If there has been one important contribution of postmodernism to international relations, it has been the introduction of a pluralistic conception of truth that precludes an idea as elementary as a single ‘correct’ international relations theory. As G. Box said in 1976: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” I would posit that in the current international climate, realpolitik is the most useful doctrine of international relations. The reasons for this are numerous and include the focus on individual actors as rational, self-interested beings; the focus on hard power as a means of achieving international objectives; and an emphasis of the fundamentally anarchical nature of the international environment.
Constructivists and others see states as entwined in an international system that constrains their actions and reasoning: this paradigm is seen as an inescapable web binding nations together. Events of late, however, have shown that the fabric of international norms can be torn and states can break free of not only their own historical behaviour and the expectations of other states, but from entire ways of reasoning about foreign policy. This independence, grounded in self interest, is a foundation stone of realist theory. In an increasingly uncertain global environment, each state can be seen to protect its own interests, often to the detriment of the international norms and institutions seem by Constructivists and functionalists to be so crucial. Indeed, when national security is threatened, other considerations tend to fall to the wayside: an effect predicted and underlined in realist theory.
Current examples of this abound. The United States does not feel that the United Nations or NATO have served adequately as guarantors of security (both, in fact, rely implicitly upon American power) and has thus been quite willing to circumvent these organizations, especially the UN, in the pursuit of national security. Likewise, weaker countries (or those with money to lose from the fall of Saddam Hussein) have a self-interest in maintaining the UN as a check on American power and have thus tried to prop it up to their detriment. Realism provides the best context for understanding this ongoing conflict and the reasoning of the parties on either side. Britain’s rational for supporting the United States is likewise illustrative: much emphasis is placed on how loyalty to the United States gives them a unique power to influence the use of American power.
Self-interest also provides the framework on which liberalism is built. Indeed, as a largely descriptive doctrine, realism provides a starting point from which prescriptive agendas can be constructed. Understanding self-interested co-operation is vital to understanding trade and economics. Likewise, game theory with regards to defence is key to the design of international institutions. Another key to the realist model is the assumption that states are they main actors: another assumption borne out by an examination of the current international environment. It has been the support or lack thereof of states that has been making headlines: the politics of states continues to define the EU, international security, and trade.
The second major realist axiom whose truthfulness is being forcefully reinforced presently is the importance of hard power. The United States has a level of military strength beyond any competition. During one administration, it has easily overthrown two sovereign governments in a manner which can certainly be called impressive. That might, in turn, has defined its ability to act in the international arena. Without US power, there would be no humanitarian intervention, no pre-emption or regime change. The Nimitz aircraft carrier, the F-15E Strike Eagle, and the M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank are the agents of American power that matter once things get “taken to my mattresses,” to borrow the parlance of “The Godfather.”
The military strength and strategic importance of other states also defines their level of importance in the international scene. States with key strategic locations, like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are cosseted, while some with great economic power but little military strength are largely ignored (think of Japan or Germany). military alliances lead to fellowship of states, such as that between Britain and the US, while military disagreements can undermine economic or cultural ties. (Just think about American pouring French wine down the drain.)
The final element of realism that is extremely evident in the present state of the world is the fundamentally anarchical nature of the international environment. The United Nations has power, especially over hearts and minds, but power is a currency well understood by realists. The power of the UN must be understood within the context of self-interest.
Now, realist theories differ on the extent to which they are prescriptive. The more forceful arguments are those that take realist axioms to be mere descriptions of the international environment and not guidelines for behaviour. Realism is an amoral doctrine that, without a mask overtop of it, will never convince anyone that its actions are legitimate. This is where realism in and of itself is distinguished from realpolitik. The former essentially is an explanatory doctrine that posits that the actions of states arise from their self interest and everpresent concern for their own defence, among other things. Realpolitik is a prescriptive doctrine that essentially says that it is right to simply pursue the self interest of your state with no heed paid to morality or law. In evaluating which is a better description of the present world situation, the military force being employed around the world by Britain and the United States does have a solid moral argument behind it. A cynic might say that they are following a doctrine of pure realpolitik, but it is more likely that realist concerns are being dealt with within a more idealist framework that seeks things like individual rights and democracy not only in Britain and the U.S., but around the world. That is indicative of how, despite realist fundamentals, other theories and mechanisms are important.
Realism should not be seen as the be-all end-all of international relations. Rather, it is a set of axioms that generally hold true and remain important regardless of the higher level pattern imposed upon them. If international politics is a soccer game, realist ideas are descriptions of the game field, of how there are individual players, and of certain basic rules. The intimacies of tactics and game play are better explained by other, more sophisticated theories but, in order to be realistic, those higher theories must be based on the fundamental rules of the game and the axioms upon which realpolitik is built.