Analyzing Global Contests through the Prism of Realism

By Dr Atique Ur Rehman

US role in Russian-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine wars and China-Taiwan conflict are manifestation of realism, one paradigm which has traditionally held a centre approach in international relations since World War II. Anarchy, structure, maximizing of power has been the main characteristics of global politics in 21st century. Dawn in its editorial on 19 October, 2023 has commented and termed the killing of more than 500 children and women in Al Ahli hospital, in Gaza the new low in uneven and brutal conflict between Israel and Palestine. US invaded Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria irrespective of loss it could cause to civilian, to pursue their foreign policy agenda in unipolar world. Russia targeted areas in Syria for specific objective to increase inflow of refugees in Europe via Turkey.
Politics is all about maximizing its power, as various political groups struggle to gain power in domestic politics, similarly big and global players compete and fight for power in international system. E.H Carr and Morgenthau, classical realists in their work discredited the utopian politics of liberals and said that international relations will be driven by power not morality. US has manifested the same, it would not allow China to share global power, rather will spread its tentacles in all regions of the world to curtail Chine influence. Wars of Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine endorses the US strategy. Wealth has started shifting from west to east about a decade ago, but Chinas BRI has worked as catalyst to further speed up the contest between west and east. China is rising in east so are the neighbouring economies like Taiwan, Cambodia, Japan, Vietnam, but trade partners of these growing economies are in the west. Energy needs of progressing economies are met by Russia, OPEC countries through Indian Ocean. So the theatre of economic prosperity of east is spanned from South China Sea to Persian Gulf, up to EU and Africa. World War II gave rise to two phenomenon; bipolarity and invention of nuclear weapons. These two factors taken as a threat to the peace of the world ultimately became reason for peace in the world. John Mearshiemer and Waltz both avow that states go all-out to increase power. Mearsheimer however states that lust for power for states is unlimited while Waltz says it has limits. In its National Security Strategy (NSS), in December, 2017, US decided to preserve peace through strength and advance American influence in the world.

US support for Ukraine and fueling war for more losses to Russian, Americas support to Israel to brutally murder Palestinians are continuation of their national security strategy. It also manifest that realism is not only relevant but occupy more space in foreign policy agenda of big powers, more than ever. US has always believed in increase of power through alliances, military hardware and other means and it continues to do so at the cost of moral dictates of its own policy. G7, G20, NATO alliances maximize the power of US. The global institutions like IMF, World Bank indirectly contribute to enhancing US powers. China has substantially enhanced its power through BRICKS and SCO. The BRI of China is another big project to enhance its influence globally. Countries like Pakistan can not ignore to maximize their military power by strengthening economic and social domains.
Power is the main currency of international system. Similar trend of maximizing of power are evident in domestic politics. BJP uses all means to increase its power in national land scape resorting to extremism as a tool by RSS, a militant wing of party. Similarly we witnessed during previous regime in Pakistan that how a political party pitched itself to gain absolute power through NAB and information disorder, at the cost of political and economic stability of the country. Power remains the basic currency of todays international and domestic system. India is biggest importer of military hardware. According to Reuters report of May, 2022, India is biggest buyer of military equipment in the world. The Reuters report that India has identified 25.15 billion rupees ($324 million) worth of defence equipment it wants domestic firms to make this year, and avoid buying abroad, according to an online platform where the defence ministry lists its needs.
“The present world order and geopolitical scenario, which is very, very turbulent, has also taught us a lesson. If we want to provide certainty and stability … the only option is to have a totally self-reliant or self-sustained supply chain mechanism established within the country.,” Air Marshal Vibhas Pande, who leads maintenance operations for the Indian Air Force, told media.
In all the modern history probably introduction of nuclear weapons is the greatest of change which has taken place, yet even in this nuclear era international system is anarchic and security is every states own responsibility.
Realist perspective goes back to 431 BC when Thucydides gave the concept that all states were not equal in terms of power and states can only survive if they accept this reality. He said the strong do what they have to do and the weak accept what they have to accept. For their survival, state have to be careful and show prudence, foresight and judgment.
In the 15th century, Machiavelli took the argument further and in his book ‘Prince’ gave the idea of state. He said that world is dangerous place due to its anarchic nature hence the political independence, welfare of its people and survival of a state depended upon the manipulative power of the ruler. Machiavellis famous book Prince which advocate maximizing of power by leaders is still most popular in the global leaders.
Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher in 17th century gave concept of state of nature. Sovereign states were formed due to fear by people. The sovereign state under a government was necessary to defend its people against external aggression. But international system is anarchic due to absence of any government which endangers international security.
Another form of realism, Classical realism advocates that it is human nature which drives states to pursue power. E. H. Carr in his book The Twenty Years Crisis while disapproving the utopian politics of liberals, pointed out that due to anarchic nature of world system, conflicts among states are imminent. Wars will continue to be fought among states due to varying nature of the units (states). Carr believed that power, not morality would be the guiding force in international politics.
Morgenthaus realist theory is based upon this assumption that human beings are social animals and they strive and enjoy power. Morgenthau professed that in international system, states strive for power and it is similar to domestic politics where political groups move violently to attain power. Morality is personal trait and it should be practiced by leaders in their lives not in state craft, Morgenthaus six principles elaborate.
Kenneth Waltz brought about the idea of structuralism. He pays emphasis on how system of international relations is structured on stated prowess rather than individuals. Waltz says when it come to function, all states are equal as they all focus on conservation of internal security, wellbeing of their citizens, collection of taxes and formulation of foreign policy etc. But when it comes to international system, states are categorized according to their military power and economic strength. States with more economic and military prowess control international politics and have determining role in the international political system. No offense, but it defines our position in todays politics.
It was thought that end of cold war is also end of realism because concepts of anarchy, self-help and balance of power had been overtaken by better ideas. Changing environment demanded new theories and new ideas. It could have been true if conditions have changed from those when theory was formulated. Changes in International political system will only occur if change in system takes place but not the changes inside the system. Unit level changes and advancement in weaponry does not bring about change in international system. Adhering to democratic values by US are of no use to the world unless, America adopt same policies outside US in maintaining global order. In the modern recorded history introduction of nuclear weapons has been biggest change but it also could not bring any change in the international political system.
Waltz says that there is no evidence that phenomenon like spread of democracy, increased national interdependence. International institutions which are attributed for change in international politics have been able to influence states to bring about their national interest inferior to international concerns. Recent escalation in inflation is product of same irrational policy enforcement of IMF.
Michael Doyle assumed after the world war II that due to peaceful behavior of liberal democracies the threat of war among advanced industrial states is over. It can be simplified as liberal democracies dont fight with each other. Fukuyama also endorses this view point of democracies avoiding war with another democracy. Immanuel Kant also pointed that liberal democracies are peaceful with each other. Kenneth Waltz however negates this assumption
Causes of war does not lie inside the states rather these are product of international system. Waltz says similarity among countries to a particular form of government may reduce some of the causes of war but it would not do away with all.
He also contested the idea of increased national interdependence. Where Interdependence partially favours peace, enhances contacts and promotes understanding among states, it also increases chances of conflict that aggravates bitterness and even leads towards war. An interaction more than a desired level is not a very conducive condition because it is hindrance to freedom of involved parties. States which are more independent are stronger than those states which are relatively dependent. Kenneth Waltz points towards US, which is exploiting interdependence. Weaker and poor states are deeply into the trap of US and other powerful states and interdependence is only a illusion.
The assumption that power rests in markets not in states is not true. Markets are not free of states influence. International financial institutions remain under clout of big powers particularly US. Chinas recent formulation of NDRC to attract private investors is states macroeconomic planner which has been tasked to attract investors. Fate of smaller countries are not decided in big stock markets but influential capitals.
Realists believe that international institutions work under influence of great powers. History indicate that NATO and WTO are used by great powers for their own benefits. These organizations have reduced to treaties of assurance rather than old style military alliances which were tightly knit because of their mutual dependence.
After Waltz writing international system has been characterized by a bipolar or multipolar distribution of power. World War II gave rise to two phenomenon; bipolar system and invention of nuclear weapons. These two phenomenon which were viewed threat to world security ultimately turned out to be assurance for peace for the world. When Cold War ended few has assumed that there will be no more wars at global level. But it could not happen. US troops are still deployed and fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and many other parts of the world.
Mearsheimer and Morganthau both are proponent of the view that struggle for powers among states is unending but they differ on the reason why states struggle for power. Morganthau says it is human nature behind struggle for power but Mearsheimer says it is security which compels states to engage in power struggle.
Mearsheimer states that lust for power for states is unlimited while Waltz says it has limits.
All states, including great powers who are even not striving for power, have no choice but to seek power and dominate the system.
International system compels great powers to excel for more power comparing with other powers in the system. Take example of China, with all the military and economic might China stands as a giant on global map today. He predicted that Chinas expansionist designs will give rise to instability in the region. China is seeking more power to be hegemon in the region. China will not accept US military forces operating in its backyard. US on the other hand will make all efforts to neutralize China and its Asia Pivot policy is a manifestation to this premise. Struggle for power between USA and China will lead to a cold war type era in Asia. Defensive realist think this security competition among US and China will not be intense rather it is more a predictive course.
Routledge research article of 7th September, 2023, has termed the contemporary rivalry as Second Cold War (SCW). The article brings out that US and China currently compete on a global scale for centrality of four interrelated networks that they anticipate will underpin hegemony in 21st century: Infrastructure ( e.g logistics and energy), digital, production and finace.
Security Dilemma is centre argument in all realists theories. Effort to increase own power to deter others results in acquiring of more power which ultimately threatens others. Great powers increase their powers to be hegemon. Therefore all great powers are revisionists and primed for offensive. Defensive realists stress that provocative strategies invite troubles and end up in trigger balancing countermoves.
President Trump announced US National Security Strategy on 18 December, 2017. Strategy advances Presidents concept of principled realism because it acknowledges the central role of power in international politics, affirms that strong and sovereign states are the best hope for peaceful world. It no longer seems to be valid in Bidens Presidency. First Ukraine and now Israels behavior speaks of shift in US policy of states sovereignty and gaining power through intervention.
End of cold war opened a new debate that realism has met its age and it provided space to globalization. Western influentials started deliberating about cooperation among states and taking a new approach. It was common argument that since democracy is progressing as they dont fight with each other .thus a new era of peace is likely to usher. But 9/11 gave rise to realism and world has been witnessing a power game since then in Iraq, Afghanistan and Middle East. Russian quest in Ukraine, Chinese adventure in South China Sea and India-China row in Dhokla manifest that realism is very ,much relevant. There is no solid argument to believe that international institutions have replaced the states. Indeed nationalism is on the rise and institution of the state have bright future. Despite the fact that in Europe economic integration has been unprecedented, the institution of state is very much alive. Promotion of military industrial complex is on the rise. India buys its military hardware from France and most of the eastern European countries.

Last month North Korean President visited Russian to mark a deal for purchase of SS-400 bateries. Since end of cold war the US along with its NATO allies and UK have fought five wars. North Korea recent inter-continental ballistic missile tests and Irans nuclear proliferation efforts, Indian hegemonic designs and Pakistans response, Chinas aggressive ventures in south china sea manifest that world remains a dangerous place with varying degree of threat. States will continue to worry about their survival, which means that they will continue to increase their power or search for alliances to have a balance of power. Therefore discussion about power, its attainment, distribution and security is very much relevant.
Assessing the emergence of Regional Security Complex enables us to understand external security as well as internal one. Regional security complex theory is an essential key to understand the new post-Cold War structure, where great powers compete on a different level, and to evaluate the relative balance of power in the regional framework based on regional and global trends,
As B. Buzan states, a group of states whose primary security concerns link together sufficiently closely that their national securities cannot reasonably be apart from each other,. Thus Middle East is one again on the verge of instability caused by Israel-Palestine war.
We many conclude stating that global politics is centered around maximizing states power. The series of volatile postures by states during last one decades in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Ukrain, Israel, Palestine, Iran leave no room but to say that Realism is not going any where rather it will resonate more forcefully till Rise of China.
Writer is Defence and Political Analyst and can be reached at

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