Çarşamba, Temmuz 31, 2002
Realism and Change - Şanlı Bahadır Koç 2002.
Realism is unable to account for change in international relations. Agree or disagree with evidence and examples.
The ‘problem of peaceful change’ is the central dilemma of international politics[i]. Realism generally has a problematic relationship with change in general, and systemic change in particular. For instance, it failed to predict the end of the Cold War. According to realist principles no country should gave up its power, empire without struggle, including military struggle, but Soviet Union did.[ii] Realism predicts that declining great powers are prone start wars. Soviet Union did not. Realism acknowledges that preferences or estimates change but says not much about how, when and why this occurs. It fails to explain and predict change in behavior, policies, interests and assumptions. This paper will try to analyze contours of change in world politics, and the relationship of realism with change and try to outline the debate between realists and others on the problem of change in world politics. What do we mean with change in world politics? In what forms do change come? To determine the amount, pace, scope, direction, intensity, necessity, desirability, possibility, causes and consequences of change are the subjects of this contentious debate. Questions of the debate varies from normative questions like, ‘what should change and what should remain the same’ to the practical ones on best way to achieve change. What is the position of realism on change in general? In what ways do realists differ from others? What are the outside criticisms of the realist conceptions of change, both intellectually and normatively? How realists defend themselves against their critics? Realism is a broad church. There are important differences and in some cases inconsistencies among various realist thinkers in terms of outlook and emphasis[iii]. What, if any, are the internal differences or nuances between different realist thinkers or sub-branches of realism on the concept of change? And finally to what degree is realist conception of change convincing? My main argument will be that, unlike realistst claim, small and slow changes, or changes in different and seemingly distant and even unrelated planes, aspects and dimensions of world politics, may accumulate, interact and combine to cause fundamental change in the system. Although it is equally possible that some of these small changes may cancel eachother out, or dampen eachother’s effects, theoretically speaking, change at systemic level is a possibility. To say that world politics is not fundamentally different from the one, say, in the 18th century is dubious or at least hard to prove. One may portray the aforementioned difference as fundamental, considerable or negligible according to one’s taste, but the amount of change system underwent should make us more alert to, if not the actuality, then, at least, to the possibility of change it may undergo in the future.
To determine what has changed and what has not, what should change and what should not, the accounting at the end of the day, has always been difficult and contentious, perhaps, because it is much more than an intellectual debate, and much is at stake. Different perspectives may come with different conclusions. Change in world politics may take different forms: Change of the system, change in the nature of actors, change of individual, group or state behavior, change of the relative power and position of actors, change in beliefs about politics in general and world politics in particular, change in the methods and means of production and technology. Change can be gradual, controlled, radical, violent, conjunctural, systemic or structural.[iv] Normative changes in world politics are things like if and when war becomes anathema, unacceptable, or at least limited to self-defense, or cooperation becomes the norm, world politics becomes a more humane and just, and governed by law instead of force[v].
‘Seen that, been there, done that’
Realists generally claim that some of the seemingly important changes in world politics are, in reality, the continuation of old realities in different guises. Cooperation, for instance, is in fact self-help[vi], and institutions are in fact tools of great powers[vii]. They also claim that some of the contemporaray trends and processes or seemingly recent developments like globalization are not new and, if not always, then at least for quite some time, things were already like that[viii]. Realists also claim that even when change occurs (like peace among democracies) it is not due to the factors they are generally attributed to (that they are all being democracies) but due to other factors (the American pacifier in Europe, nuclear weapons[ix]), and that some of these seemingly important changes are in fact easily irreversible and that they will probably return to their natural state, as the case of alleged return in the near future of security competition in Europe[x]. Realistst claim that non-state actors are generally either not as powerful as others’ claimed, or not as free from state intervention, penetration and control. Organizing principle of the system, nature of states and distribution of power are the three elements of the international system according to neorealists like Waltz[xi]. Thinking that change of the system and change of the nature of states are not possible, easy or imminent, realists are generally more alert to the changes in polarity and hegemonic transitions[xii]. Because, if chances for a change of the system is absent, then we should devote all our energies in understanding change in distribution of power. But is it really the case that change of system is not possible, and that states are states, and that they will always continue to be so? My argument here is that change of system should not necessarily be absolute. It can be relative. Anarchic nature of the system may not vanish altogether, but the degree of anarchy may change and it may become less binding and constraining.
The World According to Realism
One of the main arguments of realists is that the world we live is not easy to change in any substantial way: States, leading states and hegemons may come and go, they may fight and make peace with each other, but it is almost impossible to change the system. For realism, main tenets of international politics, anarchy, self-help, quest for power and security do not change. Benign change, however, is generally the result of conscious, wilfull efforts and imagination[xiii]. Realists, in general, do not seem to appreciate this. They, in general, seem to believe that ‘there is no alternative to the status quo[xiv].’ They not only pride themselves for ‘looking the world in the eye’[xv] and seeing it without the distortion of ideologies, programs, ideals and utopias, but also they are content to leave it as they found it. World politcs, however, when left to its own devices, will probably not change much, or that the change may not be in the direction we want, namely to a more peaceful, prosperous and equal world. When dealing with the problem of change in world politics questions like ‘is this best of possible worlds,’ ‘is there room for non-violent, benign change,’ ‘is status quo non-violent, benign, humane, ideal’ comes to the fore. When one thinks that this is the most optimal of all possible worlds in terms of peace, human happiness, prosperity, it is axiomatic that resistance to change will follow. But one can oppose to or be reluctant for change even when he accepts that ‘there is a better world somewhere.’ But even if they accept that a better world is possible, they may still claim that it is not probable and not worth risking what themselves, or mankind in general, already have. Individuals, groups, institutions, states or currents of thought like conservatism and realism may opoose change for a variety of reasons. Some realists may come to their conservative conclusions about change because they think that change is not good in itself, and that things, individuals, rules, system should remain the same. They may favor status quo because it suits their interests, or because they don’t know what will come with change. Some, like Edmund Burke, may oppose change fearing it may be violent and disorderly[xvi].
Main lines of criticism against realism on the problem of change are that realists or realism in general do not understand change; thatrealism is not mentally equipped or intellectually well-positioned to anticipate, predict, recognize, understand and explain change; that they are determined not to notice it, and that realists don’t understand change when they meet it; that they are not aggressive enough intellectually to pursue change; that they are content with the world as it is; that they don’t understand the possibility and necessity for change; that they don’t want change, that perhaps they benefit from continuation of the status quo or that they serve the interests of those benefiting from the status quo by providing an intellectual cover for it; that they deliberately work against change, that they are responsible for the lack of real change, that they don’t want the fact that the possibility of change to be known by others, perhaps because of the fear that knowledge may make change more likely. Some political realists are aware of the possibility of change but they are normatively against its realization. Realists position and condition themselves for the impossibility of change. They generally do not want to accept that change has already took place in world politics, or in cases they concede change took place, they tend to underestimate it. Realists rationalize and belittle the various manifestations of change in world politics change as accidental, temporary, superficial, ephemeral, minor and inconsequential[xvii]. Liberals, generally, aim to create a better world, but without much disrupting the natural order of things. They claim that if we adjust ourselves to rhythm of nature, market, instincts, reason, seemingly conflicting interests will reach a point of cohesion. Realists, on the other hand, are always conscious of the disharmony of interests between states, groups and individuals[xviii]. Indeed, some Liberals may complain they are too conscious of that harmony.
Change in world politics is possible because, among other reasons, states, as individuals, have a capacity to learn. “An understanding of structure creates the possibility of modifying it or of escaping from some of its apparent consequences. Human beings possess this capability[xix]”.
They look for new, less violent ways of competing, cooperating, resolving their conflicts. They try to find new areas and ways of cooperation. Cooperation, especially facilitated by the institutions, has a spill-over impact to other fields[xx]. Also, world politics is increasingly interdependent, and though this interdependence between states and other actors, sometimes proved to be problematic, its net effect is positive.[xxi]. Another hope for change is the increase in the number of democratic countries. Also, these democratic states are generally deepening their democracies, and this decreases the likelihood, and perhaps even eliminates the possibility, of war among democracies[xxii]. Also, nuclear weapons has changed the nature of warfare in those conflicts at least one party has them. And today war is more costly and destructive, and less beneficial for even who won them[xxiii]. And, due to acceptance, proliferation and strengthening of norms, rules, international organizations, institutions, some types of conflict are unnecessary, unlikely or more costly and therefore less frequent. Although power-politics is not necessarily destined to the trash-can of history, its form has been somewhat modified and it became milder. Some change in world politics may be so slow and subtle that that may be recognized only retrospectively. Some of the change in world politics may be the result of long, irreversible forces. But some others are certainly the fruits of conscious and wilfull efforts to change the world. Some part and types of change may come from the natural flow of things, but for others, conscious and deliberate actions of individuals, groups or states may be needed.
For classical realistst the main reason why systemic change is very difficult, if not impossible, is human nature[xxiv]. For neo-realists it is the anarchic nature of the system. They positon these blocks in front of the state and human condition as insurmountable and with no escape[xxv]. States has not yet fulfilled their full potential for cooperation. Even if we assume that human nature is static selfish, aggressive and possessive, and anarchy is eternal and omnipotent, there is still unused and and perhaps yet unthought opportunities and possibilities for peaceful change and improvenment in world politics. Most of the things realists attribute to human nature or international system has in fact their roots in culture and ‘cultures can be changed’[xxvi]. Another factor that may change the international system is the changes that take place inside states. States in the beginning of the 21st century are in many ways different from those in 19th, let alone 17th century. World politics may go, and arguably has already gone, under a great deal of change, short of abolishing anarchy. Cooperation is possible under anarchy[xxvii]. In facts good realists cooperate[xxviii]. Also today cooperation is more widespread, and probably more beneficial than it was in the past. Another source of change, globalization, may not make states impotent, but it ‘shakes, rattles and rolls’ them, transforms them both internally and externally. And that the anarchic character of the system, if not absolutely then relatively, and if not universally then then at least geographically in some areas, has changed.
As realists claim, some of the changes in world politics are mere accidents or the result of not easily replicable processes elsewhere, and that some of the changes may easily and perhaps certainly be reversed. This being said, however, being too close[xxix] to change, mentally and in fact psychologically, may cause us to miss some fruitful possibilities for benign change in international life. If we have to choose between the self-fulfilling logic of realism and the self-fulfilling and self-enhancing logic of cooperation, for instance, one should be more disposed to the later. While we fix our eyes on systemic, revolutionary change we may miss opportunities for small, useful, modest changes that may make international politics less violent. To be fair to realists, they do not say that nothing ever changes. They argue that important things do not change easily and quickly. Or rather, most of what changes quickly and easily is not important. Realism is reluctant[xxx] and is not well-disposed to account for change. It has an almost normative bias against it. In fact, the more complex the world politics gets, the more difficult for realism to explain it. Change in world politics is not absolute but relative. It is slower in some areas than others. Certainly not all change has been and will be for the good. Most of the benign change is limited to some areas, both in terms of geography and content. Some of the changes in world politics are potentially destabilizing, like the disintegrating of the Westphalian system. Some are promising but with some caveats (globalization). But, collectively and cumulatively, changes in different aspects of world politics have a potential to transform it into something qualitatively different from the past. For instance, not only the world politics is more rule-based than it used to be, but also there is still more room for expansion of rules and regimes. But to give credit where it is due, as realists show, these norms and regimes are not always democratic in character, and most of the time, they tend to favor the leading states in the system[xxxi]. Today, non-state actors force, constrain, limit, shape, control, oppose and help states much more than they used to in the past, and this makes state-centric explanations if not redundant than at least limited, and as many critical theorists would argue, limiting. But this does not mean that states are no longer important.
Realism, alone, does not provide a good conceptual framework for understanding change. Because neither the human nature is unchangeable, and nor anarchy is immovable. They are both open to modification, and in fact moderation. But realism may still help us understand the excesses of some of the other schools’ conceptions of and uncritical appetite for change. Risking to sound unbearably equivocal, I want to say that change is neither as distant, unlikely, limited and dangerous as realists claim, nor as wide, imminent, benign and radical as some critics of realism want us to believe. To be sure change can be easily exaggerated if we lack an historical perspective. History is full of events, processes, norms, dreams and changes that were promising in the beginnig that gone awry, proved to be false, hollow or short-lived in the end. Even for that reason alone, we may respect and welcome the down-to-earth wisdom, prudence and cautionary logic of the realists, without sacrificing our hopes and efforts for peaceful change.
Number of words (not including notes and bibiliography): 2779.
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Booth, Ken and Tim Dunne (eds.) Worlds in Collision. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
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Buzan, Barry. ‘The Timeless Wisdom of Realism?’ in International Theory: Positivism and Beyond. Steve Smith, Ken Booth and Marysia Zalewski (eds.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 47-65.
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[i] E . H. Carr, The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of Internatiomnal Relations, New York: Harper and Row, 1964, pp. 208-23.
[ii] Richad Ned Lebow and Thomas Risse-Kappen (eds.) (1995) International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War (New York: Columbia University Press). Available in the world wide web: <http://www.ciaonet.org/book/lebow/>
[iii] Stephen Brooks, ‘Dueling Realisms,’ International Organization, 51: 3 , 1997, pp. 445-477; J. Legro and A. Moravcsik, ‘Is anybody still a realist?’ International Security 24:2, 1999, pp.5-55.
[iv] Change in the ‘organizing principle’ of the system’ may mean that anarchy may no longer imposing as it is now or as it is claimed. At the far end of the continum lay the world government. Change in the structure means change in the number of poles (from one to two to more, or vice versa). Hegemonic change may mean that instead of state A, state B becomes the hegemon. Conjunctural change in world politics means that Great Power A becomes an ally of Great power B, or become less friendly with its former ally Great Power C. Technological change in weapons technology, in communications, in war tactics and in the organization of armies may cause change in world politics, too. For instance, they may make offense more easy, profitable or difficult and costly, and vice versa. Nuclear weapons, for instance, certainly make offense difficult against states that have them. Today the number of states with nuclear capabilities has already in two digit numbers. The potential impact of proliferation of these weapons on world politics is open to debate. Kenneth Waltz predicts it will be peaceful. Kenneth Waltz, ‘The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Better,’ Adelphi Papers, Number 171. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1981. Available in the www
[v] Robert Jervis, ‘Realism in the Study of World Politics’, International Organization 52 :4, 1991, pp. 971-975.
[vi] Charles Glaser. ‘Realists as Optimists: Cooperation as Self-Help,’ International Security, 19:3, 1994, pp.50-90.
[vii] John Mearsheimer, ‘The False Promise of International Institutions,’ International Security, 19:3, 1994, pp. 5-49.
[viii] Kenneth Waltz, ‘Globalization and Governance,’ PS Online, December 1999. Available at
[ix] Kenneth N. Waltz, ‘Structural Realism After the Cold War’, International Security, 25:1, 2000, pp. 5-41;
and ‘The Emerging Structure of International Politics,’ International Security, 18:2, 1993, pp. 44-79; John Mearsheimer, ‘Back to the Future: Instability in Europe After the Cold War,’ International Security, 15:4, 1990, pp. 5-56.
[x] Mearsheimer, ‘Back to the Future’.
[xi] Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979.
[xii] For a repsesentative and influential work on hegemonic transition see Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
[xiii] Booth, Ken, ‘Security in Anarchy: Utopian Realism in Theory and Practice,’ International Affairs, 67:3, 1991, pp. 527-545.
[xiv] Ibid. p. 535.
[xv] Robert D. Kaplan, ‘Looking the World in the Eye,’ Atlantic Monthly, Aralık 2001. Accessible in the world wide web at
[xvi] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Even when they concede that the intention and desire of the agents of change may not be violent all the time, they may still fear that change may unleash destructive forces, destroy what mankind created.
[xvii] Waltz, ‘Structural Realism After’.
[xviii] Carr, The Twenty Years Crisis, pp. 22-89.
[xix] Richard Ned Lebow, ‘The Long Peace, the End of the Cold War, and the Failure of Realism’, in Ned Lebow ed. <http://www.ciaonet.org/book/lebow/Lebow02.html>
[xx] For the ‘promise ’ of institutions in facialiating, sustain and expanding cooperation see Robert Keohane and Martin, Lisa. L., ‘The Promise of Institutionalist Theory’, International Security, 20:1, 1995, pp 39-51.
[xxi] Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, ‘Power and Interdependence in the Information
[xxii] For the democracy’s pacifying impact on international politics see Michael Doyle, ‘Liberalism and World Politics Revisited,’ in Controversies in International Relations Theory: Realism and the Neoliberal Challenge. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1995, pp. 67-81. For a critical view of this optimism see Christopher Layne, ‘Kant Or Cant: The Myth Of The DemocraticPeace,’ International Security, 19: , 1994, pp. 5-49.
[xxiii] John Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War. New York, Basic Books, 1989; Rober Jervis, ‘Theories of War in an Era of Leading-Power Peace,’ American Political Science Review, 96: 1, 2002, pp. 1-14.
[xxiv] Among the modern realist writers it was Morgenthau who placed the greatest emphasis on human nature. Can, will and should the human nature, and/or and international system change? Is change of the later possible without the change in/of the former? If, as some writers claim, change of, or improvement in, human nature is possible, then this will have consequences for world politics. Is there such a thing as human nature? If there is such thing, is it fixed or open to change? In what ways can it be changed in the direction that would make world, and also domestic politics, more peaceful and cooperative? Even nature itself evolves, so why not human nature? And, even if we accept human nature, why should it be necessarily wicked or evil? Realism takes human nature as constant and eternal. But is human nature itself constant? And, what about the achievements of reason and cooperation? What about EU? A linear conception of progress may be misleading, but still, how can we account for the human progress not only in materialistic but also in social sense? For the latest debates on human nature see Simon Blackbourn, ‘Meet the Flinstones,’ (Review of Steven Pinker’s The Blank State: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, 2002). The New Republic, 25 November 2002.
[xxv] David, Dessler, "What's at Stake in the Agent Structure Debate?" International Organization, 43:3, 1989. pp. 441-73
[xxvi] Booth, p. 533.
[xxvii] Jervis, Robert, ‘Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,’ World Politics, 1978, pp.167-214
[xxviii] Charles Glaser, "Realists as Optimists: Cooperation as Self-Help." International Security, 19:3, 1994, pp.50-90.
[xxix] The word ‘close’ here meant as ‘not open’.
[xxx] For two recent examples for the reluctance of realists to concede even an inch for change see, Kenneth Waltz, ‘The Continuity of International Politics, in Booth, Ken and Tim Dunne (eds.) Worlds in Collision. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, pp. 348-53; and Colin Gray, ‘World Politics as Usual after September 11: Realism Vindicated’, in Booth and Dunne (eds.) pp. 227-34
[xxxi] Waltz, ‘Globalization and Governance’.
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