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| Essays on Realism in Politics and International Relations |




By T.S.Tsonchev


The Montréal Review, May 2011


Political realism in international relations has two main features: first, it sees the world scene as an anarchical environment, and second, it understands the relationships between the states as defined by power and competition. In their analysis of international politics, the realists are concerned primarily with interpreting the balance of power between states. Generally, the realists try to understand and predict the future of international system through comparative analysis of state power, historical examples, and analysis of human behaviour. Political realism tries to understand political world observing human and state actions, instead to rely on interpretation of expressed goals or ideologies.


One of the most respected political realists in the twentieth century was Raymond Aron. His book Peace and War is a useful reading for politicians and students of international relations. In an essay published in 1978, he wrote that he revolted against the instruction he received at the University, "against the spirituality of philosophers, and against the tendency of certain sociologists to misconstrue the impact of regimes with the pretext of focusing on permanent realities" (R. Aron, History and Politics. Collected Essays. New York, Free Press, 1978, p. 65).

Aron believed that theory and practice of politics should not follow ideologies and premeditated set models. It should rest on flexibility and openness to different ideas and interpretations that can be used successfully in particular situations and cases. This belief led him to dismiss the Marxist political thought that interprets politics and history in dogmatic ways; he became one of the first political theorists who argued that the Soviet model of central planning is weak exactly because its lack of flexibility and reliance on artificial models. (See R. Aron, "Democracy and Totalitarianism", London, Widenfeld and Nicolson, 1968)

The Soviets were able to industrialize their economy, but they were helpless in a more complicated industrial society. The main weakness of Soviet model was its ideological, political and economic reticence. The communist bureaucrats and the communist state machine were able to enforce the vast human energy of the people in Soviet Union to create huge industrial complexes, yet the Soviet economy eventually collapsed. The reason for collapse was centralized decision making and ideological narrowmindedness. Political and economic planning was coming from one center that was composed by state apparatchiks (bureaucrats), who were educated in controlled by the state teaching institutions and often without real field experience. The apparatchiks had some chance to understand how the economy works on the level of ordinary people in Soviet Union, but they were unable to grasp the realities on the bigger international scene. Additionally, while the Soviet universities were capable to make science, the Soviets were incapable to apply the discoveries efficiently, because of the overregulated political and economic environment and ideological constraints.

If we look at China today, we could make similar conclusions, although the Chinese model seems much more flexible now than those of Soviet Russia did. China's political elite, who still uses the outdated ideological Marxist rhetoric, succeeded in unleashing human energy of Chinese people through opening state borders for Western investments and knowhow and giving more autonomy to private entrepreneurs, while keeping the political curb. But our admiration of China's economic miracle should be careful because of the fact that China's economy and politics still operate under a central power that is not elected and that is ideologically bounded, and consequently is not fully aware what happens on the ground (lack of direct feedback, because the of lack of freedom of expression and action) and in the real world in general - something crucial for good decision making.

Decisions in China are still made in closed elite circles that, like their former Soviet counterparts, lack the experience that only a free capitalist, liberal system can ensure. Political stability and repressive regime help mobilizing human resources and accomplishing big industrial projects, it facilitates the implementation of new technologies, for example creation of pockets of green economy, it is very helpful for modernization of the country, but ultimately communist China is not enough competitive in a long run, not only in invention of new technologies and businesses, but in their prudent implementation and exploitation as well. China is not a fertile soil for creation of revolutionary companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook, but it has a great political machine that can mobilize energy and resources that no capitalist democracy can achieve. Yet, even this mobilization requires a prudent political elite, constant supply of economic visionaries and entrepreneurs - things that centralized political system and state capitalism do not guarantee.

In his seminal essay "What is to be done", published in 1902, Lenin predicted that working class has no political discipline and self-consciousness to oppose radically to capitalism and that without a well-trained communist vanguard workers would not go beyond labour unionism. R. Aron shared the same idea, insisting that political relationships in capitalist societies are not zero-sum games and the workers would not revolt if they were appeased. Democratic capitalism is a self-regulating system that is functioning on constant natural change and balance, exploring opportunities and fixing market, social and political distortions.

Competition, conflict, compromise, transactions, negotiations and alliances are integral parts of the democratic capitalist system. What keeps them related is freedom. Constant change and the natural, but not controlled or directed aspiration for achieving of balance of interests between political groups, social classes, and economic actors lead to net economic expansion and progress.

The nature of democratic capitalism is passionate, but ultimately good. That's why the capitalist system is fated to experience economic crises. The capitalist economy is cyclic and we should not afraid by its fluctuations, they do not expose the flaws of the system, on the contrary, they are a sign for its vibrancy and flexibility. And as we saw in the late 1980s, despite Thatcherism and privatization, and the reign of neo-conservatism, the worker in the capitalist West was in a better economic condition than its counterpart, living in the Communist bloc.

Ultimately, in a liberal, democratic, capitalist societies, all social layers progressively benefit from these painful, but necessary economic fluctuations that aim to balance profits, welfare and wealth distribution, as well as fix distortions in economic practices and management. The capitalist system attached to liberal-democratic regimes, despite its imperfections and periods of pain, has the great ability to soften political and ideological confrontation. This ability arises from existence of freedom that opens the doors for competition, but also for communication, exchange and more importantly for experiment (knowledge) and based on experiment rational calculation of interests and actions.

The rational calculation of interest and choice of action in free societies does not prevent conflict, but it is the best way for creation of consciousness about the mutual or common interest. In free capitalist society, the entrepreneurs who succeed are those who are able to make multi-layered calculations (including distribution of resources, investments, universal utility of the product or business, psychological and technological savvy), based on simple principles, and who have the will and the emotional energy to implement and correct their vision according the feedbacks from reality. In socialist or state controlled societies, this calculation is impossible, first, because the economy is distorted by non-market interference of central power, and secondly, the cultivation of real entrepreneurs is impossible in controlled environment. One can argue against this argument noticing that private monopoles are non-state interferers, and they have the same quality as state interference, but I will immediately reply that private monopoles cannot last forever if the environment is enough free for private entrepreneurship and if the state power is used for imposing laws and rules defending freedom of choice, action, and transaction.

That's why in the late 1970s, R. Aron was optimistic that capitalist societies, in long term, will soften the existing then ideological and political tensions between labour and capital; both sides will make some concessions and eventually will come out stronger after their conflict, making the capitalist liberal democracy superior to its autocratic or totalitarian rivals on international scene. Of course, the conflict between labour and capital, poor and rich, will never abate, but in free, democratic societies, its qualities change over time. For example, if in the 1920s and 1930s unemployment insurance and pension funds or deposit insurance were novelty in U.K and America (and they came as a result of Great Depression), today they are something common. It's is true that capitalism, despite its revolutionary nature, prevents quick improvement of social conditions and especially welfare, but the fruits of social change achieved with efforts in capitalist free society seem much more resistant and valuable, than the fruits of social programs and planning initiated in the centralized state. Evidence for this is that today people in Canada live better than people in Russia, and the retired workers in Austria have higher living standards than their contemporaries do in Poland. Communism, as it seems, prevented the true progress in these societies.

The center of Aron's political realism is perhaps his understanding that politicians, thinkers, diplomats and strategists have to observe and analyze state aims and motives on international scene through the best evidences available. For example, in the 1930s Hitler's predatory political character was not well understood neither by his domestic political opponents, nor by international community. Both relied on his promises and rhetoric than on his actions. The reason for this was not the lack of political intelligence, but the painful legacy of the First World War that encouraged wishful thinking and discouraged decisive political action. Thus realism requires not only a clear evaluation of evidences in predicting the goals of political opponents, but also a courage to accept the truth.

"To be prudent is to act in accordance with the particular situation and the concrete data, and not with accordance with some system or out of passive obedience," wrote R. Aron in "Peace and War" (New York, 1968, p. 585)


This text is part of a series of essays on realism in politics and international relations. The essays were initially written as marginal notes on "Fifty Key Thinkers in International Relations" (M. Griffits, S.C.Roach and Scott Solomon, "Fifty Key Thinkers in International Relations", Routlegde, 2009)



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