IR Theory- Part I(a): Being ‘Realistic’

International Relations (IR) theory is not something you come by every day. In most countries, IR is not offered as a secondary school subject and so often are considered a somewhat less approachable; after all, those who use this area of study in real life are not easy to come by, other than perhaps in the news. However, in an increasingly globalizing society where interactions between states are almost perpetual, it would be absurd to know what kind of international ‘system’ we live by.

Theory of IR often “seeks both to explain past state behavior and to predict future state behavior.”[1] Of course, you must understand that IR is comparatively a new branch of academic research and therefore is a highly controversial subject; even the definition above is likely to be contested by many scholars. Nonetheless, to put simply, Theory of IR strives to provide the basic framework that the states operate in. It can be understood as the ‘rule of the game,’ by which all countries would abide by. This is why Theory of IR is often so controversial- these rules can’t necessarily be applied to every single situation or a country.

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“Theory of IR strives to provide the basic framework that the states operate in. It can be understood as the ‘rule of the game,’ by which all countries would abide by.”

In this trilogy series of introductory articles, I will (with my very limited knowledge) try to explain in simplest manner the three main branches of IR Theory: Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism.

As you can guess from the title, Part I of the trilogy is about Realism. Many people mistakenly assume that Realism is a single ‘theory,’ but it is not. Rather, it is an ‘approach’; it has a collection of conditions that the theories adopting Realist approach assumes. More specifically, this post will briefly outline the main assumptions that Realists make.

The most basic assumption that is often the most contested one is the one that states that states (nations) are most important units in International Relations. Although it may seem obvious that this is true considering the name itself (inter”national” relations), such assumption overlooks non-state actors, such as the United Nations or WHO that are increasingly becoming the important players in today’s International Relations.

The second assumption that Realism makes is that the only goal of the states is survival. Of course, this statement would mean a whole range of things depending on how “survival” is defined; nonetheless, the Realists view the world as a system governed by anarchy, meaning that there is no true central world government ruling over all states. Based upon this worldview, Realists assume that consequently all states ultimately aims to achieve and maintain power.

The final assumption that the Realists make is that a state cannot depend on other states; it emphasizes the inevitable self-reliance of the states, meaning that no state can rely on other states to guarantee its survival.

I’m sure that as you are reading this, you’ll be able to think of many examples and arguments that prove these assumptions wrong. However, bear in mind that this is only the assumptions of a single school of thought and that there are many sub-theories that try to make up for such flaws. In the next post, I’ll outline the key concepts and ideas that arise from these assumptions and brief introductions of different theories that use the Realist approach. That might help explain why Realism is still the dominant school of thought in International Relations.

 

 

 

 

[1] Cristol, J. (2011). International Relations Theory. Oxford Bibliographies Online Datasets. [online] Available at: http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199743292/obo-9780199743292-0039.xml [Accessed 30 Jul. 2016].

*Photo Credit: Taken by Maarten van den Heuvel. Provided by Unsplash. Uploaded on 11 March, 2016. Available at: https://unsplash.com/photos/_pc8aMbI9UQ

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Michelle Obama and Power of Words

chQuite often, the public resents the fact that politicians are all words and no actions. It is understandable since politicians have been historically infamous for having the two faces of Janus; one before the elections and one after the elections.

However, it is also true that the recent Democratic National Convention proved that words could indeed be used as a powerful torch of an idea, passing on the fire from a single mouth to the hearts of a thousand. As almost every single critic agreed, Michelle Obama gave a “pitch-perfect”[1] speech; it was powerful yet uplifting, signalling a clear break from the pessimistic and angry sentiments that the Republicans sought to fully exploit in the Republican National Convention.

Although I am no qualified speechwriter (nor a politician), as I read and heard Obama’s speech I noticed that there were some key aspects of the speech that made it so compelling. These are:

  1. Theme of Parenthood

Arguably, the main theme of Obama’s speech was the theme of parenthood. Obama gave recurring emphasis on the fact that the election was not about power politics and grand ideologies but rather about “who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.” Aware of the current antipathy of the general public towards the traditional idea of politicians, Obama instead moved the Democratic election campaign away from its usual image of a ‘dogfight’ between politicians; instead, she adopted the persona of a ‘parent,’ thereby making the election campaign a much more individual and private issue. Such approach was particularly effective because it aroused empathy among the public, a ‘softer’ quality that the Clinton campaign often lacked.

  1. Language of Hope and Morality

One of the things Obama successfully did in her speech was drawing a clear line separating the Republican campaign and the Democratic campaign. The key reason for success lay in the optimistic language she employed, a characteristic that was absent in the Republican campaign. The Democrat’s motto that she declared, “when they go low, we go high,” is the best example of how Obama used her language to assert the superiority of ‘hope’ that Democrats represent claims to represent compared to ‘fear and hatred’ that the Republicans allegedly sow in people’s minds.

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“When they go low, we go high.”

It is human instinct to want ‘hope’ to triumph over the ‘evil,’ or more accurately described as ‘negative emotions.’ Obama used this human nature effectively to depict the Democrats as those who are resilient against hardships, while effectively depicting the attacks from the Republican Party as the “hateful language…from public figures on TV.” She didn’t stop here, however; she went on to appeal for restoration of morality on a national scale by saying that such hatred “does not represent the true spirit of this country.” Thus, Obama completed her picture, portraying the Democrats as those who are resilient, moral and hopeful (i.e. the ‘heroes’ of the Hollywood movies) while portraying the Republicans as those who are “cruel” and “acts like a bully.” (i.e. the ‘villains’ of the Hollywood movies.) This way, without even once mentioning Trump’s name, Michelle Obama crafted a political election campaign into a traditional battle between the ‘good and evil.’

I am by no means a complete partisan for either Democratic Party or for Republican Party. However, it is difficult to ignore how some speakers are undeniably eloquent and more elegant in their portrayal of themselves. We need to remind ourselves that politics, albeit however difficult, must be kept as a place not where emotion prevails but where intellect and rational decisions dominate.


 

[1] NBC’s Brokaw “It was about as pitch-perfect an endorsement as you can get,” Fox News’ Juan Williams “The framing of the speech in terms of her children was so pitch-perfect.”

*Transcript of Michelle Obama’s 2016 Democratic National Convention speech provided by http://www.vox.com/2016/7/25/12282760/transcript-michelle-obama-dnc-speech

**Photo credit: Getty Images

Subway Memorial: Perception and Feminism in South Korea

On the 17th of May 2016, a young woman in her early 20s lost her life to a man.

When put this way, the news seems almost mundane- millions of people are murdered every day around the world after all. That doesn’t make murder ‘right’, but it is true that in today’s world we have grown quite callous to a premature death of an individual we don’t know that well. However, this one woman’s death ignited one of the fiercest feminist movements in South Korean history.

Before I go into the details of the actual event, let me give you an insight to women’s position in the history of South Korea. Since Chosun dynasty, the introduction of Confucianism constructed a patriarchal society where women were considered inferior to men by law, culture and politics. It was considered a socially appropriate and virtuous for women to be obedient to her father before marriage, to her husband during the marriage and to her son after the death of her husband. Although almost 50 years have passed since Korea modernized, it is true that such social perception is still deeply rooted in the Korean society. Furthermore, even after the modernization, women were treated unfairly in the workplace, at university, at government and even at home where they had to serve their husbands’ parents rather than their own. Such traditional oppression of women is gradually diluting, but the subtle discriminations and restrictions against women undoubtedly still exist; a most obvious example would be the OECD statistics that ranks South Korea last in gender pay equality, with women receiving almost 36.3% less on average than their male counterpart. (OECD, 2016)

However, it is not the wage inequality or discriminations in the workplace that triggered the recent feminist movement. It is a more fundamental problem, a problem from which all other gender inequality issues stem from: perception.

118H.jpg“What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea.” – Inception, (2010)”

What shocked the South Korean public was the fact that the murderer killed a stranger simply because she was a woman. A cold-blooded murder was planned and carried out due to the murderer’s memory of being “belittled and ignored by women.” When the news came out people were vehement, and the death of one woman soon became a symbol that reflects oppression that Korea women suffers. It was the idea that one person killed another person simply due to his ‘hatred for women’ that was intolerable for many people. A public memorial was set up in Gangnam station to mourn this unfortunate woman.

I am probably not an expert in feminism. In fact, it has not been that long since I started to consider myself a feminist. But even to me, some facts are plain as daylight; the murderer killed a woman not simply because the women were mean to him, but because the murderer thought he was being “belittled and ignored” even by women. It is hard to think that the murderer was a popular figure between anyone regardless of gender, yet he targeted women. It is from this that we can see his perception of women; we can infer that he regarded women as inferior to men, and the fact that such ‘women’ belittled him was what fueled his anger.

Some say it still can’t be an issue for the society because it is simply that particular individual’s mental health problems that lead to this tragic event. But I disagree. A man in his 20s must have had the chance to experience the world enough to contact different people and different ideas. Even if he had mental health issue, it would be absurd to think that he fostered his hatred for women, strong enough to kill someone, on his own. We need to be aware that the society had a role in creating his distorted perception. What we need to remember is not that a single ‘crazy man’ hated women, but that the society that allowed such hatred was planted and nurtured.

I do not think that the death of one woman is an evidence enough to doubt all men for being a potential murder or rapist. But don’t we live in a world where an overwhelming majority of rape victims are women? Shouldn’t we first question why women feel more unsafe when walking down a dark alleyway than men? Why are we not first questioning society’s perception that all women are potential victims and so should be careful before questioning the idea that all men are potential perpetrator?

I know, women are generally and biologically weaker than men in physical terms. But we are not animals. I feel that as humans, we have the responsibility to protect those who are weaker and more vulnerable, not prey on them. I hope that this tragic death is not abused as a political ‘icon’ but as an unforgettable reminder that the world is still more hostile to women than to men. Let the memorial be a true ‘memory’-al.

 

Reference:

OECD (2016), Gender wage gap (indicator). doi: 10.1787/7cee77aa-en (Accessed on 01 July 2016)

Photo credit:

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