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The Wisdom of Classical Realism In International Relations

The epistemological practicality of theory is to draw a unifying essence, a sensibility of coherence, to latent functions alleged to govern manifested social phenomena, so as to strive to apperceive a richer, fuller, more comprehensive view of our social world. In this sense, theory establishes the appropriate consciousness needed to untie the Gordian knot of social complexity, in order to surpass rudimentary assumptions concerning the nature of human social interaction. Accordingly, this invokes perspicacity, which is concerned with elucidating the intrinsic underlying causal relationships that ultimately rest on tendentious conceptions of what is to be determined as socially significant—the Hegelian ‘notion’ of truth submerged and contained within the confines of appeared ‘being’— that furnishes meaning and understandability. As Steve Smith (1996) argues, ‘theories do not simply explain or predict, they tell us what possibilities exist for human action and intervention; they define not merely our explanatory possibilities, but also our ethical and practical horizons’. 
The reason we must be concerned with theory [is because] all discussions of international politics […] proceed upon theoretical assumptions which we should acknowledge and investigate rather than ignore or leave unchallenged. The enterprise of theoretical investigation is […] towards identifying, formulating, refining, and questioning the general assumptions on which the everyday discussion of international politics proceeds. At its maximum, the enterprise is concerned with theoretical construction: with establishing that certain assumptions are true while others are false, certain arguments valid while others are invalid, and so proceeding to erect a firm structure of knowledge (Bull, 1972).
Social scientists develop, consider, and use, various theoretical orientations as ideational frameworks to provide explanatory accounts of social phenomena. Assumptions concerning the nature of social reality are thus fundamental; theory the perceivance of social reality via the process of social inquiry is not antonymous. Hence, theoretical lenses are structured by deeper philosophical commitments, and, as a result, will produce different types of stories, narratives, and debates that reflect those commitments (Sterling-Folker, 2009).  Theory is intrinsically normative for it incorporates a set of ‘prescriptions as to how men should conduct themselves’ (Bull, 1976). What Joseph Schumpeter labeled as ‘pre-analytical visions’ dictate modes of examination and inquisition. Second-order questions of ontology concerning the nature human agency, and its relationship to social structures, lies at the beginning of any theoretically induced social-scientific enquiry. The implication is that it is merely impossible to define a social problem without considering what is to be determined as problematic (Cox, 1992: 132). ‘Pre-analytical visions’ will lead to entirely different attitudes towards social settings, and, as such, will have pertinent implications for normative assessments of social phenomena. 

This then begs the question of whether or not one can accurately actually make reference to a single systematic body of knowledge when approaching the nature of social reality, given the likelihood of problems arising from explanatory specificity, scope, and intellectual nuance. Despite this caveat, however, it is possible to be pragmatic and place theories into Procrustean beds, especially when the context is the peculiar social apparatus of world politics.  With this mind, the rest of this essay examines the sociology of knowledge that underpins Realist theorizing in order to asses to what degree the tradition has rendered the field of international relations intelligible. 

The Wisdom of Classical Realism

Realism attempts to explicate perceived structures and tendencies of relations among nation-states in an objective state of anarchy.   An international authority, or world government, a superstructure of ‘political society’, in the Neo-Gramscian sense, which acts as universally socially legitimate magistracy, does not exist. That is, an institution uniquely concerned with the consideration, generation, and transformation of global common interests and understandings, so as to provide a broadly shared forum of appropriate rules and procedures, such that a democratic sociological imagination is universally manifested, is absent. 
The international community is without government, without a central authority to preserve law and order, and it does not guarantee the member states either their territorial integrity, their political independence, or their rights under international law. States exist, therefore, primarily in terms of their own strength or that of their protector states and, if they wish to maintain their independence, they must make the preservation or improvement of their power position the principal objective of foreign policy (Spykman, 1942: 446; cited in Parent & Baron, 2011).
It is presumed world politics is a dangerous jungle of insecurity. Given this precariousness, issues of survival are of import as they relate to rational behavior under less than ideal conditions—a predicament of coercion-by-force-of-circumstance that begets fear of besiegement at the behest of power-hungry competing nations. Chaos is the ‘form of control’ (Gilpin, 1981: 27), so to speak, that institutionalizes a mode of inter-state interaction which is, ipso facto, fundamentally aggressive. As a result, supreme political authority lies only at the level of the nation-state, as it is deemed the most functional institution of civil society for providing the public good of collective security; it is the secure monopolization over the means of violence at the micro-level which allows the ‘rule of law’ to seemingly reconcile palpable collective costs owing to potential clashes of interests among social classes (Carr, 1939: 296-297; Morgenthau, 1978:10-11). This betokens the incapacitation to envisage international relations as embodying a common stock of shared conventions, values, and cultural practices that can be readily drawn upon for purposes of solving global coordination problems, which if not solved, eventually lead to war between states. Hence, to ideate an undisputed social capacity of enlightened self-interest, which can be utilized for establishing an empyrean Lockean rational contractual world social order to eclipse the imperiousness of state solipsism, is a clear testament of naiveté. 

States do not perceive themselves as essential parts of a larger interconnected and interdependent social whole—Durkheimian ‘organic solidarity’by which the essence of philosophical idealism can, over time and space, eschew the disharmony of world politics. States are Robinson Crusoe’s up against incontrovertible forces of insecurity as they interact with each other ; the “highest wisdom lies in accepting, and adapting to these forces” (Carr, 1939: 14). 
[...] the essence of all social reality [with respect to world politics] is the [state]. The building blocks and ultimate units of [international] political life are not the individuals of liberal through nor the classes of Marxism […] Realism […] holds that the foundation of [international] political life [is] [uncongenial relationships between states] (Gilpin, 1986: 304-205). 
International relations is thus what social theorist Karl Polanyi described as a disembedded market, that is, a one-shot prisoner’s dilemma game of how to achieve Machiavellian prudence, such that that the adverse effects of predation, due to the lack of escrow mechanisms to ensure collective confidence, are deterred. Hence, an acute sensitivity to a ‘security dilemma’—the collective action problem of ‘balance of power’ amidst a Clausewitzian ‘fog of war’—is presupposed. If any form of righteousness is espoused, it ultimately rests on the degree to a state harbors “the quality of power to compel, and that in fact the strong do what they have to power to do and the weak what they have to accept” (Thucydides, 1854: 360-365).

A classic text of the Realist paradigm is Hans Morgenthau's Politics Among Nations. The author attests that in a social world where conflicts of interests are endemic, moral principles of ethical justice, particularly with respect to modern social norms of convivial peace and cooperation, can never be fully concretized. Preponderating forces to govern interstate relations in order to tame the biopower of ‘human nature’, which asseverates that man is essentially ‘evil’ and ‘barbaric’—a ‘savage’—, are nil. In this sense, the ‘first image’ of world politics consists of a pandemonium of Hobbesian brutes galvanized by lust, diffidence, and pride, in which the quest for paramountcy fosters a war of all against all to continue indefinitely (Waltz 1991: 35). The bedlam conditions states to be indubitably hostile. The implication is that states are obsequious to a competitive strife of maximizing their sway. Esprit de corps is inconceivable; a dynamic is set in motion permitting states to pursue callous foreign policy objectives of Messianic fervor (Morgenthau, 1978: 338). 

For one to posit ecumenical jus naturae et gentium of a ‘Grotian conception of international society’, a Vatellian ‘law of nations’ , if you will, so as to inexorably extricate the means by which to achieve, teleologically, Kantian ‘perpetual peace’ premised on the elements of pacta sunt servanda is to not only engage in contrivance, but heedlessly lose oneself in pure fantasy. That is, such phenomenological aloofness ultimately amounts to a red herring of ‘hypothetical imperative’, in order to bolster a Platonic archetype that “presupposes [an] existence […] which actually does not exist” (Morgenthau, 1978: 559).  “There is something spectacular in the radical simplicity of a formula that with one sweep seems to dispose the problem of war once and for all” (Morgenthau, 1978: 558). “It is […] important not to make greater demands on human nature than its frailty can satisfy” (Treitschke, 1916: 590). The basis upon which one can view international relations as something less than bellum omnium contra omnes is chimerical; the essence of animus dominandi nullifies the ‘possible world’ of appetitus societatis. The supposition that a relatively pacifistic global commonwealth can be institutionalized is absurd. Ergo, despite illusory aspirations of catholic righteous indignation, “the ethics of international politics reverts to the politics and morality of tribalism [...]” (Morgenthau, 1978: 262). More the point, “when a nation invokes […] ‘the conscience of mankind’ […] it appeals to nothing real. It only […] only serves to underline the [unprincipledness] of the appeal” (Morgenthau, 1978: 279). Hence, “it is profitless to imagine a hypothetical world in which [states] no longer organize themselves […] for purposes of conflict (Carr, 1946: 231).
[…] realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with […] moral laws that govern the universe […] The lighthearted equation between a particular nationalism and the counsels of Providence is morally indefensible, for it is that very sin of pride against which the Greek tragedians and the Biblical prophets have warned rulers and ruled. The equation is also politically pernicious, for it is liable to engender the distortion in judgment which, in the blindness of crusading frenzy, destroys nations and civilizations (Morgenthau, 1978:11).
The presumption of a fecundity to mechanically yield harmonious Elysian ‘right reason’ cannot apply “to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation […]” (Morgenthau, 1978: 10). As duly noted above, the natural condition of international relations is inherently antagonistic, that is, it is perpetually riotous and tumultuous—a fracas of animosity of national vengeance. Accordingly, it is foolish to assume that reason privileges humankind the competency to construct a cosmopolitan Roussseauan ‘general will’. Hence, to ideationally concede some amicable intercontinental ‘imagined community’ is to regrettably fall prey to blinded optimism.

The immediate perceptible indication is that the substance of international relations is driven by a “desire for power-oriented prestige”, which “means [that] in [the] general practice [of world affairs] the glory of power over other [states]” reigns supreme. ‘Nationalistic universalism’ is a constant social force that “drives [states] to pose its own valuations and standards of action upon all other nations” (Morgenthau, 1978: 337). 

In a surrounding circumscribed by “opposing interests and of conflict among them” (Morgenthau, 1978:3), voraciousness undoubtedly structures the role expectations of states. Thusly, states are prompted to attach a certain subjective meaning to their world political acts, which is sociologically educed by reckoning that states are bounded by the stigma of of what Max Weber framed as instrumental rationality (zwekrational). That is, they interact with each other insofar as it is purposeful, in the sense described above, and, as such, is impelled by positional means-ends goal oriented behavior. World politics is Daniel Kahneman's laboratory of constrained optimization, whereby the motivations of states, with respect to how they approach matters of foreign policy, stem from innate desires to avoid subjection. As an Aristotelian fait social total, the aura of world politics is plagued by the Nietzschean metaphysics of an unrestrained ‘will to power’.  As such, the state must have, at all times, the means by which it can repel ‘external forces of wrongdoing, which can systematically undermine its ability to persevere in a nihilist world where ‘gladiators are fixed on one another’ in an invariable ‘posture of war’. The primary of the aim of states is to do the utmost in order to escape the possibility of being at the mercy of rivals. 
And since no nation can foresee […] miscalculations [of power dynamics], all nations must ultimately seek the maximum of power obtainable under the circumstances. Only thus can they hope to attain the maximum margin of safety commensurate with the maximum of errors they might commit. The limitless aspiration for power, potentially always present … in the power drives of nations, finds in the balance of power a mighty incentive to transform itself into an actuality (Morgenthau, 1978: 215).
Balance of power’ is the Mandevillian (or Poreto optimal, if you will) solution. That is, it is essential that states not put themselves in a position from which it cannot retreat without losing face, from which it cannot maneuver, without grave risks (Morgenthau, 1978: 550-558)—si vis pacem, para bellum. Beset by the constraining conditions, states are obliged arrange feasible plans to ensure preservation, namely, it is of due diligence that statesmen be blessed with virtù of raison d'État -- the Machiavellian notion of strategic prowess -- such that, ceteris paribus, the health and strength of the state is preserved.  It is primary that statesmen have the autonomy, as well as the flexibility to discern suitable foreign policy objectives germane to the national interest, which is upholding the independence and territorial integrity of the state to the fullest extent.  
The practical function of a theory of international relations has this in common with all political theory that it depends very much on the political environment in which it operates. In other words, political thinking is, as German sociology puts it, ‘standortgebunden’, that is to say, it is tied to a particular social situation (Morgenthau, [1961]1962: 72–3)
According to Morgenthau (1978: 5), “we must put ourselves in the position of statesman who [are forced to choose a given path of ] foreign policy under [anarchic] circumstances, and [as such] we [must] ask ourselves what we pursue if we were placed under the circumstances and had to choose from alternatives from which to successfully ensure the protection of the state in feral terrain".  Hence, what is primary is to interpret inter-state actions in world politics as not necessarily being derived by strict forces of social determinism, like the Neorealism of Kenneth Waltz, for instance, but from the angle of situational human agency. Morgenthau’s standortgebunden, as such, is intended, despite that that it can be interpreted as being psychologically-reductionist, to envisage the quagmires of international relations on the terms of those who are directly involved in shaping its dynamics - those statesmen embodied with the wherewithal to formulate geopolitical circumstantial determinations. In hindsight, it is not erroneous to cogitate that the essence of Realism is strikingly similar to the sociology of knowledge that mainstream neoclassical economics is predicated on. 

Reference list will be added


  1. Nice post. I especially liked the Steve Smith quote -- ‘theories do not simply explain or predict, they tell us what possibilities exist for human action and intervention; they define not merely our explanatory possibilities, but also our ethical and practical horizons’. I have myself argued in the same vein for years, much influenced by Bhaskar's "The Possibility of naturalism."

  2. Thanks!. I am an adherent to Bhaskar's critical realism, myself. One of my favorite books are "Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation"


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