State egoism and conflict

In basing their theories of politics on a pessimistic, but allegedly ‘realistic’ model of human nature , classical realists have worked within a long and established tradition of thought, which can be traced back to Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, and to Sun Tzu’s classic work on strategy, The Art of War, written at roughly the same time in China. Other significant figures included Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. Machiavelli’s theory of politics was based on a darkly negative model of a changeless human nature. In his view, humans are ‘insatiable, arrogant, crafty and shifting, and above all malignant, iniquitous, violent and savage’. On this basis, Machiavelli argued that political life is always characterized by inevitable strife, encouraging political leaders to rule through the use of cunning, cruelty and manipulation. Hobbes’s thinking was also based on a pessimistic view of human nature. He argued that humans are driven by non-rational appetites: aversions, fears, hopes and desires, the strongest of which is the desire for ‘power after power’. As no single person or group is strong enough to establish dominance, and therefore a system of orderly rule, over society – a condition that Hobbes referred to as a ‘state of nature’ – an ongoing civil war developed between all members of society. Life in this ‘state of nature’ would thus be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. According to Hobbes, the only way of escaping from the barbarity of such a society would be through the establishment of a sovereign and unchallengeable power, that is, by the creation of a state. How did such thinking shape the understanding of international politics? In the first place, as realists accept that no form of world government can ever be established, it meant that politics is conducted within what is, in effect, an international ‘state of nature’.

The international arena is therefore dangerous and uncertain, with order and stability always being the exception rather than the rule. Second, whereas Machiavelli and Hobbes were primarily concerned to explain the conduct of individuals or social groups, realist international theorists have been concerned, above all, with the behaviour of states. Realists view states as coherent and cohesive ‘units’, and regard them as the most important actors on the world stage. Realists’ theories of international politics are thus firmly state-centric. Third, and crucially, the fact that states are composed of, and led by, people who are inherently selfish, greedy and power seeking means that state behaviour cannot but exhibit the same characteristics. Human egoism therefore determines state egoism; or, as Morgenthau (1962) put it, ‘the social world [is] but a projection of human nature onto the collective plane’. Just as human egoism leads to unending conflict amongst individuals and groups, state egoism means that international politics is marked by inevitable competition and rivalry. As essentially self-interested actors, the ultimate concern of each state is for survival, which thereby becomes the first priority of its leaders. As all states pursue security through the use of military or strategic means, and where possible seek to gain advantage at the expense of other states, international politics is characterized by an irresistible tendency towards conflict