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A Primer to Political Realism

Considering that this is the internet, most of my friends tend to lean left in terms of their politics. So, perhaps somewhat understandably but also kind of frustratingly, they react badly towards the terms “political realism” and “realpolitik”, partly because they seem to be such a relic of the Cold War, where there was a very us-or-them mentality of paranoia, but also because it gets a lot of bad press on the media. And why wouldn’t it? After all, films and television series generally prefer to have unambiguously good heroes who do the “right thing” at the very end. Of course, what the “right thing” is is something that’s a little debatable, but I digress; this is a primer to political realism. Time to set the record straight.

What is political realism?

Political realism is a series of theories on international politics, involving several schools of thought. While the theories of political realism has obviously been around for a very long time – the archetypical archaic icon of political realism is Niccolò Machiavelli, although technically his works are really only more of an antecedent rather than a true predecessor – its form as a modern formal field of study can be dated to around the time of World War I. Presently, it is the most widely-accepted and most widely-studied political theory, and although liberalism as a political school of thought is gaining traction (as is, for that matter, constructivism, but we’ll get to these two later down the road), it still has some ways of catching up with realism. It should be important to re-emphasize that political realism – like many theories and schools of thought – are an umbrella ideology; much like how Christians, feminists, and LGBT activists all disagree on the details concerning their core ideologies within their own communities, political realism has many different “camps”, some of which include classical realism, neorealism, neoclassical realism, liberal realism, and so on.

In general, realism recognizes several generally-agreed upon ideas:

  1. That the international system is anarchic in nature. Basically, there is no higher arbitrating power above the state. On any other level, you can appeal to a higher form of authority: The police, the courts, the government, etc. At the state level, however, there is no higher authority, and thus it becomes a question of what states can get away with.
  2. That states – that is, nations and countries – are the “primary actors” of the political system. This is not to say that non-state actors aren’t important, although different schools of realism have different ideas of how important they are, and classical realism has almost no respect for them at all, although classical realism kind of came about before the time NGOs and stuff were a thing.
  3. That nations pursue their self-interests, with the foremost self-interest being survival. This is sometimes split into two points, but I like to combine them into one.

While it’s easy to assume so – and not entirely invalid to do so – realism does not automatically imply jerkish behavior on part of everyone else, nor does it try to make jerkish behavior a normative standard. It simply defines the boundaries and limits of the political system. To use a sports analogy I shall return to, it’s telling you how large the basketball court is, and how far the lines go before you’re out-of-bounds. It does not suggest that you should thus try to push someone out-of-bounds; that would be a normative system. Political realism, by and large, is a descriptive system (although normative aspects exist in some schools of political realism).

What is a realpolitik?

A standard (and basically incorrect) understanding of the realpolitik means “to act like jerks with no heed to morality to get what you want”.

It is true that the realpolitik “does not take heed of inherent morality”, but the public understanding of it takes the entire concept far too literally. Realpolitik does not say “all morality does not matter”, it’s more of a “you should be prepared to discard your morality to achieve the optimum result”. And by its very nature, an “optimum result” is the one that considers the bigger picture, that considers multiple layers of concern, which includes morality, which means how people are likely to react to your actions. If you discard the moral element in your considerations, then it is by nature not a realpolitik; you are not considering possible moral backlash, and thus it is not an optimum result.

Basically, a realpolitik is a tactic that might be distasteful to your own morals, but you also take into consideration about the moral element, the reaction of your own people and those of your neighbors. You deliberate whether or not the costs are worth the gains, even if you recognize it’s not a very nice thing to do. And sometimes, you will go against popular opinion because the gains on every other front are “worth it”.

What is the relation between political realism and other political theories?

I’m going to touch upon this a bit because it’s worth mentioning as an example that I actually fall somewhere between political realism and political constructivism. I don’t want to get too much into constructivism, but constructivism is the idea that the political system is socially constructed, and so aspects of the international political system are not necessarily immutable, thus bringing a more human side into the study of international politics. It should be noted that these two schools of theory can complement each other, and while they do challenge each others’ tenets, they are not mutually exclusive. To use that basketball analogy once more, political realism defines the rules of the game and the boundaries of the court, and political constructivism asks why such standards are so (like most analogies, it simplifies things a little, but – again – this is a primer).

Given that most of my friends (and much of the internet) tends to lean a bit left, I also want to bring up political liberalism, Although I am a realist and constructivist, this does not mean I find liberalism irrelevant, which seeks to explain the achievement of lasting peace and cooperation. It is a very valid school of political thought that deserves the amount of research and consideration it gets. But the reason why I’m not quite as big on liberalism is because I consider realism and constructivism to be descriptive theories, whereas liberalism – for me – is a normative theory, one that exists within – and is thus to some extent defined by – the system as outlined by realism and constructivism.

Realism and liberalism are not theories that are at odds; rather, liberalism is a valid approach to a political system set down on the basis of realism and constructivism. (There will, obviously, be disagreement on this issue, especially by staunch realists and liberals who take highly opposite positions towards each other.) To use that basketball court analogy: Liberalism is a valid strategy about playing on the court, but realism and constructivism ultimately details the rules and confines within which the game is played (although constructivism tends to be a bit more philosophical in nature, and asks why the rules are as they are). So while liberalism is great, as an academic who seeks to understand systems more than I seek to change it, I consider realism and constructivism far more interesting.

Hopefully, I’ve set the record straight, and there will be less of an instinctive urge to categorize political realism as “comically evil behavior adopted by the bad guys”.

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