Is realism realistic?

 

It makes possible what Andrew Linklater describes as the perpetuation of an “immanent moral ideology” which serves to reinforce the citizens sense of national identity, nationalism, and national interest, which, by effect, alienates the citizen from any sort of international identity and even encourages national exclusiveness6. Mass production and consumption give the majority of a population not only satisfaction, but they also give the citizen life goals which are narrowly concerned with self-fulfillment and with little, if any, concern for those things bigger then the individual or family unit.

This self-fulfilling tendency is a direct reification of the nature of realism for it too is concerned only with self-fulfillment, and power is an end only insofar as it can ensure the formers vitality. In seeking limited self-fulfilling goals, realism ultimately harms that which it seeks to protect: its security, its power–viewed in this case as prestige, and its citizens. Though a realist would surely disagree with this particular outcome, I am unsure as to how they might refute it. A realist cannot disagree with the fact that his/her theory is concerned primarily with the attainment of short-term or relative gains.

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Though relative gains account for the immediate needs of the state they fail to consider what the future requires. The pursuit of relative gains is as imprudent as it is successful in securing the long term interests of the state and its members. Realism fails to account for history and sociology, it also fails to account for the future; choosing the acceptance of our present constraints over their eradication. Realism is satisfied to take future events as they unfold, seeking to control those events which pose a threat to the state’s interests, and supporting those particular events which benefit the state.

Realism pursues its policy of self-fulfillment without any view to ‘the good’, nor any concern for humanity. Is there any other way to pursue such a policy? Change ? ” It’s time to turn and face the strain” -David bowie One of the major deficiencies of a realist theory of international politics is its lack of ability and willingness to account for the reality of a changing world. It has been previously shown how realism fails to account for the social nature of human beings, and hence offers a distorted view of human nature.

Realism cannot envision a different way of proceeding in regards to international relations due to the simple fact that it envisions only one course of action, and it dismisses any re-examination of the actually existing conditions of human beings. Moreover realisms view of human nature re-enforces the self-fulfilling characteristics of the modern state. This further restricts the possibility of change given that if one believes that one is benefiting from one’s current practices they will not see any urgency towards change.

On the grounds of it’s theory of human nature, realism been able to easily reject many alternative theories put forward in the past, and present. In the writings of Immanuel Kant we find a different theory of international relations, one that calls for, among other things, a reliance on the rationality of humankind. Where the realist rationalizes only about ‘what should be done’ circumstantially, Kant envisioned a concept of rationality involving an ethical consideration of humanity, asking not only ‘what should be done’, but also ‘what ought to be done’7.

The existence of the unbridgeable gap between ‘actuality and potentiality’ limits the potential for any change in realist theory. Linklater recognizes that, “. . . the positivistic tendency, which is pronounced in neo-realism, (assumes) that actions which recognize the power of existing structural constraints (and therefore contribute to their survival) are alone in satisfying the criteria if rationality”8.

It should be obvious that the realist conception of rationality is not the only factor which restricts practical theories ability to embrace change. Everything that has been discussed thus far– practical theory, the self-fulfilling reifications of the modern nation-state, and the blind acceptance of a classical view of human nature–could all be said to restrict change. This sheds light on an interesting aspect of realism, the inter-relatedness of all its key concepts, and the dependence each concept has on the validity of the other.

Earlier discussion of the realist assumption of a pre-social individual, and thus the absolute restrictions placed on open dialogue between actors will be discussed now in the view that these and the other restrictions realism incorporates serve to re-enforce its authority to determine reality, being more systematic, than they are necessary! Raison d’etre or Open Dialogue? “Was there no communication in this car? Had we deteriorated to the level of dumb beasts? ” -Hunter S. Thompson

Though it seems apparent by now that there is strategy innate in realism, one directed at its own ideological survival, as if realism were a distinct entity of its own. Though it be hard to define how this system works–indeed, it is debatable whether there is a system at all–the best one can do is to look at the particular tendencies of structure and determine implications. Therefore, the direction followed thus far has been done so in attempt to illustrate that realism is not an ahistorical happening but a systematic strategy.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this claim is to look at the calls for open-dialogue as proposed by early critical thinkers such as Kant and Marx, and consequently, the effects such a policy might have on realist nation state, hence demonstrating the reality of a systematic attempt at ideological domination. There are several reasons why realism rejects a call for a transparent governing body. Some of these reasons, rooted in theory, are given under the guise of ‘Raison d’etre’, or national security.

These justifications of old have evolved over time, becoming nothing more than inferences: it is a commonly held belief of any moderately informed citizen that their government could tell them a lot more than it does. But, there are also different, more complicated reasons why realism does not practice a policy of open dialogue. The most obvious reason to avoid an embrace of an open dialogue or transparency is that it will effectively erase the one reality that makes a realist theory of international relations possible; anarchy.

As was shown previously, namely that anarchy could be alleviated given the acceptance of communication in the international arena, a solution which resonates with the liberal principle of “publicizing intentions and announcing the reasons for action”9. However it is easy to see how a policy of open dialogue could never mesh with a realist theory, given that it has already been established that realism is a self-fulfilling, conflictual doctrine; the practical nation state would be better off keeping its intentions secretive, and suffering the consequences of anarchy, than it would be publishing its intentions.

The theory is built around the conditions of anarchy, moreover, the intentions of a realist state are always going to come at the cost of another state. Neo-realism also notices further problems posed to the state by the emergence of a transparent governmental and informative body, that which will be described as the “Problem of Community in International Relations”. Coined by Linklater, the term is used to illustrate the false depiction of state development10.

Where Linklater uses this term to discuss the false depiction of undeveloped countries by developed ones it is possible to look at how this falsification is also employed at the domestic level. The reasons for a realist nation state to have this tendency (towards a exclusive political process) include the manufacturing of nationalist fervor, which serves to unify (solidify) the people under a common cause, therefore consolidating a sense of national identity which is not easily reversed.

Moreover, national exclusiveness is in direct contrast to any manifestation of a global identity. However, it is important to note that as globalism continues to grow unfettered, and as transnational social groups gain a foothold, there has come to exist a tension in most, between the obligations to citizenship and those to humanity11. This is a good thing in that it demonstrates that there is something intrinsic to human nature which has been ignored by practical theory and is beyond the scope of realist explanation: a natural concern for things larger than the state.

Yet, there are equal attempts by the state, systematic attempts, to counteract the current trend towards international solidarity. A relevant example is available in the actions of the U. S. government in response to 9/11, and how they handled the situation which history offered them. Instead of tracing the effect down to its root causes, the current administration opted to, in true neo-realist form, increase its power, step up the war machine, and amplify its position as world aggressor, going from the object of international sympathy to the object of international scrutiny overnight.

By dismissing any critical inquiry into of the causes of 9/11 as unpatriotic, the land of the free, effectively became the land of the censored. This serves as a blatant example of how neo-realism rejects open dialogue and change. To make the intended point explicit, the US administration choose to trade international solidarity and embrace, for a rhetorical policy of “with us or against us”, stepping up propaganda in an attempt to give the American public the same above ultimatum. After all that has been said thus far, it is important to give practical theory and its corresponding ideology due process.

It has, on balance, contributed in the highest degree, to our understanding not only of international relations, but also politics in general: for all theories formulated in the recallable past are indebted to the existence of practical realist theory, not only as an alternative but also as a base from with which to learn and build upon. This is not only a point to be made clear to the alternate theories advanced which fail to explicitly acknowledge this fact; viewed differently it is also a defense of realism in light of my previous criticisms.

Realists and neo-realists alike are quick to point out the above, they are also quick to point out, in correlation with the above, that, regardless of all suggestions being advanced in favor of a different ideology, the reality of human nature, and thus international relations has always been and always will be a practical reality. This is to say that over the millennia, the history of political thought has always been characterized by a realist approach, this therefore suggests, and history suggests, that to approach relations differently is to invite failure and defeat.

Given what we have seen thus far, and what will be shown later, it is easy to formulate an explanation for this constant which proves that a different ideology could be embraced. A prominent figure in practical realist thought, Kenneth Waltz, does concede, through reference to Spinoza, that conditions do shape our behavior12. Though he does not state this explicitly, it is nevertheless conveyed in his work, the implications of the concession being the same no matter how it is worded.

If viewed aright, then what we have is a simple explanation of why we see the dominance of realist policy over the millennia: It is not human nature, but the conditions which have shaped it which explain the above affinity. Waltz is, however, quick to confuse the situation and avoids an attempt to make any substantial conclusions about the ability of condition to shape behavior. Nevertheless, this implication suggests that views of human nature, which have evolved since the classical age, have been molded from realist ideology, therefore cementing a realist conception of human nature into fact.

In closing, it is important to realize that the problems inherent in practical realist thought pose serious challenges to the realist claim that there is only one way to practice international politics. As we have seen, realisms tendency to dictate reality is not only problematic for its survival as an ideology, it also dangerously limits humankind’s ability to learn from its experiences, grow in light of them, and therefore make important changes in view of bettering human relations.

This is due impart to the self-fulfilling, emotivistic nature of the ideology, but it has also been shown that the tendencies of realism are not natural at all, therefore one must be suspect of the strategic trends we observe. There is no easy solution to our current situation. We cannot simply assume (as the pacifist might) that a change in education will provide a solution; change in the educational system is just one piece of the puzzle, a piece that, I think, would follow naturally–self-propelled–given larger changes at the level of institution.

It is not the changing of the human but the changes of humankind’s experiences, thus practices, and therefore his or her behavior. I do not propose an abandonment of the state system, to do so inevitably would lead to coercion and imperialism. I only propose an abandonment of the ideology behind the current system. Politicians must still be elected on their ability to be rational actors (no comment on whether this is the case today or not) but, a positivistic version of rationality must be abandoned and a new one embraced.

The compassion and critical inquiry of feminist theory must be combined with the social-constructivism of marxist thought and the transparency of classical liberal ideology to formulate a new rationale of government. By combining the particular aspects of these theories, it is my view that we will be as close to a natural and self-propelled society as is thinkable. That which we perceive as reality today is nothing more than a deeply rooted social construction.

Therefore, the reality of international relations has the capacity to be whatever it will be: it has the capacity to be whatever it will be, it is a blank slate, a receptacle responding to the environment around it. Realism perpetuates one view of reality, I purpose a different view.

Word count: 3836 1 Waltz, K. “The First Image”, Theory of International Politics, London, Addison-Wesley, 1979. pp13 2 Linklater, A. “The Transformation of Political Community”, Polity, 1998. pp21 3 as depicted by Kenneth Waltz in “Man, the State & War”, New York, 1959, pp201.

4 Rosenberg, J. “What’s the matter with realism? “, Review of International Studies. 1990. 16. 285-303. Great Britain. pp295 5 Waltz “Theory of Int’l Relations” pp 25. 6 “Trans. Of Political Comm. ” pp24. 7 Stumpf, S. E, “Socrates to Satre: A history of Philosophy”, 4th ed. McGraw-Hill, 1988. pp315 8 “Trans. Of Political Comm. ” pp22 9 “Trans. Of Political Comm. ” pp40. 10 “Trans. Of Political Comm. ” pp22. 11 “Trans. Of Political Comm. ” pp24. 12 “Theory of Int’l Relations”, pp32.

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