23 May, 2022


Beyond Realism: From Thucydides To Trincomalee

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Thucydides does not take sides between the Athenians and the Spartans in his account of the Peloponnesian War. The most famous passage from that book is, of course, his version of the so-called Melian Dialogue, where a group of islanders who had otherwise remained neutral during the war debate whether they should submit to the will of the more powerful Athenians or whether they should try warding them off. The Dialogue is about why Athens acts as it does, and what the Melians should do in response to it.

When the Melians rationalise their opposition to the impending Athenian invasion on moral grounds, the Athenians point out that moral grounds are not good enough. Indeed, far from appealing to moral qualms, the Athenians argue, the Melians should consider who they are, what they possess, and what they do not possess. In terms of security and power, they are nowhere near the Athenians. It is in their interest not to fight, but to submit. On the face of it, this is classic imperial strategy: you tell the country you intend to colonise, or at least the ruling elite of that state, that it’s in their interests to capitulate.

To me the wider implications of the Melian Dialogue are clear. The encounter is not about states moving quickly to pre-empt other states from deploying their capabilities, but about rising powers acting forcefully to subjugate client states in a larger strategy of pre-empting major ones. The classic analogy is the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord: India’s actions towards Sri Lanka had as much to do with the “Tamil issue” as they did with Sri Lanka’s tilt towards the more powerful US axis, symbolised by fears of Trincomalee falling into American hands and the construction of a Voice of America relay station. Indeed, insofar as India’s decision was dictated by considerations of geopolitik and realpolitik, the Tamil issue seemed, as it still does, peripheral to this larger question. That neither excoriates nor exonerates India, but it does bring back memories of the Melian-Athenian encounter, with the flattering caveat that Sri Lanka meant much more to India than Melos ever did to the Athenians.

If the Melian Dialogue is taken as the starting point of the branch of international relations theory we call “Realism” (with a capital “R”), then from the fifth century BC to 1979 much of the debate surrounding Realism and realpolitik have been metaphysical and philosophical. It was Kenneth Waltz who, in his Theory of International Politics, took international relations from the domain of the purely political and applied economic theory to it. Waltz contended that political analysts had been too occupied with states as primary actors to realise that it was relations between states, or “structures”, which governed the international system. He then argued there were two ways in which structures “work their effects” through: by way of socialisation (which moulds state behaviour) and by way of competition (which generates order). Waltz was influenced by classical liberals, especially Adam Smith, and in expounding his theory he made the case for a free market order: “Competitive systems are regulated, so to speak, by the ‘rationality’ of the more successful competitors.”

In my opinion, Waltz was right in bringing the economic to the political, yet he was wrong in applying classical liberalism to international relations. The truth is that there’s a disjuncture between his notion of states pursuing interests and his notion of structures coalescing into a self-governing spontaneous order. It assumes too much of state actors; more than anything else, that they are rational, and that, like firms, they tend to be “maximising units.” Waltz admittedly does make the case for states blundering along the learning curve and learning on their own – what international relations theorists call “self-help” – but even this, in his scheme of things, leads to states learning to balance the immediate imperatives of national interests with the long term imperatives of international order.

The Realists have got it right when they argue that power is the overriding principle as far as nation-states are concerned; they seek to expand power. But no two Realists are the same. There is much debate about how states project power, and why they do so. Kenneth Waltz’s view was that they value security over force: they know that disturbing the international system would only serve to throw it into more chaos, so they desist from, say, declaring war and embarking on costly endeavours. Opposed to this view are the offensive Realists, whose most prominent proponent is John Mearsheimer. Their line of reasoning is that states want to expand, at whatever cost, and that sometimes they have a right to do so. It was on those grounds that Mearsheimer defended Russian actions in Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, while warning the US to contain and counter China’s rise.

Opposed to both these camps are the neoclassical Realists. While taking the Realist view of states pursuing immediate self-interests, these scholars contend that no two states are alike and that inasmuch as every government wants to expand its power, it does so on a case-by-case basis, interpreting the actions of other governments. Thus while they would argue that China definitely wants to transform its economic clout to military power (as the offensivists argue), this process of expansionism cannot be compared to colonialism or imperialism (as conventional Realists often say). How states act depends on what they make of other states. Their actions are constrained by time and space, by conjunctures of external and domestic factors. This is neoclassicalism’s main contribution to international relations.

The biggest strength of the neoclassical camp thus is its flexibility with regard to the actions of rival powers and aspiring superpowers. The major limitation of Watzean defensivism and Mearsheimerean offensivism is that both attribute to the actions of states a universal drive towards power. Yet even the neoclassicalists rely on the Realist axiom of interest defined as power mainly, and power only. In returning to the roots of classical realism, the neoclassical theorists divorced politics from economics, restoring international relations to the domain of the political. Here we have Realism’s major flaw: either it ignores the economic reasons for why states act as they do, or it incorporates a largely classical liberal view of structures which assumes much order from a much disorderly world. Pure politics or free markets: this is Hobson’s choice, and we must steer clear of both.

My main problem with the neoclassical camp, which is the only Realist camp that at least tries to make sense of politics, is that it limits foreign policy decisions to the perceptions of major actors, including ruling elites and foreign policy elites. Little to no emphasis is given to the subalterns, the non-major players, those speaking from below. Yet if foreign policy is to become meaningful, we must account for those unheard as well. And to listen to them, we must formulate a theory of international politics that accounts for disparities, not in military power (what Realists are preoccupied with), but in economic strength.

Here we must admit, and willingly so, that while the Realists have some of the answers they do not possess all of them. Then as now, the issue of economic disparities is best answered not by crude geopolitik or realpolitik, but by Marxist dialectics. This of course is another way of saying that Marxism supplies answers to questions that Realists do not have answers for. But which Marxism exactly? This is stuff for another essay, but to me the debate is mainly, if not essentially, between neo-Gramscianism and world-systems theory.

The neo-Gramscians tend to emphasise the role of hegemony in international politics. In this view of things, world order is governed by ruling elites consenting to a particular hegemon’s hold over it. This fits in neatly with the neo-Gramscian interpretation of the Cold War, which they saw as being dominated by the US on account of how it achieved a consensus of sorts everywhere, even in unfriendly states, regarding the American way of life. Interesting as this interpretation is, it has been criticised, not least by Marxists like Perry Anderson. For me its failure is that it disregards how hegemons resort to military power to enforce consensus and that, like the Realists, it disregards the economic dimension. 

World-systems theorists do not factor out the issue of economics, and for good reason. For them the fundamental unit of analysis is not states or structures or hegemony, but modes of production. Eric Wolf (1997) has identified three such modes across time: the tributary, the kin-ordered, and the capitalist. The history of conflict in the world, or at least much of it, has been the history (or histories) of conflict between these modes.

I would like to point out here that much of what nationalists refer to as cultures are actually systems built on particular modes of production. Where there is a clash between two modes or systems, superpowers tend to take on rising and rival hegemons; where such a clash does not exist, the transition from one hegemon to another becomes relatively peaceful. Kenneth Organski has shown us how only one such transition took place peacefully: from Britain to the US, in the 19th century. Figure it out: at the time of the transition both were engaged in roughly the same mode of production at different stages of an industrial revolution, with Britain nearing its end and America entering its peak.

Barry Gills (1999) has shown us how this explains the contrast between Sparta and Athens, that is, how disparities in mode of production pitted the one against the other: Sparta, with its hereditary elites and agrarian economy – something of a backward freak in the region – versus Athens, with its industrialised economy. In other words, we see here a major power established on an archaic mode of production – and accumulation – taking on a rising power established on a far more advanced mode of production. Such analyses are often faulted by political theorists and especially Realists as being too reductionist. But if it is, what are we to make of Realism’s deliberate sidelining of the economic dimension?

Realism obviously can explain why the US fears China and Russia so much. But it cannot give us the whole picture, not least because it focuses on major states and not small ones. It can explain Spartan fears of and aversion to Athens on the basis of relative capabilities. Yet like the neoclassical view of the US-China-Russia encounter, it downplays the economic reasons for these conflicts. Sir Mortimer Wheeler criticised Frederick Taggart for looking “through a shop window” by bringing materialism into discussions on Eurasian history. But as Barry Gills has argued, it is only right to emphasise the role played by production, trade, and exchange in history. In that sense we must think of alternatives to conventional Realism – defensive, offensive, or neoclassical – when understanding politics. Ergo, we must try to make sense of the world using other paradigms, far, far away from the crudities of Realism.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Thank you.

    Security to sustain Materialism/Life style – the colonial and the expansionism cover story/justification..the humanitarianism/justice for all/democracy/socialism/communism etc…no different from our kings as to what they did village after village..and more.

    (1) All the UN Security Council seats are based on the pecking order of those who achieved this the best.

    (2) ww1/ww2/Cold War and the new whatever are all based on this…

    (3) The G7 to all the way to G21+++ are all about joining the club

    (4) Idiots like us do…Insurgency/Armed struggle and “kill” our own/mercenaries for various absurd causes in the name of Capitalism/Marxism/Socialism/Mixed Economy under Dictatorships/Democracy and in the name of solving various problems we encountered.

    (5) Good example of this absurdity happen in our life time…India sponsored terror in our country(unsuspecting innocent people) for her needs to join the club/greed/immoral…other Asian Nations doing business with both sides met their agendas too..a typical third world justice/greed.

    • 0

      (6) Happy to go and wash someone else toilets few thousand miles away but will not hard labour for Nation building and support further destruction of all that they left behind…hence they all remain as “developing countries” and “third world people” does not matter how many generations they pass elsewhere.

      (7) We found money and the world found money to support all the military ventures/insurgencies/liberation fights……can not find money to feed/house/cloth/educate all the downtrodden.

      (8) Now you ask them for some answers they send the UN to your door step….a full life cycle event in asset stripping. Super perfect indeed…as these souls do not deserve much else either..

      • 0

        1970- 1977 …We have all worked hard to come up with our own mixed economy basis/bit of socialism/bit if capitalism that existed in our societies for thousands of years/become a republic/part of non -aligned movement/managed cold wars and regional wars/JVP insurgency/FP&TULF killing fields in Jaffna/ Tamils, Sinhala, Muslim, Christian a very mixed parliament with very mixed ministries across parties, stood tall amongst many nations, population under control, standardisation to address fundamental social injustice issues, small industry, agriculture, building infrastructure, Jaffna University and Technical colleges, we all studied in our own languages (be it Tamil is not”official”proper and who cares).

        • 0

          The only think I could object was about making Buddhism the state religion and why?. I would rather have had Sinhala only throughout the Nation that would have jelled us all together wonderfully whilst we do not discuss religions…a very progressive thought then for social justice too by Hon SWRD…..all could have worked out the transition timing better then could have sealed our future beautifully then.

          • 0

            The 1970-1977 check out the school syllabus/subject matters that were taught/teachers training and capable teachers we had to do the work/quality of the University graduates…we just needed to move from here to the next level……

            Then came the factors that undermined our life behind recovery we are discussion today

            (1) Indian problems got translated to being ours through the FP/TULF

            (2) UNP and TULF taken us all to the death bed from 1977 onwards.

            (3) This is when the geo politics also started its new ventures having taken a breather from the Korean/Vietnamese blunders…then we moved to Afghanistan….the rest is a bloody history not over yet.

            • 0

              Your rumblings are too lengthy.


              • 0

                Noted…I sometimes think I need to share because some may not know many historical journey except what they see on TV yesterday??

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