111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

Realism is not obsolete

Since the end of World War I, realism has broadly been viewed as an over-arching paradigm in the discipline of international relations. Many other theories like liberalism and constructivism have evolved as a challenge to the realist worldview.

Realism has been able to stay relevant for so long because of its ability to provide theoretically strong explanations for wars, alliances, and other international phenomena. Another reason why realism was the dominant intellectual tradition throughout the cold war is because the emphasis placed by realist scholars on ‘competition’ in international politics was consistent with the nature of bipolar rivalry.

Realism is a power-based paradigm that purports to explain much of international relations. Critics argue that a theory that explains everything explains nothing, pointing to concepts such as ‘falsifiability’. However, it is unfair to make the charge of non-falsifiability on a paradigm (being broader than a theory), but it is reasonable to evaluate particular theories. Classical realists like Morgenthau and Niebuhr used ‘human nature’ as the main variable to explain the phenomenon of war. On the other hand, the neorealist approach, as explained by Kenneth Waltz, ignored the role of human nature and instead focused on the effects of the international system.

However, all realist scholars agree on a number of core theoretical assumptions. States are principal actors in international politics. Realist scholars view them as rational, unitary political units operating in an ‘anarchic’ structure of the international system. Another commonly agreed realist assumption is that states’ preferences are fixed and uniformly conflictual – that is, they remain uninfluenced by shifts in the strategic environment. Realist scholars refer to the primacy of material capabilities in the international system and believe the build-up of military capabilities to be fundamentally important to survive in a state of anarchy. Yet, realist perspective on global politics has drawn a lot of criticism since the end of the cold war. This criticism is unjustified since the peaceful end of the cold-war period reflected the core realist view of accommodating changing power relations.

A major challenge to the dominance of the realist paradigm has come from scholars who support the scientific study of world politics and believe that realist notions are not falsifiable. These scholars argue that the realist approach to international politics does not stand up to scientific (empirical) scrutiny. This argument is partially correct since human nature is unobservable and cannot be studied empirically. It is true that economically interdependent states are less likely to step up their military capabilities in low-conflict regions. But the realist paradigm is still very relevant when it comes to explaining state behaviour in high-conflict regions.

While international institutions have the potential to promote peace and cooperation among states, they have a very limited impact when it comes to altering state behaviour on matters of national security. The neorealist approach is still a predominant paradigm in the academic and policymaking circles in many developing countries. In addition, economic interdependence among states may promote peace and contribute to mutual understanding in some ways but it has limited effects. Historical evidence supports the hypothesis that economic interdependence among European states failed to prevent them from going to war in 1914.

Realist theories generally hold that balance-of-power considerations can account for the outbreak of great-power wars and that domestic politics has less explanatory power. From the perspective of the balance of power theorists, the hegemonic status of a single power in the international system is always undesirable for other actors. Thus, states make different alliances to counter the influence of hegemonic powers. Power parity among state actors minimises the possibility of war because no one expects a high likelihood of victory in the event of a war.

We see many different forms of balancing in the 21st century. The most prominent example is the US’s ongoing efforts to balance China with the help of India. We also see a lot of balancing behaviour in high-conflict areas like South Asia and the Middle East. In order to create balance against the hegemonic status of India in the South Asian region, Pakistan has become involved in hard balancing, resorting to a massive nuclear arms build-up. As has been said before, critics of the balance-of-power theory look at only low-conflict regions where balancing has been replaced by cooperation; however, the realist perspective is still relevant when it comes to explaining state behaviour in high-conflict regions.

Stephen Walt, a leading realist scholar, argues that states get involved in balancing behaviour against emerging threats. He tested his theory by looking at the patterns of alliance formation in the Middle East and discovered that balancing against a threat is very common in the regional subsystems. The increasing role of international institutions certainly holds the promise of peace and stability but realists have a point. International institutions, such as the UN Security Council, are largely a reflection of state power in the post-World War II world. The UNSC seemed powerless when the US attacked Iraq in 2003.

Realist scholars argue that economic interdependence among states has not only limited ability to promote peace or stability, but it also increases the chances of conflict in some cases. The vulnerability resulting from mutual interdependence provides states with more incentives to attack other countries in order to ensure that they have continued access to necessary goods. In an anarchical world, states are paranoid about their security and will always remain vulnerable to the fact that other states can cut the supply of vital imported goods during times of crises.

Before World War I, liberal scholars argued that war would not be fought because of growing economic interdependence among states. But this view turned out to be wrong. Germany and Britain were each other’s second-best customers, and they still decided to go to war. Liberal scholars argue that power has shifted away from states to markets but the authority of governments still tends to overrule the caution of markets.

Scholars who argue that the realist paradigm is obsolete are acting like ‘impatient historians’, who try to draw inferences about the social phenomena before they are settled. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, unipolarity has not proved durable, and the world is in a transition period to another era of multipolar balancing. Scholars of international politics cannot totally write off the realist paradigm since security, rather than economic development, remains the most important concern for many states in the developing world.

Relations between states in many volatile regions are still characterised by a continued state of competition. Neorealist thinking and a strong obsession with military strength is the defining feature of politics in many regions. We need to understand that we can only ignore it at our own peril.

Email: rizwanasghar5@unm.edu

Rizwan Asghar, "Realism is not obsolete," The News. 2017-03-07.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , International politics , International relations , Nuclear arms , Economy , Diplomacy , Security , Kenneth Waltz , India , Iraq