Case study War in Ukraine 

Realism is based on the belief that global politics is formed on   nation-states  and their individual self interest. Nation states are the most legitimate and powerful formation in global politics. The realist viewpoint includes the following:

■ The authority of IGOs (Inter-governmental organisations) such as the EU and the UN, should be limited. In this respect, global politics is about accepting a the anarchical nature of the world. i.e. Every nation looks after its own self interest. This means states retain the exclusive right to act in whatever way they wish. Although nation-states may decide to work through and with other non-state actors, they do not abandon their sovereign right to advance their own self-interest.  So anarchy means self interest rather than chaos.

■ This acceptance of the 'real' state of global affairs results in  a security dilemma, because nations can only rely upon themselves for their own protection. States, therefore, live in a self-help system in which they must build up their own security apparatus through military power and alliances.

■ States act rationally and usually prioritise defending their own national interest. Usually, this means that a state’s prime motivation is to defend its national security against perceived threats.

■ Global politics is competitive so states are ultimately trying to find ways of increasing their power and influence within the global political order.

■ The natural state of the world order is for states to compete with each other, economically and militarily, making the most of their power. 

Realism (sometimes called ‘political realism’) claims to offer an account of world affairs that is ‘realistic’, in the sense that it is hard-headed and (as realists sees it) devoid of wishful thinking and deluded moralizing. For realists, global politics is, first and last, about power and self-interest. This is why it is often portrayed as a ‘power politics’ model of international politics. As Hans Morgenthau put it, 

‘Politics is a struggle for power over men, and whatever its ultimate aim may be, power is its immediate goal and the modes of acquiring, maintaining and demonstrating it determine the technique of political action’

The theory of power politics is based on two core assumptions (Donnelly 2000): ! People are essentially selfish and competitive, meaning that egoism is the defining characteristic of human nature. ! The state-system operates in a context of international anarchy, in that there is no authority higher than the sovereign state. The core theme of realist theory can therefore be summed up in the equation: egoism plus anarchy equals power politics. Some have suggested that this formulation betrays a basic theoretical fault line within realism, dividing it into two distinct schools of thought. One of these – classical realism – explains power politics in terms of egoism, while the other – neorealism, or structural realism – explains it in terms of anarchy. However, these alternative approaches reflect more a difference of emphasis within realism rather than a division into rival ‘schools’, as the central assumptions of realism are common to most realist theorists, even though they may disagree about which factors are ultimately the most important. The key themes within realism are as follows:

Trump describes his 'America First' approach to global politics. This is a return to realism as it asserts American self interest above all other concerns particularly international obligations and agreements- Trump went on to criticise NATO, applaud Brexit, cancel the Iran Nuclear Agreement and withdraw from climate change treaties. He also engaged in trade war with China. 

Examples of Realism

States ultimately count on self-help for guaranteeing their own security. Within this context, realists have two main strategies for managing insecurity: the balance of power and deterrence. The balance of power relies on strategic, flexible alliances, while deterrence relies on the threat (or the use) of significant force. Realism  is a theory that argues that unsavoury actions like war are necessary tools of statecraft in an imperfect world and leaders must use them when it is in the national interest. This is wholly rational in a world where the survival of the state is pre-eminent. 

The Cold War. 

With the knowledge that both were equally matched and that a nuclear weapons attack would only result in deadly retaliation, the two states engaged in a nuclear weapons arms race. This concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) successfully ensured that there was no nuclear confrontation between the USA and Soviet Union during this period. Neither did the two rivals fight each other on the battlefield — both instead engaged in proxy wars using other actors to fight each other (for example, the USA arming the Mujihadeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union, without actually deploying troops of its own).

Since the terror attacks of 9/11 in the USA, a more multipolar global order has emerged, with many states and non-state actors, such as al-Qaeda, challenging each other for power. Therefore, power is currently imbalanced in global politics 

The UK’s decision to leave the EU ‘Brexit’ (2016)

Brexit was rejection of shared sovereignty and a return to nation state politics by the UK. Control of trade agreements and immigration were seen to be essential for full British sovereignty.

The US invasion of Iraq in March 2003

■ The USA was prepared to act without international support: military action was launched without clear UNSC approval or wider international agreement and support. The coalition consisted of the USA as the lead player, and military forces from Australia, Poland and the UK.

■ The war’s legality was highly questionable: the UK’s Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War concluded in 2016 that the case for war was ‘unjustified’ and that Saddam’s regime posed ‘no imminent threat’. The UN secretary- general at the time, Kofi Annan, said in 2004 that the invasion did not conform to the laws of the UN’s founding Charter and was, ‘from our point of view, illegal’.

■ The USA and its allies were acting in what they perceived, and argued, was their national interest: the USA saw complying with international law as an obstacle to successfully carrying out action it believed to be in its national interest. Prime Minister Tony Blair said that Iraq represented ‘a current and serious threat to the UK national interest’ because the UK government believed that WMDs were a threat to the middle east region.

However, many realist thinkers opposed the Iraq War. For example, US political scientist John Mearsheimer believed that it was not in the USA’s national interest to invade.

Chinese activity in the South China Sea

The South China Sea is a site of economic rivalry between Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam because it is thought to contain valuable natural resources, including oil and gas. It is also a key shipping route.

In recent years, China has attempted to expand its territorial waters in the region by building islands and increasing naval patrols. At the same time, it has been investing in building up and modernising its naval forces, including developing new and improved aircraft carriers. An arms race and unilateral territorial claim and threats are assertions of national self interest.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine

■ Russia  acted to unilaterally annex the Crimea from the Ukraine. There was no attempt to seek UN approval  or gain justification through international law. Russia vetoed any action by the UN Security Council.

■ Russia saw the Ukraine was becoming closer to the West. Action against Ukraine included restricting gas supplies and sending troops in to eastern Ukraine to support separatists.  The expansion of NATO is seen in Russia as a theat. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, had allied themselves and their territories with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

■ The primary objective was to regain territorial control of Crimea: in particular, Russia wanted to secure the warm-water port of Sevastopol, a key strategic objective of the annexation. This had been a key Russian strategic aim since the 19th Century. 

2022 February- The Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putin did not want Western democracies to absorb Ukraine via NATO or through the EU for several reasons. First, he views it as a matter of national security and defense. Consider China supplying one of the United States’ neighboring countries such as Mexico or Canada, funding and arming them via a multi-country pact chock full of foreign adversaries. This would cause alarm, just as it did during the Bay of Pigs Missile Crisis under the Kennedy administration. Soviets allegedly sending arms to Cuba and lining its beaches with ballistics nearly resulted in World War III. 

Second, Ukraine has Pro-Russian separatist areas, which Putin has already used as a guise to initiate the invasion in an effort to reunite the former Soviet Union territories. Luhansk and Duhansk along Ukraine’s eastern border in the Donbas were the primary areas of focus but the Russian war effort has since expanded itself into cities as far west as Kiev and Kharkiv and as far south as Mariupol. Crimea was a pretext to this calculated aggression from Putin, who is increasingly paranoid about Russia losing its sphere of influence, which will snowball into a national security matter for the Kremlin.

The third and final reason Putin’s opposed to the enlargement ideology behind Western global expansion is the strong nationalism that motivates him to be ambitious in an effort to preserve and maintain the culture, values, and customs of an imperial Russia for years to come. It’s important to note that Kiev was one of the three great cities in the former Russian Empire of the 19th century alongside Moscow and Petersburg. Putin believes in the archaic concept of international law, which is largely ignored but similar in some aspects to the Realist perspective.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia follows John Mearsheimer’s  Offensive Realism theory that states are disposed to competition and conflict, as they are self-interested, power-maximising, and fearful of the other states, as this is the best way to survive in the anarchy of the international system. 

Defensive Realism

According to defensive realism, all states want to protect themselves against threats from other states and, increasingly, non-state actors. States may:

■ decide to invest in their military power, by increasing the number of troops,

warships or aircraft that they are able to deploy

■ keep or acquire nuclear weapons (for example Iran, North Korea). Others may want to acquire new technology to gain a strategic advantage, such as missile-firing drones.

However, other states may see this military build-up as a threat and respond by building up their own military resources. What was intended perhaps as a defensive strategy may even provoke other states to respond with aggression. It will be difficult for other states to trust the intentions of states in building up their military resources. This can perhaps best be seen in the tensions between Russia and those former Soviet states that have now joined NATO. These states have calculated that their security interests are best served by joining a US-backed collective security alliance. NATO has required these states, such as Estonia and Latvia, to increase their military spending because it is fairer if all NATO members make an equal contribution to the collective military alliance rather than states simply benefiting from the military strength and resources of the richest and most powerful NATO member states.

It is possible to identify the security dilemma in today’s global politics in the middle east. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the region’s major powers, and each represents key sects within the religion of Islam (Saudi Arabia is the major Sunni power, Iran is the major Shia power). Both compete for power in the region and continue to challenge each other.

Balance of power

Given that a key goal of realists is to protect their own security from rival state attacks, it is no surprise that realists are preoccupied with how power is distributed in the global system. Is there one state that is much more powerful than all the others  Are there lots of states and actors competing for power  Or are there only two major powers, which are roughly equal to each other, with no other potential rivals ?

The best guarantee of security for some realists is the first of these scenarios — to dominate all other potential rivals in a unipolar system. The USA experienced this to some degree in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Other realist viewpoints believe that a balance of power in a bipolar world order is better for security.

If a unipolar system is not possible, because another rival state is also powerful, then realists believe that the most stable outcome is for the powerful states to roughly match each other’s power. In this scenario, realists believe that the states will balance each other out. Neither will want to risk attacking or challenging the other, because they would run the risk of retaliation by a state with similarly threatening military resources to its own. This could lead to the following:

■ States may try to balance power by trying to match the military and economic resources of their rival. There may be an arms race, with both states trying to acquire similar amounts of weapons or types of technology.

■ Smaller states may try to join alliances with more powerful states or other smaller states. We can contrast this aspect of realism with the security dilemma , where some liberals believe that when states try to match each other in terms of their military power, they can actually risk provoking the other state by appearing to represent more of a threat.

The most obvious example of a balance of power in global politics was between the USA (including its NATO allies) and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. With the knowledge that both were equally matched and that a nuclear weapons attack would only result in deadly retaliation, the two states engaged in a nuclear weapons arms race. This concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) successfully ensured that there was no nuclear confrontation between the USA and Soviet Union during this period. Neither did the two rivals fight each other on the battlefield — both instead engaged in proxy wars using other actors to fight each other (for example, the USA arming the Mujihadeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union, without actually deploying troops of its own).

Since the terror attacks of 9/11 in the USA, a more multipolar global order has emerged, with many states and non-state actors, such as al-Qaeda, challenging each other for power. Therefore, power is currently imbalanced in global politics.

Consequences of international anarchy

In the eyes of realists, international anarchy leads to the following.

■ IGOs such as the EU and the UN will be limited in their impact and effectiveness. This is because states determine the success or failure of these international efforts. States have created IGOs, and IGOs ultimately serve state interests. (When they no longer do this, they collapse — such as the League of Nations — or states leave, as seen in the UK’s decision to leave the EU.)

■ States will also want to prevent IGOs from making decisions that are not in their national interest. This is often most clearly seen in the veto powers that the five UNSC permanent members (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) wield, which frequently prevent coordinated action on matters ranging from the Israel and Palestine conflict to the Syrian civil war .

■ Unlike national law, rules in global politics — known as international law — do not always apply. In an anarchical world system, no international body can force states to sign up to international law. Customary international law, which in theory applies to states regardless of whether or not they have signed and ratified a law, does exist for abuses of humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions for example, are customary international law and apply to all states, but the decision to enforce the law is ultimately the political decision of international bodies, such as the UN, or individual, especially powerful states.

International courts may be ignored, or may not have decisive powers to investigate at all. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has limited powers to hold states to account for the most serious crimes against humanity. But, in reality, states that have not fully agreed to the ICC’s founding Rome Statute are able to escape justice, as there is no authoritative global force to bring states and those responsible for international crimes before the court. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) experiences similar difficulties.

Given that global politics lacks a single commanding authority, Hedley Bull suggested that the world order was built on a society of states. Within this otherwise order-less society, states attempt to create the best and safest order they can. They form IGOs, which sometimes solve problems but other times do not. They attempt to make international laws, which are sometimes observed, other times not.