Realism still matters…


Article Review: “Realism” by Jack Donnelly in Burchill et. al., eds. , Theories of International Relations New York: Palgrave, 2005), pp: 29-54

In my blog piece, I will try to analyze J. Donnelly’s article. In this article, the author is trying to find the answer of the question of “what are realism’s characteristic forms, weaknesses and strengths?” He highlights the political realism’s basic premises by defining it as the oldest and the most frequently adopted theory of international relations. He makes a distinction between the varieties of realism, namely ‘scientific realism’ as opposed to empiricism and instrumentalism. Also ‘Realism’ in the cinema that is opposed to romanticism and escapist theories. From the very beginning of the article, some particular explanatory models or propositions are also specified.

In the first part, the core realist premises are defined. The concepts such as security, state-centrism, anarchy and rationality are placed in the fore. Moreover, some key figures of the realist theory like H. Morgenthau, E. H. Carr, G. Kennan, and K. Waltz are presented. Also, Hobbes and Machiavelli are also defined as the realist philosophers. The author cites these figures’ important studies to explain realism’s basic characteristics. He, by comparing these realist thinkers, identifies some variants of realism. He briefly explains structural realists, classical realists, and radical realists.

In the second part of the article, the author cites T. Hobbes and his famous book Leviathan to explain classical realism. The author by listing the three assumptions of the Hobbesian state of nature, tries to shed a light upon classical realism. He then argues that enmity is exacerbated by competition, diffidence and glory. By assessing Hobbesian realism, he claims that when equal actors interact in anarchy, driven by competition, diffidence and glory, generalized violent conflict can be predicted. He asserts that, Hobbesian realism is a theory of great power politics, rather than a general theory of international relations. According to the author, each of Hobbes’ assumptions would seem applicable to important parts of international relations.

In the next part, the author tries to explain structural realism and its basic assumptions. He cites Waltz in order to explain the central theoretical points of structural realism. He asserts that, structural realism attempts to abstract from every attribute of states except their capabilities in order to highlight the impact of anarchy and distribution of capabilities. He goes on his explanations by defining some crucial terms and concepts. He defines prisoners’ dilemma to explain the role of relative gains and cooperation in international politics. He argues that, the relativity of power requires states to be more concerned with relative strength than with absolute advantage (p.38). He states that relative gains concerns dramatically impede cooperation.

Later on, the author mentions polarity and tries to explore how polarity, the number of great powers in a system influence international relations. He then makes some conclusions about bipolarity, multipolarity and unipolarity and their impacts on the international politics by evaluating some cases that took place in the world politics like the case of Cold War. However his evaluations do not depend on his own studies, rather they are taken from other scholars’ studies. While explaining the role of structure in international relations, he underlines that structure does not mechanically determine outcomes. According to him, states are also subject to numerous other pressures and influences (p.40). At the end of the related-part, he argues that purely structural theories cannot lead the researcher to further explanations. In addition to them, state motives are essential (p.41).

In the following part, he largely pulls Waltz’s claims to the forefront about state-centricism. He does not give any appreciable evaluations of his own about state-centricism which is one of the most important premises of realism. Apart from that, he asserts that, structural realism in principle, can have nothing to say about threat (p.42).

In the other part, he mentions the contrasting predictions of offensive and defensive realism. According to him, both of the models can be used to guide policy or analysis and to facilitate inquiry into the objectives of the actors. He then focuses on the role of identity and touches on the constructivist understanding of international relations. He asserts that, structural realists have no theoretical basis for incorporating identity. On the other hand, he touches on a standard complaint about realism’s inability to comprehend fundamental change in international relations. According to him, realist theorists emphasize constancy not accidentally but by self-conscious theoretical choice.

On the other hand, in terms of change in world politics, the end of the Cold War is debated. But the author does not agree with the views which put the whole blame on realists that failed to account for the end of the Cold War. He claims that it is a failing of the discipline as a whole rather than realism in particular.

At the end of the article by referring to some key scholars’ views about realism (like that of Waltz’s), the author argues that realism offers deep and satisfying explanations about world politics. In addition to that, the author argues that realism must be a part of the analytical toolkit of every serious student of international relations.

From my point of view, in this article, the author does not make any appreciable contribution to the existing literature, because he just refers to the opinions of important scholars. He does not make significant comments on his own. Apart from that, the definitions of realism’s core assumptions are not clearly presented. By contrast, his evaluations about Hobbes and Waltz are satisfying. Moreover, the way he presents the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ also makes the reader understand the concepts of cooperation and relative and absolute gains clearly.

As far as I am concerned, the author employs a qualitative methodology, besides adopting a descriptive style of writing. His article is not an argumentative one. He just criticizes some views that are opposed to realism, and largely favors realist assumptions. On the contrary, he reveals some points that he does not agree with realists in terms of structure. According to him, structure does not mechanically determine outcomes. From the very beginning of the article, the author tells that he is not a realist, but he states that realism is a powerful and a significant approach despite being limited. Here, a paradoxical expression stands out for the reader. Despite his views revealing that he does not see realism as a prescriptive theory of foreign policy, the author suggests that every serious student must not only acquire a deep appreciation of political realism but also understand how her \ his own views relate to the realist tradition.

On the other hand, under the title of process variables, he defines what a ‘system’ is. I think he must have defined this term at an earlier stage. Next, he tries to shed a light upon the roles of norms, identities and institutions in international relations. According to the author, even at the global level, norms and institutions can have a considerable degree of influence. I think he, in this point proves that he is not a realist. Because realists do not attribute any importance to norms or institutions in international relations.

As a result, I think, this essay can be seen as a satisfying one in terms of explaining the basic premises of realist theory, whereas it is not so satisfying in terms of revealing any original insights about the topic. In my opinion, the author does not cause any change in ideas related to realism. In addition to that, I do not think that, this article fills any void in the literature or gives any breakthrough information. However, it can be seen a satisfying study for the readers who are not so familiar with realism.



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