Political realism is a view of politics that centers on power and conflict. The term goes back to the British historian E. H. Carr, who argued in 1939 that fact-driven “realism” needed to replace “utopian” trust in legal arrangements to preserve peace among nations. Unfamiliar to the liberal elites of America at the time, this view had a long tradition in European statecraft. Since the nineteenth-century, Germans had spoken of Realpolitik (realistic policy) and Machtpolitik (whose translation gave us “power politics”) in reference to a foreign policy that recognizes self-interest and power as the driving forces of international reality. Even older is the doctrine of “reason of state” (It. ragione dello stato, Fr. raison d’état, Germ. Staatsräson ), which asserts that the state has principles of action of its own, allowing it to do what law and morality forbid to its subjects. (Since it acquired this meaning under the influence of Niccolò Machiavelli, the Florentine political thinker of the early sixteenth century, it is also known as “Machiavellism.”)
This type of intellectual reflection on power and politics goes back to the beginnings of political thought in the great civilizations of antiquity. In ancient Greece, for example, itinerant teachers of rhetoric and politics (known as sophists) argued during the fifth century BCE that morality is merely a convention (nomos ) that stands in contrast to real human nature (phusis ), which commands a ruthless struggle for advantage and the rule of the strong. This point was famously rendered by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. In China, the legalist school (fa chia )—whose principal texts are the Book of Lord Shang and the Han Fei Tzu (written by the philosopher of the same name)—argued from the third century BCE onward that order required strict laws aimed at maximizing the power of the state and backed up by harsh punishments. In India, the tradition of arthaśāstra (science of material gain), especially the text attributed to Kautilya, who lived in the fourth century BCE, maintained that only the king’s “rod of punishment” prevented people from devouring each other in accordance with the “law of the fishes.”
Realpolitik, reason of state, Chinese legalism, and arthaśāstra are largely limited to providing practitioners of politics with maxims of action, such as punishing small infractions harshly so that big ones will not arise, or dividing one’s enemies to defeat them one by one. Political realism contains these maxims, but it also relates them in theoretical fashion to assumptions about human nature, morality, and the world at large. Its generative logic was stated most cogently by Machiavelli and the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Human beings, by nature, fear each other on account of their capacity to inflict harm and their uncertainty of each other’s intentions. To secure themselves, they acquire enough power to deter or, even better, subdue the others.
From this nature arises a general struggle for power, which is aggravated by the fact that people want not only security, but also glory, power, and wealth. In addition, they will readily commit acts of aggression to attain these things. As the weak are forced to submit to the rule of the strong, political units (e.g., tribal chiefdoms, ancient city-states, feudal kingdoms) arise, providing a measure of protection and prosperity in exchange for obedience. But they cannot maintain order without repeatedly injuring innocents, which is morally warranted by the good consequences that order has for the others. Moreover, force and fraud continue unabated in the relations between units (that is, in their foreign affairs). Hence, the world is not a coherent ethical order, as the classical and Christian traditions maintain, but a chaos of conflicting ends and calamitous accidents.
Political realism became one of the major approaches in the field of international relations—where it is simply called “realism”—around World War II (1939-1945), when Reinhold Niebuhr, E. H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, and John Herz combined the logic of Machiavelli and Hobbes with the lessons of European statecraft in order to explain why international law and the collective security arrangement of the League of Nations had failed to prevent Japanese and German aggression, and to advise American leaders on dealing with the newly threatening Soviet Union. They argued that nothing but countervailing power can check an expansionist state, because the foreign realm lacks both the central authority and sense of community that hold domestic societies together. At root, the liberal effort to subordinate politics to the rule of reason—by enlightening people about their harmony of interests and the absolute respect owed to persons—must founder on the dark side of human nature. A realistic foreign policy consists of the firm and prudent use of power in pursuit of the national interest, which is primarily to provide security. Power consists most readily of military capabilities, followed by industrial capacity, natural resources, quality of leadership, and the size and morale of the population.
Whereas the first generation of realists in international relations relied on philosophical insight and historical experience to address particular foreign policy problems—an approach now called “classical realism”— the second generation embraced the methods of social science to explain state behavior in general. In the 1980s, this effort led to the ascendancy of Kenneth Waltz’s “neo-realism,” which ignores the particular characteristics of states (e.g., their ideologies, economic systems, ties of friendship, and the personalities of leaders) in order to explain their behavior solely from the constraint exercised by the “anarchic structure.” This structure consists of the absence of central authority among states, and of the distribution of capabilities (i.e., power) across them. Neorealism predicts that states balance each other’s power either by their own efforts or in alliance with others, and that balances of power form recurrently in the international system.
Since the mid-1990s, the (intentional) inability of neorealism to account for variations in the behavior of states caused by their characteristics has prompted the rise of “neoclassical realism.” Its proponents insert the particular characteristics of a state—especially its perception of other states and its incentives arising from domestic politics—as a secondary cause, placing it between its structural position in the distribution of capabilities (the primary cause) and its foreign policy (the effect). It is hoped that this approach will yield a synthesis between the empirical richness of the case-study method and the analytical rigor of Waltz’s structuralism.
SEE ALSO Deterrence, Mutual; Hobbes, Thomas; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Morgenthau, Hans; United Nations; Waltz, Kenneth
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