The Rise and Fall of Realism

“We are the indispensable nation.” In a 1998 interview, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in a single sentence, explained the power dynamic of the world, a dynamic that still exists today. For the last two decades, the word “hegemony” has been on the lips of most foreign policy analysts. The United States, with no equal in sight, has single-handedly dominated the international community, using a combination of its influence and military might to dictate global events. Compared to the rest of the twentieth century, this period of dominance, or “unipolarity” is an outlier.  The first half of the twentieth century was defined by competition amongst European powers with the United States, Japan and the Soviet Union picking sides, while the second half was marked by superpower conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Not only are the last two decades, a period referred to by some as “Pax Americana,” a historical outlier, it is also a theoretical anomaly. According to one of the most prominent schools of thought on international relations, realism, hegemony be long lasting as eventually, other nations will attempt to weaken and balance against it. This realist argument is based upon three key assumptions. First, realists argue that the world is inherently chaotic and anarchic. In other words, realists claim that there is nothing that is capable of regulating and constraining the actions of nations, not even international organizations such as the United Nations. Second, realists believe that states are the most important actors in the international community. This assumption posits that while international organizations, non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross, and non-state actors such as terrorist organizations may shape events, nations are the ultimate decision-makers and driving forces internationally. Finally, realists assume that all states, when they act, seek their own self-interest, with their own security being their primary interest. Based on these assumptions, traditional realists argue that because global and even regional hegemons pose a grave threat to individual nations, threatened nations will attempt to band together and attempt to maintain a balance of power.

History seems to empirically support this classic realist argument about a balance of power. During the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century, Great Britain, Prussia, Russia and several other states formed a series of coalitions to balance against the threat of French hegemony. Before World War I, confronted by the danger of the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, Great Britain, France and Russia responded by forming their own alliance, the Triple Entente.

Outside of the idea of a balance of power, realism and its followers shaped foreign policy across the world, perhaps no more so than during the Cold War. Ironically, even though the United States and its allies claimed to be engaged in a global ideological competition, most our actions were based on the hard-nosed, pragmatic calculations that define realist thinkers. Famously, Henry Kissinger, seeking to open a new front in the Cold War, embraced communist China by orchestrating the famous 1972 summit between Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon.  While paying lip service to freedom and liberty, the United States embraced dictatorships across Latin America. Many foreign policy analysts, paying homage to the realist undertones of the Cold War, often compared the relationship between the US and the USSR to a high-stakes game of chess. Using different tools, the two nations reacted to the moves of the other, taking steps to counter them in hopes of gaining a broader strategic edge.

However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it appears as if realism’s ability to describe, predict and analyze the international community began to decline.  For example, realist thinkers such as Kenneth Waltz famously argued in his 1964 paper, “The Stability of a Bipolar World,” that the balance of power that between the US and the USSR was the key to the absence of war between major powers. So, once the Cold War and a “bipolar” world ceased to exist, realists forecasted instability and conflict would quickly follow as the world transitioned back to multipolarity. In fact, John J. Mearsheimer predicted in his paper, “Back to Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War,” “the prospects for major crises and war in Europe [will] increase markedly if the Cold War ends.”

Yet, as we know, these predictions were proven to be quite wrong. In fact, instead of conflict and war, the globe seemed to quietly acquiesce to US hegemony, without attempting to balance American power. G. John Ikenberry, professor of politics here at Princeton, argues in his book, Liberal Leviathan, “there are severe limits on the ability of [balance of power dynamics] to explain America-led liberal international order… states have not responded to unipolarity by seeking to balance against the United States” (54).  If anything, we have seen more nations attempt to join the United States and the international order it has crafted. For example, China, in 2001, worked diligently to liberalize itself as it sought to join the World Trade Organization. Russia has recently done the same. Realism and its focus on balance of power dynamics failed to predict the durability of American preeminence.

Not only have some of the predictions made by traditional realism proven to be wrong, realists also seem to have lost their ability to influence foreign policy.  Over the last two decades, the globe has seen several examples of “humanitarian intervention,” (the use of military force for seemingly altruistic reasons), a policy that nations ought to never use when operating under traditional realist assumptions. International organizations such as the United Nations, in its deployment of thousands of peacekeepers across the globe, and the World Trade Organization, in its trade dispute settlement body, seem to have reasserted their ability to influence global and regional events, defying one of realism’s core assumptions. Perhaps in one of the most famous rejection of realism, Francis Fukuyama, in his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, idealistically argued that liberal democracy and free-market capitalism represented the end point of human civilization and that their spread was inevitable. Indeed, with the rise of US supremacy at the beginning of the 1990s, it appears as if realism quickly lost its relevance in the international community.

Yet, I believe realism is set for a comeback. While on the surface, the last two decades refute its basic assumptions, upon further examination, this period of US hegemony offers support of realism. First, operating within its own theoretical framework, realism can still explain the behavior of developing nations like India and Brazil, who have largely bought into the American world order. Realists argue that there are two ways nations respond to hegemony – “balancing” (joining together to challenge and weaken the hegemon) or “bandwagoning” (joining with the hegemon). We did not see significant attempts to balance against the United States during the 1990s and the 2000s because other nations derived more benefits by joining America’s liberal international order rather than by challenging it.  G. John Ikenberry goes onto make this argument in Liberal Leviathan. He contends that the “open and rule-based character [of America’s liberal international order] creates more benefits to states that operate within it- and places states outside the order at a disadvantage”(65). It is important to note that G. John Ikenberry argues in his book that other nations have cooperated with the US rather than challenge it because nations look to absolute gains when making decisions. Essentially, nations only focus on what makes them better off, even if it simultaneously strengthens their rivals. On the other hand, realists tend to claim that nations only cooperate when they derive a relative gain i.e. they receive more benefits than other nations. Strong arguments can be made that developing nations like China and India have, by working within the established order, derived much more relative benefits than the United States and other developed nations. However, regardless of what analytical framework one adopts, the same conclusion can be made- other nations, for selfish reasons, have cooperated with the United States, rather than challenged it and the core realist assumption that nations solely seek their self-interest is still alive and well.
The realist assumptions of international anarchy and the primacy of states still stand as well. The United Nations is certainly not an independent actor globally. It remains utterly dependent on the resources and political support of its member states, particularly those that compose the United Nations Security Council. More importantly, it has never had the ability to prevent nations from acting. In 2003, the United States and its allies still invaded Iraq without UN approval. North Korea developed nuclear weapons and Iran continues to enrich uranium, despite countless UN resolutions. Other international laws lack force as well. The power and will of a nation easily trump international norms.  China, for example, continues to flaunt the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas in island disputes in the South China Sea. Despite the passage of the Responsibility to Protect by the United Nations General Assembly (a doctrine that places the burden on the international community to stop genocide crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing), the world has stood by and watched the slaughter in Syria. Similarly, non-state actors like al Qaeda are still secondary players to states. Al Qaeda’s founding ideology is based upon the hopes of establishing an Islamic caliphate throughout the Middle East. The very fact that al Qaeda, a non-state actor, hopes to create and gain control of a state indicates that this key assumption of realism is still very alive in the world today.

Looking to the future, the assumptions and predictions made by realists will continue to provide an important framework when for analyzing foreign policy and informing its creators. We are already seeing the return of the realist, power-based calculations that characterized the Cold War to the US-Chinese relationship. From China’s growing military investment to America’s pivot to Asia, mutual suspicion and hostility appear to be growing. Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, notes in Bending History- Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy, in Asia,

where China sees its legitimate security needs at stake, America sees potential challenges to its vital interests. Again, each side is adopting fundamental postures that inadvertently stoke the other’s fears and lead reciprocal actions that further exacerbate the concerns.

A quick scan of the headlines during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s June visit to the White House demonstrates the level of mutual suspicion between the two nations.

“Obama and Xi Try to Avoid a Cold War Mentality” – New York Times, June 9,     2013
“Getting Past Mutual Suspicion” – Carnegie Endowment for International     Peace, June 6, 2013.
“Can US Chinese Relations be Saved?” – National Interest, June 12, 2013.

In fact, Senator Marco Rubio, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s East Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee, declared in an online article for Foreign Policy Magazine, “Xi Jinping’s vision of a future China cannot coexist with the American Dream.” At the heart of this dynamic, which Lieberthal calls a “closed loop reinforcing strategic distrust on both sides,” is one the assumption that both the United States and China are constantly seeking their own self-interest, even at the expense of the other. This unspoken, realist assumption forms the basis of strategic distrust between the United States and China.

Over the next century, it appears that, by virtue of their sheer economic magnitude, the United States and China will be the preeminent global powers. As the two superpowers, their relationship will likely define the globe for better or worse, just like the United States and the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. If implicit realist assumptions and calculations form the basis of this relationship and mutual perceptions, we must rediscover realism and its uses in the years ahead.

While on the surface, realism paints a cold, and unforgiving picture of the international community, at its heart sits a very pragmatic worldview.  It calls upon us to realize that in foreign policy, idealism simply has no place. The world is a messy place and in order to get its desired results, a nation has to be willing to get messy itself. Realism encourages policy makers to clearly establish the ends that they seek and to be willing to use whatever means are necessary to achieve it. When an opportunity presents itself, the United States must be willing to deal with potentially morally repugnant regimes. Examining the world from through this realist lens encourages the United States to realize the security concerns of other nations as well. The United States has already proven its ability to thrive in this power-based world during the Cold War. It just has to remember how to do so.

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