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Title: The Post 9/11 era has led to a resurgence in Realism.


Julianna Vanessa Baptiste

University of the West Indies


Theory and Methodology of International Relations

The events of September 11th 2001 and the reactions that followed represent a major

turning point in the field of International Relations. In a world where the notion of peace

and democracy is often emphasized, “the Post 9/11 era” has generated a number of

Arguments. Some are of the view that this era has led to the resurgence of realism

whereas others argue that prior to September 11th, the Bush Administration (among

others) were already operating a realist framework.1 Therefore, this paper attempts to

critically assess the historical events prior to 9/11 such as World War I, World War II, the

Cold War and the inter-war years and analyze to what extent the theory of Realism has

dominated throughout these periods. It seeks to examine whether or not there has in fact

been a resurgence of realism.

In order to analyze the historical proceedings prior to 9/11, one must first understand the

basic premises of Realism. As its name implies, Realism seeks to describe and explain

the world as it is. Classical Realism and Neo-Realism both borrow from micro economic

theory with a fundamental methodological assumption of positivism. This theory sees the

state as the legitimate representative of the collective will and has supreme authority to

make and enforce laws. The state is a unitary rational actor, where no other actor can

force it to act in specific ways (Billiard Ball Model). The state leaders’ main priority is to

ensure the survival of their state while coexisting with other states in an anarchic system,

defined by the absence of a common power. In anarchy, states compete with others states

Louis Klarevas, Political Realism: A Culprit for the 9/11 Attacks (Harvard International Review, Vol
26(3) 2003).

for markets, security and influence. The nature of this competition is “zero-sum” which

means that more for one actor would mean less for another. 2

To make certain their survival, states rely on military power to achieve their national

interests. The paramount goal is survival which is a prerequisite for security, whether this

involves subjugation or merely independence. However, because relations between states

are insecurity-driven and because the anarchic structure provides few constraints on

states pursuing power, the security problem would continue as states would continuously

be wary of one another and question each other’s motives. Therefore to sum up the theory

of Realism, Barry Buzan states “realists analysis tends to model the state as a unitary

rational actor operating under the conditions of insecurity and imperfect information.”3

Some scholars have argued that Realism dominated in the decades following World War

II. However, it actually emerged in reaction to the mass killings in World War I. Realists

tried to discover the reasons why this war had occurred as well as prescriptions to prevent

its reoccurrence.

World War I came about because of a number of factors both internally and externally of

Europe during the 1900s. They were faced with increasing economic and military

challenges from rapidly industrializing states like the United States and Japan which

affected their colonial interests, while European states fought viciously with one another.

John Baylis, and Steve Smith, The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International
Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)
Barry Buzan, “The Timeless Wisdom of Realism?” in International Theory: Positivism and Beyond, by
Steve Smith, Ken Booth and Marysia Zalewski (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 47-

Additionally, Germany’s territorial ambitions were becoming apparent to Britain who

was not ready to have its position usurped by Germany. Germany regarded gaining

colonies as a matter of prestige and status, but more importantly as an economic

imperative. An alliance was set up with Britain, France and Russia to prevent Germany’s

quest to conquer territory and markets. As such, a combination of these tensions led to

the First World War which broke out in July 1914 and lasted for over four years. As early

realist E.H Carr pointed out, the pursuit of power by individual states took the form of

promoting “national interest”; he saw the clash of national interests as inevitable once

there was the absence of an overarching authority regulating relations between these

states.4 Carr’s view can be seen clearly in the events that led up to World War I.

Approaching the end of the war, America became involved and President Woodrow

Wilson in his “14 points” speech called for a new approach to international diplomacy

based on idealistic principles. His belief was that war could be prevented by the creation

of an international organization based on the doctrine of collective security. Collective

security refers to an arrangement where “each state in the system accepts that the security

of one is the concern of all, and agrees to join in a collective response to aggression.”5

Thus, the League of Nations was formalized to supervise the peace and promote justice

through common international action to resolve conflict and dissuade aggression.

This liberal sentiment influenced policy making and public opinion in a number of

Western states after World War I since this era of Liberalism proposed preconditions for

Scott Burchill and others, Theories of International Relations (New Your: Palgrave 2001).
John Baylis and Steve Smith, The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International
Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

a peaceful order. Contrary to realist views, liberalists believed that war is unnatural and

irrational. They argued that individuals should be free from arbitrary state power,

persecution and superstition. It was advocated that democracy, political freedom and

constitutionally guaranteed rights should all be important.

The League of Nations however, was a disaster. It resulted in the perpetration of a series

of relatively weak states in the Southern, Eastern and Central Europe such as Romania,

Bulgaria and Hungry among others. These new states suffered from ethnic cleavages as

well as economies and political institutions which were very weak.

Even though the underlying principle of the League of Nations was decidedly idealist, in

practice adherence to the League Covenant amounted to little more than lip service. 6

States remained motivated by their own national interest. Examples of this could be seen

in the United States’ decision not to join the League. Also the League merely became a

forum for the most influential powers in the international system. According to Carr’s

view of the liberalists’ way of thinking, it was dangerous to base the study of

international politics on an imaginary desire of how one would like the world to be, rather

than what it actually is.7

During these interwar years, other developments occurred which led to the failure of the

League of Nations as well as the decline of Liberalism, giving rise yet again to the

dominance of Realism. During the inter-war period of World War I and World War II,

L H. Miller, Global Order: Values and Power in International Relations (USA: Westview Press 1985).
Scott Burchill, and others, Theories of International Relations (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

Japan was still in the process of industrialization and its foreign policy was becoming

increasingly self-assured. Between 1931 and 1935, Japan strengthened its claim over

Manchuria, establishing a puppet state call “Manchuguo” which the League of Nations

was not able to prevent.

The League’s incapability of preventing Japan’s invasion was followed by Italy’s

occupation of Abyssinia led by Mussolini and Hitler’s invasion of Poland. According to

Susan L. Carruthers, neither dictator had much regard for the niceties of International

Law.8 By 1937, Japan continued to claim neighboring territories causing the US

government to cancel its 1911 trade agreement between them. The deteriorating relations

between Japan and the United States climaxed with the Japan bombing of Pearl Harbor in

the United States in December 1941. The United States declared war in Japan while

Germany and Italy reciprocated with a declaration of war on the United States three days

after, resulting in the historic Second World War.

Since the League of Nations failed to prevent the Second World War the victor states in

the wartime alliance against Hitler and Germany pushed for a new international

organization to promote peace and resistance to aggression. Liberalist notions once again

took center stage when the United Nations Charter was signed in June 1945 in San

Francisco. The main aims of this Charter underlying Liberalists ideals were to promote

social progress and better standards of life by promoting human rights and individual


Susan L. Carruthers, “International History 1900-1945,” in The Globalization of World Politics: An
Introduction to International Relations, by John Baylis, and Steve Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1997), 49-68.

The Liberalist victory was soon diminished with the emergence of the Cold War based on

realist themes of political and military rivalry between the United States and the Soviet

Union. There was also an ideological conflict between capitalism and communism and

democracy and socialism. The war was characteristic of the absence of direct violence.

Both sides were motivated by fear more than aggressive designs but each also perceived

the other as indeed bent on aggression.

After World War II, countries that were internally unstable felt threatened by the new and

developed Soviet state and asserted that they would not be in a safe position until the

Soviet Union had been reincorporated into the world economic system or all together

destroyed. In the west there was a growing feeling that the Soviet’s behavior toward

Eastern Europe was not because of historic concern with security but it was as a result of

the Soviet Union’s ideological expansion. During this time of mere suspicion, the Soviet

Union failed to stimulate revolution abroad while the West, because of its own divisions

and internal problems, could not eliminate the Soviet power. Historically, The Cold War

served in the interests of both the United States and the Soviet Union. Due to this, neither

side sought to alter the relationship once it had been established. Michael Cox claimed

that the Cold War was more of a carefully controlled game with commonly agreed rules

than a contest where there could be clear winners and losers.9

In June 1947, the United Stated provided the Marshall Plan which was aimed at

restructuring Western Europe in an attempt to bring it more in line with the United States

Michael Cox, “From the Truman Doctrine to the Second Superpower Détente: The Rise and Fall of the
Cold War,” Journal of Peace Reasearch 27, no. 1 (1990): 25-41

ideals instead of communism. This proposal was accompanied by a series of measures

designed to strengthen Western defense by advocating that there could be no economic or

political recovery without military security as well. The United States threats to reduce

Soviet’s influence in Western Europe caused the Soviet Union to respond by launching a

political counter- offensive against the Marshall Plan. In 1948, Eastern Europe was sealed

off from Western Europe – Stalin put up the Berlin Wall in Germany where he severed

road and railway communications.

The relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union continued to be a

contradictory one in the sense that as long as the Soviet Union continued to be outside of

the world economy they were considered to be a threat, yet they were less dangerous than

the West claimed. America’s fixation was that the Soviet Union’s monolithic political

entity was communism and the fact that by the end of the 1960s the Soviet had finally

achieved nuclear parity. When Stalin died in 1953, his successor Nikita Krushchev

unleashed reformist tendencies and the seemingly global communist challenge further

strengthened the United States’ determination to subvert enemies and support Western

Europe even more. However, the most dangerous moments in the Cold War were in

Berlin in 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. These two events were marked by

the risk of direct military confrontation with the possibility of nuclear war.

Détente was associated with American president Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry

Kissinger. It came about because the United States had literally been able to dominate

world affairs and discipline the Soviet Union but then it was eventually not capable of

doing so anymore. According to Michael Cox, détente did not involve a formal

abandonment of containment nor was it meant to lead to an alteration of the basic

structure of bipolarity. Rather, it was hoped that it would help domesticate the Soviet

Union and as a result make it easier for the United States in crisis to maintain global


In the United States, Ronald Reagan proposed a conservative interpretation of post war

history. According to this view, if the United States wished to go back to a time when it

was militarily powerful, it had to learn the history that was taught when it was once in

this powerful position for there to be order in the world once more. Meanwhile, Mikhail

Gorbachev became president of the Soviet and his liberalist aims were to transform

relations with the United States and Western Europe, however he was responding without

the use of force or coercion.

The United States gave the Soviet two choices- the Unites States was prepared to

outspend the Soviet Union, especially in nuclear weapons, thus forcing the Soviet to

compete or to negotiate real reductions in nuclear arms. Gorbachev chose the second

course of action by signing the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in December,

1987 at the United Nations, stating a unilateral reduction in conventional forces, thus

signaling the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union which was historically marked

by the destruction of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989.

Michael Cox, “From the Truman Doctrine to the Second Superpower Détente: The Rise and Fall of the
Cold War,” Journal of Peace Research 27, no.1 (1990): 25-41.

Clearly, Realism dominated in the Cold War years because it provided a plain but

powerful explanation for war, alliances, obstacles to cooperation, imperialism and other

international phenomena. Its emphasis on competition was consistent with the central

features of the American-Soviet rivalry.11 Even prominent liberalist Fukuyama agreed, he

said quote “the twentieth century, it is safe to say, has made all of us into deep historical

pessimists.” 12

The post-Cold War world saw numerous pessimistic interpretations of the future.13

However, in the new era, pessimism went onto the back foot, issues were surfacing which

made the theory of realism unpopular.

Firstly, the way the Soviet Union broke up was a major blow to the underlying

assumptions of Realism. Seemingly, one day the world faced a hulking superpower and

the next day it was gone. According to Realists, survival was the prime objective of the
state. It was assumed the fate of major powers would be decided by interaction with

other powers and inevitably that would involve conflict and loss of life. However, they

paid little attention to the internal workings of the state. Realism failed to explain how

internal factors within the state could lead to such major changes by themselves (as

happened to the Soviet Union).

Stephen M. Walt, International Relations: One World, many Theories (Foreign Policy: Spring 1998) pg
Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man (New York: Free Press 1992)
Samuel P. Huntington postulated new power blocs based on race and religion replacing the old ones
based on ideology
John Baylis, and Steve Smith, The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International
Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)

A main alternative to the mainstream realist and liberal traditions was that of Marxism.

Where Realism and Liberalism took the state system for granted, Marxism until the

1980s offered an alternative explanation for international conflict and a plan for

fundamentally transforming the existing international order. Traditional Marxist theory

saw capitalism as the main cause of international conflict they (capitalists) battled each

other as a consequence of their never-ending need for profits. Neomarxist “dependency”

theory, by contrast, focused on relations between advanced capitalist powers and less

developed states and argued that the former had grown rich by exploiting the latter. 15

Their solution was to overthrow the “parasitic elites” and install a revolutionary

government committed to autonomous development.

Both these theories were largely discredited before the Cold War even ended. The

extensive history of economic and military cooperation among advanced industrial

countries showed that capitalism did not inevitably lead to conflict. Additionally, the

bitter schisms that separated the communist world showed that socialism did not always

promote harmony. Dependency theory also endured similar empirical setbacks.16

The defeat of communism sparked a round of self-congratulation in the West. This was

best exemplified by Fukuyama’s infamous claim that humankind had now reached “the

end of history.”17 History has paid little attention to this boast, but the triumph of the

Andre Gunder Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America (London: Penguin Books
Warren B. (1981): Accuses the Dependency approach of acting as a shield for nationalism, a theoretical
device to cast the ills of developing countries at the door of a foreigner.
Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man (New York: Free Press 1992)

West gave a notable boost to liberal school of thought in International Relations. Realism

continued to struggle in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Its very name was supposed to

reflects its aim that is, to describe what was “real”. Yet, it appeared to have lost both its

explanatory and predictive power to the more optimistic alternative, Liberalism.

Despite all of these arguments liberal internationalists agreed that war would continue for

sometime. According to Fukuyama it was history that would end and not violence. Peace

would still take some time to establish in the developing world. Singer and Wildavsky’s

zones of peace, wealth and democracy contained only 15 percent of the world’s

population (the rest live in zones of turmoil). 18

International politics was said to have been transformed with the end of the Cold War. It

was common place during the 1990s for scholars to proclaim that the world was rapidly
becoming peaceful, that liberalism was now dominant and realism was dead. Liberals

such as Muellar and Fukuyama were confident that the world had entered into a period in

which war as the main driving force in international politics, is becoming obsolete. But,

had realism every really died?

States continue to pay close attention to the balance of power and to worry about the

possibility of major conflict. It is commonly agreed that the United States is a preeminent

actor in a unipolar system. With its emphasis on security, it is sometimes argued that the

Max Singer and Aaron Wildavsky, The Real World Order: Zones of Peace, Zones of Turmoil (Chatham
NJ: Chatham House 1993)
John J. Mearsheimer, "Structural Realism," in Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith, eds., International Relations
Theories: Discipline and Diversity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 71-88

United States has taken advantage of its current “superiority” to impose its preferences

wherever possible. It has called repeatedly for greater reliance on multilateralism and a

larger role for international institutions, but has treated agencies such as the United

Nations and the World Trade Organization with disdain whenever their actions did not

conform to U.S interests.20 One often wonders if democracy is just a cloak to hide the

underlying exploitative tendencies of the United States.

Nevertheless, in the wake of September 11, the liberalist optimism had all but faded, and

realism made a startling “comeback”. It resurrection maybe due in part to the fact that

almost every realist opposed the Iraq War, which in itself turned out to be a strategic

disaster for the USA and UK. In spite of globalization, the state appears to have a bright

future, mainly because nationalism, which glorifies the state, remains a powerful political

ideology. 21

Additionally, in the world of politics military power remains a critical element. The USA

and the UK supposedly the world’s two great liberal democracies have fought five wars

together since the Cold War ended in 1989. Iran and North Korea is clear evidence that

nuclear proliferation remains a major problem.

On the whole, the world remains a dangerous place. States are still concerned about their

survival, which means they have no choice, but to pay attention to the balance of power.

Stephen M. Walt, International Relations: One World, many Theories (Foreign Policy: Spring 1998)
John J. Mearsheimer, "Structural Realism," in Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith, eds., International
Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 71-88

Therefore, has there been a resurgence in Realism? Clearly not! In hindsight liberalism

dominated after the Cold War up to the present. However, the underlying framework

used by many countries was realist. Post 9/11 has just served to expose the realistic

tendencies that were already there.