How Realistic Is the Realist Tradition?

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How realistic is the realist tradition?
By Dan Andrei Dumitru

Realism as a tradition of thought in political theory has been a perennial approach and it can be traced back for more than two millennia. However, as Donnelly (2000, p1) remarks, “the link between realism and international theory is especially strong in the twentieth century”, being a dominant theory before and after the second World War and then declining after the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, as he points out, realism is not a fixed theory but rather a “general orientation” bounded by “a set of recurrent concerns and conclusions” (p1). In order to properly grasp what could be understood by a so-called realist tradition, it is essential that we first pay attention to classical political writers that have been associated with realist idea as this will give us a better comprehension of how the world is seen through the Realist prism. Afterwards, we will briefly look at self-declared 20th century realists and try to assess the relevance of this theory in the post cold-war era. In ancient political thought realist ideas can be fond in the writings of a number of authors, both in western and oriental political thought, most notably the Greek historian Thucydides, the Chinese military general Sun Tzu and Kautylia (also know as Chanakya), the adviser of the first Maurya emperor. The Melian dialogue is arguably the most relevant passage of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian war for understanding realist international politics. The powerful city of Athens attacks the small colony of Melos that was allied with Sparta. The Melians argue that it is unjust as they have not been hostile to Athens. The Athenians reply that ‘the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel’ and ‘the strong do what they have the power to do and the week accept what they have to accept’ (Thucydides, 1972, 406). We can thus see how power is a cardinal factor in the realist conception. Similarly, Sun Tzu believed war to be “of vital importance to the state” leading “either to safety or to ruin” emphasising therefore the importance of power for states. Finally, Kautilya also pays particular attention to power in his book Arthasastra, understanding it as the ability ‘to control not only outward behavior, but also the thoughts of one's subjects and enemies’ (Boesche, 2003). He believes that relations between states are inherently characterized by “dissension and force” (Kautilya, cited in Boesche, 2003) and that states will always be primarily concerned with the ideas of power and self interest, this leaving no room for ethics in international relations. (Boesche, 2003). This tradition of thinking about the world is continued in the medieval period by writers such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, their works, namely Il principe and Leviathan, being probably the most influential realist writings in the 16th and 17th century. The Hobbesian view on human nature is bleak: a permanent state of war where the life of the individual is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and shot’ (Hobbes, 1997, p 100), this being caused by factors such as anarchy, understood as a lack of government, and the selfishness of human beings (Donnelly, 2005). While the problem of the state of war is solved at national level by a central authority that regulates human behaviour, what Hobbes called a “Leviathan”, the international system remains anarchic and we can notice a ‘restriction of the exercise of the right of war to relations between groups’ (Forsyth, 2008). It has been suggested (Donnelly, 2005) that this theory should be seen only as a hypothetical view of the world that, although it will never be found in a pure form in reality. However, it is valuable because it describes the main ‘forces that typically control behaviour’ (Donnelly, 2005, p 33). Consonantly, Machiavelli’s The Prince presents an amoral approach to politics, considering that in order to have...
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