Functional Critiques of Realism

  • by Piyush Choubey

While realism was not initially the dominant perspective in International Relations, historically, it has been the dominant tradition in the discipline and perhaps it is for this reason that it has been subjected to so much criticism. Liberalism and structuralism can both be used to develop a critique of realism. In more recent years realism has been subjected to complicated critiques from Critical Theorists, postmodernists, feminists, social constructivists and Green theorists amongst others. Some of the major points of Criticisms against Realism are:

  1. The fact that realism is simple and understandable is presented as a strength of the perspective. However, an opposing argument would suggest that realism is too simplistic, reducing the complex reality of international relations to a few general laws which are said to be applicable over time and space and which therefore omit much of interest and importance from our analyses.
  2. Realism, in emphasising the principle of power politics and the enduring features of the international system, fails to allow for the possibility of real change. Realists accept that great powers rise and fall, and wars come and go, but insist that the basic rules of the game cannot be changed. In failing to embrace the idea of substantive changes, realism is inherently conservative and anti-innovative, meaning that it is highly attractive to, and politically malleable by, those who would have things continue as they are. Whether intentionally or not, realism may also serve to justify injustice on the grounds that nothing can be done to change things.
  3. By considering states to be the only important type of actor in international relations and by only viewing the agency of non-state actors such as MNCs as part of state agency, realists have been criticised for not being able to fully account for a range of issues and processes in international relations.
  4. While realism has a cyclical view of history (a repetition of patterns of behaviour) it has failed to successfully make any specific predictions. Most startlingly, realists failed to predict the end of the Cold War; given its pretensions to be, if not scientific, then at least useful, this is a very serious weakness.
  5. Realism does not help us explain which decisions will be made by states’ representatives, but only why they will be made. Thus states people will make decisions rationally and on the basis of national interest. However, how do we know if it is the national interest of State A to attack State B? Perhaps it would serve the national interest better to delay an attack or to seek an alliance against State C. Is national interest a self-evident thing? After the event, when State A has attacked State B, the realist could say this was based on a rational calculation of the national interest, but the realist offers no way of deciding which option is actually in the national interest and simply tells us that this is the motivation.
  6. If we accept the possibility that the assumptions of realism are relevant only in a particular context, there is possibly great danger in treating them as if they were universal truths: that is, applicable everywhere and at all times. Far from providing universal truths, realism may simply have seemed the most appropriate way of viewing a short historical phase; the idea of universal truth may have held back scholarship which would have been better directed at freeing us from realist despair.
  7. In emphasising the centrality of the state and the national interest, realism encourages people to view the world from a very narrow, ethnocentric perspective.
  8. The simplistic view of human nature as being inherently selfish and unchanging has been criticised, in particular by more progressive approaches such as Green Thought and liberalism. Here it is claimed that the nature of the society one lives in can change over time and can thus change human nature or at least allow humans to be less selfish.
  9. Realism ignores or significantly downplays the degree to which states might have collective or mutual interests, and so underestimates the scope for cooperation and purposive change in international relations.
  10. We should ask if foreign policy really is conducted rationally and indeed what is implied in the idea of rationality. Rationality seems unlikely to be the same for the leaders of states with strong ideological or religious bases as it is for leaders of liberal democracies. Furthermore, even within, for instance, liberal democracies, can we be sure that in the hurly-burly world of foreign policy, decisions will always be made rationally? The decision maker is likely to be bombarded with information, denied sleep and asked to make several choices at once; it seems plausible at least that rationality will be compromised, affected by mood, modified by spur-of-the-moment decisions and so on.

While, in its simplified form, realism can present an easy target for criticism, realism’s detractors, bent on exposing its shortcomings, have often found it a formidable task. Indeed after some 15 years (or more) of fending off criticisms on all fronts, realists might argue that the post-9/11 world is one in which realist propositions are clearly vindicated by current practice. For example, the euphoric atmosphere of the post-Cold War period might have opened up a space within International Relations to imagine other possibilities, including the pursuit of human security founded in respect for human rights. However, the security risk to US citizens, highlighted by the terror attacks on the twin towers, the subsequent ‘war on terror’ and the unwillingness of the USA to listen sympathetically or seriously to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in relation to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, can on the face of it be used to vindicate realist propositions.

Modifications of realism have been proposed by various authors and many differences exist within the broad category of realism. Moreover, realists acknowledge a changing world and are aware of ecological threats, gender issues and so on. However, and crucially, realists believe that their basic assumptions capture the real essence of international relations, and they argue that they are perfectly entitled to privilege some areas and issues in international relations, and, indeed, to marginalise or ignore others. However, it would be difficult to overcome the decades of dominance that realism has had in the discipline and therefore the tendency to regard it almost as a natural starting point for talking about IR, even for those eager to criticise it or offer a more adequate framework for analysis. Furthermore, while realism may be under attack from all sides in academic circles, it continues to find favour amongst policy makers and states people and accordingly is implicit in rationalisations of policy offered by foreign-policy decision makers.