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A Conflict in the World (War) and What Realists Think

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The behavior and the different relations between states have always been difficult to grasp, understand, and to explain. Looking back at the historical events and comparing them to the current international issues, there are many parallels to be noted as well as many contradictions in the ever changing global arena. Due to the complexity of the world, there have been many attempts at creating a system to be able to explain the way the international relations unfold and function. Many theories have been produced, many have failed and a few have been proven to be the closest to the truth. This paper will discuss the two most predominant theoretical systems currently existent – realism and liberalism. It will further compare the two schools of thought, examining the gaps and the advantages of each one looking back at historical events, including the two World Wars and the Cold War, and the current global environment.

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World War I began in the year 1914, with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian terrorist group, who Austria believed was sent by the Serbian government. This influenced alliances to be called into action and the war to commence, but it is evident that even before that occurred there were many a tryst occurring between some of the major nations in the world at that moment. In the years preceding the war there was a determined struggle for power which is the first assumption that the Realism theory takes on. Following the reunification of Germany in 1871, Germany had plans for its rise to power causing the tricky balance of power in Europe to be offset (Forsberg). During the Cold War, it was evident that there was bipolarity when it came to the balance of power: Russia & the United States were the top nations in control and who had all the power. Thus the nations knew who the enemy was. During the time of World War I or rather the Great War- as it was called before the events of World War II occurred, this bipolarity and division of power not evident as there seemed to be a multi-polarity of power with multiple nations attempting to seize major control in Europe. The first of these power hungry actions was seen in Morocco. Morocco, which wished for independence, was wanted by the French to add to its empire. Germany, understanding the repercussions of France gaining Morocco quickly supported its wishes for independence and led to a clash of interest between Germany & France, the first of many problems Germany presented for various nations. This supports the assumption that nations are power hungry because they are willing to do anything to ensure that they will gain or seize what they want despite the opinion of others. France wanted to add Morocco to its empire through sheer power without acknowledging Morocco’s wishes to be independent. A similar situation occurred in the Balkans when Austria had taken over Bosnia but Serbia wanted it as well, Germany decided to ally with Austria while Russia decided to support the Serbs. This leads into the second assumption of the realism theory about states wanted to manage their own securities by building alliances with other states. Another nation who also seemed to fall in conflict with Germany was Britain, Britain felt Germany was challenging it in every way it could i.e. building up its armies when Britain was building up its armies. The concept of building up armies & navies was present before the war actually began and although it increased the security potential of Germany & Britain, it lowered the security of other nations exposed their inert fear. This tied into the concept of balance of power being changed & the insecurity the states felt. The norm for the balance of power is for states to try to increase territories and population and develop economically which is precisely what Germany was attempting to do along with Britain; Germany it seems though had a more hostile approach to this. Instead of viewing other states as allies, they were determined to view them as enemies. Ultimately, Germany pursued their own national interests in increasing the amount of power they could have tying into the first assumption that all states are power-hungry and willing to fight to achieve power.

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So if one state sees another state suddenly increase its military power it will assume that it is about to attack even if that might not be the case. The state that thinks it is under threat will have to increase its military power too which in turn will alarm the original state and this spiral could continue for a long time (Robert Jervis, 1982). It is a never ending situation which is in fact why realists believe cooperation is not only difficult to achieve, but mostly impossible. Security dilemma happens because of fear between states. Many of these states experience a lack of contact between each other which eventually leads to a lack of trust. A current example of the security dilemma is between India and Pakistan. In order to achieve cooperation, security dilemma between two countries must not only stop getting worse but spiral back in the direction where those states trust each other. Even if states do agree on some laws and arms agreements, there is nothing to stop one of them breaking the agreement or cheating.The example of how Hitler broke the Nazi-Soviet pact and invaded Russia is clear evidence that not all states can be trusted. There are however some disagreements about that point amongst realists. While offensive realism claims that states must always act aggressively to survive because the international system encourages conflict and the inevitability of war, the defensive realists are less negative. They believe that cooperation or conflict depends on the situation. For example if two states are similar minded and share the same views, they are more likely to cooperate. The reason for that could be a better understand between the countries like for example Germany and France share the same views and thus trust each other more. Therefore the international system does not necessarily generate conflict and war and security is often plentiful. So in summary what are the main obstacles to cooperation according to realists? The answer is aggressive, selfish humans living in states who are only concerned with power and security because of the self-help anarchical international system. Realists leave us with a bleak world, full of vulnerable states scared for their survival and reluctant to trust or cooperate with any other states. However before the points put forward by realists can be completely accepted, some criticisms and disadvantages of realist theory must be pointed out. First of all realism ignores the importance of different concepts of identity and culture in different states. For example counties with the same religion and culture are more likely to cooperate with each other. Realism is criticised heavily for exaggerating the importance of states and not taking into account other actors like institutions and NGOs. Also the international system has no doubt changed over the years, there are no major wars, the Cold War finished without any aggression which realists failed to predict and states in general have lost interest in territorial advantage. Robert Jarvis even believes that realist theory will not be able to explain conflict or cooperation in the coming years. In fact the biggest critics of realists are the liberals or the institutionalists as they are also called (Helen Milner, 1992).

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In the end, claims that realist policies actually lead to a more humane world should not divert attention away from the fact that realists still claim that security competition can lead towards war which is often the case in international politics. It has been argued that both realism and liberalism provide insufficient accounts and possibilities of peace in the international system. Liberalism with its focus on universalism and harmony makes for an unstable world; whereas realism and its pessimism does not say much about prospects for peace.

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Robert Jervis, “Security Regimes”, International Organization, vol. 36, no. 2 (1982)

Robert Keohane and Lisa Martin. “The Promise of Institutionalists Theory” International Security, vol 20, no 1 (1995)

John Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of Institutionalist Theory” International Security, vol. 20, no. 1 (1995)

Helen Milner, “International Theories of Cooperation: Strengths and Weaknesses”, World Politics, vol. 44 (1992), pp. 466-496

P. Roe, “Actors Responsibility in Tight, Regular or Loose Security Dilemmas”, Security Dialogue, vol. 32, no. 1 (2001)

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A Conflict in the World (War) and What Realists Think
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