Global Radar Screen

Political Realism, Much Needed In IR Analyses

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently spoke out against Western nations unwilling to see the reality of a developing multi-polar world, instead continuing to pressure countries through economic sanctions and propaganda. (photo credit U.S. Department of State - https://www.flickr.com/photos/statephotos/13909189073/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43815217

Dissector

International Relations commentators would do well to take a leaf from none other than specialists in Marketing who have forged a valuable conceptual tool to analyse current developments in international economics. This is commonly referred to as ‘VUCA’, which acronym stands for, Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

An impartial survey of ‘external sector’ developments ought to convince commentators and observers that the Marketers have got it plum right. Fast-breaking events in international politics and economics could indeed tend to be baffling. The magnitude of the welter of developments is such that traditional perspectives on international politics and economics would no longer suffice in the task of clearly understanding most of these contemporary developments. Hence, the appropriateness of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity as characterizations of the present world ‘order’.

In former times, an IR commentator would have been described as being a ‘Realist’ if she/he attached primacy to Realpolitik in her/his analyses. Considering the dynamic flux characterizing current international politics, more meanings would need to be attached to the phrase ‘Political Realism’, besides the foregoing one with its stress on Realpolitik. Today an analyst would qualify to be a ‘Realist’ if she focuses also on the fast-breaking and complex nature of international events. Accordingly, a present day ‘Realist’ would be obliged to recognize ‘VUCA’ besides focusing strongly on Realpolitik or the primacy of power in the conduct of international politics.

One is led to these observations on reflecting on a recent statement made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Speaking to the international media he was quoted saying, among other things, ‘ The conflict potential increased last year, primarily because of the stubborn unwillingness of some Western countries led by the United States to accept the realities of the objectively developing multi-polar world, as well as because of their desire to continue to force their will on others by means of pressure and economic and propaganda instruments. There have been attempts to steam roll multilateral institutions and erode their international mission and to replace the universal norms of international law with a Rules-Based Order.’ (See page 2 of the ‘Sunday Island’ of January 20, 2019)

To be sure, there is a relative reluctance on the part of the US to recognize the multi-polar nature of the contemporary international political and economic   ‘order’. Whereas, regional economic blocs are highly visible today along with a concomitant dwarfing and decline of international cooperative economic institutions and arrangements,  the US is ‘stubbornly’ refusing to face this fundamental reality by treading what seems an ultra-nationalist ‘trajectory’ in its economic policy. It would not only prefer a policy of inwardness and comparative isolation, but would headily take on whom it sees as strong economic competitors, in an adversarial mode. A case in point is the US’ present trade war with China.

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Likewise, the Trump administration has made it clear that multilateral economic cooperation is not its favoured approach to international economic questions through its rejection, sometime back, of the Transpacific Partnership Agreement which was seen as a step in the right direction by many of the US’ allies in the Asia-Pacific. These are just two examples of the aversion harboured by the US for multi-lateralism and economic cooperation arrangements.

Russia, however, is on record as favouring a more multi-lateral approach to posers and pressures in international economics. Lavrov’s statement just quoted provides the proof. For instance, he states that Russia has opened its Euro Asian Economic Union (EAEU) partnership ‘to all countries and associations both in Asia and Europe.. ‘We did our best to align the EAEU with China’s Belt and Road initiative and to promote the Russia-ASEAN strategic partnership..’

Ideally, it is Russia’s policy position that must be adopted by the international community. In these times of economic interdependence, a policy of economic self-centredness or of economic nationalism, as opted for by the US, could spell material doom for less powerful countries in particular. An ‘every country to itself’ or a ‘Beggar thy neighbour’ policy would be a sure formula for international economic retrogression. Besides, such policies would bring to nought the fundamental aims of the UN system.

However, no state could afford to make compromises with what it sees as its national interest. If a multi-lateral approach to international relations could result in a state neglecting its national interest it could be described as being on a self-defeating course. Needless to say, no country would like to be seen as being on such a ‘trajectory’.

In the thinking of the US at present, multi-lateralism is not going to serve its national interest, hence its strong nationalist tendencies. However, in a situation where each country strives to meet its national interest to the detriment of its international commitments, we would be having on our hands   ‘international disorder’ or chaos. It is in this direction that parts of the world are trending right now.

However, Russia ought to be familiar with these realities. It has not refrained from using force to meet its national security concerns. The Ukraine crisis a few years back drives the point home. And Russia brooked no resistance in annexing the Crimea because its national interest was supreme. From Russia’s viewpoint that was the way to go.

US President Donald Trump. For the Trump administration multilateral economic cooperation is not the favoured approach to international economic questions of the Trump administration (photo credit, Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America - Donald Trump, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66881486)
US President Donald Trump. For the Trump administration multilateral economic cooperation is not the favoured approach to international economic questions of the Trump administration (photo credit, Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America – Donald Trump, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66881486)

From the US’ viewpoint withdrawing its ground troops completely from Syria was the right thing to do. In fact, the US is threatening to remove itself from international trouble spots where its military presence is most marked. Its national interest, as seen by the Trump administration, dictates such a course.

However, as pointed out, the downplaying of multilateralism in the name of states’ national interest would bring about international anarchy and ‘disorder’. This is where the world is, mostly, now. The predominance of force and power in international relations, necessitated by the primacy attached to the national interest by major states, tends to make the world ‘a dangerous place’. While the world community must strive to reverse these trends it could best understand current reality through the adoption of a Realist perspective bolstered by the use of the ‘VUCA’ concept.

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