So it's been a year since I last posted something. While contemplating my academic future and working on yet another application, I found this old essay from my undergrad studies. I decided that it just had to see the light of day :)
Do classical theorists have any relevance to the understanding of contemporary world politics?
The academic discipline of International relations emerged in the aftermath of the Great War (1914-1918) out of the realization that knowledge and education are essential prerequisites for a more peaceful world. Ever since, various theorists from virtually every political tradition have looked to the past in an attempt to discover timeless wisdoms and universal truths. Any student of International Relations must be familiar with the basic ideas of authors such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Grotius and Kant, to name but a few. The masterpieces of these thinkers have acquired a canonical status in Western Political Philosophy. What these authors had to say will remain relevant long after the academic debates of the present have been superseded. Often their ideas are used to explain present-day concerns such as the effect of anarchy upon the behavior of states, the role of law and morality in the international arena, the effects of capitalism or the importance of democracy and constitutionalism. However, classical ideas need to be understood in their particular context as authors were living in specific, often unique circumstances and they were addressing the problems of their historical reality. Thus, although classical ideas have a lot to offer to the present world, attempts to simply apply them to modern agendas may be misleading or even worse – they may be serving particular interests.
One cannot attempt to evaluate the resilience of classical ideas and their alleged “universal truth”, without looking at the dominant theories of international relations today and their roots. The present essay will analyze the two most influential modern adversaries: Realism with its claim to embody timeless wisdom, juxtaposed with Liberal ideas, which too are informed by pre-modern political thought.
While Realism emerged as an academic tradition within the IR discipline in the 1930s, its greatest thinkers claim that the tradition has much older, in fact ancient roots. This paradigm is defined by its profound skepticism of progress, hence Realist thinkers look back to Ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy to find support for their arguments. The world may have changed in important ways but the essential characteristics remain the same: international politics are dominated by the logic of anarchy, states are caught in a perpetual struggle for power in a system where survival is never guaranteed and self-help is the only source of security. Many contemporary realists would doubt whether a person from the 21st century knows anything about international politics that Thucydides didn’t in the 5th century BC.
Thucydides himself wrote that his History of the Peloponnesian War, an account of the destructive war that engulfed the ancient Greek city-states, will be a “possession for all time” (Thucydides., Warner and Finley, 1972). The Melian Dialogue (the dialogue between Athenian representatives and the officials of the small island of Melos), for instance, is often cited as an embodiment of realist principles: in a system with no overarching authority to regulate behavior, “the strong do what they have the power to do” and “the weak accept what they have to accept”. “The standard of justice depends on equality of power” and “it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can”. The logic of anarchy compels the Athenians to conquer the weaker Melians and hence - increase their own security while displaying overwhelming power. “If one follows one’s interest one wants to be safe, whereas the path of justice and honor involves one in danger.” Neorealists claim that Thucydides’ History provides timeless insights into the importance of global anarchy in shaping state relations. Kenneth Waltz argues that it represents an early recognition of “the anarchic character of international politics”, which “accounts for the striking sameness of the quality of international life throughout millennia” (Waltz, 1979). The argument goes that in reading Thucydides one cannot help but recognize a recurring pattern in the events of Ancient Greece and contemporary world affairs. Structural realists such as Waltz and Gilpin found that the Hellenic system and particularly the relationship between Athens and Sparta, provided an allegory for Cold War polarization. As bipolarization proceeds (in the language of contemporary theorists) the system becomes increasingly unstable, so does the likelihood of a system-changing conflict (Gilpin, 1988). Just as anarchy compelled the Athenians to rule whatever they can in the zero-sum competition for survival with Sparta, so too the US was justified to intervene in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere during the Cold War to destabilize regimes or to support brutal undemocratic rulers that opposed communism, because a shift in their political allegiance risked to upset the bipolar balance.
Similarly, Hobbes’s state of nature is perceived as an analogy of neorealism’s anarchic world: a world of insecurity, where the sovereigns have their weapons pointing at each other perpetually (Hobbes and Gaskin 1998). Hobbes writes in a very turbulent time- the English Civil War, which led him to believe that without sovereign authority life is “solitary, nasty, brutish and short”. On this account the state is the ultimate provider of security. Similarly, Machiavelli advocates dual moral standards: lying, cheating and failing to fulfill promises internationally is only justified because the state allows a moral community to flourish internally (Brown, Nardin and Rengger, 2002). Those arguments resonate with contemporary realist and neo-realist thought. Waltz, for instance, argues that the state is indeed the most important actor in international politics. It provides order and security domestically and despite the growing number of international institutions, people still look to the state to solve problems and to provide essential services (Baylis and Smith, 2001).
The problem here is that although the aforementioned examples seem to confirm the surprising resilience of classical arguments, this initial appearance may collapse should they be more closely analyzed. The world today is hardly the cruel lawless system that existed in pre-modern times. As much as realists would hate to admit, the international society has evolved. Anarchy may still define international relations, in the sense that there is no overarching global government, but there is an elaborate system of global governance. The emergence and resilience of international institutions seem to confirm that there is a place for morality and law in the international arena. The ancient Greeks, for instance, had no equivalent of the United Nations, the institution which is the sole source of legitimate authority to wage war today (Un.org, 2014). The international economy is regulated by extensive and powerful institutions, which though based on international cooperation, have developed their own identity and are eager to dominate their respective realms. Furthermore, the global influence of private actors is unprecedented. The three main rating agencies, Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch, have been named key enablers of the financial crisis of 2008, “from the fiasco of subprime mortgage securitization to tipping Greece into disaster when its sovereign credit rating was downgraded” (Financial Times, 2014). This clearly demonstrates that even the most powerful states have lost economic autonomy and they often find themselves at the mercy of external developments. The immense growth of international institutions is even more evident when we depart from the governance of vital strategic interests and analyze more trivial areas of daily life: from aviation to postal services, each is governed by internationally agreed rules that no single state can afford to alter or disregard. In this line of thought, the state is far from being the only important actor in the international arena, governments constantly compete for their share of influence with a variety of players and it is against the logic of self-preservation to upset this fragile order.
It is not that international norms are always respected- the Russian invasion of Crimea is perhaps the most painful recent example. Nevertheless states generally like to appear to act legitimately and they pay at least a lip service to international public opinion. In addition, the nature of war has changed, the 21st century is marked by the rise of terrorism where the ultimate aim is not territorial expansion but rather the suffering of civilians. The unpredictability of terrorist intentions has led to unprecedented surveillance of the private sphere and unlike territorial integrity, internal security is never guaranteed. There are developments in international relations such as development aid to states of no strategic or economic interest, or humanitarian intervention to save lives of strangers, that cannot easily be explained in terms of classical ideas. Furthermore, recent history suggests that in many places the state is the main source of insecurity rather than law and order. Failed states and murderous regimes such as Somalia and Eritrea have kept their citizens hostage- something that would perhaps come as a surprise to canon thinkers.
Realism is not the sole paradigm to attempt to explain contemporary outcomes in terms of classical ideas. Similarly, the English School of International society draws on the ideas of Grotius about the role of morality and law in relations between sovereign states. In this view “humanity has the capacity to move beyond geopolitics to a condition in which all communities can co-exist amicably without the threat or use of force” (Linklater, 2010). On the other hand, Michael Doyle’s Democratic Peace thesis is a reincarnation of Kantian beliefs that autocratic regimes are among the causes of war (Doyle, 1983). In this line of thought all states should be republics, based on freedom for all members of society and equality before the law. The reason is that “if the consent of the citizens is required to decide whether or not war is to be declared, it is very natural that they will have great hesitation in embarking in so dangerous an enterprise” (Brown, Nardin and Rengger, 2002). This belief is widely accepted within the Western World. US foreign policy, for instance, constantly propagates the importance of democracy. Presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama have expressed their belief that democracy is the path towards international peace and prosperity. However the foreign policy of President George W. Bush stands out as being intrinsically tied to liberal political theory. While US’s motives for attacking Iraq remain controversial, "regime change -- the replacement of Saddam Hussein's gruesome tyranny with a democracy -- was central to Washington's rhetoric by the time it began bombing Baghdad in March 2003” (Foreign Affairs, 2009). This is a clear case of misinterpretation of liberal ideas or even worse – their blatant abuse, as democratic peace theory does not necessarily advocate forceful imposition of democracy. Clearly, timeless and “universal” liberal principles are often employed for the justification of breaches of international law and intervention in the internal affairs of states. One has to accept that regardless of their appeal, liberal notions of constitutionality, free trade and human rights lack universal legitimacy. We need to proceed with caution and ask ourselves whether liberal norms are not tailored to serving the interests of the powerful.
After a detailed analysis one may admit that classical ideas contribute significantly to modern political thought, learning from past triumphs and mistakes is invaluable when these are not taken out of context. 17th and 18th century liberal ideas seem all the more relevant in the era of globalization, with the spread of belief in human rights, the importance of constitutionality and the growth of international regimes serving to prove that perhaps there is no real conflict in the interests of states. At the same time, realist insights are still valid to a great extent. Despite the efforts to create a new world order, we still live in an anarchic world. The failure of the collective security of the League of Nations, the paralysis of the UN during the Cold War, the inability to prevent the War on Terror, and to address the invasion of Crimea, illustrate that we have come a long way but not long enough. States might be unwilling to relinquish control of areas linked to national security and survival however the growth of international institutions elsewhere proves that history is a realm of progress, albeit a slow and painful one. Classical ideas can be applied to contemporary debates but they need to be understood in their own terms and in their own context first.
Last but no least, determining which writers are candidates for canon is difficult because the criteria change on the basis of current tendencies. The fact that virtually all of these writers are white male Europeans might be regarded as a legitimate criticism. Classical authors are indeed employed by contemporary theorists to articulate their position, the historical record is searched by dominant political thinkers attempting to find instances when authors from another place and time can be taken to be responding to similar concerns. This could involve the selectivity in the use of classical ideas, the emphasis upon some arguments and the marginalization of others. The student of IR has to be aware that “theory is always for some one, and for some purpose” to quote the famous line of Robert Cox (1981). Perhaps as the international society develops, there will be a shift away from Eurocentrism and greater attention will be given to thinkers from the non-Western world. Then we will be able to appreciate the fuller picture and move beyond particularistic beliefs and interests.
 Thucydides, Warner, R. and Finley, M. (1972). History of the Peloponnesian War. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books.
 Waltz, K. (1979). Theory of international politics. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.
 Gilpin, R. (1988). The Theory of Hegemonic War. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 18(4).
 Hobbes, T. and Gaskin, J. (1998). Leviathan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Brown, C., Nardin, T. and Rengger, N. (2002). International relations in political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press..
 Baylis, J. and Smith, S. (2001). The globalization of world politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Financial Times, (2014). Big three credit rating agencies under fire - FT.com. [online] Available at: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/4140e388-cfc1-11e3-9b2b-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3tS069MdX
 Linklater A., (2010), The English School Conception of International Society: Reflections on Western and non-Western Perspectives, The International Studies Association of Ritsumeikan University: Ritsumeikan Annual Review of International Studies, 2010. ISSN 1347-8214. Vol.9
 Doyle M., (1983) Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs, Blackwell Publishing
 Brown, C., Nardin, T. and Rengger, N. (2002). International relations in political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
 Foreign Affairs, (2009). Iraq and the Democratic Peace. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/2005-11-01/iraq-and-democratic-peace
 Robert W. Cox (1981) ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies , 10(126)