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The Classical Realism In International Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2236 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Classical Realism is an important theory that defines the international politics relations. Realists see and study the world as it is, and not as how ought to be, as the idealist theory does. From a rational point of view the realists believe that the world is imperfect, as the base, is human nature, as Morgenthau stress “is the result of forces inherent in human nature”. (1985a:3) This negative human vision is expressed by Robert Gilpin [1] in The Richness of the Tradition of Political Realism: “realism is founded on a pessimism regarding moral progress and human possibilities”. (1986:304) The Realist theory has presented a fundamental unity of though across a span of nearly 2,500 years. Thucydides, Niccolò Machiavelli, Carl von Clausewitz, Gilpin and Hans Morgenthau present among others the main thoughts on Classical Realism. (Ned, 2007:53)

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For realists, states are the principal entities in the study of international political relations. Nation-states are defined according to Hans Morgenthau as “an abstraction from a number of individuals who have certain characteristics in common”. (1985f:117) This theory understands states are egoists and they only act under their own interests; an interest that is defined by Hans “in terms of power”. (198a5:5)

In addition, this theory emphasizes all states coexist in a system so-called “international” where the main characteristic is the “eternal fight for power” due to states only seek their own goals. States reflect this struggle for power in their external policies where diplomacy [2] becomes an important manner to resolve conflicts as well as signatures of alliances. For this reason, order, justice and change are the central studies of their writings. (Ned, 2007:53)

In the study of politics, Classical Realism accentuates the similarities between domestic and international relations, as the importance role of ethics and community in both fields. Also realists study the international system as principles of order where they help to actors to get their own interests through discourses and identities. According to Thucydides and Morgenthau when those discourses and identities changes, the system changes too, towards modernization and the consequence of this is hegemonic war.

As we have seen states are the central subject for realist theory and the internal governments gathered by individuals convert states in rational actors. The authority of any state is leaded therefore, by human ration that will always follow self-interest. Thus national security becomes the biggest preoccupation states have rather it is on the top list of issues, as in the international sphere there is no authority to control other´s interests. Power and military issues then shape world politics and become a decisive point on Realist theory.

“The national interest of peace-loving nation can be defined only in terms of national security, and national security must be defined as integrity of the national territory and of its institutions. National security, then, is the irreducible minimum that diplomacy must defend with adequate power without compromise”. (Recchia, 2007:541)

Furthermore, realists explain that states will act maximizing their own self interests, even if they have to use force. “States seek power and they calculate their interests in terms of power, whether as end or as necessary means to a variety of other end”. (Viotti and Kauppi, 1998:158) Hence, the struggle for power among states remains central in the international relations too, as Morgenthau stress “international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power (…) power is always the immediate aim”. (Viotti and Kauppi, 1998:56-57) Definition of Realpolitik, thus acquire relevant importance for this theory as it refers to power and power politics among states. (Viotti and Kauppi, 1998:59)

In fact in the sixteenth century, Machiavelli wrote about state security (that could be seen in terms of power as a way to keep the national power) in his important work, The Prince. However, some authors have criticized his thoughts as immoral, as he understands all acts of the Prince are justified by its ends which seek is to assure the national security: “because it is often (for the prince) to operate against his own faith, as well as against charity and humanity, in order to preserve the state”. (Recchia, 2007:533) This is the well known raison d´état where individuals answer to one moral and the sovereignty to another one. Therefore, ethics and politics go separately. By contrast, Morgenthau political theory is opposite to Machiavelli´s raison d´état as, he believes in the “existence of a universal moral code that ought to guide responsible statecraft”. (Recchia, 2007:537)

On the other hand, diplomacy is an essential instrument in the maintenance of security, as well as military capacities and power which become indispensable too. Therefore, those capacities are seen as high politics, while others as finance or economics will rest in lower politics. However not for that is less important, as economics moves power and foreign policies were determined by them.


Hans Morgenthau

Hans Morgenthau, the father of the “modern realism”, in his work Politics among Nations analyzes the same subjects as realism theory does although he will center the attention on national interest and power. This essential book even if it was written during the Cold War [3] , is as present as any other work nowadays. Indeed he has been considered one of the most important thinkers in the twentieth century, and has had a big influence on the contemporary thoughts.

We will use this work, Politics among Nations in this dissertation as is the principal key to understand the Spanish foreign policy during World War II.

Morgenthau as realists do, sees the world as imperfect, where there are constant opponent interests between individuals, and because of this, the international system is in permanent conflict. States as main actors in this international system must be prepared to go to war.

The author also, conceives politics as the way to obtain and to maintain power and the way to pursue it. Hence, power becomes the reason for existence, and the international system remains dangerous as states are in persistent conflict. Power is not understood in terms of military force, rather is focused on the psychological influence. There is a clear difference between power as “political” influence and power as “material” that could be military force or economics. We consider that his theory can be summarized on the first point of his six main principles:

First, politics as society in general is governed by rational laws and they have their roots in human nature, therefore it is possible to develop a theory that could reflect those laws. Realism basically, explains facts and gives meaning to them inside the international sphere.

The main indicator of Realism is the concept of “interest” which is defined in “terms of power” which is recognized universally and necessary in the study of international politics. (Morgenthau, 1985a:5) Behind states, statesmen will act under their own interests thinking with rationality therefore realism stresses rationality and objectivity. But the other face of “interest” is that it can control men: “interests (material and ideal), not ideas, dominate directly the actions of men”. (Morgenthau, 1985a:11)

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For international relations, the study of acts taken by statesmen is crucial. Therefore, international politics could be seen as the actions between states, understood as foreign policies. Morgenthau in the second principle understands as good foreign policy those that are made in the correct moment and with rationality. “Foreign policy ought to be rational in view of its own moral and practical purposes”. (Morgenthau, 1985a:10) It will be successful when the risks will be minimizes and maximizes the benefits.

On the other hand, the concept of power is indispensable for international politics. Power is understood as, “anything that establishes and maintains the control of man over man”. (Morgenthau: 1985a:11) As we have seen before, nation-states will act in terms of power, in terms of domination. Therefore, balance of power is present in the international society, as states will act to change power or maintaining it.

Another principle regards morality aware the international politics. It means that it can not be applied to states the same moral principles as it is done on humans. The individual may say for himself, “fiat justitia, pereat mundus (let justice be done, even if the world perish), “but the state has no right to say so in the name of those whose are in its care”. (Morgenthau: 1985a:12) Hence, realism refuses to identify moral aspirations of one nation with moral universal principles.

This German thinker understands as foreign policy the external actions states pursue in the international system where the core is the national self-interest and power. Below we will study the three main principles that Morgenthau wrote on his work considered essentials for this case-study.

2.1 National-Interest

National interest is the key concept for Realism in the understanding of foreign policy. In the study of the national interest, Hans Morgenthau becomes one of the most important thinkers being the maxim authority in this subject, not only because he presents the main study with his work (cited before) also because he creates almost a scientific theory. According to him national interest refers to the essence of politics.

“The idea of interest is indeed of the essence of politics and is unaffected by the circumstances of time and place. Interest is the perennial standard by which political action must be judged. Yet the kind of interest determining political action in a particular period of history depends upon the political and cultural context within foreign policy is formulated.” (1985a:8-9)

Other authors as Osgood, defines national interest as “a state of affairs valued solely for its benefits to the nation.” (Gonzalez, 8) Contrary to realism, he defines this concept as an egoist behavior states normally take. For Frankel, national interest is defined as “the general and permanent ends why a nation acts”. (Rubio, 64) Also, Marshall says national interest refers to “the political objectives upper internal and political controversies”. It means the maintenance of peace, the preservation of security and the national protection in the international sphere. (Rubio, 64-65)

Therefore, states will take foreign policies acting and thinking on their own objectives and on their own interests without having in consideration other states necessities. However nations will be limited in their actions by the behavior of the rest of states, “the freedom of choice of any one state is limited by the actions of all the others”. (Viotti and Kauppi, 1998:73).

On the other hand, Thomas W. Robinson [4] does a classification about the different national interests exist through the analyses of Hans´s Morgenthau work. (González, 23) He says first, states will defend primary necessities: the physical, political and cultural identity of the nation, as well as, the survival of the state fronts any external aggression. The second interest refers to individuals and diplomats based on their protection and security. It is important to explain according to Hans, that the kind of interest will be determined by the political and cultural context. (Morgenthau, 1985a)

2.2 The importance of power

Contrary to other thinkers, Morgenthau stresses states interest is in terms of power:

“The main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power.”(Morgenthau, 1985a:5).

Hence, power becomes the second essential key for Realism theory in the international field. States will act according their own interests as “statesmen think and act in terms of interest defined as power”. (Morgenthau, 1985a:5) Therefore, states leaded by statesmen pursue power. Hans will show in his work three ways for the struggle of power, but we will study only two: the maintenance of power and the increment of this. This importance of power will be essential to explain later the Spanish foreign policy during World War II.


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