The bedrock of realism in international relations is founded on the notions of a state-centred approach to the study of rational logic of man in pursuing national self-interest. However, this is an increasingly difficult task of trying to derive meaningful assessments and interpretations of people, events and processes in the geopolitics of the 21st century as the role of emotions and seemingly illogical actions come increasingly to the fore of international relations. Realism still has valid explanatory power, but this needs to be revamped for the highly specific current geopolitical moment make sense of the Western unipolar order’s attempt to obstruct the rise of the Non-Western multipolar order through transactional zero-sum games (versus a relational win-win strategy of the Multipolar world) as an avenue to prevent viable global alternatives and preserve the US global hegemony at the cost of everyone else. Power and influence in contemporary international relations and in geopolitics in particular, when understood through the interpretive and analytical lens of realism requires a broadening of the sources and effects that are taken into account in assessments.
What is Realism and its Role in International Relations?
The theory of realism when applied theoretically to the international relations environment concerns a focus of state actors, their interests and rational behaviour in pursuit of increasing their country’s influence and power relative to other actors through competition and conflict. This differs from other theories, such as liberalism, which operationalises selective freedoms of the individual, the use of institutions and economics as a means for building a sustainable peace. Although, acknowledging the state as the central actor, it is not the sole and unitary actor in international relations as domestic politics exerts an influence. This has certainly been witnessed playing a role in the messianic and subversive foreign policy of the Western-centric powers in the events and processes of the Colour Revolutions and the Arab Spring. Whereas constructivism places the focus and emphasis on the assignment of meaning to objects in international relations, therefore the meaning assigned to its existence is more important than its mere material existence. Hence all wars can be materially the same or at least equivalent, the assigned meaning differentiates them. Thus, Western warfare in their assigned understanding is directed towards establishing a just peace are ‘virtuous,’ whereas wars by Non-Western powers are nefarious and deadly. As can be seen, there are some commonalities among these theories, but also some crucial differences.
Contemporary Western Approach to Geopolitics in International Relations
The United States led Western-centric unipolar order is increasingly perceived and being assessed and interpreted as being in a state of relative decline in comparison to the Non-Western centric multipolar order. This is observed in the mutually dependent parts of the system that are the foundations of US global power and dominance – US global geopolitical hegemony and the political network of Western global liberalism.
Currently, the US-led West makes use of a mixed theoretical approach in attempting to project its influence and power in international relations. Liberalism is operationalised as a means of ideological ‘legitimacy’ for its aggressive and often reckless foreign policy with an Orwellian double speak twist. Constructivism is the means with which realities are distorted and altered to suit the US foreign policy agenda and disadvantage the foreign policy agenda of other international actors (friend and foe alike). These elements are blended for the realist oriented geostrategic goals and ends of hegemonic maintenance. Even if there is a denial of being an empire, the US system displays the physical and psychological characteristics of one, however constructivism through the use of brand and reputation management in international relations intends to alter that reality.
The so-called Western rules-based order is an example of operationalised constructivism in international relations using brand and reputation management (and the reason for dropping the old brand name of the international order based on international law). This is a rather obvious attempt at card-stacking in international relations, creating an uneven playing field that disadvantages niche or challenger actors and bestows advantages to incumbent hegemons, if the ‘rules’ are adhered to by all actors. It is a form of the art of maskirovka at the strategic level, which intends to project a perception of consensus – such as the ‘international community’ – with the intention of a cognitive effect of conformism in international relations based on the band wagoning effect resulting from the façade of group pressure to coerce consensus by influencing and interrupting decision makers that are not conforming.
US and the unipolar order’s declining power and influence makes it a dangerous and less predictable actor. It still has the historical memory with the associated emotions of the prestige, power and privilege of being an absolute hegemon. There is also the current anxiety associated of the current relative decline, and the fear of losing that hegemony in the future. The geostrategic imperative of the US remains the same – retaining its global hegemony. However, a successful strategy of achieving this is uncertain, under the conditions of the signs of accelerating civilizational decay and decline.
Is Traditional Realism Sufficient to Make Sense of Events and Processes in the Transforming Global Order?
In short, the answer is no traditional realism struggles to make sense of contemporary events, trends and processes. But it is necessary to go into the logic of the reasons for this assessment. In the current iteration of the unipolar order, there is a heavy reliance on the use and role of emotions and ideology in their geopolitical agenda over the role and use of rational logic and pragmatism.
Western civilization, which encompasses the US unipolar order, is on a path of civilizational suicide via the current self-destructive ideological path that destroys its intangible basis through destroying a cohesive and strong culture and identity that bestows a sense of purpose, belonging and focus among the elite and general populace alike. Yet, it still retains the ambition to be an absolute global hegemon.
One of the most apparent obstacles to this grand ambition is to be found in the massive decline in the intellectual and pragmatic capability and capacity potential of its political, economic and military leadership. This ultimately translates into a decline in the rational logic and actions in pursuit of influence and power in international relations. For example, if Western politicians are not even capable of publicly defining what is a woman, then society and civilization are doomed to rot and fall. The lack of a viable culture and identity is obvious when juxtaposed against the encouragement of an ideologically based anti-culture (such as Woke movement and cancel culture). The attempt to engineer an ideologically submissive and homogenous entity that is ‘Liberal Man’ (a Homo Liberalis perhaps) shall merely accelerate the decay and decline as it shall not satisfy the higher order psychological needs of the populace.
In the above text, it becomes patently clear that realism is not equipped in its current configuration to consider the different factors and variables mentioned – emotions and anti-logic, the role and place of non-state actors in international relations events, trends and processes. There is a clear need to broaden and expand the theoretical framework of realism to capture these aspects and to revitalise realism and adapt it to the realities of the 21st century environment.
Approaches of Counteraction
Given the increased level of risk and hazard that has been introduced into 21st century international relations because of the US attempts to police and enforce its geostrategic imperatives, how does an actors navigate and negate attempts to sabotage their interests and potential? In part, this is a matter of hedging those risks and hazards. The US is trying to prevent other international powers – friend and foe – from increasing their sources of influence and power as a means of a desperate attempt to preserve some measure of a relative hegemony. A miscalculation on the part of the US geostrategy, while engaging in an obstructive foreign policy course against other powers that it considers a potential threat, it has done this simultaneously rather than consecutively. Given its relative economic, political and military decline, the US capacity and capability to successfully manage this has diminished, therefore successes of the past are now stalemates or embarrassing failures of the present. Hence, the collective threat to all international actors is all very abundantly clear and apparent. Therefore, the need to stop playing by the uneven rules of the ‘rules-based order’ and to engage the creation of reciprocal relationships, alliances and the establishment and expansion of competing international institutional structures. At the same time, to prepare for and resist the inevitable wedging attempts by the US to disrupt or break-up those relationships and institutional structures.
With time, the highly evident contradictions in the US-led unipolar order will likely increase owing to the unresolvable dilemmas and crises present and emerging in the age of its decline. This is seemingly irreversible given the impermeable layers of filter bubble that have constructed a robust echo chamber that is not only self-destructive, but it is neither transparent nor accountable to anyone. Hence the trends of the Non-Western world in accelerating the road to being a subject in the multipolar world and not an object of the unipolar world is likely to continue, assisted through the expansion of international institutions as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and the process of de-dollarisation of global trade.
Which Elements Should be Included in Initiating a Critical Turn of Realism in International Relations?
There are several key variables needed to inform and shape a meaningful critical turn using the lens of realism in contemporary international relations. The state and its people should not be seen or analysed as being unconnected or separated from each other, but rather as being interconnected and whose fates are intertwined and influence each other, where an action precipitates a reaction. People matter as much as governments and institutions, they can serve as a potential weak link to be exploited by foreign powers engaging in political warfare and hybrid warfare. Certainly, people do have agency, but their perceptions and emotions can be exploited by foreign powers that hijack their grievances and isolation for geopolitical advantage. This was clearly seen in the branded political warfare processes as the Colour Revolutions and the Arab Spring.
It is apparent that realism is lacking in its scope and depth to make sense of the current state of international relations in its current iteration, and a critical turn in realism would need to include the following variables in its calculations and interpretations:
- The realisation and admission that the perception and the result of people, events, trends and processes in international relations is at least partially shaped and influenced by other theoretical lenses as liberalism and constructivism;
- States are not the sole unit of analysis, which should include people for a more comprehensive and reliable analysis;
- Although rational thought and interests should be central to actors in international relations, currently the role of emotions and anti-logic influence the Western course that undermine its own interests and security;
- There is a need to include not only tangible (physical world), but also intangible (informational and cognitive world – in particular the reliability of knowledge and information used, the trust and belief of the people in the legitimacy of the political and military leaders).