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What is political realism in the 21 century?  The six points of realism transferred into the 21. century.
By Dr. Christoph Rohde, Munich
  1. Political Realism believes that there are permanent structures in human behaviour that can be derived out of the socio-psychological conditions man is embedded into. While Morgenthau claimed objective laws that govern human behaviour, we understand human behaviour as a multicausal complex of (socio-)biologically influenced (but not determined) ways of thinking and acting. Cultural efforts can effect human political interactions as well as religious convictions. But as the ultimate standard material interests remain the means to assure survival and strength.
  2. Political realism confirms with Morgenthau that interests are the main indicators that help explain the behaviour of actors in the landscape of international politics.
    Interests are more complex than in Morgenthau’s security-based approach but security and military policy remains the ultimate field of politics that creates a system of anarchy between the actors. But as interests are more and more intervowen, a pure unilateral strategy to enforce state interests can become self-defeating. The kind of US leadership in the 21. century confirms this point. But with Morgenthau we see in material interests the surest indicator to predict the behaviour of international actors. The upcoming energy alliances conducted by revisionist nations in the system sustain this point.
  3. Power and interests are primary variables in the behaviour of states, but with Morgenthau we recognize that these have to be defined in the concrete circumstances a state is involved into. That means that a static and purely structural understanding of a national interest goes astray. A national interest is closely related to global or respective regional interests. The classical term of security interests has to enlarged. Interests have become economic, ecological, human security and social interests. The interests of states have to be defined in the triangle between a nation’s society, the state’s society of nations and objective factors like currency crisis, natural disasters or attacks by non-state actors. That means, that the image of the billiard ball, symbolizing an isolated nation-state, cannot be kept alive, but is nevertheless useful as a starting point in the analysis of a specific political constellation.
  4. We let Morgenthau alive: „Political realism is aware of the moral significance of political action. It is also aware of the ineluctable tension between the moral command and the requirements of successful political action. And it is unwilling to gloss over and obliterate that tension and thus to obfuscate both the moral and the political issue by making it appear as though the stark facts of politics were morally more satisfying than they actually are, and the moral law less exacting than it actually is“. And it is more than ever important that state’s domestic and foreign policy actions are legitimised through national decision-making bodies. As the process of European integration shows, the success of integration depends on the respect for national traditions and identities. And in realism national identities are important ingredients of the national interest. History counts all time! Peoples go to war, if they see an overall interest. If not they rebel against purely humanistic actions.
  5. This is Morgenthau at his best: „Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe.“ Realism is strongest if trying to deconstruct moral claims of particular nations. John Mearsheimer has made painstaking efforts to criticise the US neoconservative policies of George W. Bush called regime change. Morgenthau was critical of Woodrow Wilson who wanted to make the „world safe for democracy“ but achieved only disaster by allowing revisionist nations to step into power vacuums. Realism respects the legitimate interests of nations and analysis the global, regional and national circumstances nations like Iran, Afghanistan or North Korea have to live in. It tries to establish sober instruments of analysis, not ideologically poisoned calls for a better world.
  6. Political realism has a distinguished trade mark. It is a world view that is in a constructive way pessimistic. Realism tries to defend the autonomy of the field of politics because politics is the tamer of a rampant economy that leads to deep unrighteous structures. In this sense, Realism is a „left school of thought“ – remember Reinhold Niebuhr’s Detroit messages! Politics is a struggle, but an open, transparent struggle is conducive to the best arguments and results.

Attachment: Christoph Rohde believes that balancing behaviour belongs necessarily to the realist thinking. Concepts like „soft balancing“ are unconvincing. But there will be other ways to pursue a balance-of-power politics in the future. The field of energy is one example for a change in strategy. A future for realism lies in a combination of neoclassical analysis and strategic trade theory. We do our best to develop a convincing argument in this sense and in the best Morgenthau tradition. (And people will go on to hate realism! If not it has ultimately failed!