29 January, 2006

Theorising International Relations: the timeless wisdom of political realism

I love theory. Empirical research is difficult, but theory allows people to spend their time thinking in the abstract, without having to dirty themselves with analysis of the real world. Thus I have greatly enjoyed the course on international Relations theory I did last semester.

Partly because it might be interesting and partly just to fix the ideas in my head, I propose to run through some of the competing International Relations theories with you, in a series of mails. I’ll stop if anyone finds this boring, and I apologise to anyone else who has studied in the field, as I will be retreading very familiar ground.

So first up: Realism. This has dominated the discipline since the Second World War, but has fallen from favour a bit since the end of the Cold War. Realism has different strands, but they share certain things in common. States are the primary units of international relations. World politics is a game in which states compete against each other for power and security. Some states are strong, others are weak. Weak states either get flattened by strong states, or they form alliances with enough other weak states to block the ambitions of the strong.

Why all this conflict? Old-school realists like blame the fallen nature of humanity -- people will forever lust for power and dominion. Neo-Realists cite structural reasons; the international milieu is seen as being like a perfectly competitive market in which states must either compete or go under.

| always imagine Realists as being chubby middle-aged gentlemen in bow-ties with a fondness for port. This comes with their name - it suggests that they are merely stating the obvious facts about the world, saying things that everyone secretly knows to be true. They claim to be imparting timeless wisdom applicable in all international environments. Earlier writers like Thucydides and Machiavelli are drafted in as proto-Realists, to make their views seem less bound to particular contexts; some of these writers would be a bit bemused by this appropriation of their texts.

Realism lost its lustre to some extent when the Cold War ended not in a bang but by one side giving up the struggle. It remains nevertheless one of the two dominant theoretical perspectives in International Relations theory.

Realism comes across as being intrinsically rightwing, but a lot of leftist analyses of world events seems to be informed by its ideas. Only yesterday I read an interview with Chomsky, where he talks about how states always try to maximise their power, a classic realist position. Likewise, there is an element of crypto-Realism to anyone who reckons the USA went into Iraq for entirely selfish reasons, dismissing any talk of building a new liberal middle-east as hogwash.

What do I think: I think Realism is complete rubbish, and it amazes me that a theoretical idea so fatuous could reign over a discipline for so long. I suppose part of its appeal is that it is simplistic, and thus easy to understand.


hans morgencow said...

Political Realism is a very sensible way of looking at how Very Important people do Very Important things. I'm very good at political realism.

little rabbit said...

I thought I understood some of it, but then I got confused.

ian said...

There's no getting away from you guys.