Realism and Idealism in International Relations

As it applies to the physical sciences, the dichotomy between positivism and realism on one hand and idealism on the other hand also applies to the study of international relations. From a positivist and realist perspective, facts are to be determined independent of one’s opinions and sentiments and if observed objectively, facts are to be indisputably true. As E.H. Carr wrote: “The Positivists, anxious to stake out their claim for history as a science, contributed the weight of their influence to this cult of facts. First, ascertain the facts, said the positivists, then draw your conclusions from them.” Thus, instead of “moralizing” history, positivist and realist thinkers sought to present history for what it “really is.”

            But showing history for what it “really is” depends on the assumption of the objective separation between subject and object, as well as the assumption that facts are independent of the observer and that facts “impinge” upon a person’s senses from the outside. But facts, like anything else, are subject to human interpretation. As Talcott Parsons wrote, science is “a selective system of cognitive orientations to reality.” Thus, an interpretation of history, or even an interpretation of the history of international relations, is contingent upon the observer and interpreter. It is then important to understand who is interpreting history and to understand what their “cognitive orientation” is to “reality.”

            As a result, history, rather than being a set of objective facts, is actually a byproduct of subjective interpretation. As E.H Carr suggested, history has no inherent meaning or purpose, and it is up to the individual to attach meaning and purpose to world history. In turn, the realist and idealist philosophical traditions of science and the question of whether the mind determines reality or vice versa apply equally to all scientific subjects, including the science of international relations and more broadly the social sciences.

            From Machiavelli and Hobbes, we acquire the modern notion that international relations is primarily a mechanism for the self-preservation of states and the individuals that are subject to the state. In terms of human nature, international relations – like individual human behavior – is driven by the pursuit of wealth, power, and sensual pleasures. Whereas the political philosophy of antiquity stemming from the likes of Plato and Aristotle was concerned primarily with ethics, ideals, morality, and virtue, modern political philosophy stemming from Machiavelli and Hobbes is concerned primarily with self-preservation and survival.

            For the positivists and realists, it is the passions, not ideals, that are the guiding force of human behavior. To deny that passions and vice are inherent features of a human being would be a denial of the reality of human nature, according to the realists. As David Hume argued, reason is the “slave” of the passions in the overwhelming number of cases. Thus, according to Machiavelli, the focus of a statesman should be on what man actually does rather than what man ought to do. Machiavelli wrote: “There is so great a distance between how one lives and how one ought to live that he who rejects what people do in favor of what one ought to do, brings about his ruin rather than his preservation; for a man who wishes to do in every manner what is good, will be ruined among so many who are not good.”

Whereas the human soul and spirit is made relevant to scientific thinking in the idealist tradition, the realists largely discount the human soul from their scientific calculus. For the realists, things have always been the same, even in antiquity. For one, injustice has always taken the place of justice, and terror has always taken the place of love. In a nutshell, “might makes right.” Revealed religion is also seen as man-made by the realists. Nonetheless, tapping into these intellectual traditions serves an important purpose, which is to understand the present through an understanding of the past. As William Faulkner famously said: “The past is not dead, it is not even past.” No one can truly understand the present without an understanding of established theories, historic debates, and intellectual traditions.

            Most importantly, an understanding of established theories, historic debates, and intellectual traditions helps us make sense of what are seemingly “disjointed events” through the course of world history. The study of international relations is then focused on understanding the interactions between sovereign states through an understanding of historic philosophical debates and intellectual traditions such as realism and idealism. In the study of international relations, the main entity is the state, which can be defined as a community that exercises “sovereignty” over a particular geographical space on the earth’s surface and a segment of the world’s population. The main concept of international relations then becomes “sovereignty,” which is understood as “the ultimate source of legitimate authority over the state.”

            The social group that is taken into consideration in the study of international relations is the “international society,” where membership is “compulsory” unlike in other groups or societies with non-mandatory and voluntary membership. Unlike other groups and societies, however, the international society is anarchical given that there is no overarching power to govern and rule over it. There is also the issue of war and its causes. As the international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz showed, there are perhaps three causes of war. For one, there is human behavior and nature. Second, there is the inability of states to align their respective interests. The third cause is the anarchical nature of the international system. Which of these is the most potent cause of war is a subject of debate.

            Thus, the essential aim of the practitioners of international relations is to resolve not only a paradox but also a dilemma, which is the establishment of global order and the aversion of war amidst an inherent state of global anarchy. This essential aim of international relations is highly idealistic but also necessary in an age when globalization has made the world compact and small. As mentioned in a previous essay, there are perhaps six dimensions of world order, namely, economics, diplomacy, law, politics, security, and strategy. What is perhaps most important in the establishment of world order is a “common strategy” that incorporates all the other dimensions into a cooperative framework.

            Moreover, any strategy for the establishment of social order in any society, including the international society, arguably has three elementary or primary goals, according to the theorist Hedley Bull. Essentially, social order equates to the establishment of “patterns of conduct” which lead to the attainment of three elementary or primary goals, namely, the prevention of violence, honoring of agreements and treaties, and the stability of the possession of property and wealth. It is hard to deny that these three elementary or primary goals as stated by Hedley Bull are universal in nature. Once these three elementary or primary goals are met, people can then pursue other collective and personal goals in life in a safe and secure manner. The main task of international relations is thus the establishment of social order and the attainment of these three elementary and primary goals, but on a global scale.

            Rules, laws, and norms are essentially a means towards achieving these elementary goals. It is perhaps true that crime is something that will always exist. But through the imposition of social order, crime can be mitigated to individual cases as opposed to letting it fester as a widespread social malady. Arguably, the only duty or task of a state is the establishment of social order through the creation of a “pattern of conduct” based on certain rules and norms. On an international level, however, the source of tension between different countries and regions of the world is essentially the divergence of opinions as to what these basic rules and norms for social order should be. Each country, region, and civilization have different rules and norms for the establishment of social order. As a result, the establishment of a common order on an international scale is an incredible challenge given the divergence of interpretations on what constitutes conventional rules and norms. As Henry Kissinger wrote:

“In the world of geopolitics, the order established and proclaimed as universal by the Western countries stands at a turning point. Its nostrums are understood globally, but there is no consensus about their application; indeed, concepts such as democracy, human rights, and international law are given such divergent interpretations that warring parties regularly invoke them against each other as battle cries.”

            Kissinger has also argued that despite the creation of a liberal international order after World War II, there has never been a truly global order due to the issue of “enforcement,” which cannot take place on a global scale due to the limitations on capabilities even for the hegemonic state. Thus, the most important question pertaining to international relations is whether a common global order with a common set of rules and norms can be established in the midst of different civilizations with different cultures and historical experiences.

            Today’s liberal international order has two foundational pillars. For one, there is the “Treaty of Westphalia (1648)” which established the norms, rules, and values of today’s liberal order, such as the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations, proportionality in the use of force, inter alia. Also, there is the “Congress of Vienna (1815)” which is largely a byproduct of the Napoleonic conquests in Europe, and it essentially outlawed what are known as “hegemonic wars” and permitted only limited wars for limited and well-defined interests such as self-defense and territorial sovereignty in order to preserve an inherent power equilibrium within the international system.

            Traditionally, there have been two ways to stall the outbreak of war and maintain order on a global scale. For one, there is the “balance of power” system where opposing alliance systems are formed. Also, there is the establishment of common rules and norms that foster and govern cooperation schemes and economic interdependence between nations and states, which was done by the United States after World War II. The former is a realist notion of how to preserve global order, whereas the latter is largely an idealist notion. But as history has shown, the balance of power system has not helped to avert war, and more recently the world is witnessing the breakdown of the liberal international order set up by the United States through the manifestation of Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.

It is a widely known fact that the United States has served as the linchpin of the global order since World War II. But as of late, due to ill-advised wars launched by a handful of bureaucrats with power that was disproportionate to what they deserved in places like Afghanistan and elsewhere, the United States is experiencing what is known as “relative decline” vis-à-vis China. As a result, there is now volatility in the international system with the potential for multipolarity but with a greater chance for bipolarity when considering the rapid rise of China over the last twenty years. Currently, the world is sandwiched between the United States on one hand, which is a country that is seeking to preserve its position as the status quo power, and a rising China on the other hand who is demanding a greater share in the upkeep of global order.

Arguably, the key to averting a breakdown in global order and the outbreak of global war is the mitigation of hostilities and tensions between the United States and China, which is perhaps possible if there is a “grand bargain” between the two countries that includes the resolution of the Taiwan issue. As Edward Luce wrote in his latest book titled “The Retreat of Western Liberalism,” Taiwan remains as China’s last piece of “unfinished business” after having secured Hong Kong from the British in 1997. The question is, will the United States risk global order and stability over Taiwan? Risking global order and stability over Taiwan, despite America’s long-standing “One-China” policy and the fact that the Taiwan issue is largely an internal matter between the Chinese people, is something that the United States would be wise to avoid. Perhaps Taiwan could ultimately be part of a quid pro quo for something that would have tangible benefits for the United States qua Venezuela.

Thus, aside from the issue of Taiwan, as long as nations and societies meet the minimal requirement of maintaining social order, there is no need to make an already miserable human condition worse through heavy-handed interventions into every little matter and by dramatizing every minute occurrence in the world. Unfortunately, in a number of societies such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, that basic element of social order is missing due to failed or weak states. When taking these societies into consideration, those societies who have been fortunate enough to maintain social order should be grateful for their situation. Before there is any attempt at developing a broad-based conception of global order, perhaps there should first be regional efforts at establishing order on a regional basis. Regionalism is perhaps the first step towards global order, with a focus on critical regions such as the Americas, North Africa, Southern Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. Only then can the international community make serious strides towards the creation of a truly global government and thus the establishment of order on a global scale.

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