Some limits to realism.

Realism is a school of thought in the field of international relations (IR). It provides a theoretical framework for analysing the behaviour of States in the world political system. Like other theories (which in the IR literature include idealism, liberalism, constructivism and systems theory), it is supposed to be holistic, i.e., comprehensive yet parsimonious–it says everything that there is to say about the subject in the least possible amount of words. The utility of realism, as with all empirical theories, is that it serves as an organising device for understanding events and behaviours over time, in this case in the field of international relations. As such, it has descriptive and predictive aspects to it–it explains what was and is, and based on that understanding, explains what should come.

Taking from Thomas Hobbe’s writings in Leviathan, realists posit that because there is no superordinate Sovereign governing the international system, what exists is a state of nature, or as some refer to it international anarchy (non-IR theorists have taken exception to this use of the term “anarchy” because in classical theory anarchy is not equal to chaos and in fact leads to voluntary cooperation between self-interested as well as altruistic parties). Be that as it may, even though there exist international organisations (like the UN) as well as rules and norms (like the Convention against Genocide and Laws of the Sea), there is no superior enforcement power beyond what States can or choose to do for themselves (including cooperation if deemed preferable on self-interested terms). As a result, use of power is the ultimate arbiter of a State’s success in the international system and the quest and maintenance of relative power is therefore a State’s ultimate objective. Power is the product of a State’s human and natural resources and geopolitical position and it is relative to that of other States, but for realists it is the attribute sought after by all because it gives some (even if limited) autonomy and flexibility to their foreign relations.

Although there may be times of relative international stability when rules and norms are adhered to in most cases because States believe that it is in their self interest to do so, and where international institutions serve as arbiters and mediators of inter-state conflicts, they are not permanent in nature and therefore not universally binding over time. Remember that international treaties, institutions, partnerships, alliances and the like are not like contracts, which have defined time frames and are enforceable by neutral third parties (which again, would be the Leviathan is a perfect world). Instead, they are a type of flexible compact or agreement that, rather than be exogenously enforced by a third party, are endogenously enforced by the parties themselves. This is what makes international institutions and norms so fragile: they depend on self-adherence and self-enforcement by member or signatory States when it comes to upholding their guidelines, mandates and principles. Unfortunately, uniform and constant State adherence to institutions and norms is not guaranteed over the long term, especially when a State’s self-perceived interests clash with those of the international community and its agents and agencies.

International relations is a state of flux, marked by moments between periods of stasis when instability and conflict are the norm and rules are routinely ignored. As has been mentioned here before, these are transitional moments between global status quos–unipolar, bipolar, multipolar, or as has recently been mentioned as a future alternative, “non-polar” (where no country or set of countries serve as anchor points for the system as a whole). After a period in which the bipolar and unipolar-led “liberal internationalist” order served as the basic framework governing international affairs and realist prescriptions took a back seat to more multilateral oriented theories (say, circa 1980-2005), the current world time is one such transitional moment leading to systemic realignment.

As a result, realism has again become the theory d’jour amongst international relations theorists. I am happy to see that because I studied realism at Georgetown University (when Henry Kissinger was first there) and the University of Chicago, where I was in “father of US realism” Hans Monrgenthau’s last class and on the recruiting committee that brought John Mearsheimer (current leader of US realism) in as his replacement (Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations is still considered the seminal work in this field). Without getting into the nuances of what is a fairly sophisticated theory, the key points to consider in this revival is that relative power is still seen as the ultimate arbiter between states, that power should be used judiciously rather than expediently, that other measures of power should be exhausted before the ultimate measure, war-fighting, is engaged, and non-existential threats should be treated accordingly. If the threat is not immediate and aimed at the core interests of a State, then it should not be confronted with military force.

Note that for realists “values” are synonymous with “interests.” For realists values are not normative in nature, that is, moral or ethical. Realists are normatively agnostic. Instead, for them values are objective and measurable in that they relate to the value placed on core interests of the State: peace, stability, self-preservation, prosperity, and above all security. Value lies is in defending core interests, not in pursuing ideological preferences or universal ideals (in part because realists do not see normative values as universal. For example, in some societies gender equality and sexual freedom are valued. In others they are not). What some realists will indulge is a bit of prescription when it comes to foreign policy praxis: advising what States should do given context and circumstance.

This is a major part of the reason that realism is now back in vogue. Mearsheimer and others have argued against US support for Ukraine in its defensive war against the Russian invaders. They have argued against unconditional US military support for Israel in its increasingly genocidal war against Hamas and the Palestinian people. For these realists, neither conflict is an existential threat to the US and therefore is not essential to support. Both are considered to be regional affairs best resolved by regional balancing of power (via the use of force or otherwise). If NATO and the EU feel threatened by Russia’s aggression, then it is up to them to confront it because it is they who are immediately affected. If Israel truly believes that Hamas and Palestinians are existential threats, then it alone should confront the threat. US support is not required in either instance because neither involves core US interests and both risk dragging it into conflicts not of its making and not resolvable by force alone. Because of this and much like the case against US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq (which Mearsheimer also opposed on similar grounds), the current US approach to the two conflicts will leave it diminished and exposed, creating a power vacuum that adversaries will exploit to their advantage.

In this distilled interpretation, realists like Mearsheimer advise that the US give Israel and the Ukraine a hard pass when it comes to weapons supplies, economic support and diplomatic cover. It is for them to use their relative power to defend their core interests against those who wish to confront them, not the US, which has bigger fish to fry in the form of a rising PRC as the new “hegemonic” rival. In fact, Western realists see Russia as more of a diversionary threat than an existential one, focusing instead on an aggressive PRC making its move to superpower status at the US expense.

This is by no means a polished or deep analysis of realism in its current incarnation. But as I pondered the re-emergence of realism in US foreign policy debates (with thanks to Jon Stephenson for drawing my attention to some of them), I began to think of realism’s assumptions and limitations. I had not really given much thought to realism’s limited utility in the past because until I moved to NZ in 1997 I was raised, socialised, worked in and wrote about large States, including but not exclusively the US. Now, as I reflected upon the realist revival, I found myself focusing on two analytic aspects of International affairs that realism may not be able to address with any degree of accuracy, much less parsimony.

The first is the behaviour of small States. Small States have little power relative to medium and large States because of differentials in power variables–population, natural resources, education levels, economic advancement, socio-cultural uniformity, ideological unity, shared historical memories, etc. Because they have relatively little power to exercise vis a vis larger States, small States like NZ, Costa Rica, Fiji, Namibia or Uruguay usually adopt one of three foreign policy positions. One is isolationism, based on the belief that larger States will ignore them because there is nothing in the smaller State that larger States want, and little or nothing in the world of larger States that smaller States need to pursue. The second is non-alignment, where small States try to straddle the fence when it comes to navigating in international contexts defined by competition between larger States. Third is alignment, where smaller States seek an umbrella of protection provided by a larger State or States (protection involving economic as well as physical security). There are variations to these alternative approaches based on specific geopolitical position (let’s just say that Namibia and Uruguay are not like Fiji), but the core point is that power maximisation and use is not a major part of calculations in small States beyond recognition that they have little to no power to exercise relative to larger States even if they have relative power over micro-States that may be within their spheres of “influence” (such as the case with NZ, which has in fact historically used its relative power advantages in the South Pacific for and to mixed ends and results).

So it seems that realism is a theory for large and medium States, not for small States even if small States make pragmatic foreign policy decisions based on an understanding of their relative power disadvantages and consequent dependency on others. In turn, this puts paid to claims that small States can have “independent” foreign policies. Isolationism may grant them some independence but it is the freedom to be excluded from world affairs. Non-alignment may seem to be a way to be independent in foreign affairs, but the very act of balancing competition between larger State interests demonstrates that such an approach is not born of independence but of centrifugal dependency (which may be the current case with NZ’s foreign policy stance involving balancing between rival large State economic and security partners). As for alignment, it is just a way of recognising the obvious and maximising the benefits of junior partner status with a larger State or States without sacrificing too much sovereign autonomy or provoking punishing backlash from competing large States with which a small State may have significant ties (which NZ may be in the process of trying to do).

Interesting, recent discussion of NZ sharing democratic “values” and seeking to support a rules-based international order when it comes to its foreign policy disregards the basic realist premise of core interests determining value. In fact, beyond the rhetoric, the way in which NZ trades and pursues its physical security seems to be very much of a “material interests determine value” school of thought, but is contradictory in that it juxtaposes trade and security relations rather than reconcile them (which speaks to the difficulties MFAT has in aligning domestic interests with foreign policy coherence). No realist would suffer that contradiction, which is more reason why realism may be best left to the big kids on the block while NZ pursues hybrid foreign policy strategies in its regional sandbox and further abroad.

The second limitation of realism as it applies to current world conflicts is that it does not seem to understand the existential nature of systemic problems. If unilateral acts of aggression against smaller neighbouring States is not met with a robust and united response in kind, will that not encourage further aggression and erosion of international rules? If large States can take other State’s territory with impunity, can they then not use the conquered State’s resources to launch further acts of aggression on more States? (I shall leave aside the hypocritical irony of the US having to consider such a thing). If a medium sized State can commit ethnic cleansing at the least and genocide at the most in a diplomatically non-recognized but very real small State, does that not open the door for others to follow suit? Since Leviathan is not around to impose order, one would think that realists would understand that it is in all State’s interests for large States to step in to confront existential systemic threats as well as threats to their specific core interests. It is not just about a large State’s power versus that of other States. It is about exercising large State power in a system of States in which the system itself is under grave threat.

The point is that if we accept that international relations is by definition made up of interlocked engagements between multiple State and non-State actors, then threats to some part of that latticework has the potential to become an existential threat to the arrangement as a whole. For large States that lead the status quo sustained by the international system, systemic threats such as unpunished wars of aggression and ethnic cleansing/genocide are in fact existential threats because they undermine the system upon which the status quo is grounded.

I will not get into other areas where realism is deficient, such as the role and behaviour of non-State actors like technology firms and other private global actors, the amplifying and spill-over effects of primordial conflicts re-emerging in the post-modern world, etc. Much of this has been covered in the pertinent literature already. What I simply wanted to do here is to point our that realism is a less useful tool for small State analysis than it is for large State analysis because of its emphasis on State power capabilities and use, and that it does not adequately handle the issue of systemic threats because of its large State-centred focus.

I hope that this came through by the end.

2 thoughts on “Some limits to realism.

  1. “The point is that if we accept that international relations is by definition made up of interlocked engagements between multiple State and non-State actors, then threats to some part of that latticework has the potential to become an existential threat to the arrangement as a whole”
    Yes, but I think it’s very easy to fall into a slippery slope argument here. It was right when it described Hitler, but Hitler is an anomaly; most actors who “attack” (I use that term as a parsimonious way of combining a range of actions) are not maximalists. There are very few Alexanders, Genghises, Caesars, and Hitlers.

    The realist assessment of Putin is likely: there is only one domino; the Russian speaking parts of Ukraine. If Putin succeeds, there is no subsequent threat to Latvia, Lithuania etc. In fact, one extremist school of realist through might be that forcing Russia to fight a long war – and the subsequent revitalisation of industrial might in that country, the formation of a significant cadre of battle-hardened soldiery etc, the development and testing of new doctrines – is the equivalent of Nazi Germany’s Spanish moment i.e. it has actually strengthened the Russian axis more than simply abandoning Ukraine to its own devices.

    I do find one thing odd: why aren’t European countries engaged in significant rearmament? When fighter fleets are in the dozens and tank fleets in the low hundreds and the Russo-Ukraine war has reemphasied that quantity is a quality in its own, surely a realist approach would be to fire up the factories and forge some steel?

    PS well done for describing realism without mentioning the Melian dialogue!

  2. M9thCRK:

    Thanks for the interesting comment and a reminder that the combo of you moniker, email address and IP address is shunting your comments into the trash bin. I managed to retrieve this one but cannot guarantee that I will catch them all when I review the spam and trash filters.

    Your comment about Russia self-limiting its ambitions to Eastern Ukraine brought to mind conversations I had in the Pentagon when NATO expansion first began (for the US, as part of a strategic doctrine known as “cooperative (as opposed to collective) security” where former adversaries used confidence and security measures to integrate their forces. I was responsible for drawing up cooperative security schemes for the Western Hemisphere and shared information with European and other regional policy analysts). At some point a 3 star Marine General said to me that although the concept of NATO expansion under such terms looked good to our side, the Russians would never buy into it and would especially object to Ukraine joining NATO (this was in 1993). Nevertheless, former Warsaw Pact countries like Poland and Hungary, as well as the smaller Baltic states, all pushed for incorporation into NATO because, as a Polish diplomat once said, they know the Russians too well. As it is, Mearsheimer is on record as opposing NATO expansion on exactly the grounds the Marine General mentioned–the Russians would see it as a threat and a provocation and in his opinion was not needed in the post-Soviet era.

    The idea that Russia will stop at Russian-speaking Ukraine under the single domino thesis is plausible but undermined by Putin and other Russian nationalists’ rhetoric about a return to Empire and Russian cyber-attacks and sabre rattling at its smaller Western neighbours as well as its physical attacks on and annexation of territory in Georgia (and Crimea). Those have been described as designed to create a better buffer zone between Mother Russian borders and hostile states, which is very plausible as well even if Crimea is now contested by Ukraine. It is also true that any expansion of the war to other states would be very costly even if a long struggle benefits Russia’s overall military strengthening (so long as its keeps its ties to the PRC, DPRK, Iran and others as weapons suppliers and allies and can continue to use mercenaries as cannon fodder). But your point is taken.

    I think that European states have come to realise that they must bolster their armed forces and increase defense spending given what has happened to Ukraine. They appear to reject the single domino thesis and fear that there is more aggression to come, and that the US is no longer a reliable security partner given its unstable domestic politics. You will have seen that now 13 NATO states are spending at that 2%GDP level, with more pledged to do so within a couple of years. That 2%GDP figure is a bit of a crude measure of military preparedness and combat effectiveness, but it signals resolve to allies and adversaries alike.

    I have addressed what I called the “Melian Dilemma” in a 2010 academic article. It used the Melian Dialogue as a stepping stone with which to consider the position of small states like NZ in a world of competing Great Powers. I therefore had no need to revisit the theme in this synopsis/critique.

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