Resurgent Realism and 21st Century Great Power Politics

Events of the past week have set the stage for major changes to take place on the international stage. In the United States across the world and there have occurred tragic events where game-changing decisions must be made. From the coup attempt in Turkey to the violence in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Orlando and France, world leaders have entered an era of resounding change. Much is still to be processed from each event but what should be clearly understood is that major world powers are now re-evaluating strategic alliances and calculating political/economic risk in order to counter emerging threats to national interests.

In addition to the tension unfolding across the world, Europe is on the precipice of facing a banking crisis that can incur much greater consequences for financial systems than the Brexit fiasco. All eyes are on Italy due to its troubled banking sector. Italy’s third-largest bank, Monte dei Paschi, has been losing value (currently 50%) at a rapid rate due to the increased amount of non-performing loans (currently $218 billion) all across its banking sector. Italy’s inability to repay its loans has been a consistent problem since the derivatives fallout from the Great Recession of 2008.

The political and financial problems of today have led many to question the survival of the liberal international order. Many are asking what will happen to the free market system? Is democracy on the decline due to America’s changing role in world affairs? Will the Western-oriented rules-based international order slip into decay due to the rising presence of authoritarian actors on the world stage?

In a time that is tentatively being coined the New Bad Old Days of Great Power Politics it is important to take a short look at Realism and its relevance in international affairs.

Let’s look at two American political scientists and compare and contrast the Classical Realism of the Hans Morgenthau (1904-1979) and the Neo-Realism of Kenneth Waltz (1924-2013).

Realist arguments are cemented in state-centric approaches by defining power as being consolidated by might. There will always be opposing forces to basic needs, interests, and wants and thus having unparalleled resources of control are in the best interest of the state. Being able to project force (real or imagined) is a classic wager that states use to build strategic zones of influence. Realists view the world as a platform of chance and change. Appropriate actors must always be ready to approximate the right amount of force. Wielding unruly might can weaken state power over time if strategy is not balanced to fight the tools of opposing forces.

Power in relation to human nature is seen as promoting naturally warlike and divisive actions that are consistent with the development of human psychology. Realists contend our brains are designed with instincts that help to keep stressors, such as competing actors or lack of resources, from inhibiting one’s ability to survive. Survival is the first step in the midst of naturally occurring disorder; learning how to thrive in a competing landscape is seen as a mastery tool for power and protection. How state actors conduct affairs in the international realm can be looked upon as a constant battle to balance the forces of chaos and unpredictability. Statecraft becomes not just an objective but an unparalleled necessity in securing basic interests.

As Realists, both Morgenthau and Waltz see world affairs as being defined in terms of anarchic structures. Waltz makes the assumption that if there is no natural enforcer of order then all states must be prepared to use force. Morgenthau noted that there are too many contradictory elements at play in the international landscape that allows states to focus on consolidating power in a manner that may intimidate its enemies. In seeing the world through a lens of insecurity, both validate the use of force as being the natural manifestation of international affairs. Might is seen as the only measure against the ruthlessness of states unwilling to submit to a superior power.

Both Realism and Neo-Realism purport that the formation of state might is not relative to how socio-economic forces factor into the equation. Neither extends on the issue of how military might can be directly influenced by the morality, or lack thereof, of economic structures. Ideology is seen as more of a luxury whereas more importance is placed on how strategy can be formulated by existing realities and data.

Since there is a tendency in Realist philosophy to build esteem on being the most powerful, it does not ruminate on the moral imperatives involved in justifying violence as a necessary cause for validating the livelihood of a state. Both Realism and Neo-Realism see the political as a dimension that holds the glue for binding the power of the state to that of civil society. This is because Realism and Neo-Realism hold the military as protector of a greatly flawed human network of states. A state must project strength as first priority. The development of morality within naturally occurring social dynamics is looked at as a byproduct of procuring state stability.

There is a contrast in how Morgenthau and Waltz view the extent to which liberal institutions can help mend the imbalance of the international community. Although Morgenthau favored domestic over international law, he pointed out that violence could be reduced by the creation of a world state with the consent of a willing international population. His conception of this outcome is based on a pessimistic outlook in which he does not extend upon the conditions and principles necessary to build such a state. Waltz’s presumption of how international affairs will develop over time is more concrete in its rejection of the benefits of state building through interdependence. He contends that there will never be any real interdependence because states are inevitably unequal in their consolidation of power and will want to use powerful military forces as a justification for boastful nationalistic tendencies.

Morgenthau and Waltz view international affairs by being substantiated by the will of the state. Power politics is deemed the rightful inheritor of the just cause, with power being the unbridled factor in securing fluidity to anarchic realities. Within Realist philosophy, there will continue to be lively debate on how to relate the provisions of liberal institutionalism (which is multilateralism and global governance as a security architecture) with the dynamics of state sovereignty.

This is an important topic to think about as we enter an age where nationalistic fervor is rising and old models of the liberal order (i.e NATO and the EU) have come into question. Modern political and financial crises have caused popular distrust in global governing institutions. But can the state be sole arbitrator of the security of people?

A major trend today is for national populations to want to coalesce back into sub-groups for protective measure against what they see as a threat to their survival (too many immigrants and lack of jobs). But the emergence of nationalism is mostly about the identity of people within a state and cannot address the pressing security problems that plague early 21st Century society.

Broader understanding in how both state institutions and global governance models will coalign in the coming future is necessary for survival of all peoples. It is likely that the fundamentals of Realism will guide the birth of a new global security arrangement. As individuals questions the nature of their political identity within the state, we will come to see how the nature of the modern state system will develop due a changing security environment.


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