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The Return of Realpolitik


Postado em 03/02/2015 18:49

The Return of Realpolitik

Image Credit: Crimea crisis via photo.ua / Shutterstock.com


Fonte: The Diplomat

Link de Origen: http://thediplomat.com/2015/01/the-return-of-realpolitik/

Data: 27 de Janeiro de 2015

Autor: Swati Arun


Realpolitik made a comeback in 2014. In the immediate post-Cold War-era, during those years when America enjoyed its unipolar moment, international politics as it had been usually understood seemed to have been eclipsed. The world began to focus more on the liberalization and globalization of the world economy, the spread of democracy, and the threats posed by non-state actors. The security dilemmas that are at the heart of relations between states seemed to lose appeal, although in reality the world hardly disarmed or ceased conflict.

Even if states thought that realpolitik was no more, they could not get away from the international system. In hindsight, it is clear that certain members of the system have always hungered for more power to rectify perceived wrongs and to restore an order to which they feel entitled. And so, more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, historical territorial disputes are reemerging.

For a long time, liberal scholars have emphasized the importance of economic integration as a protection against international conflict. But the argument that states will not jeopardize their relative economic gains by engaging in conflict and disrupting the peace is being challenged by the rise of China. A case study that might have established the validity of the peace-through-integration hypothesis, China has instead in recent years insisted on its own reading of international law and relations with its neighbors. Growing economic ties with the world did not integrate China globally nor did it subordinate its national interest to the interests of the world economy. From China’s perspective, the world is still an unreliable place and the realist principle of maximizing survival by maximizing power trumps all other notions. Policies that will help China achieve this goal are at the core of its strategic planning.

In this respect, China is no different from nations like Germany, Britain, and the U.S. in the past, in what has been a regular motif of the international system. But in pursuing its interests, China is fostering the creation of group of nations in East and South East Asia that are pushing closer to the U.S. in order to act together, if necessary, against the threat they see in China.

In what was an episode of failed U.S. strategy, Russia perceived the European Union’s advance into Ukraine as an encroachment on its national security. Moscow succeeded in grabbing Crimea, as well as the attention of the EU, which had apparently thought that wars between nations were passé. However, Russia’s audacious behavior has backfired, not only with sanctions but with the risk that what it fears most may now well transpire, as Ukraine is more desperate than ever to join NATO.


Balance of Power

Last year also shed light on a very basic theory of international politics – that of the balance of power. The U.S. military budget almost equals that of the next ten countries combined and Washington has numerous allies. Even more peculiar, the biggest economies in the world (excluding China) are not only uninterested in balancing themselves against American power, they in fact seem more interested in entrenching of U.S power. This does not bode well for Kenneth Waltz’s balance-of-power theory.

The balance-of-power theory predicts that countries will balance against an unbalanced power. As Waltz confidently wrote, “As nature abhors vacuum, so international politics abhors unbalanced power.” It is well known that the fall of the Berlin Wall immediately caused panic and uncomfortable security concerns, not only in the Soviet Union but also in Paris and London. The prospect of a newly unified Germany had momentarily unnerved these countries. But why did the prospect of a unipolar, unrestrained America not cause similar concerns in those same countries?

Perhaps these countries lack the opportunity to create their own spheres of influence? By this logic, we could conclude that the U.S. deliberately denies nations the ability to form their own spheres of influence, something that is necessary for maintaining regional hegemony. Thus, the U.S. minimizes any possibility that other states will balance against it. The U.S provides security guarantees by assuming the position of international guardian (global policeman).

Yet this past year, U.S. foreign policy has suggested that Washington lacks the will to maintain that status. Regional powers now finding themselves in a difficult spot, having to defend their own borders. This has expressed itself in a series of incidents involving nations, like Russia, and non-state actors, like ISIS. This power vacuum, for a brief period, has resulted in the return of international politics to its default anarchic state. (Of course, this is not to say that the U.S. might never be challenged for supremacy.)

The rise of China and its disruption of the regional status quo once again raises this question of the need for balancing – and the need for local powers to attain the minimum military capabilities to defend themselves. To date, this second requirement has been diluted by U.S. support for Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. And that in turn means that the U.S. does not face any regional balancing against it, as regional actors see America’s position as a superpower as far more welcome than the possibility of it being eclipsed.

And so the U.S. has managed to translate its superpower status into what the majority of nations see as an essential role in preserving international peace and stability. The few states who don’t see it that way have emerged as opponents to the current world order. China and Russia, as well as Iran, see the U.S. as an impediment to their ability to achieve their objectives. The U.S. stands between them and their goals of having a sphere of influence and maintaining a regional order.

With these conflicting interests, geopolitics is back, and so is the balance of power debate. And once again balance of power theorists will have to contend with the fact that the world has swiftly come to terms with the need to balance against two nations – China and Russia – while the rise of the U.S. has yet to generate any equivalent reaction.


Swati Arun has an M. Phil at the Centre for East Asian Studies and an M.A. in International Relations, both from Jawaharlal Nehru University. 


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