IR Theory-Part I(c): Different ‘Realities’

Although the last two articles made may have made you believe that ‘realism’ is a single set of ideas, the reality is that there exist different theories that branch off from this school of IR theory. Yes, realism isn’t a single theory; it’s more like a family name than a first name when likened to humans. While Jack Smith and Jill Smith are two different individuals, they share some common characteristics because they belong to the same family. Similarly, there are lots of different individuals within the realism family. In this article, some of the most vocal ones will be introduced.

 

  1. Classical Realism

As you can guess from its name, classical realism is the oldest one in the realism family. Realists argue that the theory originated from Thucydides’ classic account of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth-century B.C., so you get the sense of how old this theory is.[1]

Put simply, classical realism argues that states fight each other all the time (or are preparing to fight each other all the time) due to innate human nature. Since the law of politics originates from human nature, and because at the human core is the universal, insatiable lust for power, this greedy characteristic is similarly applied to the state (which is in a way, a collection of many human individuals). This explains why states fight each other all the time; for war is a way of exerting and increasing the ‘power’ of a state. Thus, Hans J. Morgenthau, who is arguably the most famous and influential modern theorist of classical realism stated, “international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.”[2] Due to this aggressive human nature, classical realism aims to explain and advise foreign affair by associating most issues with the politics of war (that is, all foreign affairs during peacetime is regarded only as an effort to prevent or win a war).

Another defining characteristic of classical realism is its differentiation between ‘status-quo’ and ‘revisionist’ powers. The ‘status-quo’ powers, as its name suggests, aims to maintain the ‘status-quo’; these states want the current favorable power structure to stay and resists possible rivals that may threaten the existing power system. These ‘rivals’ would be the revisionist states; these are states that want to change the current power structure so that it is more favorable to them. Revisionist states typically use aggressive and expansionary foreign policy to this end.

 

  1. Neorealism

While neorealism makes all the same assumptions as classical realism does, it places the primary cause for power struggles not in human/state nature but in the nature of the international system. The theory argues that it is the absence of a world government and the resulting anarchy that causes tension and rivalries; being forced to ensure its own safety, states have nothing to rely on other than their own military force. This leaves them no choice but to either build up their military capacity to be able to defend itself or attack their rival first to get rid of them.

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“In short, states are simply obeying the law of the jungle.”

The key concepts that we talked about in the last article, such as the balance of power and security dilemma derive from this neorealist focus on anarchy. States do not go to war with each other because they are naturally greedy, but because they are forced to in their attempt to secure their survival. In short, states are simply obeying the law of the jungle. It is the lack of trust that compels states to make an error of judgement out of fear, not out of ambition for world dominion. Hence why neorealism also does not make a distinction between ‘status-quo’ and ‘revisionist’ power, because the characteristics and aims of a state do not matter in the issue of survival; regardless of their position in the world order and the existing power structure, all states will choose what they deem best for their survival.

 

  1. Liberal Realism

Amongst the ever-pessimistic picture of an international system where war and tension are inevitably constant, liberal realism presents a slightly more positive view of the world. While it makes all the regular realist assumptions that international system is anarchic and that power struggles form the core of a state’s foreign policy. However, liberal realists argue that states can develop a certain set of ‘rules’ by sharing a set of common interests, which Hendley Bull thought was “fear of unrestricted violence.”[3]

It is this common factor that allows states to escape from their ever-present anxiety about being attacked; when a group of states agrees upon a common goal they can form an international society with norms that each member state follows to be a part of. While similarly to neorealist theories states are still governed by anarchy and driven by fear in their foreign policy, liberal realists argue that it is possible for them to achieve peace by founding and maintaining this international society because “it pays to make the system work.”[4]

Although there are other realist theories that I haven’t covered (such as neoclassical realism), just by looking at these three theories you can know how even within a single school of thought numerous different voices exist. Realism has been the dominant school of thought in IR theory discipline for a long time, and it (although it is debatable) continues to be. Next, you can at last cheer up a bit because we’re exploring a more optimisitic school of thought- Liberalism.

 

*Photo credit: Максим Лунгу, uploaded on 15 June 2016, provided via Unsplash. Available at https://unsplash.com/@maxymlunhu?photo=turoxWR1aEI

 

[1] Comparing and Contrasting Classical Realism and Neorealism (ARASH HEYDARIAN PASHAKHANLOU)

[2]Hans J. Morgenthau Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (1948)

[3] Bull, Hedley (1977). The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. London: Macmillan.

[4] Adam Watson, The Evolution of International Society, 1992, p. 14.

 

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IR Theory- Part I(b): Realistic Worldview

 

In the last article, we looked at the very basic assumptions that a realist IR scholar would make. This time, we’re going to go a little further to find out how the actual painting looks within the realist frame(work).

Based on the three main assumptions (Quick recap- 1. States are most important units 2. The only goal of a state is survival because the world is anarchic 3. A state should be self-reliant), a few key concepts have emerged within this school of thought. I’ll introduce some of the most famous ones, but keep in mind that there are so many concepts that this article won’t be able to cover.

  1. State of War

In a realist world where no one central government exists (is in a state of anarchy), it is impossible for states to trust each other; after all, Sun Tzu says that to win a war, you should “appear where you are not expected.”[1] The anxiety and suspicion that “they” could be secretly plotting against “us” always instigated the leader to prepare for war even in times of peace.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who is essentially the founder of the Realist school of thought, linked this absence of trust within the international community with what he called the ‘state of war’ in his work Leviathan. In his work, he eloquently sums up this idea in a slightly more sophisticated language:

During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man. [2]

Hobbes argued that it is the natural ‘state of men’ that we live in constant fear of someone else harming us, and this fear encourages nations to be suspicious and wary of each other, even if they are having a tea party after signing a free trade agreement.

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Suspicion and fear always give rise to insecurity and vulnerability

  1. Security Dilemma

Now, this one core ‘nature of men’ that makes us suspicious of each other leads to most ironical situations. Suspicion and fear always give rise to insecurity and vulnerability; hence why states would start building up their military, economic or technological strength just in case someone might start a war. The only problem is, often such a build-ups are hard to keep as a secret. The other states are bound to notice this change- and what would be the most rational choice for them? To build up such capabilities themselves.

It is from this simple (almost stupid) problem that the security dilemma occurs; although neither states wish to go to war with each other, while in the process of preparing for a potential war due to their insecurity they actually provoke the other state militarily. Which is kind of understandable- let’s be honest, if our neighbor one day buys a canon and sets it up in their front yard pointing towards our house, we’d feel threatened too.

 

  1. Balance of Power

Now, based on these two concepts we can easily formulate one question- how in the world did we manage to not wipe each other out yet? Fortunately, there’s such a thing called the balance of power.

The basic idea is that humans are very good at calculating risks. If the chance that you’ll win is 50:50, you’re less likely to go for an “ALL-IN,” and going to a war is almost like betting all your money plus your life. So states would only go to war if they believe that they will win by a certain percentage, and what balance of power does is it makes the outcome of war harder to predict.

Take, for example, if you have 7 tanks and 100 soldiers while your neighbor has 2 tanks and 20 soldiers, you’d be rational to assume that you’re more likely to be victorious if you were to go to war with her. However, what if your neighbor is an ally with another guy who has 4 tanks and 70 soldiers? You’re still superior to the two together, but now the chances of your victory have decreased significantly. Will you still take the risk?

This way, states with similar capabilities rarely go to war with each other, because they’re scared that they might lose.

 

Please note that the concepts introduced in this article are not facts; they are merely theories from a single school of thought in one discipline. However, it is surely interesting to see some real-life examples where this theory can be used to explain. If you can think of one, please leave in the comments below!

In the next article, we’ll try to be more ‘sophisticated’ and explore different theories within the realist school of thought; be prepared for some interesting contradictions!

*Photo Credit: Photo by Dmitry Ratushny, uploaded on 13 February, 2016 / provided by Unsplash, available at: https://unsplash.com/collections/263320?photo=xsGApcVbojU

[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericjackson/2014/05/23/sun-tzus-33-best-pieces-of-leadership-advice/#677c02083496

[2]Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan. 1st ed. [ebook] London: Green Dragon in St. Pauls Chuch-yard, p.77. Available at: http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/hobbes/Leviathan.pdf [Accessed 5 Aug. 2016].

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

Why is it political ‘science’?

It sometimes comes as a surprise to some that study of politics is a social ‘science.’ The terminology is indeed misleading, as the word ‘science’ usually conjures up an image of white lab coat and test tubes with some complex liquid in it, or indeed blackboard full of equations and calculations. However, there is a reason why the subject is called ‘political science’ and not simply ‘politics’ or ‘political studies.’ Political science is a branch of a broader discipline called ‘social science.’ Now the obvious question is:

What is Social Science?

Social science uses scientific methods to model and analyse the real society, and thereby explain human behaviours in certain situations. The fundamental aim of social science is not simply to observe a social phenomenon but to generate new knowledge based on quantitative and qualitative data.society .jpg

“The fundamental aim of social science is not simply to observe a social phenomenon but to generate new knowledge”

Quantitative design is the kind of method you are probably the most familiar with; it uses quantifiable variables (such as age) through statistical research and analysis to support the validity of a theory. It’s kind of like the natural sciences in this respect, because it relies on solid ‘facts’ and ‘numbers.’* Basically, it’s seeing the world through a lens of mathematics- everything will be converted to numbers, according to their values or characteristics.

Qualitative design, on the other hand, is relatively subjective compared to quantitative design. It is complementary with quantitative design, as it emphasises explanation of society through “direct observation, communication with participants, or analysis of texts.” [1] Unlike quantitative design, qualitative design takes into account contexts and more individualised variables and so tries to avoid generalisation.

Mainly using these two designs, social scientists try to be objective observers of the society; it’s kind of like when you’re playing Sims and trying to observe and then analyse their society. Social scientists are careful (or at least should be careful) not to let personal views or prejudices influence their analysis, and tries to come up with a “descriptive or predictive model that explains the events observed.” [2]

 

What is Humanities?

Then do subjects like history, philosophy and literature also count as social science? After all, to a degree these subjects also give some new insights on human nature and the society we live in. This is true, but the answer is no: these subjects do not count as social sciences but are parts of another discipline called humanities.

The fundamental difference between social science and humanities lie in their approach and aim. While social scientists mainly uses empirical methods (statistics, observation, etc.) to support their model of the society, those studying humanities will use interpretative methodologies to support their ideas. It is essentially the scholar’s explanation, which uses logic and quotations from other texts, that counts as evidence for his/her thesis. So inevitably, humanities are ‘subjective’; humanities subjects allow bigger presence of the scholars in their analysis. The most important criteria therefore in humanities are not objectivity and accuracy but authenticity and trustworthiness.

Also, the aim of humanities is to “yield wisdom.” While social science focuses more on generating new knowledge of the society, humanities constantly strive to answer the BIG questions, like “Where did we come from?” “What is love?” or “Why am I thinking what I am thinking?” So in a way, humanities are more personal and accessible, because it seeks to enlighten the general people through its wisdoms.

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“the creativity of human minds will be severely limited, and our views of the world and of ourselves will be restricted to what is provable with numbers”

Why does it matter?

Well, that’s a very good question. It may seem a little pointless to distinguish such subtle differences, but it’s much more important than it seems. If political science was not social science but a part of humanities, it would mean that rather than basing the explanations on (relatively) objective figures and numbers, it will be a debating forum. Similarly, if literature or philosophy was a social science, the creativity of human minds will be severely limited, and our views of the world and of ourselves will be restricted to what is provable with numbers. Both disciplines are indispensable precisely due to these subtle yet crucial differences, and in order for one to truly immerse oneself in either of the two areas of studies, one needs to fully appreciate what each discipline requires.

 

 

Footnote

*Although it is true that facts and numbers from statistical analysis are fairly accurate, they are never 100% accurate or reliable. These numbers may have been affected by several factors that could not be sufficiently controlled, so it is important to consider whether the accuracy and reliability of the data is sufficiently high to make the theory valid

Bibliography

[1] University of Idaho Resource “The Humanities and the Social Sciences: Contrasting Approaches” (developed for ISEM Integrative Seminars)

Available at: https://www.uidaho.edu/~/media/UIdaho-Responsive/Files/class/departments/general-education/Faculty Resources/humanities-social-sciences-distinctions.ashx

[2] ibid. 

**I have referred to this particular resource throughout the article, and I clarify here that many of the explanations, phrases and terminologies used in this article are borrowed from the above mentioned article.

Photo Credit:

First photo)

Taken by Matthew Wiebe. Published on April 18, 2014. Dimensions: 5498 x 3615 Available at https://unsplash.com/photos/nOhUx3tiaQQ

Second photo)

Taken by Anastasia Zhenina. Published on February 16, 2016. Dimensions: 4608 x 3456 Available at: https://unsplash.com/photos/XOW1WqrWNKg

What is Politics?

Politics.

We probably hear this word far too often around us, and usually not in a very cheerful way. Over the course of history, politics became almost synonymous with words such as corruption, deception and hypocrisy. However, what many people often forget is that these words only describe what is essentially a negative side effects of politics; although it is true that many political events that occur today can be appropriately described by such vocabularies, politics itself is not a bad thing at all.

‘Politics’ is a very difficult word to define, and there are various definitions out there. However, for the sake of having some meaning in life, in this article politics will be defined as “activities that relate to influencing the actions and policies of a government or getting and keeping power in a government.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Well, the obvious response here would be: what is government? Although there will be a whole another article later to address this question, let’s just say for now that it refers to “the group of people who control and make decisions for a country, state, etc.” (Merriam-Webster)

Why is politics so important?

The definition seems to suggest that politics is all about making decisions. And to a large extent, it’s correct. Politics is about who has the power to make the decisions, how to make decisions and finally, what decisions to make. There have been numerous different opinions on all three questions, and history was written according to the answers the government gave to those three questions. But politics is not just about shaping the ‘world history.’ It’s about shaping individual lives- the decisions being made always have some form of influence on its citizen. Political changes bring about changes in principle values and the image of the ‘ideal world’ towards which a country must strive to become. In simple words, politics shape the most basic guidelines and values in almost every aspect of our lives. Is your life important? Then politics must be important.

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“In simple words, politics shape the most basic guidelines and values in almost every aspect of our lives.”

What is the difference between political science and politics?

Some people do get confused when talking about politics and political science. Long story made short, political science is all about political theories while politics is more about what is actually happening in real life. A good politician would not necessarily be a political scientist. Political science is in the end, strictly based on theories, but politics in real life don’t always go according to those theories. You could say that politics is in a way a bit more to do with practicality of governing, especially with obtaining power in government, rather than with analysing how the government actually works. Ironic, I know, but we all know that the world is simply packed with ironies.

Next time, we’ll have a closer look at political science, and reveal some myths about the subject as well as explore what questions can be answered with it.


Photo Credit: photo by Samuel Zeller. Published in Unsplash in December 10, 2014. 4028×2779. Available at: https://unsplash.com/photos/_es6l-aPDA0