Within the West, the realm of international theory has, since 1945, been a discourse dominated almost entirely by the Liberal perspective. Near-universal amongst the foreign policy establishments of Western governments, a focus on state cooperation, free-market capitalism and more broadly, internationalism, is really the only position held by most leaders nowadays – just look at ‘Global Britain’. As Francis Fukuyama noted, the end of the Cold War (and the Soviet Union) served as political catalysts, and brought about ‘the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’.
Perhaps even more impactful however, were the immediate post-war years of the 1940s. With the Continent reeling from years of physical and economic destruction, the feeling amongst the victors was understandably a desire for greater closeness, security and stability. This resulted in numerous alliances being formed, including political (the UN in 1945), military (NATO in 1949), and also economic (with the various Bretton Woods organisations). For Europe, this focus on integration manifested itself in blocs like the EEC and ECSC, which would culminate in the Maastricht Treaty and the EU.
This worldview however, faces criticism from advocates championing another, Realism. The concerns of states shouldn’t, as Liberals claim, be on forging stronger global ties or forming more groups – instead, nations should be domestically-minded, concerned with their internal situation and safety. For Realism, this is what foreign relations are about: keeping to oneself, and furthering the interests of the nation above those of the wider global community.
To better understand Realism as an ideological school, we must first look to theories of human nature. From the perspective of Realists, the motivations and behaviour of states can be traced back to our base animalistic instincts, with the work of Thomas Hobbes being especially noteworthy. For the 17th Century thinker, before the establishment of a moral and ordered society (by the absolute Sovereign), Man is concerned only with surviving, protecting selfish interests and dominating other potential rivals. On a global scale, these are the priorities of nation-states and their leaders – Hans Morgenthau famously noted that political man was “born to seek power”, possessing a constant need to dominate others. However much influence or power a state may possess, self-preservation is always a major goal. Faced with the constant threat of rivals with opposing interests, states are always seeking a guarantee of protection – for Realists, the existence of intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) is an excellent example of this. Whilst NATO and the UN may seem the epitome of Liberal cooperation, what they truly represent is states ensuring their own safety.
One of the key pillars of Realism as a political philosophy is the concept of the Westphalian System, and how that relates to relationships between countries. Traced back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the principle essentially asserts that all nation-states have exclusive control (absolute sovereignty) over their territory. For Realists, this has been crucial to their belief that states shouldn’t get involved in the affairs of their neighbours, whether that be in the form of economic aid, humanitarian intervention or furthering military interests. It is because of this system that states are perceived as the most important, influential and legitimate actors on the world stage: IGOs and other non-state bodies can be moulded and corrupted by various factors, including the ruthless self-interest of states.
With the unique importance of states enshrined within Realist thought, the resulting global order is one of ‘international anarchy’ – essentially a system in which state-on-state conflict is inevitable and frequent. The primary reason for this can be linked back to Hobbes’ 1651 work Leviathan: with no higher authority to enforce rules and settle disputes, people (and states) will inevitably come into conflict, and lead ‘nasty, brutish and short’ existences (an idea further expanded upon by Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society). Left in a lawless situation, with neither guaranteed protection nor guaranteed allies (all states are, of course, potential enemies), it’s every man for himself. At this point, Liberals will be eager to point out supposed ‘checks’ on the power of nation-states. Whilst we’ve already tackled the Realist view of IGOs, the existence of international courts must surely hold rogue states accountable, right? Well, the sanctity of state sovereignty limits the power of essentially all organisations: for the International Court of Justice, this means it’s rulings both lack enforcement, and can also be blatantly ignored (e.g., the court advised Israel against building a wall along the Palestinian border in 2004, which the Israelis took no notice of). Within the harsh world we live in, states are essentially free to do as they wish, consequences be damned.
Faced with egocentric neighbours, the inevitability of conflict and no referee, it’s no wonder states view power as the way of surviving. Whilst Realists agree that all states seek to accumulate power (and hard military power in particular), there exists debate as to the intrinsic reason – essentially, following this accumulation, what is the ultimate aim? One perspective, posited by thinkers like John Mearsheimer (and Offensive Realists), suggests that states are concerned with becoming the undisputed hegemon within a unipolar system, where they face no danger – once the most powerful, your culture can be spread, your economy strengthened, and your interests more easily defended. Indeed, whilst the United States may currently occupy the position of hegemon, Mearsheimer (as well as many others) have been cautiously watching China – the CCP leadership clearly harbour dreams of world takeover.
Looking to history, the European empires of old were fundamentally creations of hegemonic ambition. Able to access the rich resources and unique climates of various lands, nations like Britain, Spain and Portugal possessed great international influence, and at various points, dominated the global order. Indeed, when the British Empire peaked in the early 1920s, it ruled close to 500 million people, and covered a quarter of the Earth’s land surface (or history’s biggest empire). Existing during a period of history in which bloody expensive wars were commonplace, these countries did what they believed necessary, rising to the top and brutally suppressing those who threatened their positions – regional control was ensured, and idealistic rebels brought to heel.
In stark contrast is the work of Defensive Realists, such as Kenneth Waltz, who suggest that concerned more with security than global dominance, states accrue power to ensure their own safety, and, far from lofty ideas of hegemony, favour a cautious approach to foreign policy. This kind of thinking was seen amongst ‘New Left’ Revisionist historians in the aftermath of the Cold War – the narrative of Soviet continental dominance (through the takeover of Eastern Europe) was a myth. Apparently, what Stalin truly desired was to solidify the USSR’s position through the creation of a buffer wall, due to the increasingly anti-Soviet measures of President Truman (which included Marshall Aid to Europe, and the Truman Doctrine).
Considering Realism within the context of the 21st Century, the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War seems the obvious case study to examine. Within academic circles, John Mearsheimer has been the most vocal regarding Ukraine’s current predicament – a fierce critic of American foreign policy for decades now, he views NATO’s eastern expansion as having worsened relations with Russia, and only served to fuel Putin’s paranoia. From Mearsheimer’s perspective, Putin’s ‘special military operation’ is therefore understandable and arguably justifiable: the West have failed to respect Russia’s sphere of influence, failed to acknowledge them as a fellow Great Power, and consistently thwarted any pursuits of their regional interests.
Alongside this, Britain’s financial involvement in this conflict can and should be viewed as willing intervention, and one that is endangering the already-frail British economy. It is all well and good to speak of defending rights, democracy and Western liberalism, but there comes a point where our politicians and media must be reminded – the national interest is paramount, always. This needs not be our fight, and the aid money we’re providing the Ukrainians (in the hundreds of billions) should instead be going towards the police, housing, strengthening the border, and other domestic issues.
Our politicians and policymakers may want a continuance of idealistic cooperation and friendly relations, but the brutal unfriendly reality of the system is becoming unavoidable. Fundamentally, self-interested leaders and their regimes are constantly looking to gain more power, influence and territory. By and large, bodies like the UN are essentially powerless; decisions can’t be enforced and sovereignty acts an unbreachable barrier. Looking ahead to the UK’s future, we must be more selfish, focused on making British people richer and safer, and our national interests over childish notions of eternal friendship.