What are the key realist assumptions on international order and how do these relate to American foreign policy?
“Diplomats are just as essential to starting a war as soldiers are to finishing it. You take Diplomacy out of war and the thing would fall flat in a week.” (Will Rogers) This view has been shared by many people throughout history, and some still see the American diplomacy as bellicose. Those who make American Foreign policy are seldom the diplomats themselves, but more usually specialized staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, of Defence, of Trade... and these foreign policy makers, in the case of the United States of America, often belong to the 'realist' school of thought. Moreover, the international order today still seems to put security – and thus defence and 'hard power' – at the top of the foreign policy agenda. These are the reasons why it is interesting to try to answer to the question: “What are the key realist assumptions on international order and how do these relate to American foreign policy?” Of course, different angles could be used to answer to this question, but we will mainly study the realist aspects of American foreign policy through a theoretical grid. We shall therefore see U.S. foreign policy on anarchy and defence matters, for they are to our mind the essential aspects of realist foreign policy theory thought. But first of all, we shall have a quick look at what the main realist assumptions are.
I. REALISM'S ESSENTIAL ASSUMPTIONS
The main assumptions of Realism are undoubtedly shared by many foreign policy makers in the United States. This is why we will see its' classical as well as its 'neo' aspects.
A. Classical Realism: A Pessimistic View of Human Nature
Realist thinking is based on a list of assumptions about the international system and humankind. Realist theoreticians have a very pessimistic view of the world. Indeed, for them, the international system is anarchical and chaotic. It consists of a system of unitary and rational states, and there is no higher authority than them. For classical realists, this is due to a negative human nature: progress is merely impossible, so states can never be sure of other States' intentions, and thus their central preoccupation is about security and power for their survival, the protection of their national interest, and this is emphasised by the fact that whatever the domestic politics, states behave in the same way. Their actions are determined by “The nature of the anarchical international system and their position within the balance of power. State preferences are fixed by the search for power.” Consequently, world politics are characterised by the relentless pursuit of (relative) power by rival states who seek security and survival and states have little choice but to compete and to attempt to dominate other states. Since it is considered as unrealistic by (most) states to aim at controlling the whole planet, the solution they found stands in the balance of power that they try to establish. However, this brings the security dilemma with an unproductive zero-sum game: your gains are my losses, and vice-versa... In this theory, to harden things a bit, Human nature clearly influences states' behaviour. In fact, for Morgenthau, human beings have embedded in them a 'lust for power', and international anarchy is the consequence of every state's leaders, thus every state's lust for power. Moreover, the international system is condemned to keep the status quo, for, however states evolve, “the basic structure of international politics continues to be anarchic” . And the balance of power can never be fully achieved: “prosperity and military power, although connected, cannot be equated” . Finally, all this instability plays against a development of international cooperation, and if states may cooperate in order to balance greater threats; or to do so in the interests of a dominant power, cooperation remains subordinate to self-help.
B. Neo-Realism: Chaos in the international system
Although the neorealist movement is divided into two tendencies, they both are rather alike. Indeed, both defensive and offensive realism have a structural level of explanation, which means that for them, states behave in ways that are not directly linked to human nature (classical/psychological realism), but rather because of the chaotic international system. The words of Secretary of State G. Schultz in 1984 to show that some American politics believe in this: “Our well-being as a country depends not on this or that episode or agreement. It depends rather on the structural conditions of the international system that help determine whether we are fundamentally secure, whether the world economy is sound, and whether the forces of freedom and democracy are gaining ground.” Here again, states are unitary and identical units. And also here we find one of the characteristics of all realist tendencies: internal politics (e.g. the fact that a country is a democracy or a dictatorship) have little importance, as when faced with the anarchic international system, all states will act in the same way. However, the structural explanation of international politics leaves some latitude whether to interpret states' behaviour as defensive or offensive. The first behaviour is found by some theoreticians in 18th century Great Britain, as it tried to balance power between Germany and France. As for the second way of acting, it is justified because states' survival mandate can be better guaranteed by an aggressive behaviour, 'just in case'... Defensive realist Waltz asserts that since states aim to survive, anarchy central cause of security competition and states are forced to act defensively to maintain a balance of power. On the other hand, offensive realists such as Mearsheimer think that states cannot be satisfied with defensive balance of power but will always seek to promote a more favourable balance of power. Thinkers around the world try to assess which group the United States belong to. At least, we can be sure that the United States foreign policy makers believe in neo-realism since former President G. R. Ford, said, in 1975, that “At no time in our peacetime history has the state of the Nation depended more heavily on the state of the world; and seldom, if ever, has the state of the world depended more heavily on the state of our Nation.” Throughout recent history, world politics have changed. Firstly, after having been a unipolar world after the 2nd World War (in favour of the United States of America), a bipolar world during the Cold War... the world might become polycentric with the United States, Europe, Japan, China etc. as 'centres of commandment'. Secondly, the end of the 20th century has seen the incredible rise of non-state actors: International Governmental Organisations Non-Governmental Organisations Multi-National Corporations etc. However, their effects are contrasted. Taking the example of multi-national corporations, Kegley and Wittkopf tried to find out their positive and negative aspects, and conclude that they globally undermine the independence and the autonomy of the United States . We may therefore conclude that to the realists' minds, “the central argument is that the broad outcomes of international politics derive more from the structural constraints of the states system than from unit behaviour.” And this casts the light upon the fact that the “primacy of survival, security, and independence for each unit [...] mandate self-help [...] upon each unit.” As a consequence, we can assert that, for U.S. neorealist foreign policy theoreticians, it is the states system that leads to structural anarchy, out of which arises the need for a primacy of security, and thus self help in order to keep the balance of power.
II. INTERNATIONAL ANARCHY
The goal of foreign policy makers, be it in the United States or elsewhere, is to achieve the survival and the flourishing of their state, or in other words, to fulfil their states' national interest. In today's world, international cooperation is considered as necessary to achieve this goal.
A. Classical-Realist Point of View
Albeit there is a shared view that cooperation between states is favourable to nations, this seems to be in contradiction with the realists' assertion of international anarchy and uncertainty, which undermine any possibility of true cooperation. Interstate cooperation is subject to the international system, therefore, logically, the realists' argument seems to contradict the possibility of cooperation. As expected, the incapacity for states to cooperate is explained by the bad human nature, if we are to believe the classical realists, and the anarchical system, if we are to believe the neorealists. Human nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Thomas Hobbes, 1588-1679). Added to people's selfishness, the unequal repartition of resources creates frustration, aggressiveness and conflict . Since for those who believe in the “first image explanations” , states behave the way people do, we can see that the consequences of this assertion are that in the international environment as we know it, “it seems unlikely that states would be willing to cooperate” . Furthermore, when states cooperate, the “mix between conflict and cooperation provides the opening for strategy, which seeks to identify how mutual dependence can be exploited for unilateral gain.” Morgenthau give the example of the United Nations which do not – if we are to believe him – represent all its' members' interests equally, and emphasize the ones of its most “influential members” . International anarchy seems here to last, at least for realist theoreticians, since “human nature does not change” and “history is rather cyclical than progressive” . Consequently, some thinkers assert that the only true cooperations are “war alliances” . Moreover, to their point of view, there are no true international rules, or at least that there is no efficient enforcer: this is the third image explanation, which sustains that states' behaviours are explained by the fixed anarchy of the international system. Therefore, states must be self-reliable, especially since they “care deeply about their status or power position relative to other states and this concern guides state behaviour” , which in turn 'makes' the national interest. As a result, if states can only defend their interests through power, and if they may only rely on themselves, cooperation becomes merely impossible. Consequently, we may say that states are “in a situation of perpetual self defence” as well as “in an everlasting struggle for power” . And “the result of this is naturally the impossibility for one state to be confident enough in another state's goodwill and honesty to enable true mutually worthwhile cooperation between them.” Nevertheless, some counter-arguments are raised against the classical realist idea of international anarchy. A first point is brought by internationalists who assert that states can be “regulated” through international institutions. A second and very powerful argument is that the problems brought by globalisation, cannot be fought by states alone .
B. The Neo-Realist Vision
Neorealists are still quite close to classical realists, but have tried to put some elasticity, that is to say some life-resemblance, into realism. For example, if both groups agree that the international system is anarchical, only neorealists think that true cooperation may be possible to some extent. This is explained by the view they hold that states are as interest–maximizers. It is therefore not surprising “to read some theoreticians link cooperation and war” . For example, Kaplan, considers cooperation as enabling the emergence of rival blocs . Little even adds that “conflict and cooperation are not [...] extremes at the two ends of a continuum” . As a result, the neo-debate sees cooperation as possible, even though, in reason of the states' characteristics, it remains linked to the international competition. Indeed, many key American foreign policy makers fear for their states' relative gains which ensure (to their point of view) its' survival. However, this does not play in favour of the state, since if the United States found absolute gains sufficient, it would be able to avoid “zero-sum” relations. “In the “zero-sum” relation when a state or a person wins something out of cooperation, the other is considered as loser” . For example Snidal thinks that relative gains are not important to people. For the partisans of the neo-debate, cooperation has its' importance, and thus international anarchy can be partly tamed. Indeed, for neorealists, fight for survival goes 'hand in hand' with cooperation. This is because cooperation can enable a state to make another one dependent. Also, in order to avoid a hard decline, powerful states “may choose to institutionalise beneficial patterns of cooperation while they have the chance” . In addition, alliances can be seen as positive to neorealists. It is the case with the oil-selling countries of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Alliances can also be useful to fight against problems aroused by globalisation . As the 'game theory' shows, neorealist thinkers see cooperation as possible up to a certain point, and this, thanks to the emergence of an international regime. Without one, the absence of interaction resulting in a lack of information would go against the wish of states to cooperate, as they would fear to become dependent of other state . The only solution seems to be 'repetitive interaction', so an international regime can slowly emerge. States would then realise that they share “common interests”, “common values” and consequently “conceive themselves to be bound” and to work in common institutions. It seems to be the way the U.S.A. cooperate with other states using the United Nations and the North Alliance Treaty Organisation.
III. IMPORTANCE OF POWER
To the eyes of American realist scholars as well as foreign policy makers, power is primordial! Without power, no state can have its voice heard in the international scene (or so it is believed), and no policy can be implemented. Power is therefore the means used to achieve for self-help and survival, but it can also be a goal in itself
Since the 2nd World War, the United States of America have proved out to be a key superpower. This was enabled by the terrible state of the former 'colonial European powers' as well as the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics and Germany, all in ruins after the war. This is when the Cold War was born, dividing Earth into a bipolar system: U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.: West against East. To protect the U.S. from the Soviet Union, George Kennan, had the idea of soviet containment in order to protect Western Europe from the communist threat. This was to be achieved by an alliance of the U.S., Europe and Japan. Even economic aid and cooperation was used to reduce the appeal of communism for Europe's populations impoverished by the war. It is also at that time that Paul Nitze promoted military containment for the U.S.S.R. in the “NSC 68” (United States Objectives and Programs for National Security ) which influenced the Truman doctrine. Whilst applying this doctrine, by fear of a 'domino effect', and in order to protect geostrategic areas (petrol...) the United States and Soviet Union progressively shifted the Cold War from Europe to the Third World where 20 million people died. Since the beginning of the 1990's, the Cold War belongs to the past. Nevertheless, realists believe that international anarchy is still there. Furthermore, they fear an increase in international danger because the end of the Cold War is also the end of a stable and predictable international system. Samuel Huntington's opinion is that the ancient East-West conflict has simply muted to a conflict between civilisations. However, since the eleventh of September 2001, the United States of America seem to have adopted a more unilateral – and consequently more 'realist' – foreign policy. Offensive realism has become ever-more popular amongst American foreign policy makers, but most of them are still conscious that they must not upset their 'old' allies (i.e. in Europe, in the Middle East...) too much, for fear of losing them and seeing them try to balance American power . Samuel Huntington tried to define the U.S.A.'s strategic interests, and wrote that they are: “(i) to maintain the U.S. as the premier global power [...]; (ii) to prevent the emergence of a political–military hegemonic power in Eurasia; and; (iii) to protect concrete American interests in the Third World, which are primarily in the Persian Gulf and Middle America.”
During the Cold War, the way for a state to survive seemed clear: have better weapons and more allies than your foe. The U.S. also manoeuvred an ideological and military containment of communism in Western Europe. At that time, the United States aimed to balance Soviet power, and during 1980s Reagan Administration, to remove (offensive realism) alleged Soviet forces throughout the 3rd world. As a result, Dunne and Schmidt can assert that realism has become evermore popular between the two world wars, insisting on Statism, survival and self help, raison d'Etat and anarchy: “As Machiavelli recognized, today's friend can quickly become tomorrow's enemy. States, in short, should not depend on others for their own security.” Of course, this uncertainty is a constant threat to the state's survival. However, even though survival is still considered by realist thinkers as the supreme national interest, one must be careful at giving limits to the states' actions . And even a certain degree of cooperation is possible when national security is at stake .
C. Lust for Power
Since '9/11' (terrorist attack in New York), the U.S.'s lust for power, through its doctrine of pre-emption, frightens some of its allies. Today, many realists are highly critical of Bush's administration's unilateralism. Mearsheimer also criticises the unconditional American support for Israel which is not in the U.S.'s national interest, which lies in the oil-rich Arab world. However, to unilateralism dos not seem all bad to Wohlforth's eye, since he thinks that “[...] the distribution of power is unstable and conflict prone.” , whereas unipolarity is durable and prone to peace, for “As long as their security policies are oriented around the power and preferences of the sole pole, second-tier states are less likely to engage conflict prone rivalries for security or prestige.” Finally, he thinks that “the U.S. combination of quantitative and qualitative material advantages is unprecedented, and it translates into a unique geopolitical position.” This creates a huge geographical and power gap in favour of the U.S., and in turn, this could justify American lust for power: since Thucydides (460-400 B.C.) he wrote in his Melian dialogue that “the strong do as they may, the weak suffer what they must.”
Finally, we can say that throughout this research, we have found out the strengths and weaknesses of the realist theory. First of all, its' might is in its simplicity, and its' adaptability which enables it to be used by American foreign policy makers. However, there are many criticisms have risen against realism. Its' love for status-quo, for state-centrism and its' emphasis on strategy and its' cynical view of human nature are all criticised. Moreover, it seems to some that the United States of America have not sought to balance rival powers, but to incorporate them in multinational organisations, such as N.A.T.O. And if, in the past, some countries had some international functions, “of course, they were often (but not always) related to questions of power and security”, “but this does not mean that these roles can be reduced to security factors” . Historically, realism also seems biased against the U.S.S.R. Finally, especially in the case of the United States, it seems that realism forgets “that cultural and informal forms of power help to structure the world economy to reflect great powers' interests.” The question now is: are we to believe Wohlforth when he states that “The current belief in a looming power transition between the United States and China resembles pre-World-War I beliefs about rising Russian power. It assumes that population and rapid growth compensate for technological backwardness” ? Does Washington really have yet many 'unipolar years' to go?