International Theory Realism Liberalism And Constructivism Politics Essay

The study of polity between sovereign states or international relations as we called today is strictly not a new one, if we closely look at history. We can trace its origin to 5th century BC, when Thucydides wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, which recounts the 5th century BC war between Greek kingdoms of Sparta and Athens. This work of Thucydides shows his close interest in the study of polity in relations to other kingdoms with social morality, power, economy and ethics on the backdrop, which we know as international relations today. Similarly, the 15th century Italian philosopher Machiavelli defined international politics in terms of power. However, International Relations (IR) as a modern, independent and theoretical academic discipline starts only after the First World War, when the academic world faced with the most fundamental question of what governs a sovereign state’s relation with other states, what are the contributing factors for the war and how the future generations could be spared from the reoccurrence of such a massive catastrophe? The need to answer these questions within a conceptual framework contributed to the development of IR theories. IR theory is fundamentally concerned with those frameworks within which we may interpret and understand international politics by drawing patterns from unique events. It is now widely accepted that the formal recognition of IR as a separate discipline starts with establishment of a Woodrow Wilson Chair dedicated to the study of International Relations, at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which was followed by similar efforts in other part of Europe and America. British historian E.H, Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis (1939) and Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations (1948), were such two earliest texts, which theorized international politics and attempted to study the discipline in modern academic sense.

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International relations may be defined as the study of international politics; relations between nation states and external actor including non-state actors and formulation of policies which governs such relationship. Although IR is considered to be a branch of political science, it involves study of wide range of interdisciplinary areas including but not limited to history, economics, international laws, society, cultural studies and philosophy. Epistemologically, IR theories are broadly classified into two types; positivist and post-positivist. The positivist camp seeks to study IR through application of methodologies used for studying other natural sciences from a perspective of material aspects. Their main focus is on that part of IR which includes state interactions, strength of hard/soft powers, balance of power, etc. On the other hand, the post-positivist views that IR being closely interlinked to the social world, an objective study of the discipline is not possible. While the former attempts to understand IR in terms of “why” and “how” of the power element, the latter’s focus is on the “what” of power.

Realist Internationalism

Realism is one of the oldest and most popular theories in the discipline since its existence and is a powerful methodology to have valuable insights into the domain of international politics. The conception of realism is distinguished from other IR theories mainly by its emphasis on four major propositions; state of international anarchy, primacy of state, rational nature of the states and survival of the states. The realist camp believes that the state is a unitary entity deciding its relation with other states and there is no super-authority above the state to regulate its behaviour with respect to other states. As the international arena exists in a constant state of anarchy and the world system being leaderless, the state as the omnipotent authority constantly thrives to pursue its self-interest and struggles to survive. It is always in a state of either being aggressive or concerned with its own security (defensive). The security concerns however lead to aggressive build-up resulting in a security dilemma, when increasing one security may bring more instability as the opposing power may also start power builds up, making security a zero sum game leaving only the possibility of relative gains. So the realist are of the firm opinion that there can’t be a common regulation which is binding upon all the international actors and the one and only option left with the state is to keep watching the international arena and adopt a pragmatic approach to resolve issues as they appear. This view of the realists is based on the central idea of human nature is selfish and individual interest precedes ideologies. Hence the resulting power politics from the synthesis of international anarchy and human egoism forms the core of the realist view.

The realist ideology which dates back to the Greek period was never a static concept and continued evolving throughout history. The earliest realist view centred on the concept of power and anarchy may be traced in Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, in which the Athenians’ only argument for war against the Sparta was the superiority of hard power of the former, hence power forming the sole motivation for the war. This is form of radical realism which ignores everything except power and self-interest. During the 17th century, another great realist philosopher Thomas Hobbes states international politics in his Leviathan as “a struggle of power – a war of all against all”. The classical realism of Hobbes puts equal emphasis on the state of international anarchy and selfish human nature, which according to his are the primary motivating factors governing IR scenario. He sees men are equal and even the weakest actor has the capability to fight the strongest either through secret machination or alliance with other actor. This equal ability of mankind motivates them to complete with each other to meet their respective goals. Similarly, the 16th century Italian philosopher Machiavelli states that the only objective of a politician is to seek power without religious and ethical considerations. The 2nd wave of realists who call themselves as the “Liberal Realist” or “The English School” includes philosophers like Martin Wight, John Vincent and Hedley Bull. The liberal realists while recognising the importance of anarchy, also believes that there is “society of states’ at the world level which make order and stability possible through common norms and interests. They differ from the classical realist’ belief that only the material capabilities shape the IR arena, instead they also pay attention to the power of ideas which also plays an important role. The 3rd wave of contemporary realists belongs to the group called “structural realism” or “neorealism” as propounded by Kenneth Waltz in his “Theory of International Politics (1979)”. Much of the realist works since 1970s are highly influenced by the conception of structural characteristics of IR arena. Waltz while emphasizing the primacy of international anarchy, also highlights the distribution of capabilities of the states. He states that “International structure emerges from the interaction of the states and then constrains them from taking certain actions while propelling them toward others”. Therefore even if the individual actor interact with each other differently, but there is a commonality in their international behaviours. The structuralism camp sees hierarchy and anarchy are the two primary forces which govern the behaviour of the “unit” as Waltz call them. Such unit fit themselves into the hierarchy either by standing or subordinating against/under the authority or do not succumb to the hierarchy creating a state of anarchy. Further the main differences in the behaviour of the units arise from the fact of their respective capabilities, instead of their functions. Hence the international political structure changes according to the distribution of the capabilities of the units, in other words by the number of such great units. In a state of anarchy units balance themselves according to the international scenario and oppose the stronger party in order to mitigate their risks. While the great powers attempts to balance them both internally and externally by allocating resources and forming alliances respectively, weaker states are left with only choice of guessing the right and ally with the victor. One such contemporary example is the American – Soviet Union relationship during the cold war, when both the great powers attempted to balance themselves for over two decades. Therefore the structural realists emphasize on the fact that the structure of international realms must be taken into consideration while theorizing the discipline of IR.

The realist internationalism is the target of criticism on several grounds. The liberals refute the idea of state’s unitary characteristic, arguing the state behaviours are determined by multiple factors, such as form of government, socio-cultural and economic aspects. The realist of view of human nature as selfish is also targeted by the liberals who view human nature as fundamentally peaceful and always desire peace and order in the society. Moreover, the conception of rational choice of the state and the consequent perpetual struggle in order to preserve national interest and power, results only in relative gains. Nevertheless, the realist internationalism remains one of the most popular and power theory in the discipline of international relations.

Liberal Internationalism

Another major school dominant in the domain of IR is the supporters of the “Liberal Theory” which see state preferences instead of state capabilities as the primary force governing the state behaviour. The foundation of the liberal internationalism was laid during seventeenth and eighteenth century when philosophers like Emanuel Kant visualize a peaceful world order devoid of wars and conflicts. Besides, to a great extent liberalism also owes its origin to “idealism” which argues that the domestic political ideologies should be governing the diplomatic relations of the states. This concept, also known as “Wilsonianism” or “Wilsonian Idealism” was made popular by the political philosophy of Woodrow Wilson, who thought that both domestic and international policies of the states are fundamentally inseparable and a peaceful and just world order can be achieved through proliferation of liberal democratic values among the nation states. The liberalist camp supporting “idealist” viewpoint claims that the awakening of democracy and spread of international minds promoted by men of peace will bring perpetual peace to the world. This view of the liberals is influenced by fundamental liberal viewpoint of human nature being altruistic; human being is always concerned about other’s wellbeing and violence if a product of evil institutions. Influenced by the Kantian argument of “constitutional republics” being one among the several conditions necessary for a lasting world peace, they claims that liberal democracies have never waged a war against each other – a view which has been the target of criticism. Refuting the realist view of “unitary” nature of the state, the liberals emphasize on the “plurality” of the state actions. Not by restricting themselves only to “high politics” like political and security elements, they also pay attention on “low politics” such as economic and cultural aspects in order to understand the international relations of the state. Hence they see the international arena in terms of opportunities for world peace, rather the realist view of state of international anarchy.

The end of Cold War and fall of Soviet Union in the beginning of 1990s gave a boost to the liberal ideologies in the domain of IR study. The end of Cold War culminates with the triumph of liberal democracy and the world has now found the ultimate form of governance in democracy which will bring the Kantian “Perpetual Peace”. Francis Fukuyama in his “The End of History and the Last Man (1992)” claimed that “what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such; that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” [1] Fukuyama viewed that liberal-capitalist democracy of the West is most ideal form of governance on which further improvisation is not possible and eventually the whole world will adopt it disregarding individual national and cultural distinctions. Supporting this view of Fukuyama, the supporters of “democratic peace theory” argues that democratic states are bound by several democratic mechanisms which demotivate them from going to war. Further, the liberals see globalization, free trade and economic interdependence between states work as deterrent for violating world order. The economic interdependence between states makes conflict a less possibility between trading partners for mutual benefits. Criticizing the realist notion of relative gains and balancing in the international anarchic state, the liberals argues for long term absolute gains through international cooperation using international bodies as the tool of harmony.

The myth of liberal-capitalist democracy being the ultimate form of governance promoting world order was shattered after the 9/11 event and subsequent American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. The national aspiration and cultural element of a particular group of society are viewed as the major contributing factors for the 9/11 event. It has also been criticized that the Western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq has nothing to do with “legitimate self-defence” or “humanitarianism”, which the liberals see as the only reasons when a liberal democratic nation goes to war. The recent wave of anti-Western Islamic terrorist activities shows that many of the non-Western nations are not seeking political modernization as the Western world did. The international organizations like UN, WTO, etc. are highly influenced by outside powers to be able to achieve their goal of promoting international cooperation. The post-Cold War optimism of liberals like Fukuyama has been proved wrong with the on-going conflicts in the Middle East and other parts of the world. While the end of Cold War was rejoiced by the liberals, realists like Waltz view the collapse of bipolarity and existence of a single great power as a great concern which won’t last, eventually leading to volatility. Nevertheless, the liberal notion of international commerce and free trade as a tool for promoting world peace is a strong proposition, as proved by the relative political stability and economic prosperity in the European Union countries.

Constructivist Internationalism

Constructivism, a relatively new approach to the study of IR, nevertheless has become popular and important in the recent days. The term “constructivism” has been credited to Nicholas Onuf, an important constructivist IR theorist, who views the domain of IR as socially constructed. However, much of the recent works on constructivism has been attributed to Alexander Wendt, who in his article titled “Anarchy is What States Make of It: the Social Construction of Power Politics” (1992)” argued that even the primary realist concept of “power politics” is in fact socially constructed. He viewed power politics as something not given by nature and as it is socially constructed, hence it can be transformed by human practice. [2] The conception of “social construction” is the foundation upon which the constructivism theory is based. According to Wendt, “the basic tenets of constructivism are the structures of human association that are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than material forces, and that the identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature”. [3] This statement of Wendt was primarily addressed against the realist concept of “the IR structure forcing the states to behave in a particular way” and due to this anarchic and structural characteristic of IR scenario “the state cannot rely on other actor for their security and must self-help themselves”. Wendt instead challenges this approach by claiming that as the structure is constructed by socio-cultural practices, ideas, domestic and international interactions, rather by rational choice behaviour of the international actors who thrive to maximize their gains through rational decisions. In contrast to the realist viewpoint of “states’ security and material interests in relation to power shaping the IR arena” and the liberals viewpoint of “interdependency of the international actors forming the state’s behaviour against other actors”, the constructivists see the “IR realms is shaped by the actor’s identities and socio-cultural practices”. Although they accept the existence of international anarchy, they do not problematize it as it only cannot determine the international state of affairs.

Further, the constructivist believes that the way anarchy affects the state behaviour depends on the states’ way of perceiving the anarchy and its own identity and interest. The state of anarchy creates the neorealist situation of self-help only if the state perceives security as threatening and gain of security by one actor lead to the reducing the security of others, creating the security dilemma. But, if security is perceived from the angle of cooperation and collective, where security of others is also considered valuable to the state, then the security dilemma in the state of anarchy will not happen and the neorealist idea of self-help will not appear. Wendt’s comment on this issue is that “the nature of international anarchy appears to be conflictual if states show a conflictual behaviour towards each other, and cooperative if they behave cooperatively towards one another. Therefore aˆ¦ it is states themselves that determine anarchy’s nature.” For instance, an increasing in the military expense in China may be seen as a great security dilemma by India in comparison to what Pakistan may perceives. Hence the constructivists give primacy to the state’s interests and identities as the major factors contributing toward the state’s behaviour, which are again not static, but evolve with the changing socio-cultural milieu.

The study is international relations which started only after the World Wars is although a new comer in the academic domain it has developed itself as an independent branch of knowledge because of its close linkage with the function of the modern nation states. Due to complicate nature of international politics and involvement of other complex factors like sovereignty, power, human nature, the ever changing economic and security scenario, etc. it’s become more difficult to study and understand all aspects of IR by applying a particular theoretical framework. Hence the theories advocated by various scholars to study IR are complementary to each other and may not be study in studied in isolation. Aware of the fact that there is no universal framework to study the domain of IT, this paper only briefly explains the central ideas of realism, liberalism and constructivism and the grounds on which they have been criticised.