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Is a view of human nature central to all realist thinking about international politics?

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Is a view of human nature central to all realist thinking about international politics?

The relevance of human nature to realist thinking about International Politics is entirely related to which camp of realist thinking that person happens to come under. In short, the simple answer is no, human nature is not central to all types of realisism when discussing International Politics. If you are a classical realist it is entirely possible you will go along with Thucydides’ theory of human nature that  “the drive for power and the will to dominate are held to be fundamental aspects of human nature[1]. As a further extension of this theory it can be argued that the state is just an extension of man’s desire to dominate and it is this desire which is key in all major decisions when thinking about International Politics. If you were however to look at the theories of structural realism, things are very different. It is a structural realist’s belief that in the field of international politics we live in a state of anarchy, in that there is “a lack of an overarching authority above states”[2] and in the words of Giddens “any serious extension of moral and political community beyond the boundaries of the sovereign state is inconceivable in the context of anarchy”[3]. It is, in the eyes of a structural realist, the state of anarchy and not human nature that causes wars and conflicts between sovereign states and the society of power politics that we live in.

        By way of close examination of the two main theories of realism, along with the theories of neoclassical realism, liberal realism, permanence and progress and the individual works of several of the major realist thinkers I hope to be able to firmly stand by my conclusion that realist thinking about IP is split when it comes to the issue of human nature, and human nature is in fact not central to all realist philosophies.

        I feel that before I can fully argue my conclusions it is important to fully define realism in the context of International Politics. The dictionary definition of realism is simply “the inclination of liberal truth towards pragmatism”[4], a definition I find slightly lacking in depth, but still accurate. The most important aspect of realism is that it is completely contrary to the idealist/utopian views of the inter war period, “realists say they accept and understand the world as it is; this understanding provides the foundation for all their ideas”[5]. In most theories of realism you must look at states as the major actors and also consider them to be unitary. In reality while there may be internal conflict in a national and in it’s political system, in the sphere of International Politics it acts as one, whether that act may be declaring war or voting in the EU, from the outside each sovereign nation should be considered as a whole.

        Realism is based around the ideas of power, whether you follow the classical realist belief that the state is a reflection of human nature and it is human nature that has an innate desire for more power, or the structural realist approach that power is just a tool for self-preservation, achieving national interests and maintaining a balance of power in an anarchical society, you still arrive at the same conclusion that power is a key issue. Looking beyond the main differences between the different realist philosophies there are three underlying truths that exist within them all. Known as the three S’s all realist thinking falls into the categories of Statism, Survival and Self-help[6].

As I have mentioned earlier, in a realist view of International Politics, the principle actors are individual sovereign states (as their governments are sovereign over their own territories) and other actors e.g. NGO’s are less significant, and when thinking about Statism this is very important to consider. Waltz considered that perhaps the main issue when it comes to inter state relations was not in fact power but the capabilities of the other states, primarily the capability to harm. Waltz suggested that a nations capability could be measured by “the size of its population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength and political stability and competence”[7]

        Survival, the second of the S’s listed is simply the fact that in all lines of realist thought the “primary objective of all states is survival; this is the supreme national interest to which all political leaders must adhere”[8]. Every individual is born wanting to survive, it is basic human nature, and it in International Politics decisions are formulated in the interest of the actor’s own states and drawn from the actions of others. A classic example of this is from Thucydides’ work, The Peloponnesian War, “What made war inevitable was the growth of the Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta[9]. The fear described by Thucydides was caused by the instinct of survival and is the same fear described by modern realists when describing tensions between states today.

        The final, and in my opinion most important of the 3 S’s is Self-help. The principle behind self-help in realist thought is that each state is accountable for it’s own security and sovereignty and cannot really rely on any of state of organization for protection. The primary problem with this is what is described by Wheeler and Booth as the “security dilemma”[10], as one state increases it’s own security and capabilities in the interests of self-help and self-preservation that only causes other states to in turn increase their own security and create a perpetual cycle of mutually assured destruction, trying in ensure that no state has a huge advantage over any other state.

One of the major arguments to both support and oppose the theory that human nature is central to realist thinking is that of permanence versus progress. It is the fundamental belief of classical realists that human nature is a constant, it doesn’t change, “every man does what he does according to the laws of nature and to the highest right of nature”[11]. It is this idea of permanence that explains why classical realists try to quote philosophers from hundreds or even thousands of years ago such a Thucydides or St. Augustine. If you can take something they have said hundreds of years ago and you can apply it to a modern situation then that serves to prove the theory that human nature is a constant. In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas set out his principles of just war “In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. Firstly, the authority of the sovereign. Secondly, a just cause. Thirdly, a rightful intention.”[12], while not all realists will entirely agree with this theory it most would argue that the points made nearly 800 years ago are just as valid today as they were then. As individuals we are flawed, and to a classical realist that is enough to say that because we are flawed as humans, so is politics and the nature of International Politics, and by extension, progress of any serious nature is impossible.

        Unfortunately it isn’t possible to say that lack of progress and the theory of permanence proves the position of human nature within International Politics. A structural realist would argue that the state of permanence we live in has very little to do with human nature and more to do with the underlying structure of the international society and the state of anarchy inherent within that structure[13]. Going back to my point about the 3 S’s, Statism, Survival and Self-Help are all permanent features of realism because of the anarchical state of nature in the international system. It is possible that if humanity ever moved completely towards a system of collective security (i.e. a full global government rather than organizations such as the EU) and away from the balance of power that the realist theories of statism, survival and self-help would be less relevant but that would be a very idealist view to take.

        It is necessary when considering the importance of human nature to realism to look outside the views of simply classical realism and structural realism and to look at some of the other branches. It would be impossible to categorically deny the centrality of human nature to ALL types of realism without exploring them first. Firstly Neoclassical realism, very similar to structural realism, aneoclassical realist “places domestic politics as an intervening variable between the distribution of power and foreign policy behaviour”[14], one of the main differences between structural realism and neoclassical realism is that the state’s leaders have to perceive the balance of power rather than there being an independent objective reading of power14

        Further philosophies include Offensive Realism. Offensive realism is similar to Waltz’s concepts of structural realism (or “defensive realism”) but differs on the issue of power and how much power a state wants/needs[15]. John Mearsheimer believes that global hegemony is impossible and that the world is condemned to a great power competition, in an ideal situation one state would accumulate much more power than any other state and there would be peace, but this is near to impossible[16]. The last major school of thinking I want to briefly discuss is that of the English School, Liberal Realism.

        Liberal realism differs from structural realism in that its goal is less based in self-help and more in the recognition of survival and help through other states and diplomacy[17]. Liberal realists recognize that there is an international community, but still adhere to the main principles of realism within an anarchical world and by doing so place themselves as a middle ground between liberalism and idealism, and the classical and structural realists.

        While most realist thinkers fall quite neatly into a category it is important to remember that no two philosophers are going to have the same opinion, especially on the issue of the importance of human nature and I hope to illustrate this by examining the works and theories of several of the most influential realists.

        E.H.Carr was massively influential in the formation of the theory of what is referred to now as classical realism, while there were many realists before him it was his book, “The Twenty Years Crisis” where he defined the 6 main distinctions between utopianism and realism[18]. While Carr was very much in favour of peace he did not believe it to be possible, “The easy assumption is that peace is in every nations interests, to evade the unpalatable fact of a fundamental divergence between nations desiring the status quo and nations desirous of changing it”[19]. One of Carr’s principle theories was that politics was made of two elements, politics and utopia19, the clash between idealism and realism, and it is human nature and the nature of the international system which, in Carr’s opinion, will make it impossible for the two to ever meet.

        Another realist I find particularly relevant to the argument over human nature is Hans Morgenthau. Morgenthau believed in two main aspects of human nature in relation to realism, the first central feature of human nature is that man is fundamentally selfish, the second feature is that man has a universal desire for power[20]. Morgenthau is by definition a classical realist and believes that “Political realism believes that politics is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature”.[21]

Morgenthau’s views on politics and realism are usually summarized by his 6 main principles, human nature, power, Interest, Morality, Nationalism and universalism and the science of politics[22]. Through these principles Morgenthau often refers to human nature as a constant and a corrupter, “The evil that corrupts political action is indeed the same evil that corrupts all action”[23].

Having looked at two twentieth century classical realists I feel it is worth comparing them with two twentieth century structural realists as a direct comparison. Kenneth Waltz fits in perfectly with my definition of a structural realist, as he was really the founder of structural realism[24]. One of Waltz’s most interesting arguments is that of nuclear weapons. While Waltz is a strong advocate that we live in an anarchical society he believes that “Countries that have nuclear weapons co-exist peacefully because each knows the other can do horrendous damage to it”24. Waltz argues, and I agree that neither human nature nor an anarchical society are as much of a problem as they were before nuclear proliferation “There’s been a show of caution and moderation you never saw in a world with conventional weapons”24.

        The final realist I want to briefly explore is Henry Kissinger, born 1923 Kissinger worked as a security advisor to the US and was Secretary of State under the Nixon administration; he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work getting the US out of Vietnam. Kissinger himself was a very interesting variation of a realist, while he studied the works of Morgenthau and Spengler he had his own opinions and rejected the deterministic view of history that I early described as the theory of permanence, he refers to it as “a mere repetition of power phenomena”[25]. Looking at Kissinger’s works and life he was very much in favour of self-help and advancing the interests of the USA while keeping a détente with the Soviet Union and China, famously Kissinger used the “madman” theory, i.e. making irrational decisions to throw other nations off and put the status quo in favour of the US[26], implying a strong belief in the ideals of structural realism.


The conclusions I find myself drawing about realism in the world of International Politics is that it is a very broad philosophy and while guided by the main three principles of survival, self-help and statism, realists are divided over many key issues, namely that of the role of human nature in International Politics. While globalization and economic independence has made war less likely and diminished the role human nature plays in modern day political decisions
[27] It is my own opinion that human nature will always play a central role in political decisions because of our own flawed nature to be selfish and seek power. In relation the question I believe that human nature is not central to all realist thinking about international politics, as I have described throughout my essay there are many branches of realism, each with their own individual views on what is important, whether that be the theory of progress and looking at history, human nature or the reality of the anarchical society we live in with no one government ruling supreme over states. It is also my opinion that human nature is an undeniable truth and while taking a stance on human nature may not be central to all tracks of realist thinking it most certainly is a factor to be considered.

Bibliography

Books

“The Globalization of World Politics “– Baylis & Smith

“A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism” - Gibbens


“Beyond Marxism and Realism” – Andrew Linklater


“Realist thought from Weber to Kissinger” – Michael Smith

“International Society and the English School” – Alex J. Bellamy

“Political Ideologies – an introduction” – Robert Eccleshall,Alan Finlayson, Vincent Geogehgan, Michael Kenny, Moya Lloyd, Iain Mackenzie, Rick Wilford.

Websites

http://www.answers.com/topic/realism

http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-religion/1996394/posts


http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/morg6.htm


http://www.columbia.edu/cu/pr/00/03/kennethWaltz.html


http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/0/9/8/1/8/p 98189_index.html

                                                                                                            Total Word Count 2490


[1] “The Globalization of World Politics “– Baylis & Smith Pg95

[2] “The Globalization of World Politics” – Baylis & Smith Pg98

[3] “A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism” - Gibbens – as quoted in “Beyond Marxism and Realism” – Andrew Linklater – pg11

[4]http://www.answers.com/topic/realism - 06/11/2009

[5] Realist thought from Weber to Kissinger – Michael Smith – pg1

[6] “The Globalization of World Politics” – Baylis & Smith – Pg100

[7] Waltz – As quoted in “The Globalization of World Politics” Baylis & Smith pg101

[8] “The Globalization of World Politics” – Baylis & Smith – pg 103

[9] “The Peloponnesian War” – Thucydides – as quoted in “Realist thought from Weber to Kissinger” – Michael Smith – pg4

[10] “The Globalization of World Politics “- Baylis & Smith – pg102

[11] E. H. Carr as quoted in “Realist thought from Weber to Kissinger” – Michael Smith – pg71

[12]http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-religion/1996394/posts - 10/11/2009

[13] “The Globalization of World Politics” – Baylis & Smith – Pg98-99

[14] “The Globalization of World Politics” – Baylis & Smith – Pg99

[15] “The Globalization of World Politics – Baylis & Smith – pg99

[16] “The Globalization of World Politics – Baylis & Smith – pg99

[17] International Society and the English School – Alex J. Bellamy – pg11

[18] History of international relations theory – Torbjorn Knutsen – pg223

[19] E.H.Carr as quoted in “Realist thought from Weber to Kissinger” – Michael Smith – pg.73

[20] Realist thought from Weber to Kissinger – Michael Smith –pg135-36

[21]http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/morg6.htm - 12/11/2009

[22]http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/morg6.htm - 12/11/2009

[23] “Realist thought from Weber to Kissinger” – Michael Smith – Pg137

[24]http://www.columbia.edu/cu/pr/00/03/kennethWaltz.html - 13/11/2009

[25] “Realist thought from Weber to Kissinger” – Michael Smith – Pg-195

[26]http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_

research_citation/0/9/8/1/8/p 98189_index.html– 14/11/2009

[27] “The Globalization of World Politics” – Baylis & Smith – pg103

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