Political Realism and its Origins

    There is no specific ideology or theory known as 'Conservatism' in the field of international relations, yet there are many thinkers and intellectual traditions in the field who hold ideas which are Conservative in nature. Indeed, Realism, the viewpoint that has dominated discussions on international politics for decades complements many Conservative ideas and values, for example pragmatism, belief in the imperfection of the human character and also an emphasis on order and authority.

    Scholars studying international relations have traced the origins of the Realist tradition back over a number of years. Reference is often made to Thucydides, the historian and Athenian general from the 5th century BC, as the father of Realism. He was the author of the historical volume 'The History of the Peloponesos' and one well-known chapter of that book - The Melian Dialogue - is recognized as a classic, which speaks volumes about the nature of international politics. In addition, St Augustine, the philosopher and theologian who reached the heights of the Christian Church during the 5th century, is regarded as an important influence - in particular his emphasis on the fallible and corrupt nature of the human character. Another important figure is the Italian, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), the author of the well-known volume, 'The Prince' - a kind of guide for political leaders who argued that they should be prepared to take whatever action was necessary to maintain their power and influence. Finally, reference is often made to the ideas of the Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, and in particular his picture of life in the 'natural state' - an imaginary social condition characterised by persistent conflict due to the absence of any political authority.

  • 20th Century Realism

    Although its roots extend far back into the past, it was in the twentieth century that Realism evolved into a cohesive body of ideas that offer an interpretation of the nature of international politics. During this period, a central question driving discussions among realist thinkers has been why have conflict, violence and warfare been such consistent features of involvement between states on the international stage. Indeed, from the Realist perspective, this question stands above all other considerations when discussing international politics.

    Today, a distinction is drawn between two different Realist streams that developed during the twentieth century:

    • Classical Realism: This is a view associated with the years following the Second World War and the work of thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Hans Morganthau. In the view of these thinkers, international political trends - and in particular the trend towards violence and conflict - could be interpreted as symptoms of the fallible nature of the human personality - our tendency towards selfish behaviour and our continued desire for power and status. As a result of these intrinsic trends, it has been assumed that the involvement of states with each other will always be driven by selfish considerations. This means that priority will always be given to seeking opportunities to gain advantage over others in order to promote the 'national interest' - with the need to gain advantage in terms of military power being more important than anything else.
    • Neo-realism: This is a more recent Realist tradition mainly associated with the work of the American, Kenneth Waltz. Unlike the Classical Realists, Waltz considered that the anarchic nature of the international system, rather than the inherent weaknesses of human nature was the underlying factor in attempting to understand why conflict and violence were persistent themes in international politics. Thomas Hobbes' earlier ideas are echoed, with the international system of sovereign states being compared to the 'natural state' where individuals live without any higher authority to maintain order. According to Waltz, due to the fact that no sovereign body stands above the states of the world, it is inevitable that they will seek opportunities to ensure their safety by expanding their military capabilities and this in turn motivates competition and instability.
  • Margaret-thatcher.jpg
    Margaret Thatcher
  • Neo-conservatism

    In very broad terms, the realist view could be interpreted as one that was apt to explain the international system during the Cold War, and the struggle for supremacy between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. In this context a viewpoint focusing on concepts such as power, conflict and power balance was one that offered reasonable explanations. Of course, by the end of the 20th century the Soviet Union had disintegrated, and the United States of America stood alone as the only global super-power. In this context, another body of Conservative ideas came to gain influence, particularly during the presidency of the Republican, George W. Bush. The ideology of Republicans such as Bush was characterised by neo-conservative perspectives which emphasised order, authority and discipline alongside specific evangelical beliefs. These ideas were based on the work of philosophers such as Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt.

    Strauss was a German who moved to the United States like many others in the years before the Second World War and gained fame as a member of the 'Chicago School'. Strauss was a harsh critic of liberalism and its tendency, in his opinion, to emphasize fundamental, universal values. Central to his ideas on international politics was a belief in the need for an external enemy - one that has been identified as the 'other'. This 'other' is critical, Strauss believes, as it creates a focus that helps shape the identity of the nation-state by offering an external entity that embraces everything that is alien, different and dangerous. By identifying this other, it is possible to confirm and emphasize what is important and unique about the nation, thereby strengthening authority, discipline and order among the people.

    Some of these ideas were incorporated into George W. Bush's foreign policy, particularly after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. After this attack in the name of the Al-Qaeda group, the enemy was defined in the 'War on Terror' as being totally different and exceptional, and one which held values which were totally different to the values and ethics of the West, and the USA in particular. This provided an opportunity to emphasize the merits of 'American' values and to create domestic and foreign policies based on the goal of winning against the external terrorist enemy. These policies, together with the rhetoric used to justify them, led to the creation of conditions similar to those described by Carl Schmitt as the 'state of exception' - an exceptional political condition where it is acceptable for the state to set aside normal constitutional procedures and use force in whatever way was necessary to ensure safety. Under such exceptional conditions, it became possible to take steps such as the opening the controversial Guantanemo Bay camp which would have been considered totally unacceptable a few years previously.

    Neo-liberalism: globalization, development and the Washington Agreement

    The neo-liberal perspective is associated with the Conservative figures of the 1980s, particularly Ronald Reagan, President of the USA, and Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. They put into practice the ideas of thinkers such as von Hayek and Friedman, who essentially emphasized the importance and efficiency of the free market above all else. This belief is expressed through policies that reduced the influence of the state, with less support for some parts of the economy, and an attempt to 'privatise' a number of services previously provided by government. The rationale behind this view was that the competition that is central to the operation of capitalism would ensure better services at a cheaper cost.

    On the international level, such neo-liberal attitudes became more prevalent and were expressed more passionately following the collapse of the Soviet Block and its Communist system after 1989. This led to the spread of neo-liberal ideas and policies across Eastern Europe. During the same period, countries across the Far East were seen moving in the same direction. The 1990s are generally seen as a period when the free capitalist market was spreading in a more comprehensive and far-reaching way than in any previous period - and where the world was 'contracting' as the logic of globalization induced states to relax their boundaries and to allow more international economic activity.

    The 1990s were also a time when increasing attention was being given to the inequality and dire poverty seen across the world. Increasing emphasis was placed on the need to ensure that countries that were previously members of the large European Empires were 'gaining ground' and 'catching up' economically with the rest of the world. From the neo-liberal perspective embracing market capitalism was the only solution. If the developing states of the world - following the example of the Soviet bloc countries - embraced the free market and opened themselves to investment by foreign businesses, development and prosperity would follow. These ideas were crystallized by the phrase the 'Washington Agreement' - a belief in a series of policy practices agreed by that city's major international organizations, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and also the American government Treasury. These policy practices included an emphasis on the need to allow foreign businesses to establish themselves in the countries concerned, the need to allow direct foreign investment, and also the need to privatise services and limit state control of the economy.

    By the beginning of the new millennium there was increasing recognition of the limitations of the Washington Agreement - in particular the obvious benefits to the stronger, more advanced economies, and the barriers faced by less developed countries. As a result, many, such as Joseph Stiglitz, emphasized the need to intervene and restructure the framework of the international economy in a more balanced way, while a consensus has also developed about the need to ensure more effective governance structures and practices within developed countries.