Classical Realism and Ir Theory

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International Studies Review (2008) 10, 667–679

I: ETHICAL ISSUES IN IR THEORY AND RESEARCH

What Lies Ahead: Classical Realism on the Future of International Relations Murielle Cozette Department of International Relations, Australian National University Realism contends that politics is a struggle for power and ⁄ or survival, and consequently depicts international politics as a realm of recurrent conflicts among states with very little prospect for change. It is therefore not traditionally regarded as an approach which entertains an idea of progress. E.H Carr famously rejected ‘‘pure realism’’ as an untenable position precisely because it fails to provide ‘‘a ground for action,’’ and advocated finding a delicate balance between realism and utopia, as meaningful political action must include both. While realism certainly entails a degree of pessimism, it is far fetched to claim that realist scholars are radically sceptical about the future of international relations. The article investigates Hans Morgenthau and Raymond Aron, two leading classical realist scholars, and argues that neither advocated a strict version of power politics. On the contrary, they both attempted to find the balance Carr suggested between realist concerns and ideals necessary to spur political action. Both were also very aware of the dangers of nihilism, and upheld hope in the future of humankind, even if this hope remains tempered by pessimism as to whether it will ever realize its destiny.

This article deals with terms which are traditionally regarded as mutually exclusive: realism and progress. E.H. Carr famously summed up the stark opposition between realism and what he calls utopianism. What differentiates these two approaches at the most fundamental level is their stance on the future of international relations. While utopianism is characterized by hope that progress is always at hand, realism contends that politics is a struggle for power and ⁄ or survival, and depicts international politics as a realm of recurrent conflicts among states with very little prospect for change. Utopianism is characterized by ‘‘creative thinking,’’ triggered by a dissatisfaction about the world as it is, and a belief that it can be changed. By contrast, realism seems to teach resignation to the existing order of things which is viewed as immutable (Carr 1974:11). What lies at the core of realism is thus the idea of necessity, which does not provide any incentive for action as it does not propose something to believe in. It is this fundamental lack of hope which leads Carr to reject ‘‘pure realism’’ as an untenable intellectual and political position, as it fails to provide ‘‘a finite goal, an emotional appeal, a right of moral judgment and a ground for action’’

Ó 2008 International Studies Association

668

Classical Realism on the Future of International Relations

(1974:89). In other words, the stumbling block realism comes up against is the question: why act? If states’ relations are governed by necessity, one is condemned to resignation at best, despair at worst. This is why Carr ultimately advocates finding a delicate combination of realism and utopia: ‘‘sound political thought and sound political life will be found only when both have their place’’ (1974:10). While realism certainly entails a degree of pessimism, it is far fetched to claim that realist scholars are radically sceptical about the future of international relations. Carr’s rejection of ‘‘pure realism’’ is easy to accept, provided one keeps in mind that virtually none of the major realist figures in IR promote it. An analysis of Hans Morgenthau and Raymond Aron, two leading classical realist scholars, demonstrates this in the clearest way. Neither advocated a strict version of power politics. On the contrary, they both attempted to find the balance Carr suggested between realist concerns and ideals necessary to spur political action. Both were aware of the dangers of nihilism, and...
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