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Syed Sajad asked: What is the thin line of continuity between classical and modern realists?

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  • Ashok Kumar Behuria replies: It is now a fashion to divide up realism into separate sub-schools-- offensive-defensive, soft-hyper, classical-neo-classical, neo-realist, modern, etc. It shows the appeal as well as persistence of this school of thinking right since Thucydides, Chanakya, Hobbes and Machiavelli focussed on what people and nations do rather than what they ought to do.

    The basic argument that is common to all these schools of thought is that 'anarchy' is the defining feature of international relations and states are basically concerned with their 'survival', and therefore, they are eternally busy in their quest for 'power' to fend off potential enemies. Then there are concepts of balance of power, overbalancing, under-balancing, national interest, undiluted sovereignty, etc. However, we must understand that the contours of 'realism' get inevitably influenced by the 'context' in which the concept is invoked.

    There is no such concept like modern realism. One may only talk about the way realism is being projected today and call it modern realism. Of course, in art the use of 'modern realism' is common today. But let us limit our attention to how international relations are being conducted today and see how we can interpret it in realistic terms.

    It is truism to say that the nature and shape of social and inter-state, inter-regional as well as inter-cultural intercourse are changing dramatically today with the advent of communication revolution. The density and volume of intercourse among states are putting new checks on state behaviour.

    As the concept of power has undergone a change and a constantly evolving world-system is gradually reining in states' quest for power, the 'anarchy' of the international relations is also qualitatively changing its nature and shape. From total anarchy we have reached a state where some 'consensus' has been worked out as to how the states would conduct relationship among them. We also hear a lot about 'interdependence' and 'complex interdependence'; and also about 'interlocking of interests', from the neoliberals.

    Nevertheless, the concept of 'sovereignty' conceived in unrestrained and unassailable terms, especially when states seek their core and inviolable 'interests', continue to interfere with the processes of building international norms and consensus. We have seen it recently in the way China reacted to the verdict of the international court of arbitration on the South China Sea issue. The United States has done the same on several occasions in the past. So have the Russians, the British, the French and even Indians.

    States accept international norms and consensus when it suits them and reject them when it does not. Hence, the 'realism' of today, as a concept, is not different from the 'realism' of yesterday. However, it has changed qualitatively as an operative principle. It is much more nuanced and involves pursuit of power even through neoliberal means.

    Thus, as far as their behaviour is concerned, states will continue to operate realistically and work assiduously to ensure their survival through optimisation of their resources, even when their efforts to interlock their interest with others in economic and cultural fields would apparently prove the liberal and neoliberal argument right, which is, the character of international politics is changing.

    Change it must and change it will. But the core principles of realism will continue to determine their behaviour at the international level in whatsoever modified and sobered-up form, as long as the whole mankind is not pitted against an alien race, forcing the states to evolve a binding principle to guide their behaviour in a non-anarchic manner. Even then, let me caution, the behaviour of the states would remain realistic--to secure themselves against an alien power--and we would have reached a new normal as far as realism is concerned.

    Posted on July 15, 2016