Thursday, November 17, 2005

Realism or Unrealism

Realism was the dominant school of thought in International Relation and widely practiced by the US and others. Key aspect of Realism from Wikipedia.

1. The international system is anarchical.

2. Sovereign states are the principal actors in the international system.

  • Dismissal of the independent influence of international organizations, sub-state, or trans-state actors.
  • Focus on the primary importance of nationalism, as opposed to sub-national groupings, or transnational ideological of cultural groupings.

3. States are rational actors, acting in their national interest.

  • Distrust of long-term cooperation or alliance.

4. The overriding goal of each state is its own security and survival.

  • Fundamental nature of the security dilemma.

5. State survival is guaranteed best by power, principally military in character.

  • Focus on relative power (i.e. "zero sum") versus absolute power.

One aspect I noticed about Realism is nowhere does the individual mentioned. Everything is about the state – nothing about the individual. This neglect of the individual is the main flaw of Realism. And it is the reason we are in the trouble we are in.

Realists’ strongest argument is that their philosophy is based on pragmatism, functionality and is not pie in the sky idealism. By supporting the status quo - realists hope to maintain stability. If that means supporting tyrants and dictators at the cost of individual’s liberty, they consider it worth the price. Being a utilitarian, I have to concede that the realists are right that chaos and anarchy is dangerous and everything should be done to prevent them. And if the benefit does not clearly outweigh the cost, idealism of democracy and freedom is nothing but an unworkable idea – pie in the sky.

But does the policy of realists prevent chaos and anarchy? I argue that the realist foreign policy does not prevent chaos and anarchy. It seems to provide stability, but only in the short term. In the long term, it compound the instability and make it more certain that instability will occur – and at great scale.

Supporting dictatorship for the sake of stability is like using the pressure cooker. You hold in the steam in the short run. But in the long run, the pressure will result in uncontrollable explosion. If the realists are correct, September 11th would never happen, and we would not be fighting the war on terrorism. In fact, the policy of realism gave birth to Osama Bin Laden, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and million of angry Islamists wiling to blow themselves up.

The evidence on the failure of realism is clear, especially in the Middle East. If supporting the modern Pharaoh Mubarak put a lit on Islamic terrorism, why are so many Islamic terrorists are Egyptians? I have no doubt that Mubarak is sincere in oppressing the Islamists. It is in his self-interest to do so. But he fails miserably. The Islamic Brotherhood is more popular now than ever in Egypt. Egyptian society is now more fundamentalist than decades ago. Clearly, tyranny is the wrong medicine for the religious fanaticism malaise. If anything, it is a booster for religious fanatics. Oppression turns religious extremists into martyrs instead of laughing stocks.

A good comparison is the US, and the West, we have our own nutcases ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to the various Christian fundamentalist cults. But none of them are receiving popular support the way Islamists are receiving support in the Middle East. In fact, in our society, they are the subject of ridicule in our society. We do not oppress them (as long they do not resort to violence), so they became laughing stocks and not martyrs.

So if realism does not promote international stability – which is it sole purpose – what use does it have? Realism is an oxymoron - an ideology that base on utilitarianism, but is useless. If realism does not work, let give liberalism a try. (And I am referring to classical liberalism that value individual liberty, not the socialist misnomer that is commonly used). Unlike realism, liberalism has a better track record. It works miraculously in the West and in emerging democracies of the Pacific Rims and India. It has not produced any fanatics who flew planes into building. Let give it a try in the Middle East.


Blogger Dave Schuler said...

There's a difference between realism and Realism. Small-r realism is in continuous approximation. Capital-R realism isn't much more than a form of mercantilism. It's an ideology and one that has proven to be flawed.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Carl said...

Realism -- also called 'détente' -- would have prolonged the Soviets forever. According to Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson (How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, p. 71), Richard Allen recalled talking with Governor Reagan in 1977. Reagan asked:

"'if I'd like to hear his theory concerning the Cold War.' I allowed as how I certainly would. Reagan said. . . 'My theory about the Cold War is that we win and they lose.'"

I've tried to meld realism and liberalism with three conditions warranting armed American intervention abroad:

1) In America's Realpolitik (i.e., realism) interest;

2) Morally correct; and

3) The intervention's goal is achievable.

Vietnam and Iraq each pass that test.

11:04 PM  
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