The Skeptics

Realism's Gaping Blind Spots—And How to Fix Them

Although it has a hoary past, going back to Machiavelli and Hobbes, in its most recent incarnation, “realism” was devised as an explanatory tool primarily by American scholars of international relations and practitioners of diplomacy in the Cold War era, thus reflecting the primary concerns of its epoch. This era ended with the demise of the Soviet Union and the retrenchment of Russian power. The explanatory power of the American version of realism, which, as will be discussed, limited even during the Cold War period, was seriously undermined by the end of it.

The end of the Cold War, paradoxically, led to the simultaneous appearance both of unipolarity in the political arena, and the more dispersed nature of the distribution of power in other areas of international relations. Realism’s relevance was further eroded by the increasing salience of civil wars, the breakup of states in the Balkans and the ever-increasing danger of state failure primarily in the Middle East (but also elsewhere) that seemed to be spreading in epidemic proportions.

To be fair, one should note that “realism” is a tradition or school of thought, rather than a single theory that explains issues of war and peace in the international system. However, there are four essential elements that are widely shared by “realists” of almost all hues. First, realism emphasizes the anarchical nature of the international system that flows from the lack of a sovereign authority capable of ordering the system. This is often posited in stark contrast to the existence of order within states because of the presence of sovereign authority. Second, realists stress the concept of power (both relative and absolute) as the variable best capable of explaining the action of states in a system that is not merely anarchical, but is also characterized by huge disparities in terms of the capabilities possessed by its members. Third, the realists’ obsession with international anarchy and the centrality of power leads them to stress the role of great powers and relations among them as the most important factors that determine the level of order and stability in the international system. This is why much realist discourse is devoted to discussing the rival claims of multipolarity, bipolarity and unipolarity in terms of providing the greatest amount of international stability and, therefore, contributing to peace and order in the international system. Fourth, and flowing from the other three, realists assume that threats to a state’s security arise primarily from external sources, that is, other states. This is the classical “security dilemma” discussed at length in realist literature on the international system.

Traditional realist explanations based on these four assumptions provide partial explanations of the way the international system operates, but they fail to adequately portray the entirety of the issues of war and peace in the international system. This shortfall has become more glaring in the post–Cold War era with the removal of the overlay of superpower rivalry on most conflicts but had existed during the epoch of bipolarity as well. They fail to do so for two major reasons. First, they are unable to explain the origins of the majority of contemporary conflicts, and second, they are unable to fully fathom the variables determining the behavior, both domestically and externally, of the majority of members of international society toward issues of conflict and order, war and peace.

These two shortcomings are, in fact, inextricably intertwined with each other. Since questions of war and peace cannot be addressed without reference to the context in which conflicts occur, are managed and resolved, theorizing on the basis of inadequate knowledge of the historical and geographic contexts can be misleading at best and counterproductive at worst. Realists, especially neorealists, suffer from two problems in this regard. First, they neglect a very major part of the political universe that must form the basis of observation (the source of “data,” as scientifically oriented scholars would aver) in order to provide answers to the question of war and peace. Second, they are unable to adequately decipher the major causes of disorder in the system because they are fixated on interstate relations, and more particularly, external sources of threats to the state. Thereby, they neglect the domestic sources of instability and disorder that are the main cause of most of the conflicts bedeviling the international system today. Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, to name just a few provide testimony to the veracity of this statement.

This deficiency is caused by the fact that most realist scholars and commentators have a narrow Euro-American centric view of the world. The Euro-American part of the system functions primarily on the assumption that there is order within states an anarchy among them. This is, unfortunately, not true of the most members of the system who suffer primarily from internal disorder and where the major sources of conflicts have domestic roots even if in some cases they become intertwined with inter-state rivalries and great power machinations that exacerbate disorder in post-colonial countries.

In other words, they neglect to take account of the experiences of postcolonial states that form the vast majority of members of the international system. Consequently, they ignore the main sources of conflict, which are either domestic or a mix of intrastate and interstate factors, in the vast majority of cases that determine the level of order and disorder in the international system.