Realism & Idealism

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This is the second in a series of articles in the International Relations 101 section about “understanding international relations and foreign policy decision making.” These articles seek to make this complex, multi-dimensional arena accessible to people outside the halls of power. The series also pulls duty as a necessary backdrop for understanding the wisdom-based alternative approaches to the field that are being developed by The Wisdom Project.

Realism and Idealism in International Relations

by Charles Strohmer

I I made passing reference in the first article in this series to comparing international relations (IR) theory to a complicated 5,000 word jigsaw puzzle. I’ll play around with that image a bit in this second article in the series, which outlines and differentiates between two prominently influential Western political ideologies of our time, realism and idealism. (Other articles in this series can be found here, and here. More will be forthcoming. )

The big conceptual picture

The place to begin is with the big conceptual picture itself, of international relations and world politics. Pieces that are salient to this complex and multi-dimensional puzzle include concepts about: the state; national interests; power and balance of power; culture and society; anarchy; identity; norms; actors; agency; democracy; diplomacy; globalization; human rights; international institutions; international law; non-government organizations (NGOs); economic progress; multinational corporations; international society. These big ideas are basic to any understanding of international relations and foreign policy decision making.

Now all of these big ideas have to be interpreted, and that is the point of the background theories that appear on the scene. For many decades, the most prominent in the West have been versions of political ideologies such as realism, idealism, and neoconservatism, as well as schools of thought such as IR constructivism and the English School. There are also other lenses such as neorealism and neoliberalism vying for greater pride of place. Any one of which can be chosen by a national leader, or by foreign policy advisers and committees, or by other decision makers, to give meaning to each of the conceptual pieces.

The choice of an interpretive grid, therefore, determines how situations and events are analyzed and how policy prescriptions will be made and implemented – different interpretive grids place different emphases on different conceptual pieces, so that the importance of some pieces stand out over against others to get priority of place when it comes time to decision-making time, and that in turn enormously gives shape and direction to a particular policy. A neoconservative administration, for instance, would look at and respond to a major event of the Middle East quite unlike an administration following liberal internationalism.

choice of an interpretive grid, therefore, determines how situations and events are analyzed and how policy prescriptions will be made and implemented

Further, we have the variety of religious-political ideologies of the Middle East states performing the same function, as meaning-grids, for their leaders and advisers for understanding and prioritizing concerns about the state, national interest, identity, agency, human rights, democracy, globalization, etc., and the kind of policies that will be enacted. So it’s quite a mix, especially when we include Russia, China, India…  Well, you get the picture. Now assemble it!

The thing to keep in mind is that all national leaders, their foreign policy teams, and other policymakers emphasize the relative importance of some pieces over others and their interrelationships depending on their interpretive grid, their ideological allegiances. Some analysts may object to some of the puzzle pieces I have called salient, while and others may say that some have been left out. Fair enough. But I think most everyone would agree that these pieces represent a basic minimum for each conceptual model’s picture of contemporary international relations and world politics.

It is the within the purview of scholars and academics to present these aspects (pieces) in detail, with the lengthy attention they deserve (readers can peruse the Bibliography to find all sorts of comprehensive approaches to these aspects). My goal in this article will be to paint with broad brush strokes to outline how political realism and idealism shed light on which of the pieces should be stressed as most important for understanding international relations and making foreign policy decisions. The following outlines of these two -isms will show the conceptual environment of the near-past and the present period in order to recognize how Western international relations work, how they are changing, and what the practical consequences of the changes have been and may be.

A caveat, however. This is not to assume that foreign policy decision comes down to whatever political ideology has been elected to the White House, Downing Street, or Élysée Palace. IR constructivism in particular has shown that there is much more going on than ideology. IR constructivist research project s, for instance, show the high level of significance that agency, identity, and norms have in foreign policy decision making. This results in heightening the importance of different pieces of the international picture, pieces that the traditional theories have tended to marginalize. (IR constructivists and the English school will be the subject of an article in this series.)

Realism and Idealism: Rival Theories

During the twentieth century, political realism and political idealism vied as conceptual rivals for understanding international relations, for analyzing the decision-making of inter-state actors, for qualifying what policies should or should not see the light of day, and for justifying or criticizing the kinds of policies that went forward from each other’s camp. In fact, it was to deal formally with such issues that the academic discipline of “international politics” itself was formed in 1919 at the University of Wales.

In the literature, the terms “power politics” and “realpolitik” (practical, actual politics) may be used synonymously for “political realism,” and the word “liberalism” may be favored for “idealism.” Here, I’m using the term “idealism” instead of “liberalism” simply to give what I want to talk about some distance from being identified with word “liberal,” which in all likelihood would occur in the minds of many Americans who are reading this article, for whom “liberal” has become a four letter word. Also, both isms have their theoretical cousins; for example, neorealism and neoliberalism (neoliberal institutionalism). The cousins, too, are influential in their own ways, each stressing which pieces of the conceptual it deems the most important.

Here we will look only at the puzzle pieces most emphasized by realists and idealists. Some of these pieces are the same ones, but the two ideologies treat them differently, which affects how the purpose of international relations is understood, which affects policy choices.

Political Realism

State of nature, anarchy, war. Realism as a political philosophy has a history traced as far back as the classical political theorist Thucydides. Since the sixteenth century, the Europeans Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Rousseau have been its leading lights. At the core of this European realism is an assumption that relations between nations exist fundamentally in a “state of nature” described as “anarchy,” a condition in which war between nations is assumed to be permanent and expected, not unlike how violence would arise domestically between different groups within a nation were it not for the power of civil government to restrain people.

Human life in this anarchical state of nature was famously shorthanded by Thomas Hobbes as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Politically, because states have no higher authority over them, such as a world government to restrain them, anarchy means that states as collective entities were on their own in the international arena to work out how to live with one another. For the more hard-core realists, relations between states must be ordered around the bare minimum conditions necessary for mere co-existence, and the world can forget about any notion of building cooperative agreements and arrangements toward human flourishing. In other words, the conceptual frame limits the options for what realists assume is possible (as it does for the idealist, neoconservatives, IR constructivists, and others).

At the core of this European realism is an assumption that relations between nations exist fundamentally in a “state of nature” described as “anarchy,”

As an aside, the “anarchical system of states,” as international relations theorist Joseph Nye puts it, is one of three basic forms of international politics. The other two being a “world imperial system” and a “feudal system.” In the former, “one government controls most of the world with which it has contact,” e.g., the Roman Empire; the British Empire. In the latter, “human loyalties and political obligations are not fixed primarily by territorial boundaries. A local lord, for instance, might owe duties to some distant noble or bishop such as the pope in Rome.” (Nye, Understanding International Conflicts: An Introduction to Theory and History, 2007, p. 3.)

If war is permanent in the world, then nothing, certainly not a bare minimum of international cooperation, can ever change that fundamentally. Wars will continue, despite even the wisest attempts to prevent them. That is a core position held by political realists, and behind it lies the moral assumption that human nature is inherently not benevolent or kind but self-centered and competitive. If so, then nation-states must always be prepared for war, and, indeed, history reveals that increasing military strength, if not superiority, is basic to political realists. For military might alone wins wars. As Jervis points out, however, this is not to say that realists like war, for “many realists study the causes of war in the hope of reducing the chances of future conflict.” (Robert Jervis, “Realism in the Study of World Politics,” in Katzenstein, Keohane, and Krasner, eds., Exploration and Contestation in the Study of World Politics, 1999,  p. 334.)

Realism’s bottom line, then, structural anarchy, combined with the absence of a central authority to settle disputes, gives rise to what has been called the state security dilemma. Ole Holsti, a professor of international affairs, points out why this is be a lose-lose situation for international life, for “one nation’s search for security often leaves its current and potential adversaries insecure.” Further, “any nation that strives for absolute security leaves all others in the system absolutely insecure,” providing “powerful incentives for arms races and other types of hostile interactions.” (Ole R. Holsti, “Theories of International Relations,” in Hogan and Paterson, eds., Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, 2004,  p. 54.)


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