Realism


As you you may recall, world leaders and scholars
think about international relations using different perspectives. A perspective is a
particular attitude towards how international relations works and how actors should react
that emphasizes certain facts over others. The oldest international relations perspective
is called realism or the realist perspective. This mini-lecture will introduce the major
concepts that define realism. ▶One way to distinguish between perspectives
is to ask yourself the question, “Is war between nations inevitable?” Recorded history if full
of efforts by those who answer this question in the negative to create international rules
to make life more stable and predictable by decreasing the outbreak of violent aggression
between nations. So far, these efforts have failed including the Peace (or Treaty) of
Westphalia in 1648 that marks the beginning of modern international relations, the Concert
of Europe in the 19th Century, the League of Nations, and the United Nations. If you
believe the failure of these efforts was inevitable, you might be a realist.
▶The realist perspective sees the world largely in terms of an inevitable struggle
for power and survival between unequal states. To understand and apply this perspective to
(1) describe, explain, and predict international events and (2) proscribe how international
actors should behave requires mastering ten basic concepts. You may wish to pause the
video to write these ten concepts down. You can find more detailed definitions in your
textbook or online. ▶The historical failure of grand peace projects
makes it relatively easy to understand why the first broad perspective on international
relations was a little pessimistic about the long-term prospects for peace. The first realists
made three observations or assumptions about the how international relations works:
No central authority stands above the state, this is a condition known as anarchy. Realists
assume this condition will be be permeant. ▶Anarchy is such an important concept, we’ll
step to the side for the moment to define it. Anarchy is a system operating in the absence
of any central government. It does not imply chaos but the absence of political authority.
Internally, states have solved the problem of order and established security by establishing
sovereignty. Externally, there is no sovereignty and thus anarchy.
▶In anarchy, states cannot assume others will help them survive and they must rely
on self-help. Self-help requires states have more power — the means
available to secure its interests — relative to others. A state’s primary responsibility
is to create, maintain, and increase its national power — the means available to a state to
secure its national interest — at all costs ▶The logical conclusion of these three assumptions
is the inevitability of conflict due to the security dilemma. As
states acquire more power to defend themselves
due to the self-help requirement, they also become a greater threat to others. This traps
states in an arms race that inevitably leads to war. The next three slides show this logic
in action. ▶Assume a world with just three states.
State A has one unit of power and State B and C have none. State A is a threat to States
B and C. ▶This leads States B and C to arm themselves, making them a threat to State
A. ▶State A increases its power to compensate. ▶States B and C are again threatened by
State A and they also increase their power. This process cycles endlessly until it is
broken by war. ▶Although realists believe the security
dilemma is as permanent as anarchy, they recognize that its worst effects (like total war) can
be delayed. In other words, anarchy and the security dilemma do not mean constant war,
just the inevitability of one in the future. Since war threatens the survival of a state,
realists seek ways to delay the start of the next conflict. There are two major methods
realists propose about how to achieve this. The first is called the balance
of power. It assumes that states will seek only enough power to defend themselves against
others. A
second strategy, hegemony, assumes states will seek enough power until they have the
majority of power in their region or even globally. Realists disagree about which of
these approaches is better at moderating the excesses of the security dilemma.
▶The debate between balance of power realists and power transition realists is ultimately
about polarity, or the structure or distribution of power between states. In a unipolar world,
a single actor has enough power to dominate as a hegemon. In a balance of power world
which may be bipolar or multipolar, there is a rough balance between the
great powers. ▶States have several different strategies that can pursue in to enhance their chance
of survival in anarchy and to affect the polarity of the international system. Four of the most
common strategies form a sort of menu of choices from which states states can choose.
The classic realist strategy for states, especially for powerful states, is balancing. In this
strategy, states work to maintain the balance of power by forming temporary alliances to
ensure no single state gets too powerful. For example, in the 19th century, Great Britain
was a decisive influence in maintaining or restoring the balance of power in Europe by
supporting weaker nations threatened by its rivals.
An alternative strategy is called buckpassing. States that adopt this strategy still want
to maintain the relative balance of power between states, but want to avoid the cost
associated with balancing. States can take the risk that another state will pay the costs
of balancing. For example, during the Cold War the U.S. payed a larger share of the cost
of defending Europe from the Soviet Union than Western European states helping them
to fund a more generous social welfare programs. Another alternative to balancing is bandwagoning,
which is when states align with a greater power to either share the spoils of dominance
or to avoid the costs of opposition. For example, in World War II Italy joined Germany and Japan
to share in the spoils of war. In the same conflict, after Germany’s destruction of Poland,
Romania and Bulgaria sided with
Germany to avoid being occupied. All of these are cases of bandwagoning.
A final strategy, hiding, is available to small states. States can try to stay so small
powerful states may ignore or forget them. States that are “hiding” often declare themselves
as neutral, but neutrality can also be a form of buckpassing.

Maurice Vega

18 Responses

  1. Thankyou so much for posting this. You've obviously put a lot of work into this and its very concise, easily understandable and helpful.

  2. How does your theoretical framework's understanding of "anarchy" in international relations shape its approach to understanding power globally?

  3. I absolutely love your work. Thank you so much for the very clinical and crystal clear explanations of these important concepts. I especially like the way you help create a mindmap of the important terms. Please continue to post more of your very enagaging lectures.

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