Foreign policy making of any country depends on the worldview of that country. For instance, if you want to locate the approach followed by India in global stage, we can identify the amount of importance given to Idealism by Indian foreign policy makers and their reluctance to Realism. Except some decisions with realpolitik approach, most of the decisions of independent India were idealistic in nature. Anyhow the purpose of this article is to discuss relevance of Realism in the broader domain of international politics and not to analyse the foreign policy of India. So, this article concentrates on the relevance of Realism to understand global power politics rather than Indian foreign policy.
Realism has a long and influential history in International politics. There are so many dimensions to Realism, but all these variants are based on some common principles. Firstly, Realism explains the real world as it is rather than explaining questions like what ought to be? Secondly, ‘Power’ is a central concept of political life according to realist thinkers. Thirdly, each nation has the exclusive responsibility to protect its national security and no one will help them in this task. Finally, it is not possible to expect cooperation among nations. Even if the cooperation exists it will be temporary and backed by some national interest calculations. All different dimensions of Realism understand the world based on these basic principles.
It might be arrogant to state that, Realism is the only approach to understand global politics. There are different ways to understand the world and each approach has its own relevance. But it is also true that realism provides more conceptual clarity while understanding current developments in global setup. We can demonstrate the relevance of Realism in today’s power politics through some examples.
Why China is becoming increasingly aggressive and going against its own policy of ‘China’s peaceful rise’? Realist answer to this question is China followed the Policy of ‘China’s peaceful rise’ few decades back, when it was still a developing country. So that policy was exactly suitable for the China of that time. With that policy China successfully built a good image and also joined the international institutions constructed by the west for their own interests. Today China is in a very powerful position in those institutions, so that it can influence not only the decisions but also capable enough to change the structure of those institutions! I hope you got the answer! It is very natural that China or any other country for that reason becomes aggressive when they reach a particular level i.e. Great power status. Now, China considers US as its competitor and no country wants to be vulnerable in this great power game.
Since the last quarter century, especially after 9/11 incident, why USA interfered arrogantly in many parts of the world? A realist will say it is because there was no one to stop USA. It seems to be a bragging answer, but there is no doubt that it was the reality. USA strongly believed that, all those interferences are the necessity of the time and they had all right, responsibility and calibre to do that! When it comes to the example of Ukraine aggression by Russia, all the west European nations condemned Putin for this act.
But Realism has something different to say. According to realism, all the super powers are very sensitive about their borders. In 2013, USA and European Union violated the promise given to Soviet Union in 1989 and interfered in the internal affairs of Ukraine to extend their influence in Ukraine. This provoked Putin to attack and capture Crimea. This is not to justify Putin or admire his decision, but it was not unexpected also. In realism that was the natural reaction any major power for that kind of situations.
Why the most successful regional organization of our planet, European Union is in crisis today? Realism has a conceptual clarity regarding this question too! If you look at the origin and evolution of EU, the core objective of this regional organization is to go beyond national identities and to build a regional identity and institutions at European level. It was very natural that European nation-states were desperate for this kind of an organization, after a long history of civil wars and two world wars, particularly fought in European continent. But no one can deny the fear of Soviet aggression made European states to compromise with national identities to some extent and to strengthen EU! Today, Europe has no such security threats and it is very normal that national identities are gaining importance over regional identity. You will get it clearly with the examples like Brexit, recent Italian problem with EU etc.
If you take any political event of the world, they represent the need of Realism to understand them in a better way. I will end the list of examples with this last and most relevant examples of North Korea and Iran. North Korea went to extreme extents to become a nuclear power. On the other hand even Iran is very much interested to develop nuclear weapons. To understand these phenomena, we should understand the purpose of Nuclear weapon in a realist world.
Today, logically nuclear weapons are primarily used for deterrence purpose rather than military conquest. Do you think there is any other alternative for North Korea and Iran to protect their national security against USA, which is a far more powerful state? Just cross check these examples with the principles of Realism, discussed above! You will realize the necessity of Realism to understand international politics.
Even though, Realism seems like a cruel, ruthless and violent ideology at the very outset, comparatively it gives much conceptual clarity than any other approach. John Mearsheimer very aptly remarked, “The sad fact is that international politics has always been a ruthless and dangerous business, and it is likely to remain that way.” in his book ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics’. This statement look very skeptical, but it makes sense. Realism works rational than the vague Idealism of considering ourselves very moral and believing our enemies are always immoral. Realism has better grounds to establish a secure world order, as it provides clear grounds to protect your national security and also a better understanding of others national interests.
*Keerthiraj, Faculty of Political Science & International Relations at Alliance School of Law, Alliance University, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India