Illustrate your essay with specific examples.
Following the First World War, a wave of liberal thought swept over the Western world. Led by the crusading US president Woodrow Wilson, the political will existed and was harnessed to attempt to produce a world where the carnage of the Great War would never be repeated. They would stop the secret diplomacy between elites of government; they would stop the balance of power politics that had sucked every nation of Europe into the conflict; they would promote a free world order where states could always trade freely and without tariff barriers used to ‘beggar thy neighbour’, and they would allow national ethnic groups to live under their own governments (Wilson, 1918).
Yet it was left to the realists like E.H. Carr to point out the realities. Instead of focusing in an idealist and naïve way on what should be done, he instead insisted that we actually reflect on what men actually do (Carr, 1939). This emphasis on real actions, instead of ideals, is at the heart of Realism, and has helped mould it into the powerful theoretical narrative that has survived for so long. For realists, practice creates theory.
It became clear that instead of creating a system of harmony and peace, what had actually occurred was ‘victors’ justice’; which left Germany humiliated. And the League of Nations, the hope for a better world of multi-national governance, was actually treated as irrelevant by the true powers of the day. The US never joined it, despite advocating its creation. The UK continued to govern the world, despite its growing economic exhaustion from the First World War, and so the state system continued to function much as it had done, with rivalry and mistrust at the centre of global politics. In other words, realism was the de facto reality of the world, despite the idealist rhetoric.
Realist thinking emerged far back in history. Its theoretical paradigm can be found in the writings of Thucydides, author of the History of the Peloponnesian Wars, and was later articulated more extensively in the writings of Machiavelli’s The Prince and Thomas Hobbes Leviathan. These works contributed greatly to realism’s growth as the way world politics should be conducted, adding academic strength to the theory (Evans, 1998; Steins et al, 2004).
The work of Machiavelli was controversial from the start, arguing that instead of trusting and acting in idealist and moral ways, one should instead seek in every way to gain power. By acting in a moral and trusting way, one simply left oneself exposed to those who do not act in moral ways. Only by assuming the worst, and therefore being more cunning than everyone else, could security and power be found (Raeper et al, 147:1997; Hobson, 2000). When this comes to state interactions in global politics, it allows, conversely, for predictive ability of a states actions: the UK knows that an increase in its armed forces will be met with an attempt to increase armed forces elsewhere, and so diplomats can predict more accurately consequences of policies; and also, following realism can actually benefit the world: Churchill’s policies against Nazi Germany were motivated by realist thought; yet they were “…certainly superior in moral and political quality…” to Chamberlain’s naïve peace-making attempts (Morgenthau, 1978).
Realism’s development from Machiavelli’s foundation is clear. Human nature is assumed to be bad, and out of this comes conflict: the world is seen as a war of all against all; indeed, states are viewed as rational people, all fighting for their own survival in a hostile world of global existence. A state has to arm itself and be ready for a fight if it is going to survive. It can join other states in military alliances, but only so far as that alliance serves to make itself stronger and other rivals weaker, while at the same time being flexible enough for the state to leave as soon as the alliance no longer serves its purpose. If a rival state indeed benefits more than your own state, this might make your state far less likely to cooperate in the first place (Kegley and Wittkopf, 1999; Hasenclover et al, 26:1997). O’Brien and Williams (2003) have highlighted that for realists, the world is a limited space of limited resources. The ‘game’ of international relations is a zero-sum game: one’s gain is another’s loss.
For realists, economics must be subjected to the power goals of the state. If a state can increase its power through trade barriers, then trade barriers must remain; likewise, if it gains through free trade, then that will be the policy it promotes. Trade is viewed very much as subject to the state, and its role should be to increase the states power (Dunne et al, 2005).
The equation of the state to a cohesive unit, like that of a person, ignores internal pressures and conflicts, and instead focuses on the international arena. And while it may be possible to offer evidence from the study of psychology to argue that humans tend towards aggression, violence and distrust (Curtis, 2002; see Freud, 1939, cited in Wight, 25:1996), whether this can be directly transposed onto the international scene is another question. Yet Realist behaviour is very evident in the world today.
The oil giant Shell recently found itself having to accept a new partner in its project on the Sakhalin Islands off Russia’s east coast. The state-owned Gazprom energy company joined Shell’s project after massive political pressure and threats of licenses being totally revoked. Few of those involved saw anything other than Russia making sure it got far more of the profits than was previously arranged (Macalister and Mainville, 22:2006; Economist A, 86:2006). This on top of numerous other attempts to force the Russian will on others through the medium of energy-ransoms and cuts (Economist B, 13:2006).
Despite the presence of international law today, states still violate it and act in their own interests. However, more and more, sovereign states are in fact obeying international law. World Trade Organisation (WTO) Dispute Settlement has been used numerous times to act against states which are blocking free trade (WTO, 2007), and the states, even the most powerful ones (such as the USA) are accepting this supranational authority and obeying.
In response to this, Keohane and Nye proposed complex interdependence and neoliberalism. Their argument was that the international dimension was far more complex than realism allowed, and that the quest for power was not the only explanation of global politics. They pointed out that pure military force did not work in Vietnam; and that decolonisation of Africa largely happened peacefully (Williams et al, 1993). These events could not be described by realism.
They argued that the fear and mistrust that was present in Machiavelli no longer pervades the modern world: Canada has multiple levels of social and economic linkage with the US, and no Canadian citizen feels the US poses a military threat to them.
A fundamental position of neoliberals is that states with no military power can still win their way in the world through other methods. They can link issues together, or club together and collectively get what individually they could not (and this collaboration is far cheaper than taking military action). This collaboration can form international institutions, like the European Union for example, which are unprecedented in the encroachment on the sovereign powers of their member states (Lamy, 2005; Williams et al, 1993).
And rather than global politics being an eternal quest for survival, and foreign policy being the prime policy, neoliberalism refers to a changing agenda. An OPEC price rise will sharpen attention onto north-south relations; and the rise of Trans-National Corporations and their power vis-à-vis states can alternatively become the new agenda (Williams et al, 1993).
Within this new analysis is a change of focus from the state as the only actor of importance, to the state as an actor amongst many. International companies, international institutions, non-governmental organisations and individuals (particularly in the economic variant of neoliberalism) are all important actors on the international scene. Politics is equally no longer viewed as primary over economics. Indeed, the economic focus of neoliberalism is what it is most famous for.
Building on the free trade ideas of Adam Smith, neoliberalism was developed by Freidrich Von Hayek and Milton Friedman. Instead of, as mercantilism does, viewing trade as something to be entered into only if your gain is someone else’s loss, neoliberalism argues that everyone benefits through trade relationships; absolute gains for everyone outweigh the relative gains (Hasenclover et al, 26:1997). Trade is a positive sum gain: all benefit, because no one is coerced into trade. Producers and consumers are free to enter into transactions. Hayek argued that neoliberalism promoted an individualism that was not isolationist and selfish as critics proclaimed, but instead an individualism that promotes tolerance and respect for all and that individuals should develop their own unique gifts in society (Hayek, 17, 44:1944). This belief goes hand in hand with an emphasis on freedom.
However, the economic strand of neoliberalism can be criticised. The idea that people enter the market place freely ignores the fact that without money, you are unable to do anything, or to even feed yourself. Thus there is a necessity to enter into market relations and to earn money (Sloman, 18:1999). Many also see the neoliberal aim not as one of building interdependence and trade relations, but as serving the greed of multi-national companies.
Keohane and Nye’s insistence that other agenda’s matter helps explain the actions of states in ventures such as intervention in Yugoslavia and Kosovo. There was little reason for British troops to become involved in such a far off land; yet the sight of suffering people, like British people, on Television every night; the international ties and connections between the UK, NATO and the UN; and the revulsion felt at the stories of genocide, all led to British involvement (Silber et al, 1996).
The OPEC oil price rise in 1973 is another example cited of how an international organisation caused global problems through economic means. The significant rises in the price of fuel slowed the entire global capitalist machine and forced Western powers to listen to the Arab complaint and take action, without the use of military force. Another particularly pertinent ‘agenda’ is the environmental one today. The potential consequences of global warming cannot be solved by military force.
The rise of complex interdependence and neoliberalism has seen the traditional realist theory pushed to one side. Today, neoliberal assertions have gained a wide foothold in international relations, particularly in relation to trade issues.
Yet there are signs that realism is certainly not dead, at least in the thought processes of the masses. In France, opposition to the market, the neoliberals most precious social organisation, is extensive, with only 36% of people in a recent poll thinking the market a solution (Economist C, 9:2006), and The Economist also argues that the European Union, rather than being a new state for the French identity to disappear into, was envisioned within France as a mechanism for French power to be enhanced on the world stage (although enlargement has now rather ruined most of these ambitions) (Economist C, 14:2006). And Hayek noted how liberalism became associated with British foreign policy; rather than perceiving that everyone could benefit from liberalism, people saw it as instead purely beneficial to the UK, and socialism as beneficial to the world (17:1944).
Grieco summarises the debate between neoliberalism and realism as being one about the probability for cooperation and the emphasis placed on conflict. He argues “…that even if the realists are correct in believing that anarchy constrains the willingness of states to cooperate, states nevertheless can work together and can do so especially with the assistance of international institutions (152:1995)”. However, Jervis (1999) has suggested that this is in fact the wrong view of the debate; it is not about the amount of conflict or cooperation that happens, but about how unnecessary conflict is given the goals of states.
In popular thinking, realism still holds sway as the de facto thought process for quickly analysing global politics. But Keohane and Nye have shown the importance of alternative methods of exerting power, and how valid these are. In a globalised world where mutually assured destruction is also possible, the neoliberal paradigm has far more to offer the modern policy maker. Yet the neoliberal model is not perfect, with particular reference to the economic variant, which has overseen massive increases in global wealth inequality (Economist D, 11-12:2007).