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A Reply to Mearsheimer

‘I want magic no realism’ on the street, courtesy Barnaby_S/flickr

Realism is divided into defensive and offensive realism. Defensive realists, such as Kenneth Waltz, claim that states pursue only as much power as the states around them have. They don’t want to dominate the international system but merely to be able to survive. Offensive realism, proposed by John Mearsheimer, challenges this perspective and maintains that states want to dominate the international system, at least to the point of becoming a regional hegemon. This is because, if they dominate, they will be secure from threats, as no other state will dare to challenge the hegemon. Defensive realists caution against this view, arguing that hegemony gives rise to balancing. Other states will do all they can to hold the hegemon in check. Power, in other words, creates counter-power. The international system strives for equilibrium. » More

Morgenthau’s Utilitarian Version of Realism

‘I want magic no realism’ on the street, courtesy Barnaby_S/flickr

This article was originally published by E-International Relations (E-IR) on 20 February 2016.

According to Max Weber, realism ‘recognizes the subjugation of morality’ to the ‘demands of [a] human nature’ in which the ‘insatiable lust for power’ is paramount (Weber in Smith 1982:1). This claim has led many—especially among liberal theorists—to label it as an amoral and bellicose doctrine (Molloy 2009:107). Yet while ‘inconsistency among realist theories’ (Smith 1982:12) may lend truth to claims of amorality and bellicosity among other strands of realism, this essay specifically examines the morality outlined in the realist works of Hans Morgenthau. It will argue that Morgenthau’s realist doctrine is neither amoral nor bellicose because it is informed by a set of utilitarian ethics that ‘rationally direct the irrationalities’ of human nature and aim to prevent major conflict (Niebuhr in Whitman 2011). The essay will begin by defining realist morality according to Morgenthau, focusing on ‘the evil of politics,’ the ‘moral precept of prudence,’ and ‘utilitarian ethics’ (1985:8). Though few critics dispute the presence of morals in Morgenthau’s realism, the essay will follow by addressing perceived flaws in his moral argument, as well as briefly examining the different moral assumptions made other strands of realist thought. The essay will conclude by restating the morals of ‘political ethics’ according to classical realism and end with a question concerning the significance of realist ethics to Weber’s ‘moral problem’ in International Relations (Smith 1982:28).

Hans Morgenthau is one of the most influential realist theorists of all time, and his arguments are fundamentally based in a ‘stern, utilitarian morality’ (Kaufman 2006:25); Morgenthau’s classical realism forms the basis for the argument put forth in this essay. According to critic Robert Kaufman, Morgenthau’s realism was developed as a ‘pessimistic critique of liberal utopianism,’ wary of the idealism of the inter-war years and intent on preventing another World War (2006:24). As such, Morgenthau puts forth a theory in which international relations are assumed to be at the mercy of human nature, self-interest, and an insatiable lust for power (1945:2). These factors, according to Morgenthau, are evidence that politics ‘falls within the domain of evil’ and thus, political ethics must be ‘the ethics of doing evil’ (1945:17). However, what seems a bleak and amoral outlook on world politics is redeemed by a moralist caveat: Though ‘the evil of politics is inescapable,’ by weighing the consequences of potential political action the ‘moral strategy of politics’ can be reduced to a choice among the least of all evils’ (Molloy 2009:99). Thus, despite his focus on power and successful political action, Morgenthau’s realism displays an inherent morality. Morgenthau’s realism is fundamentally concerned with mitigating the effects of a savage human nature on world order (1945:6).

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IR Theory: Problem-Solving Theory Versus Critical Theory?

The Thinker by Rodin. Image: Jean-David & Anne Laure/Flickr

This article was originally published by E-International Relations on 19 September 2014.

Robert Cox began his canonical 1981 essay “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory” with the observation that it is “necessary and practical” for academic disciplines to “divide up the seamless web of the real social world”. We make these divisions, Cox wrote, in order to analyse the world and thus to produce practical knowledge of that world. It is not a stretch to suggest that the real social world of International Relations scholarship might also be approached as worthy of analysis and theory. Indeed, reflection on International Relations as theory appears in the field as part of the necessary and practical division of the complexity of the social and political world. Rare is the introduction to IR textbook that does not emphasize, and usually begin with, the “great (theoretical) debates” that have structured the field since it emerged as an academic discipline. » More

The Tale of a ‘Realism’ in International Relations

Image: Flickr.

This article was originally published by E-International Relations on 13 June 2014.  

It is a widely held opinion in the discipline of International Relations (IR) that there is a tradition of political thought in Western history which could be labelled ‘realism’. ‘Realism’, as it were, is associated with an outlook on the behaviour of political leaders, political communities, and the ‘structures’ of the relations among political communities (be they modern states, antique poleis, or Renaissance city states). Selfishness, recklessness, mutual mistrust, and power-seeking and survival-securing strategies are thought to produce (and be reproduced by) structures of anarchy among political communities, ‘international’ self-help systems, security dilemmas, the permanent potentiality of war and violence, and unrestricted politics of ‘national interests’. This outlook is associated with several canonical figures of political thought, who are regarded as representatives and founders of these theorems and who have been subsequently heralded as ‘heroic figures’ of IR – namely Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Hans J. Morgenthau. » More

Thucydides, or Plato?

Statue of Thucydides in Vienna

A statue of Thucydides in Vienna. Photo: ChrisJL/flickr

The first important contributor to ‘international’ thought is usually considered to be Thucydides.   Though Herodotus is the “father of history” and it was Socrates that first brought philosophy ‘down from the heavens’ and into the agora, Thucydides was the first to deal with the relations among and between political communities in a theoretical manner. » More

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