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Realism: Tragedy, Power and the Refugee Crisis

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This is an excerpt from Realism in Practice: An Appraisal. An E-IR Edited Collection.
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Since the end of the Cold War realism has returned to its roots. Realist scholars show renewed interest in their paradigm’s foundational thinkers, their tragic understanding of life and politics, their practical concern for ethics, and their understanding of theory as the starting point for explanatory narratives or forward-looking forecasts that are highly context dependent. In this chapter, we do not attempt to map these recent re-readings. Despite their different perspectives on world politics, the writings of Thucydides, Niccolò Machiavelli, E. H. Carr, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arnold Wolfers, John Herz, Hans Morgenthau, and Hannah Arendt demonstrate a remarkable unity of thought, as they have been driven by similar concerns about ‘perennial problems’ (Morgenthau 1962, 19). One of these problems is the depoliticisation of societies. Realists were concerned that, in modern societies, people could no longer freely express their interests in public, losing the ability to collectively contribute to their societies. Consequently, realism can be perceived as a critique of and ‘corrective’ (Cozette 2008, 12) to this development.

To introduce this perspective of realism and to understand the differences between neorealism and realism (also Bell 2017), we particularly focus on mid-twentieth century realists which are often now identified as classical realists in the literature. This micro-lens on realism is possible because, due to their common war and even migration experiences, their thoughts resonate with each other particularly well. In the first section, we outline realism’s tragic understanding of life and how to deal with it. This is followed in the second section by an introduction into one of the core realist concepts – power – before arguing that realism does not promote a world of nation-states. Finally, we discuss the current refugee crisis through a realist perspective.

The Tragic Vision of Life

Mid-twentieth century realists were a diverse group of scholars. Although their geographical centre was in the United States, with exceptions like Carr and Georg Schwarzenberger in the United Kingdom and Raymond Aron in France, many of them were émigrés from Europe, who had been forced to leave due to the rise of fascism and communism. Although they shared a common humanistic worldview in the sense that they had received similar extensive secondary schooling in liberal arts and they believed that people can only experience themselves as human beings by engaging with others in the public sphere, their diversity is also evidenced in their wide range of professions. Given that IR was only gradually institutionalised in Europe when the first chair was set up in light of the horrors of World War I at the university in Aberystwyth, Wales in 1919, none of them was trained as an IR scholar. Instead, they were historians, sociologists, philosophers, lawyers, and even theologians. Only retrospectively were many of them linked to IR. Even Morgenthau, arguably the most well-known realist, held a professorship for political science and history – not for international politics. Despite this diversity, however, mid-twentieth century realists agreed on a tragic vision of life; a view they shared with many of their predecessors (Lebow 2003; Williams 2005). This is because people, and more so leaders, have to make decisions on the basis of incomplete information, deal with unpredictability of their actions, and cope with irreconcilable value conflicts within and among societies. Above all, they recognise that leaders must sometimes resort to unethical means (e.g. violence) to achieve laudable ends, and without prior knowledge that these means will accomplish the ends they seek.

This tragic outlook is understandable if we consider the contexts in which classical realists wrote. Thucydides lived during the times of the Peloponnesian War in which Athens lost its pre-eminence in the ancient Greek world. Machiavelli’s life was also influenced by repetitive conflicts in which papal, French, Spanish, and other forces aimed to seize control over Northern Italy during the Renaissance Wars (1494-1559). Modern realists finally experienced with the rise of ideologies the climax of a development that had started almost 200 years earlier. Since the Age of Enlightenment culminating in the French Revolution, people were freed from religious straightjackets, but at the same time had lost a sense of community that ideologies like nationalism, liberalism, or Marxism could only superficially restore, and often only at the cost of violent conflicts. Realists shared public sentiments that losing this sense of community caused a decline of commonly accepted values as exemplified in the German debate on a cultural crisis during the early decades of the twentieth century and it made them more susceptible to the temptations of ideologies. This is because ideologies provide what Arendt (1952, 469) called ‘world explanations’, enabling people to channel their human drives into them.

John Herz (1951) argued that the drive for self-preservation, which ensures that people care about their survival in the world by seeking food and shelter, provokes a security dilemma because people can never be certain to avoid attacks from others. Morgenthau (1930), by contrast, was more concerned about people’s drive to prove themselves, achieved by making contributions to their social-political life worlds. Success is difficult because people have incomplete........

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