may comprise anything that establishes and maintain the control of man over man. Thus, power covers all social relationships, which serve the end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.”
Political realism does not take into consideration that foreign policy can be changed under the threat of prevailing violence or extreme instability during the period the foreign policy is operating.
The realists believe that interest is a permanent Yardstick by which political action should be evaluated and directed as a current connection between interest and the nation-state is a product of history and bound to drop out of sight with the passage of time.
The realists disagree with other schools of thought on the issue of how the present world can be changed. Realists feel that the present world can be changed only through the guidance of the permanent forces that have shaped the past and will do the same with the future.
Political realism is alive to the moral importance of political action. It is also aware of the unavoidable tension between moral demands and the need for successful political action. It can mitigate and erase the tension and thus make it confusing and difficult to apprehend both moral and political issues.
As the hard facts of politics were more morally satisfying than actually are, and the moral values less difficult than they actually are Political realism does not mix the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe. Like the distinction between truth and opinion, it distinguishes between truth and ideology.
Therefore, the main difference between political realism and other schools of thought is real and deep. The political realists maintain the autonomy of the political sphere as do the economists, lawyers, and moralists.
Realists think in terms of interest defined as power, while economists think in the interest defined as wealth, the lawyer with the conformity of action with legal rules, the moral of the conformity of action with moral principles.
Despite its dominance throughout the post-1945 era, realism has been the target of unending criticism and elaboration much of it from those sympathetic to some of its fundamental assumptions.
For example, many scholars were not happy with the terminological imprecision in Hans J. Morgenthau’s understanding of realism. He used the term “power” in so many ways that it was impossible to understand precisely what he meant by the term.
In the 1960s, and 1970s other scholars thought that realism needed to be modified to account for the increase in the level of institutional and economic interdependence among states. But perhaps the most significant criticism of early or what is called classical realism relates to its postulates that wars start because human beings are evil by nature.
If this is the case, then how is this problem one of the key characteristics of neorealism? Kenneth Waltz, its leading exponent, argues that realism does not need this postulate. Instead, he argues that anarchy is a crucial structural feature of the international system. Wars occur as a result of this structure rather than as a result of particular defects in human nature.
Today, some scholars are asking whether realism still has any relevance in an allegedly shrinking and globalizing world where interstate violence seems to have taken the place of interstate war. Only time will tell. But realism does have an extraordinary capacity for adaptation and modification.
Realists are skeptical of the idea that universal moral principles exist and, therefore, warn state leaders against sacrificing their own self-interests in order to adhere to some indeterminate notion of ethical conduct.
Moreover, realists argue that the need for survival required state leaders to distance themselves from traditional morality which attaches a positive value to caution, piety, and the greater good of humankind as a whole.
Machiavelli argued that these principles were positively harmful if adhered to by state leaders. It was imperative that state leaders learned a difficult kind of morality that accorded not to Christian values but to political necessity and prudence.
Supporters of raison d’etre frequently speak of a dual moral standard of which one is inside the state and a different standard for the state in its external relations with other states.
Justification for two moral standards stems from the fact that the condition of international politics often makes it necessary for state leaders to act in a manner like cheating, lying, or killing, which would be entirely unacceptable for the individual.
But, before concluding that realism is completely immoral, it is important to note that the supporters of raison d’etre say 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.
Despite there are some differences, it is appropriate to assume that there is a sufficient degree of continuity between classical and modern realism. Indeed, three main differences, which are identified with Realism i.e., statism, survival, and self-help are present in the work of classical realists such as Thucydides and a modern realist like Hans J. Morgenthau. It is argued that the “three S’s” form the corners of the realist triangle.
Realism identifies the group as the fundamental unit of political analysis. During earlier times, such as when Thucydides and Machiavelli were writing the basic unit was the Polis or city-state, but since the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) realists consider the sovereign state as the principal actor in international politics.
This is often known as the state-contrite assumption of Realism. Statism is the term given to the idea of the state as the legitimate representative of the collective will of the people.
The legitimacy of the state is what enables it to exercise authority internally as evident, for example, in the making and enforcement of the law.
Yet outside the boundaries of the state, realizes contest that a condition of anarchy exists. By anarchy, it is meant that international politics operates in a field that has no controlling authority above the individual collection of sovereign states.
Therefore, rather than interpreting absolute chaos and lawlessness, the concept of anarchy is used by realists to emphasize the point that the international realm is distinguished by the lack of a central authority. In view of the above, the realists portray a clear distinction between domestic and international politics.
One major factor that realizes bring forth is that they distinguish between international politics and domestic politics. They believe that domestic politics can easily constrain and channel the power-seeking ambitions of individuals in a less violent direction, the international politics is much less able to do so.
For realists, it is self-evident that the incidence of violence is greater at the international than the domestic level.
One basic difference the realists bring forward to support this difference in behavior concerns the different organizational structures of domestic and international politics. Realists discuss that the basic structure of international politics is one of anarchy as every sovereign state considers itself to be its own master and does not acknowledge a higher power above her.
Whereas, domestic politics is described as a disciplined and systematic structure in which different political actors stand in various relations of super and subordination.
The realists conclude, therefore, that the first priority of every state leader is to ensure the safety and security of the state. Under anarchy, this objective i.e., the survival of the state, is not possible.
Realists firmly believe that all states, tend to perpetuate their existence which is a genuine right of every state. However, the ” actions of some states were instrumental in some states losing their existence as Germany lost its identity at the beginning of World War II.
This is more explained in light of the power level of different states. States with greater power are in a more convenient position of surviving than the states with less power and capabilities.
Power is crucial to the realists and has been defined narrowly in military-strategic terms. It is the ability to get what you want either through the threat or the use of force. Yet irrespective of how much power a state may possess, the core national interest of all states must be survival.”
A system that has no global government is based on the anarchical principle of self-help. In such a system, every state actor is supposed to take care of his own well-being and survival. Unlike domestic politics, where state institutions take care of the well-being of individual citizens, these are either non-existent or extremely impotent in the international system.
Realists do not consider it proper for states to rely on other actors like the League of Nations or United Nations for their safety and survival as allies today may become foes tomorrow. Therefore, the realists believe that every state must be strong enough to take care of its survival itself.
Despite differences among realists on the basic principles of Realism, all realists agree on statism, self-help, and survival.
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