International relations (IR) has traditionally been a field dominated by classical realism (or neorealism) in which states are considered to be the chief actors on the international stage, which is an ‘anarchic’ system where no organizations, institutions or supra-national entities are able to control and regulate them. This is especially true with Great Powers, empires and superpowers like the United States, which write the rules of them game while only adhering to them very selectively. They not only control the smaller or weaker states, but the policies of international organizations, which are based on rational calculations of self-interest. Over the last thirty years, unconventional alternatives, ranging from feminism to postmodernism to critical theory have challenged the hegemony of classical realism in IR theory. This has been a necessary and welcome corrective to a field that was too heavily focused on issues of war, diplomacy and national security, particularly in a period when the global capitalist system and the new technologies associated with it have been expanding exponentially, creating a more interdependent global system.
No other factor in traditional international relations (IR) theory is as important as the central concept that states are the central actors on the world stage, and that they are motivated by self-interest. For most of human history, the international system was one of ‘anarchy’ with no powers at a supra-national level to regulate and control the actions of states, and necessarily the Great Powers with the strongest militaries and economies dominated the world order (Reus-Smit and Snidal 2010). Over the last thirty years, a confusing array of post-modernists, deconstructionists and post-structuralists, feminists and new theorists of globalization and global capitalism have challenged traditional realism on almost every level. This caused a “civil war” within the discipline, with the critical theorists questioning the very existence of knowledge, rationality and reality, at least as they had been defined in the modern world after the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution (Brown and Ainley 2009). It also led to increased scepticism about the traditional primary sources used in IR and diplomatic history, particularly the official government records of states and the diaries and letters of statesmen. Even classical realist scholars like Kenneth Waltz found their text being deconstructed to search for hidden meanings about power and domination by Western capitalism and imperialism (Brown 1994). As a result of all this controversy, however, the IR field has become more diffuse and pluralistic, less centred on the actions of states and ruling elites, or the policies and ideologies of the most powerful Western states.
Realism and Its Critics
International relations (IR) has become a pluralistic field with many meaning meanings over the last thirty years, a process that has also occurred in history, political science and the other social sciences during this critical period. Before 1945, and indeed well into the 1950s and 1960s, it was simply taken for granted that a few Great Powers and empires controlled the world, although in more recent times, U.S. domination of Latin America or “Europe’s subjugation of the tropical world was forgotten on repressed in the memory of the discipline” (Cox 2010, p. 95). No statesman or theorist in the past could have forgotten it, though. In more recent times, IR longer concerns itself solely with war, politics and diplomacy between the Great Powers, but has been deconstructed and reconstructed to open the door to a host of new theories and approaches, including feminism, environmentalism, capitalist institutions and organizations, new technologies, non-state actors, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and international institutions like the United Nations, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organization (WTO) and European Union (EU).
Although the IR will never be the same again, these changes, even though difficult and controversial at the time, have been for the best. They have certainly enlivened its discourse, at least, away from earlier preoccupations with war, peace, national security and rational actors (of the like thereof in the case of leaders like Hitler). IR has no real consensus on theory today, if it ever did, but unlike the physical sciences , the social sciences have no “universal consensus…to define a field” (Brown and Ainley, p. 2). It also has to explain what is occurring in the world when states are not at war with each other or threatening to go to war, which is actually most of the time. It has been forced to accept a plurality of theories because it deals with a complex world over lengthy periods, and the actions of a very diverse hodgepodge of groups, interests and states (Brown and Ainley, p. 12). For this reason, there also appears to be a “seeming lack of progress for the field as a whole”, but the truth is that reality is just messy (Reus-Smit and Snidal, p. 5).
Realism’s Continued Validity in an Era of Global Capitalism
Stephen Walt and other realists still insisted in the 1990s that for all the verbiage about globalization and the New World Order, the Great Powers were still in control of the system. At that time, the U.S. appeared to be the unchallenged superpower, which had never been the case during the Cold War, and therefore realism remained the “most compelling general framework for understanding international relations” (Walt 1998, p. 43). Although its leaders often spoke the language of globalism and Wilsonian internationalism, in reality they still acted on American self-interest and felt free to support or ignore international organizations like the IMF, UN and WTO as they saw fit. All American presidents have issued public pronouncements in the language of democracy, freedom and liberal internationalism, no matter that a close study of their actual records shows them to have mostly been following realist policies (Nye 2008, p. 99). Few other countries were powerful enough within the international system to enjoy this luxury, which has been particularly true during the current recession and the latest round of IMF-style Structural Adjustment Programmes. Liberalism was still a useful theory for explaining the influence of international capitalism and domestic politics, which constructivism took into account changes in regimes, culture and ideologies among ruling groups that classical realism tended to overlook, but fundamentally the strongest nations and empires dominated the world order as they always had.
Realists freely concede that new Great Powers are emerging in the world, and that China and India have the potential to become superpowers in the future, but still maintain that regional and global organizations like NATO and the EU exist because states find them useful. Perhaps another world war is very unlikely, particularly in an age of nuclear weapons, but the Great Powers still intervene regularly in the poorer regions of the planet to control natural resources, just as they always did in the past (Nye, p. 103). When one nation becomes too powerful and hegemonic in the international system, as the U.S. did after the Cold War, other powers will form coalitions and alliances to limit its influence, which Russia and China have been doing in recent years (Nye, p. 74). For realists, none of this is new, but just part of the normal balance of power in the international order.
Traditional realism, which was one the dominant theory in IR, has indeed come under a severe challenge in recent decades from a plethora of alternative theories and definitions, which were especially necessary for the field if it was going to account for all the new developments in trade, technology, and global capitalism in the ‘postmodern’ era. It could not survive as a serious academic discipline if it simply relied on the theoretical knowledge that existed in the very different world of 1900 or 1950, or to assume that war and diplomacy among the Great Powers are still the only worthwhile and important events that must be explained (Brown and Ainley 2009). This is not to deny the existence of empires, great powers and superpowers, or their tremendous influence in the international system, only to insist that the world has become more complex and pluralistic in reality over the last thirty years. Global capitalism and its opponents, the expansion of trade and the development of new technologies have also made the world appear to be far more interdependent and interconnected than ever before, even though there are still few international institutions that have real power over the U.S. and the other Great Powers—at least not yet.
Brown, C., 1994. “’’Turtles All the Way Down’: Anti-foundationalism, Critical Theory and International Relations’, Millennium, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1994), pp. 213-36.
Brown, C. and K. Ainley. 2009. Understanding International Relations, 4th Edition. Palgrave MacMillan.
Cox, R. 2010. The Point is Not Just to Explore the World but to Change It’, in in Reus-Smit, Christian, and Duncan Snidal (eds), The Oxford Handbook of International Relations, Oxford University Press, pp. 84-93.
Nye, J. S. 2008. Understanding International Conflicts: An Introduction to Theory and History, 7th Edition. Longman.
Reus-Smit, Christian, and Duncan Snidal, ‘Between Utopia and Reality: The Practical Discourses of International Relations’, in idem (eds), The Oxford Handbook of International Relations, Oxford UP, 2010, pp. 3-40.
Walt, S. 1998. “International Relations: One World, Many Theories”, Foreign Policy, 110, Special Edition: Frontiers of Knowledge (Spring 1998), pp. 29-32+34-46.
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