How Useful is the Realist Conception of Power in Contemporary International Relations?

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How useful is the realist conception of ‘power’ in explaining contemporary international relations?

Realists explain contemporary international relations on the basis of power connections between states or units. Power is a broad subject and realist conception of power constricts our understanding of contemporary international relations because within realism there are different interpretations and conceptions of power that are unlike each other. However, this does not mean that realism has become redundant; rather it is to explain that realism with many complexities, does to some extent offer accurate tools to understand the events in the sphere of international relations which is backed by empirical evidence. This paper sets out in the following manner. First, it explores classical realism by discussing Morgenthau, followed by Neo-realist ideas of Waltz and, while explaining, it is critically assessed with Liberal and Neo-liberal arguments which would highlight some of the main issues of the realist conception of power. It is argued that realist conception of power is narrow and ambiguous especially when it comes to the measurement and utilization of power and, it is presented that the best way to find truth is by having continuous dialogue between these theories.

In order to create the best possible model of understanding realist conception of power we need to step back and evaluate what all realists share or have in common. Power is central to explaining international relations for any theory of realism (Schmidt, 2005: 523). For realists, states are continuously involved in power struggles in order to improve their security or to at least insure their survival in the international system which is characterized by competition and conflict (Morgenthau, 1954:4). But not all realists agree to what pushes states to be in competition with each other. Thus, some might refer to sinful nature of humans while other might explain by considering the structure of international system.

Morgenthau is one of the classical realists who explained international politics in terms of never ending struggle for power (Morgenthau, 1954: 25). The states are the principle actors and play dominant role in the international system. In Morgenthau’s view, the desire of states to dominate other and maximize power can be attributed to human nature (Morgenthau, 1946: 192)

Classical realists argue that humans are imperfect, selfish and self-interested which translates states behavior in the international system. States compete with each other in order to secure their interest which is power. Because the state is represented by rational individuals, the goal of every state is to maximize their own power (Morgenthau, 1954: 35). All classical realists, whether it is Machiavelli or Morgenthau, argued that the quest to dominate others and the desire to maximize power can be attributed to human nature. According to Morgenthau, ‘man is a political animal by nature’ ‘who is born to seek power’ (Morgenthau, 1946: 168). Schmidt rightly points out that Morgenthau likened the three basic patterns of the struggle for power among states- to keep power (status quo), to increase power and to demonstrate power (prestige) (Schmidt, 2005: 535). In other words, each states action to promote its interest defined as power directly influences the actions of other states and hence, leading to war (Ibid: 536).

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But, some important points raised by liberals undermine classical realist’s conception of human nature which serves as the foundation for classical realists. It is important to question whether all individuals

will behave in the same way as described by Morgenthau. Wasserman argues that Morgenthau’s concept of human nature is unscientific, and that science consists of theories or hypothesis whose truth has to establish by critical experiment (Wasserman, 1959: 67). In other words, Morgenthau’s theory is based on unverifiable essentialist laws (Ibid: 68). Moreover, defining national interest in terms of power is ambiguous. There are different institutions that work within a ...

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