Do we live in a world of paranoia and selfishness? Realist thinkers certainly think so. Realism as a school of foreign policy was the focal point of last week’s first lecture. It is both a theory attempting to explain historical wars as well as a political ideology. According to its proponents, which include notable examples like Machiavelli, Frederick the Great of Prussia or former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, all politics is conducted by rational, self-interested states. Their agency, survival and security are the only relevant doctrines of all foreign policy. Nevermind the domestic policies and regime forms of states, their internal sovereignty is respected and protected by all.
Consequently, this must lead to an eternal arms race between powers; the more firepower you have, the safer you are. This is called the security dilemma. According to 20th century Realists, this was resolved with the atomic bomb – the ultimate defensive weapon. Every aggression against a nuclear power would unavoidably result in self-destruction, which is why Realists actually supported the nuclear arming of, for example, Pakistan and India. Officially still at war with each other, these two states live in an uneasy de-facto peace, aware of the other’s weapons of mass destruction.
There is an alternative and we’re living it. In their second lecture, Erdogan and Krommendijk talked about Liberalism as an international politics doctrine. Liberals oppose Realism by recognizing factors beyond the safety and power of states. In their ideology, they’re capable and obliged to acts not only aligned with their security or survival, but also to ideals and peace. This makes room for international cooperation, cultural programs like UNESCO and charitable or environmental funds.
Most importantly however, Liberals see the domestic realm of states as essential. Foreign and internal policies are inseparable, which is why the spreading of democracy and human rights appeared on the agenda of Western Powers. Democracies don’t fight (each other), so trade becomes possible, which makes us all safer: that was the central idea of the last six decades or so.
America started exporting this messianic message to the world after it had emerged as the dominant Western power after 1945. It presented itself as an anti-imperialist state fighting for the democratic sovereignty of all – “and I think initially they genuinely believed that!”, Birsen Erdogan notes. The United States acted as an insurance company of sorts for its allies. States joined their alliances and contributed to common funds, and in turn the United States would protect them from all evil – being the Russians and their vassals, of course. The Soviet Union was the only rivalling insurance company and when their service ceased, the American hegemony became uncontested.
This Liberal World Order, as Erdogan and Krommendijk named it, has thus been completed in 1990. Numerous young democracies have sprung up since 1990 and prospered, and America as the biggest military force in history secured them all and profited greatly from it. All is well-ish, right?
Remarkably, the birth rate of democratic regimes has decreased in recent years– to zero, in fact. China’s, Russia’s and India’s capacities are ever growing and while the American military spending cannot be equalled anytime soon, China has at least professed its ambitions to do so at some point. And we all know that the Leader of the Free World is not too inclined towards Liberalism himself. America’s hegemony and with it, the Liberal World Order, might slowly be running out of steam.