International Relations is an
academic study field which explains and explores the relationship between
states. Scholars and theorists try to come up with a perfect theory to shape
international relations in a simpler and clearer image, which hope to provide
people an easy understanding on international affairs and do further in-depth
investigation on this field. However, there has no one single theory can
explain the whole complex international relations since International Relations
can include diverse areas such as diplomatic relations, international security
and terrorism. Political realism, one of the classic IR theories which has long
history, is not the exemption (Haynes et al., 2017). This essay will consider cases
form the modern era, to suggest that realism is not realistic. To do so, this
essay will be divided into two main parts. The basic explanation of realism and
the basic assumptions that realism has will first be demonstrated. Inter-state
wars and both domestic and diplomatic policies that nations have made will be
discussed to suggest realism can only reflect part of the reality, which means
realism is not really realistic.

The understanding of realism

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Variations of realisms

There is different taxonomy of
realisms, this essay will be using the model of Dunne and Schmid (2001). The
types of realisms classified by them are classical realism, structural realism,
neoclassical realism and rational choice realism. All realisms share similar
assumptions, they include human nature is selfish and aggressive, states
policies are determined by power and states are the key actors etc (Haynes et al., 2017). Classical realism and
structural realism will be examined below and how they are related to
International Relations.

Classical Realism

Classical realism attempted to use
human nature to explain world politics. As mentioned above, realism assumed
human nature is egoistic and motivated by self-interests. Classical realism emphasizes
world politics are base on human nature where states’ benefit is key (Korab-Karpowicz,
Julian, 2017). Morgenthau (1945), one of the key thinkers of classical realism,
pointed out ‘there is no evil of power, regardless of what the states has done
for their own security’. He persisted International Relations is defined by the
struggle of power and world politics will forever be tragedy (Cozette,
2008).  Classical realism can be understood
through the rise of China. According to World Bank (2017), China’s GDP growth
has almost 10% per year which is the fastest economy expansion in history. Even
China has such an impressive progress, the 13th five-year plan such
as highlighting the improvement of
services has shown China is still ambitious to grow stronger and trying to replace
current great power, US. Classical realism sees this act as driven by human
nature and this matches the idea of maximising power (Kirshner, 2010).

Structural Realism

Similar to classical realism,
structural realism agreed international affairs are determined by struggle of power,
but it is not the result of human nature (Dunne, Schmid, 2001). In the book
Theory of International Politics, Waltz (1979) illustrated the meaning of
structural is ordering and further defined ordering by two principles, anarchy
and hierarchy. Hierarchy is the system adopted by every state, where there is a
higher institution maintain the domestic order. Today international politics
use the anarchy system, every state is equal and there is no highest authority
can punish any state. Waltz (1979) bring out the question, how can
international system keep peace without an authority? While international
politics run similarly with sovereign states, a highest legitimate institution
is essential to maintain order. As supported by Hobbes (1909), state of nature
which means absence of central government will always be ‘solitary, poor,
nasty, brutish, and short’. The idea of structural realism can explain the
cause of wars, where they see states gaining power to maintain security as the
major reasons for war (Mearsheimer, 2006). Since there is no efficient
authority to keep peace between states, great war will never be avoidable (James,
1995). However, it is unrealistic to have an authority over sovereign states as
nowadays global politics is very complex. The system every state wishes the
authority to have will be very different as each state has different
governmental system (Mattern & Zarakol, 2016). North Korea, for example,
has exclude herself from International Relations, should the authority
administer her? The idea of using hierarchy in world system would be a mess.

Why is realism essential to
International Relations?

Being an antonym to idealist,
realist treat states as the main actors and accepting wars are normal and
unavoidable. Realism rose to judge the idealists’ principle, where they
believed the World War I could be the final war by using policies to control
aggressive nations. The outbreak of World War II proved idealists’ approach has
failed, and realists claimed destructive war can only be controlled by force
(Haynes et al., 2017). The fundamental difference between them is how they see
human beings. Idealism takes a positive aspect, which they have confidence in
men and can make the right choice by their rational volition (Roshwald, 1971). Hobbes’
Leviathan (1909) has described mankind in a realism way, they always seek power
for competitions, diffidence and glory. So as nations, power-seeking and
self-interests of states are the components to form world politics (Haynes et
al., 2017). Realism became important to International Relations as realists
believed states should always be prepared for the worst (Haynes et al., 2017).
Since the goal for states is secure and survive, traditional morality should be
left out when handling international affairs. An example can be the Iraq War.
US unilaterally believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which is a threat
to the world security and she invaded Iraq for 8 years, ignoring the objection
of the non-state actors, The United Nations. Idealists has been focusing too
much on shaping the world into a utopian by keeping a positive attitude in
their mind, where realist believed idealist did not see the world as it is
could be a dangerous and unrealistic act (Roshwald, 1971). It would be
incoherent to regard realism as a negative theory as they did not see
international affairs as chaos but only use conflicts to characterize International
Relations (Haynes et al., 2017). They criticise idealism for focusing too much
on how to make the world better instead of looking at the real world (Brincat,
2009). If realism has been focusing on how the real-world works, they should be
realistic enough for us to see international relations. However, some promising
policies such as The Paris Agreement did not fit in the realism’s idea. In the
following, three basic assumptions of realism will be mentioned and using real
life example to show realism is not totally realistic.

Unpacking the assumptions of realism
through the real world

1.     Human nature is self-interested

In the idea of classical realism,
human nature is the reasons why states are self-interested. Human selfishness
has guided how states should act in world politics. Colonialism is one of the
example, where a powerful nation dominance over a territory. As defined by Thornton
(1962), colonialism is a form of power-seeking through expanding the
imperialism. According to the YouGov poll in 2016, there were around 60% of the
British public is proud of the British Empire and even 49% of them think they
have made the colonies better off. Throwing back to the time of colonialism,
did people occupy other territories because of wanting to help them? The
history told us is a no. Colonialism is a selfish action which is caused by
human nature, which used to exploit other places’ resources and economy. Thornton
(1962) mentioned that colonialism is a system of a supreme nation maintain
foreign colony for their own good. In 1860, India was under the control of the
British Empire which turned India from a major exporter of finished goods to an
importer of British good (Telesur, 2017). India originally had an excellent
local retaining system, but the British Empire has destroyed it. The British
Empire was under promising development, they need large amount of raw
materials. Base on their needs, they largely exploited India for resources such
as coal and cotton, ignoring the chance of damaging the local market (Bayly,
1988). Although the history told us world politics are driven by human nature,
that is not always the case. The outbreak of 9/11 attack showed people nations
are not always induce by self-interest. Nations come together without
concerning if giving support and aid to US can benefit them or not. France even
made a clear statement on their newspaper, ‘We are all Americans’. Even people
in Kenya hopes to provide aids by donating 14 cows to US (Lacey, 2002). The
9/11 attack did not only prove world politics are only influenced by human’s
selfishness, nations can support each other by providing help. The attack also
challenged realism’s idea of states are the only key actors as the non-states
actors, Al-Qaeda showed they can also greatly affect the international affairs.

2.     States are the key actors

In the perspective of international
relations, realism centralize the importance of states. The whole world
politics is focusing on how selfish sovereign states compete for power. There have
been more and more international intergovernmental organizations popping u such
as the United Nations and the European Union. As Waltz (1979) mentioned,
realist see international affais have less consideration on non-states actors,
as world politics are dominated by powerful states. However, non-states actors
may not be as influential as states but their effect on states’ policies cannot
be neglect. The United Nations has providing suggestions for states actors for
international security. Security does not only mean enhancing military in 21st
century, the world is facing environmental threat, cyberwar and world health
etc. (Bashford, 2008). Using environmental threat as an example, the current
situation will keep worsening if there are no effective actions done by states.
Environmental problem such as food insecurity and natural disaster could lead
to scarcity of resources which could be a reason for violent conflicts (Dyer,
2001). Most of the time, these environmental issues are man-made and can be
prevent (Krader, 1970). Parker (2014) from the National Geographic has pointed
out Water Wars can be a new threat to the earth. When the water level decline
below to 50 feet, it will be nearly impossible to pump water to the surface. It
is a global water scarcity and no states ca escape from this threat (Falkenmark,
2013). Ban Ki-moon as a Secretary-General of The United Nations in 2011, has been
aware of this new threat and regarded climate change as a threat to
international peace and security in long term. These has raised states’
awareness towards environmental issues. For example, the Paris Agreement is the
first program trying to bring all states together to tackle with global climate
change where it sets a limitation for states’ carbon dioxide emission. The
effort made by the United Nations towards environmental protection cannot be
neglected, where realism has overlooked the importance of non-state actors. Individual
state started to take environmental threat as a serious issue and put it into
consideration for their development plan. China’s 13th Five-Year
plan has been targeting on energy and climate change such as reducing energy
use by 15 % by 2020 (King & Wood Mallesons, 2016). This not only prove
non-states actor has certain effect on world politics but also lead to the next
assumption, are states policies only focusing on maximizing power?

3.     States policies are determined by power

Power is the ultimate concern for
sovereign states in realism idea. Through out history, we can see how
aggressive states are when competing for power, such as the WWI, where Japan
saw it as a good chance to improve her world position by joining the allies
(Farley, 2014). Nowadays, technology is so advanced that states can see how
destructive it could be if there is another great war. It cannot be doubted
that states are still developing more superior military such as using nuclear
and drones, sovereign states implement policies no longer take power as the
biggest concern. Forgetting how useful foreign aid is, nations has been putting
lots of efforts on aids trying to help the week one. Britain spent 0.7% of GNI
on foreign aid, that’s equals to £12bn (BBC,2017). Taiwan targeted giving $10
million aid to Grenada in 1989 (Lee, 1993). The list goes on, The World Bank
has recorded receiving 20.7 OAD per capital and that gives credit to every
nation providing aids while these capitals can go to their own development
plan. Nations do not only focus on maximising their power, no matter it is soft
power of hard power. In international relations, states have a clear image on
helping each other and aiding other weaker nations. As mentioned above, the
help provided by countries to US for the 9/11 aftermath also proved realism
that nations in world politics are not always selfish and only focusing on
equipping themselves.

The above three assumptions made by
realism are not always correct when applying to the real world. Indeed, nations
are always fighting for being superpower, the cases showed us states are not
nonstop in competition.

To conclude, realism does not always
reflect the reality. As mentioned in the introduction, no IR theory is perfect
so as realism. It is normal that realism is not actually realistic. In fact,
these theories only act as a tourism leaflets for you to explore a new place.
In here, new place is regarded as the International Relations. Since the place
is enormous, it is impossible to fit in all the information into one single
leaflet. Things happen every moment, this leaflet cannot catch up the fast
change, but it does not mean it is useless. It provides a fundamental
explanation for people to discover and understand how the world politics work.
Even though realism is not totally realistic, it is one of the essential theory
for people to comprehend IR.

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