A theory’s utility lies in its ability to explain phenomena at the conceptual level and predict observable outcomes. With the gradual transformation of the discipline of international relations into an empirical science, the criteria to assess the validity of international relations (IR) theories are how well they can explain and predict state behaviour. And the realist theory does a better job of meeting this than any other theory.
While realist scholars believe that military strength is the single most important form of power, they also recognise other sources of state power. E H Carr, a founding figure of the realist approach, in his book The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939 identified economic strength as a source of state power. But realists see military strength as the primary source of state power. Realists’ view may not be true universally but many regional powers still recognise the paramount importance of maintaining a strong defence capability.
The criticism that realist theory could not predict the peaceful end of the cold war is totally unfair and illogical. It is true that realists failed to predict the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, but nor did any other theoretical approach. Of course, social sciences are always expected to predict future events, but no social science theory can be expected to explain each and every case.
Furthermore, the peaceful end of the cold war had a lot to do with the individual styles and characteristics of Soviet leaders at that particular point in time. And no amount of scientific data can ever make accurate predictions about human behaviour in all cases.
Many IR experts would agree that the peaceful resolution of the cold war conflict has not changed the basic structure of the international system. As Kenneth Waltz pointed out, changes in the international system should be distinct from changes at the unit level. States are still the principal actors and, in the absence of global government, they continue to function in an anarchic system. More importantly, there is no alternative to the Westphalian state system unless we want to go back to the age of medieval empires.
There is little reason to expect any change in state behaviour because all major powers still care about power in terms of military capabilities. Even Western security analysts still frequently discuss the possibility of a major war due to military competition among countries like China, Russia, and the United States.
Hardly anyone would argue that there is little prospect of security competition in South Asia, where Pakistan and India, as two nuclear-armed states, are caught up in a number of territorial disputes. Since the end of the cold war, the likelihood of militarised interstate conflicts on the African continent has increased. Therefore, neoliberal and constructivist scholars should stop studying IR as a Eurocentric discipline, and recognise the fact that dynamics of security relationships in the developing world can be best understood from the realist perspective.
The argument that there has been a shift from geopolitics to geo-economics has already been rightly rebuffed by a liberal international relations theorist, Joseph Nye, who made the point in 1995 that “It has become fashionable to say that the world after the cold war has moved beyond the age of power politics to the age of geo-economics. Such clichés reflect a narrow analysis. Politics and economics are connected. International economic systems rest upon international political order.”
It might be true that the forward march of globalisation and shifting foundations of the global order have reduced the role of states in the economy to a certain extent. However, nation-states should continue to perform a vital role for the stability of international order because their collapse ushers in anarchy. The events of the past few years have showed that this state of anarchy in countries like Iraq and Syria has only created space for the emergence of terrorist organisations like the Islamic State.
The realists’ argument that institutions cannot bring about peace or affect the prospect for international stability is very strong. The reason is that international institutions have limited influence on state behaviour. Institutions are dependent variables. and they pursue their goals by making choices within constraints. No serious scholar would argue that international institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund can fundamentally alter state preferences.
In my opinion, it would not be wrong to say that the only serious threat to the realist approach in international relations theory is from some contemporary academicians in American universities because they are not even ready to let emerging realist scholars express their viewpoint while staying within academic boundaries.
The problem of shrinking space for realist scholarship in academia is so serious that in a 2000 article published in the American Political Science Review, it was suggested that research from a realist perspective does not “deserve continued funding, publication, and so forth.” Since then, many top-ranked national universities in the US have shown considerable reluctance to hire realist scholars.
Even before 2000, two towering figures in the field of IR, Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, faced frequent hostility throughout their academic careers for their realist views. Fareed Zakaria, the American journalist and author, once noted: “It was ritual, at almost every IR seminar I attended as a graduate student at Harvard, for the speaker to spend some time denouncing Waltz’s work.” Another IR scholar, Michael Doyle, said that while liberal societies do not go to war against one another, liberal thinkers have always adopted an aggressive tone against their non-liberal opponents.
But all this opposition has failed to undermine the importance of realist theories in IR literature. Realism will be defeated only if the Westphalian state system is replaced by a totally different world order, but that does not seem likely to happen in the foreseeable future.
PS: Being a student of Political Science in the United States, it is so shocking to me that millions of Americans have voted for Donald Trump. Trump’s victory demonstrates that majority of American voters are embarrassingly ill-informed and ignorant of the modern realities of a globalised world.