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A Novel Approach to Politics

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12. International Politics:
Apocalypse Now and Then
Realism in International Politics
• Realism is both historically and conceptually
the predominant perspective on international
• In part, this is because war is what we notice
about international politics.
• Most of international politics is actually about
cooperation: trade, travel, communication,
environmental regulation, and the like.
Causes of War
• In fiction, war is presented as so horrible that
only an accident or misunderstanding could
explain it.
• In reality, the choice to go to war is pretty
much always consciously and rationally made
by at least one of the participants.
• The dynamics that cause a war are far more
intricate and complex than the event that
sparks the conflagration.
Back to Anarchy
• Globally, there has never been a formal,
hierarchical political structure.
• Anarchy is the underlying dynamic of
international politics.
• The theoretical construct of realism provides
the best explanation of how international
politics operates in an anarchic environment.
World War I Was Unpleasant
• The horrors of World War I are a big part of
the reason the study of international politics is
so focused on war.
• The war was also socially traumatic.
• The study of international politics developed
during the interwar period and was focused
on the quest to ensure a peaceful world.
All Quiet on the Western Front?
• The body of academic work developed during
this period is referred to as idealism.
• It is based on two main assumptions:
– First, conflict of any sort is bad.
– Second, no rational leader would choose to
endure the massive destruction caused by war.
Realism and War
• A big problem with idealism and the quest for
peace was that it didn’t work.
• The outbreak of World War II compelled
scholars to abandon idealism in favor of
• Realism is all about rational choices made in
the pursuit of power in an anarchic
international environment.
Realism and War
• All realist theories and perspectives are based
on three main assumptions:
• 1. States are rational unitary actors.
– Most phenomena can be explained by dynamics
external to the state.
• 2. These unitary rational states interact in an
anarchic environment.
– States seek security in a world where there is no
overarching authority.
Realism and War
• 3. Power is the fundamental resource to be
– This includes the idea of going after gains when
the opportunity arises.
– In 1967, Israel, which was at a power
disadvantage, was prompted by fear to
preemptively attack Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq,
Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon, defeating them all.
Balancing and Bandwagoning
• Balance of power refers to the way the
distribution of power internationally
influences the pattern of alliances that form.
– Alliance formation driven by the fear that the
more powerful side might be pursuing gains
• Bandwagoning refers to allying with a
stronger power to gain favor or to share in
Challenging the Realist Paradigm
• Realism has a difficult time explaining why
cooperative international behavior is more
common than war.
• Also, it ignores the role of economics.
• Liberalism is less of a theory than a political
ideal encompassing democracy, capitalism,
human rights, and civil liberties.
Challenging the Realist Paradigm
• Constructivism is a communication theory
based on the idea that the construction of the
“other” is a predominant influence on
international decision making and action.
• Marxism argues that imperialism and
colonialism extend capitalist exploitation into
the international context.
The Not So Black Box
• Foreign Policy Analysis questions the realist
presumption of the state unitary rational actor.
• Rather, Foreign Policy Analysis is all about the
decision making that goes on within states in
response to inputs from the anarchic
international system.
• The problem is that since no two states are alike,
the analysis can be a complicated mess.
Why Kant Democracies Fight?
• Immanuel Kant’s democratic peace theory posits
that since leaders of democratic states are held
accountable to the people, they are much less likely
to be able to justify the costs of going to war.
• While democracies do seem to go to war, they do not
seem to fight one another.
• Unfortunately, there is little scholarly consensus on
the cause of this democratic peace.
The Shadow of the Hegemon
• Is the world really anarchic?
• International economic activity is far more
important and common than war, which is
relatively rare.
• Often there is a dominant hegemon that
imposes some degree of structure on
international trade and other interaction.
The Shadow of the Hegemon
• The hegemon sets up trade and other rules that
benefit the hegemon.
• Smaller countries must voluntarily follow along if
they want to participate in international trade.
• The costs to the hegemon of maintaining the
system eventually outweigh the benefits.
• A fading hegemonic power is eventually replaced
by a challenger.
“It’s the Economy, Stupid”
–Karl Marx
• Another alternative to the realist paradigm is
world systems theory.
• Each country is made up of a small capitalist
elite core and a large working-class periphery.
• Further, countries can be divided between a
small core of wealthy, elite, capitalist countries
and a much larger periphery of poor, less
developed countries.
“It’s the Economy, Stupid”
–Karl Marx
• The result is a world economic system that
replicates the capitalist exploitative
relationship on a global scale.
• Wealth flows from the peripheries to the
cores, both within and between countries.
“It’s the Economy, Stupid”
–Karl Marx
• The core of the periphery keeps the system
going because it receives key resources from
the core of the core.
• Those in the periphery of the core countries
keep the system going because they get the
benefit of cheap goods as a result of the
exploitation of periphery countries.
“It’s the Economy, Stupid”
–Karl Marx
• Loans, grants, aid, and trade agreements all
benefit the developed countries.
• They build economic infrastructures that
facilitate economic exploitation of periphery
countries by core countries.
• And they tie developing countries to debts
that extract capital at alarming rates.
“It’s the Economy, Stupid”
–Karl Marx
• Not everything about globalization is bad and evil.
• Literacy rates and access to educational
opportunities are higher than they have ever been.
• As are access to health care and vaccinations.
• With some exceptions, ditto for human rights and
basic rights for women.
“It’s the Economy, Stupid”
–Karl Marx
• Further, it would be impossible to stop
• It is a phenomenon created by advancing
technology, increasing worldwide education,
and the aggregate economic choices of billions
of people.
Dude, Think about the Fish
• As capitalist pressures become ever more
universal, economic pressures drive
overexploitation globally.
• The global tragedy of the commons is an issue
that extends across nations and involves
subnational political units, multinational
entities, and transnational organizations.
• Human beings construct the reality around
them through language and communication.
• The conceptual framework used to describe
something enables certain actions and
prevents others.
• This is a new and interesting theory, the value
of which will be determined with more
Roaring Mice and
Vacation Hot Spots
• The question is not so much which theoretical approach is
correct, but how different ideas can help us understand what
is going on.
• Why does Barbados exist?
• It has little power in an anarchic world.
• Is it an economic issue? A moral issue? Something else?
• There is no one simple theory that explains global interaction.
• International relations are complex and multifaceted.
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