Feminist Critique of Realist Theory

  • by Piyush Choubey

Since the end of the Cold War and the increased interdependence resulting from the globalization process, the field of international relations has faced major challenges to its core theoretical structure. It no longer revolves solely around the realist issues of war and security, but rather, international relations has broadened to include traditionally liberal concerns, such as the international political economy, socioeconomic development, human rights, non-state actors, and civil society. Apart from the two main theories of realism and liberalism, the feminist theory brings new perspectives to the international relations table.

the processes of forming and learning theory is constructed around on automatically-accepted ideas of what is standard and normal, rather than first challenging the ‘norm’ and questioning if the ‘standard’ is objective enough. In this case, ‘theory’ lacks female perspective because it is not objectively sought at the onset of formulating ideas. Tickner argues that IR is gendered to “marginalize women’s voices,” and stresses “that women have knowledge, perspectives and experiences that should be brought to bear on the study of international relations.” For example, Tickner would argue that security, a main topic in IR, should not only be understood as “defending the state from attack,” but should also consider that security for women “might be different because women are more likely to be attacked by men they know, rather than strangers from other states.

In other words, in contrast to traditional IR views that view security as protecting the state from other states, feminists argue the topic of security should address acts of rape and violence, not only from foreign perpetrators, but from their own fellow citizens as well. Feminists would also add that occurrences of rape increase during times of war, and is even used as a method of ethnic cleansing among the rivalries within their state, yet would never enter into typical IR discussions that focus solely on state to-state interaction, simply because IR discussions traditionally remain focused on states as the key actors. Thus, the topic of security shows how gender consideration, excluded from the very beginning of the discussion, results in policymaking that would be subsequently exclusive of, and likely detrimental to, women. Prior to discussing any IR topic, standpoint feminist IR theory would first challenge those participating in the discussion, and those defining the key terms and issues, by critically asking them if the normative perspectives and working vocabulary are broad enough to effectively accommodate issues affecting women.

Realism centres its theoretical structure on how the state seeks power and defends its national interests against other competing states within a global anarchy, or where there is the lack of authority higher than the state. States seek security through a balance of power in the international arena, primarily through military means, and resorting to war, if necessary. Realists generally view the state as the key actor in international politics, and de-emphasize – or, as feminist theory argues, ignore — the role of the individual. Much feminist IR theory stems from a critique of realism, whose “socially constructed worldview continues to guide much thought about world politics.”

First, feminists argue that realists overvalue the role of the state in defining international relations, without questioning how the state itself is internally structured, politically and socially. Feminist theory would consider how the state includes, or excludes, the views of its individual citizens, and how, in turn, the state’s domestic views translate into foreign policies. In challenging the concepts of a state defending its national interests, feminists would ask: who is defining the national interests? If women were included in such discussions, would the national interest be interpreted differently, and if so, how? How would such an outlook change foreign policy? How would the definition of ‘security’ change? Would military and defence capabilities still be atop the agenda? Would women necessarily be less militaristic in their approach to IR issues?

Another feminist critique of realism concerns how realists define and emphasize power in IR discussions. Feminists would ask: who defines power, who has it, and how is it used? If power is defined by a patriarchal and realist society, which seeks global balances of power, then power is equated with military and economic strength. But how would this change if the discussion included women’s viewpoints? Would the indicators of power be measured differently? Would power be seen as leadership in peace agreements, or might it be measured in terms of the ability to achieve transnational cooperation? In relation to realism, feminist theory is clear: realism is the antithesis to achieving gender equality, both in discussion and practice, and even in its tools of war and security, patriarchy remains the central theme. States are the actors and the individual is of little importance. When the individual is deemphasized, there is even less acknowledgement of a female individual, which effectively excludes feminist discussion.