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Idealism vs. Realism

February 17, 2009

(This is an essay I wrote for International Relations)

In the world of ‘International Politics’ there are two ways to look at how the international world should operate: Idealism and Realism. In trying to figure out what view I agree with most I had to research and weigh the good and bad of both.  I have come to the conclusion that Realism is the better of the two. Why didn’t I like Idealism? What problems did I see?

Firstly, My political views did not conform to Idealism. The Idealist view of international organizations, international laws, and morality on an international scale is something I have a hard time to accept. The non-interventionist view on foreign policy that I hold is very much at odds with Idealism. The roots of Idealism, it’s Lockean view, is something I do agree with for the most part, but I don’t think Lockean or Hobbesian theories are good models to follow on the international stage. The Idealist view promotes alliances, treaties, and does not fall in line with what our founders warned us about. Since I am a great admirer of the American Revolution and early American life when I hear about alliances, treaties, and aid all I can think of is what Thomas Jefferson said about “entangling alliances”; As well as what John Quincy Adams said about “America going abroad in search of monsters to destroy”.  Secondly, I also have a problem with international bodies having powers over sovereign countries. Sovereignty is something that should be protected. It just worries me when U.S. Presidents cite U.N. resolutions as justification for war. This road of globalism, treaties, and entangling alliances is not one I would like to travel down and I feel Idealism is a good excuse to take that road. Trade should the driving force of all friendships among nations.

As with Realism, I do not agree with it whole-heartedly. I do feel that my views conform slightly better with this view. Realism argues that each state acts in it’s own self-interest, and its only goal is to obtain power, economic and militarily in order to remain a stable state. There is no international system with the Realist view and the States are the most important actors, not the individuals in other states. I do agree that there should be no international organizations that have more power than sovereign states. My libertarian philosophy teaches me that if I can’t do something illegal or immoral to you on an individual level, the government can’t do it on a state level, and a collection of governments cant do it on the international level. So coercion used to alter states is wrong, all it will do is alienate that state as we have seen with the United States on the international stage in recent years. This does not mean I am for anything immoral; I just question the use of governments to solve the problems.  I think that if states follow their own interests, they would inherently do the right thing. I don’t think it would be in the interest of a state to go around starting wars; after all, wars create an unstable society. The Realist view falls more in line with the non-intervention point of view, but not entirely. I feel that Realism is slightly better than Idealism because of its less interventionist views, and its anarchic view of the nature of international bodies.

To look at an event through the lens of Realism I chose the Russian, Georgian conflict. In August 2008, Georgia launched an attack on the capitol of South Ossetia, reportedly responding to Russian troop movements. South Ossetia was a partial sovereign territory with a government that was backed by Russia from the previous war that started in 1992 between South Ossetia and Georgia. The Realist view tells us that Georgia was perhaps looking to gain power for it’s own self interest, to take back what was once its own. The response from Russia was as well in its self-interest to help an ally and to show that it still indeed has power. The lack of international organizations in the conflict reinforces the idea that the nature of international systems is anarchic. The EU eventually stepped in and gave the two countries a neutral table to sign a peace treaty, perhaps the only thing international bodies should be doing. No other countries had to get involved and both countries saw the downfall of fighting.

In today’s world I think there should be more debate about foreign policy. Idealism and Realism are two views that have substantial credibility but I found both problematic. After weighing the facts with my own beliefs, Realism seems to be better. Sovereignty is better than no sovereignty, self interests is better than interest of anything but yourself, and rational states are better than international bodies dictating policy.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Isaac Doolittle permalink
    October 8, 2009 2:55 PM

    Well written and well thought out, first rational argument I’ve heard in a long time … perhaps its because I’ve been out of contact. Another reason international law would be a problem is, of course, differing views. For instance, you take Al Qaeda and just how many countries harbor them. Then you go to the U.N. and take Ahmedinajab of Iran and throw him in with all the other anti-US leaders and examine their accumulated power in an international system … I believe you see the problem I’m trying to describe.
    Simple fact is that Sovereignty is necessary, each country has a different outlook and a set system of values and norms, though U.S. is a melting pot, we still have our set values and norms. A country must protect its citizens values, and its way of life, and for Americans, our freedom, because not every country enjoys the liberty that we have (However diminished it was from the time of our forefathers.)


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