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3.3: Theories of World Politics- Realists

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    “Survivor/Dog Eat Dog,” aka Realists

    Building on the ideas of Thucydides, Hobbes and Machiavelli, Realists such as Morgenthau, Walt and Mearsheimer are cynics who focus on national interest, international competition for power, self-help and the selfish and aggressive aspects of human nature. In the Realist view of Presidents Bush 1 and Obama, there is constant competition for power and influence among nation-states that sometimes leads to conflict and requires a strong military, but used cautiously. Realists believe that military power is sometimes necessary, since there are always some people who do not play well with others. However, they are cautious in using military force only when it serves the national interest, and they are also willing to use diplomacy such as the Iran nuclear freeze agreement, treaties such as the Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS), alliances such as NATO, and international organizations such as the UN, World Bank and IMF to advance national political and economic interests.

    Realists also believe that ethics and morality do not apply in international relations except when it is in the national interest. If drones can kill Islamic State leaders, never mind international law.

    After the shocking slaughter of millions in WWI, people searched for alternatives to classical power politics with the League of Nations, arms treaties and antiwar treaties. However, none of these were any use against the aggression of Germany and Japan, which led to WWII. Similarly, during the Cold War, it was clear that the USSR would not be persuaded by sweet talk. Therefore, U.S. policy during the Cold War, including the Bush 1 administration, was generally realist. We formed alliances with bad guys like Osama Bin Laden and Panama’s Manual Noriega because they supported our national interests in opposing the Soviet Union in the Cold War. There is a classic photo of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with bloodthirsty Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during a visit in the 1980s. Why? Saddam was fighting Iran, who was our enemy. However, by 2003 Saddam was our enemy, and Rumsfeld organized an invasion of Iraq. To paraphrase Lord Palmerston, we have no permanent allies, only permanent interests.

    Sometimes these alliances resulted in ‘blowback’ effects, such as when Muslim radicals in Afghanistan later used our training against us. In addition, when nation-states try to increase their security through increased military power, it often results in their rivals building up their own power, and so on. The ironic result of this spiraling arms race is that both sides feel less secure and more suspicious. This is called the Security Dilemma. This is what happened during the Cold War. The U.S. and the USSR each eventually built over 15,000 nuclear warheads, with each side having enough to blow up the world ten times over and each feeling very insecure about the other. This greatly increased the level of conflict and tension.

    But the realist view has considerable validity, since some leaders and nations do engage in aggression. Diplomacy failed in dealing with Hitler’s Germany, Imperial Japan, Stalin’s Russia and Slobodan Milosovic’s Yugoslavia; military power was required. However, realists are cautious; they believe in military intervention only when vital national interests are threatened, not engaging in needless military adventures that cost money and lives.

    In the first Gulf War 1991, realists in the Bush 1 administration assembled a broad coalition and engaged in a limited war to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. (They did not continue to Bagdad to overthrow him. Bush 1 and then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said it would lead us into a quagmire.) Before the second Gulf War in 2003, the Realists criticized the Bush 2 administration’s coming Iraq invasion, saying that Saddam was not a threat, that the war would increase terrorism, that Iraq would distract us from hunting down Osama Bin Laden and the rest of the Al Qaeda leadership, and that the cost in money, lives and reputation would weaken the U.S. All of these turned out to be correct.

    This page titled 3.3: Theories of World Politics- Realists is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lawrence Meacham.