Realism and Globalisation

International relations is a robust field of study that examines the behaviour of states on the world stage and then attempts to explain this behaviour via differing theories. As a field, one of the primary goals is to understand what drives states to war and how best to mitigate against it. To explain this and many other phenomena there are several theories within International Relations but three, in particular, serve as the dominant theories; realism, liberalism, and constructionism. 

Realism and Globalisation Realism and Globalisation

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Table of contents

    Each of these theories has a particular outlook on globalisation and attempts to explain what it is and why it will or will not work out in the long run. Realism is the most pragmatic of these theories and argues that the structure of the international system in conjunction with the nature of power will ultimately result in the failure of globalisation.

    Realism and globalisation – definition

    To understand the realist perspective of globalisation, we must understand what these terms mean. Globalisation is a term used to describe the increasing interconnectedness of states in economic, cultural and political aspects. This takes place through the cross-border movement of people, money, goods and services, and the creation of international non-governmental organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank.

    For more details on globalisation check out our articles on Types of Globalisation and Process of Globalisation.

    Globalisation is the process of increasing interconnectedness of states in economic, cultural and political aspects.

    Interconnectedness, or interdependence, is a key feature of globalisation. It refers to the concept of mutual influence and vulnerability between two or more states, in which decisions in one state have consequences in another and vice-versa.

    Realism is a theory which claims to observe and examine world affairs as they are, not as we wish them to be, regardless of moral beliefs. Realism views nation-states as the main actors on the international stage, as there is no international sovereign power which rules over all states, creating what is referred to as an anarchic system. Realism also emphasises human nature as selfish, making power and self-interest the central aims of all states.

    Realism is an international relations theory which argues that nation-states are the main world actors and therefore we live in a state of anarchy. It is also based on ideas of egoism.

    For more on realist ideas check out our articles on Egoism and the Nation State.

    Realist approach in international relations

    Realist thinking has been traced back to around 420BC in Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War” and has continuously been identified in the writings of philosophers from Machiavelli in the renaissance period to Thomas Hobbes in 1651. However, the term 'realism' became associated with realist theory by figures such as Hans J. Morgenthau in the mid-1940s.

    Hans J. Morgenthau

    Morgenthau was a Jewish refugee escaping Nazi Germany before starting his academic career in the U.S in 1937. His book Politics Among Nations was highly important in conceptualising the key themes of realism. The book advocated realistic diplomacy and shunned an ethical approach to international relations, claiming that it had no place in real politics. He wrote that the 'political man' is selfish and power-hungry, and as he leads states in their political endeavours, global politics must also be treated void of idealistic morals.

    Reaism and Globalisation Dr.Hans Morgenthau StudySmarterFig. 1 Dr. Hans Morgenthau

    There is no international sovereign power which unanimously rules over all states. Therefore, the international system is in a state of anarchy, where every state is trying to fulfil its self-interests and gain more power. At times states also try and prevent other states from becoming too powerful, as it may contradict their interests and national sovereignty. This is known as the Balance of power. Alongside this, a system of self-help also operates, where states must rely on their own resources, military and otherwise, to keep themselves safe and pursue their self-interest.

    The threat of conflict is always present due to contradicting interests. States commonly try and reach their means through peaceful diplomacy, cooperation and coercion but disagreements still occur.

    Conflicts of Balance of power

    The US and Iran have a long history of hostile relations since the 1980 Iranian Islamic revolution. They both claim multiple reasons for these hostilities, but the important thing to know is that currently, they are opposed in almost every aspect of governance, from political freedoms to moral and religious beliefs. The US has the most powerful military in the world with the second largest nuclear weapons arsenal. Iran's military ranked 14th in 2022, and despite heavy sanctions, remains a regional power but holds no nuclear weapons. It is also rich in natural resources needed to develop nuclear weapons. Despite Iran's nuclear programme in the 1950s starting with U.S support, after the Islamic revolution, the US became heavily opposed, claiming Iran cannot be trusted with nuclear capabilities as it will be a threat to Western security. This contradicts Iran's interests in increasing its power in the region and their ability to balance the nuclear power of the U.S. They claim that this is not only a threat to Iranian national security but their development as they wish to turn to nuclear energy production. Despite diplomatic attempts being made to ease tensions, the conflict remains ongoing.

    Realism and Globalisation Representatives from Europe, China, Iran and the USA met in Vienna in 2015 to discuss the Iran nuclear deal StudySmarterFig. 2 Representatives from Europe, China, Iran and the USA met in Vienna in 2015 to discuss the Iran nuclear deal

    Neorealism

    As the world recovered from World War II, globalisation rates increased, leading to changes in the international system. After the War the US and Russia were the leading world powers, however, since then the balance of power has become distributed between multiple states, such as China, India, and the UK. In other words, our international system is now more of a multipolarity.

    Kenneth Waltz developed the theory of neorealism which he claimed could explain contemporary global politics more accurately. This was not a break from classical realism, but rather a disagreement on what causes states to behave as they do.

    Classical Realism Neorealism
    • Classical realism believes that human nature and the greed for power are the deciding factors for how states behave internationally. The goal of states is to increase their power and influence because their leaders are innately selfish and power-hungry. A balance of power and conflicts between states occur as all states have the same goal.
    • Neorealism believes that the international system of anarchy informs the behaviour of states. As there is no global central authority, states must ensure their safety and increase their power and influence by establishing a distribution of power where one state is not too dominant. This is necessary for an anarchic system and not a result of human greed.

    Theorist Kenneth Waltz is credited with being the father of neorealism. His book Theory of International Politics (1979), revived realism as a dominant theory of international relations by showing that the theory could adapt to modern-day politics. Contrary to Morgenthau, Waltz focused on the international system as the deciding factor for state behaviour. He called this 'systems theory'. Today it is better known as neorealism.

    Realism and globalisation – examples

    Around 40% of gas and 30% of petroleum oil consumed by European countries are imported from Russia, making them Europe's largest supplier. These supplies drive European industries, heat homes and fuel vehicles. Russia also depends on trade with Europe, as oil and gas exports account for around 40% of Russian annual revenue. These countries are interdependent and can use this to influence one another. A recent example of this would be Russia's threat to halt gas supplies to countries who refuse to pay in the Russian currency of Rubles, as they have already done with Poland and Bulgaria.

    Realism and Globalisation, Realism and Globalisation example, StudySmarterFig. 3 Russian oil export destinations

    The European Union has warned companies against this, creating a mutual vulnerability for all the states involved. If Russia halts its exports, European countries will struggle to find an alternative to Russian gas, and Russia will lose out on a large portion of its annual revenue. Both of these events will directly affect ordinary Europeans and Russians.

    Importance of realism in international relations

    Many realist scholars argue that realism is essential to understand international relations and processes like globalisation, while others disagree. The table below shows some of the strengths and weaknesses of the theory in international relations.

    StrengthsWeaknesses
    • Objectively focuses on real-world politics, not as we wish them to be. Therefore, real and applicable solutions can be developed for real-world problems.
    • The clearest and most developed theory of international relations. All key themes are accurately contextualised.
    • Adaptable - Key themes remain the same. Realism has been able to remain applicable because it can modernise alongside global politics.
    • Often criticised for its pessimistic view of humans. If humans were all purely selfish by nature, why have there been prolonged periods of peace?
    • Viewed as outdated by some, who claim morals have progressed far beyond what they were in 1945 and that states are now more aware and responsive to moral constraints.

    Realist views of globalisation

    Generally, realists view globalisation as a negative development. This is mostly due to their pessimism towards human nature. As it stands, states are still the main actors on the anarchic international stage. International organisations such as the United Nations and even The European Union are still considered largely ineffective, as their members are states with different priorities and self-interests, which sometimes clash directly, as we have seen with the example of the U.S and Iran. These differences result in indecisiveness and inefficient united responses to world issues.

    Realists believe that technological developments have made globalisation undeniable. States will continue to become increasingly interconnected and interdependent, and have learned to utilise globalisation to pursue their self-interests. Powerful states can do this with more success whilst smaller and less powerful states must settle for small but significant wins. For example, the modern trading of goods such as natural resources has given both consumers and producers a bargaining chip. This was demonstrated in the above example of Russian gas, bought and consumed by Europe. Mutual vulnerabilities can be used to coerce a state's foreign policy decisions. In line with realist theory, Capitalism can then be seen as the ultimate tool which allowed Western states such as the United States to use globalisation to their advantage.

    Finally, realists don't believe that globalisation and its production of interconnectedness should be linked to contemporary patterns of peace and cooperation. Rather, mutual vulnerabilities mean a higher level of risk and a higher level of rewards for states, which can lead to powerful states dictating international politics. This can lead to major conflicts where multiple states are involved.

    Realism and Globalisation - Key takeaways

    • The theory of realism provides applicable solutions to real global issues, void of moral idealism
    • Realism believes that global politics should be viewed as they are, void of idealism and moral values.
    • Globalisation has resulted in an interconnected world - economically, politically and culturally

    • Realists believe that globalisation is not necessarily positive and can be used by more powerful states to manipulate weaker states for their self-interests.

    • The main principles of realism are that states are the main actors on the international stage and are led by humans who are naturally selfish and power-hungry. Secondly, the international system is anarchic.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 Dr Hans Morgenthau (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dr._Hans_Morgenthau.jpg) anonymous author, licenced by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Commons
    2. Fig. 2 Iran Talks Vienna July 2015 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iran_Talks_Vienna_14_July_2015_(19067069963).jpg) by Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres (https://www.flickr.com/people/88775815@N04) licensed by CC-BY-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Realism and Globalisation

    What is the main idea of realism?

    That global politics should be viewed as they are, void of idealism and moral values. 

    How do realists and liberals view globalisation?

    Realists believe that globalisation is not necessarily positive and can be used by more powerful states to manipulate weaker states for their self-interests. Liberals view globalisation and the increase in market productivity in a more positive light and see it as a step towards economic and therefore societal prosperity. they also support globalisation as it results in free access to enormous amounts of information from around the world.

    Is realism relevant in the globalised world?

    Yes. Realism as a theory has developed throughout the years to account for the phenomenon of globalisation. It can provide useful and applicable insights into globalisation. 

    How does globalisation invalidate realism?

    It does not. Classical realism struggled to account for globalisation.  Neorealism has the ability to explain globalisation wholly.

    What are the main principles of realism?

    Firstly that states are the main actors on the international stage and are led by humans who are naturally selfish and power-hungry. Secondly, that the international system is anarchic.

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