From the ashes of World War One rose one of the prominent political theories in international relations. It began as a counter to the idealist theorists who were more concerned with focusing on understanding the reasons for war in an effort to find a solution for its being. Realism rests itself on three fundamental principles; statism, survival and self help. While these cornerstones create a very strong case for realism and one that I believe is a very viable theory, they also have holes in them that do no allow realism to be the dominant theory in international relations "Statism is the term given to the idea of the state as the legitimate representative of the collective will of the people." In a realists mind the state is the hub of the action.
It has sovereignty within its border and therefore is able to create and enforce laws as it sees fit. This allows the state to establish security, which according to Thomas Hobbes satisfies our most basic fear of a violent death. Once the issue of security is resolved, then we are able to proceed with a civil society. Internationally is a slightly different story. In international waters states security is not provided by a sovereign and therefore states must contend with each other in order to achieve it. Security in the international forum can be achieved through the accumulation of more power than neighbouring states possess.
From a realist perspective the eventual build up of power by one country leads to hegemony and eventually to something that they refer to as hegemonic stability theory. This contends that international order is dependent on the existence of a dominant state. The second of the three corners of realism is survival. To a realist, survival is a simple matter; those with more power stand a better chance of survival. Naturally a realist believes this to be the ultimate goal that all states must pursue.
While a nation will have other goals as well "beyond the survival motive, the aims of states may be varied" In an effort to ensure survival a state must follow a different set of ethics from the collection that it would use when dealing with domestic affairs. It can no longer worry about the moral issues in international politics as adhering to them may cause the state to suffer at the hands of more powerful states. There are two conflicting sides in the realism case, offensive realism and defensive realism. Offensive realists believe that in order to truly ensure the security of the state in international affairs "is to achieve a hegemonic position in the international system" In this perspective, states are constantly seeking to acquire more power.
Defensive realists believe that security and not hegemony is the chief interest of states and therefore a state will attempt to achieve enough power to ensure that they are safe and will not jeopardize their security in an attempt to gain more power. Clearly the United States does not necessarily adhere to the defensive realism approach as they are considered by some to have jeopardized their own security with the movements in Iraq. Survival is obviously an extremely important feature of realism as theorists believe that human nature causes people to look out for themselves first and therefore will jeopardize another person's safety The final cornerstone of the realist triangle is self help. A realist views the international community as naturally anarchical with no global government. They do not believe that a state should depend on an international agency such as the United Nations to ensure its survival. There is no trust or honour in an international community without a hegemony or governing body and therefore, some realists believe, the survival of all is guaranteed only through the existence of something called the balance of power.
However, the balance of power is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, it must be formulated by the state leaders and it is a very tenuous arrangement. The attempt to construct a balance of power rises from a situation that realists coin the security dilemma. A security dilemma suggests that "one state's quest for security is often another states source of insecurity." Those realists who do not believe in the balance of power believe that the security dilemma is a constant in international politics. Therefore, a realist believes that the state must be able to help itself.
While Realism makes some very convincing points in its three fundamental principals it also has its share of holes that make the theory somewhat disconcerting. Statism has problems with its spotlight on state power. In the mind of the realist the state is the only actor that truly matters in international politics. The state is a constant in global politics while all other actors rise and fall and therefore have no legitimate place. The problems with this view occur when we think about the challenges to state power. From above we have the problem of the possible hegemony that realism desires.
What happens when a country such as Iraq is simply dominated and bullied by the international community or by a country like the United States? Likewise, there are actors who are technically below the state who are also fully capable of influencing the actions and decisions of the state. The United Nations for example, has a say in many issues around the globe therefore disregarding the apparent ability of a state to control the actions within their borders. Finally, with regards to statism, a supposedly sovereign country that has all the power in the world is powerless to deal with global problems such as disease and famine. Survival is obviously a key element in the realist approach. Realists like to follow Machiavelli and they believe that a state must do whatever is necessary to protect its borders from a perceived threat. However, an argument can be raised that this is not a realistic approach as it raises the question of how far is too far? Under this umbrella a nation is capable of justifying just about any action it takes.
The Bush administration in the United States is believed to have distorted information about the weapons situation in Iraq. This created a legitimate reason for the United States to take action there. The invasion of a neighbouring country can be justified under the statement that it was a pre-emptive strike and an attack on out country was near. This notion of survival at all costs is not a practical one.
Those detractors of the realist approach believe that self help is simply the route that the states of the world have chosen. It is not the predestination of the world if there is not a hegemonic world government. As shown in the cold war, it is often the case that nations will instead form a collective organization in order to protect it. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact are fine examples of this as nations decided to achieve their balance of power through the security of other nations. Clearly the notion of self help is not necessary. In today's world society realism is not the dominant theory of international relations.
Instead it is the theory that is pursued by the United States and several other key and powerful countries around the world. This fact causes us to think of it as being the prevailing theory as the United States is the dominant country. However, it is because of the dominance of the United States that other countries are not following this approach. Instead, there are countries that are following more liberal theories and are attempting to co-operate with other countries.
These other countries definitely include the United States and some countries sometime go out of there way to attempt to please the US. There are the countries in OPEC which attempt to cooperate with each other to satisfy mutual goals and will aid each other in an effort to protect their Arab brethren. While realism certainly appears to be the dominant theory in international relations, it is more because the dominant country adheres to the theory than the majority of the countries following it themselves.