Nationalism and Middle East

9 September 2016

Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the realist paradigm for the analysis of international politics in the region. Realism with its emphasis on war among great powers, and security competition has been a dominant player in the study of International Relations. It has assisted theorists in understanding human nature, how states interact with each other and portraying things in their true nature, by showing them for what they really are.

In it’s aesthetic sense it is defined as “fidelity to nature in representation; the showing of life etc. as it is in fact. (Armstrong, 2005) This essay discusses the Realist paradigm with relation to the Middle East. I will be analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of this theory, and focusing on defining the paradigm. I also believe it is important for this essay to define the Middle East. To do so, I will be using a variety of content, from journals to books.

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Focusing on Realism, I have looked at the works of John J. Mearsheimer and Kenneth Waltz. I will be analyzing their study of International Relations, and their Realist ideologies. When discussing the Middle East, Gregory F.

Gause’s article entitled, “Systematic approaches to the Middle East International Relations,” has proved to be an important source of information. The crux of this essay, hence the discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the Realist paradigm for understanding International Politics in the Middle East, comes from a variety of different journals and articles. For instance, Mohammed Ayoob’s “Subaltern Realism: International Relations theory meets the third world” and Fred Halliday’s “The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology” are two of the journals I will be using for this analysis.

Realism, since it’s conception has always emphasized the importance of the State, security and the maximization of power within the state. For the purpose of this essay, I believe it is important to define the state through a realist perspective. Realism pays a great deal of importance to the operations of the state and it’s position in the international system, hence its definition of the state is significant to this essay. Fred Halliday claims, “Realism treats states as unitary actors seeking to maximize their advantages within a competitive, or ‘anarchical’ system, pursuing power politics. (Halliday 2005) Realists look at the foreign policies of states, and the ways in which they create alliances on the basis of expected threats and suspected opportunities. John Mearsheimer has a similar understanding; he claims International Politics for realists is synonymous for power politics. Mearsheimer describes two types of Realists, classical and structural, the former believe that states want power simply because it is a part of their human nature. In their opinion virtually everyone is born with a will to be powerful wired into them.

Hence, great nations are lead by individuals who are hard pressed on having their states more powerful than its rivals. For structural realists, it is the architecture of the international system, which forces states to strive for power. In an anarchic system, where there is no higher authority above the great powers, and no guarantee that one will not attack the other, it is in the interest of each state to be powerful enough if a rival were to attack. Each paradigm of International Relations theory has it’s own set of strengths and weaknesses.

However, in context to the Middle East, the Realist paradigm in my opinion is weaker than its counterparts. What is the Middle East? Geopolitically the Middle East, connecting three continents, extremely rich in oil and situated in between Europe and the East, represents a very important part of the international system. However, it is hard to define what the Middle East is, some merely consider it as a group of Arab nations adjoined due to economic, religious and linguistic similarities. However, many will see much more than that, many will consider Benedict Anderson’s assumption of an imagined community.

He says, “it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Ayoob 1998). They are imagined as Anderson explains, because it is fundamentally impossible to know all the members of the nation. His theory has resonance in the Middle East because of the effects of imperial rule on the area. The most fundamental change in the Middle East after World War One occurred after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Europeans set up boundaries that rarely coincided with the ethnic, tribal or economic connections that had existed during the Caliphate era.

After 1918 territorial nationalisms or ‘imagined communities’ started to form, with the new organisms. The new borders made the emerging nation states limited by definition, as the political entities had to work within the newly formed walls. “Political, educational and economic systems were created and expanded – but also contained – by the European colonial divisions” (Ayoob 1998). The Caliphates are referred to the first system of government set up in Islam and represented the leaders unity of the Muslim Ummah (community).

In theory it is an aristocratic, constitutional republic, which in essence means that the Head of State, the Caliph, and other officials are representatives of the people and of Islam. They must govern according to constitutional and religious law or sharia. Theoretically, the Caliphates represent an aspiration for an ideal political unity of all Muslims under one leader. An ideal which only materialized once before for a short period of thirty years under the four pious Caliphs, Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman and Ali.

The Ottoman Empire was the last and possibly most significant Caliphate in Middle Eastern history. It constituted a primary unifying force, consolidating the Islamic nations under one rule. The symbolism of Turkey under the Ottoman Empire, personified centralized rule. The Empire’s leadership served as a vessel to better manage relations with foreign superpowers such as Britain and France. The European powers had a vested interest in the region, especially Britain, who by 1914 was particularly fearful of the protection of the Suez Canal and protection of the Gulf.

They were vital to Britain due to their link to India and Abadan region of modern day Iran. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and soon after the Caliphates in 1926, the sense of a single unifying force around which the Islamic world could rally around was non-existent. Thus resulting in a nationalist movement developing amongst post Ottoman Turkey and other Arab Nationalist movements, which was fast becoming the Nationalist wave sweeping through the new Middle East. “The primary factor forming the basis of the Arab system is the element of nationalism” (Gause, 1999).

Until recently scholars identified two types of nationalism. One idea, first proposed by Ernest Renan and later reiterated by Arnold Toynbee and Hans Kohn, is that nationalism, “like all great forces in life is nothing material or mechanical, but a subjective psychological feeling in a living people” (Gershoni & Jankowski 1997). The second idea of nationalism is to emphasize its political character. Ernest Gellner believes, “Nationalism is primarily a political principal which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (Gershoni & Jankowski 1997).

Recently academics have identified contrasting theories to pre-existing ideas of nationalism, the primordialist or perennialist model and the modernist interpretation. The former views modern nations as adaptations of existing ethnic communities, while the latter believes nations are modern creations if not inventions as a result of the massive process of change in the last two centuries. Other models such as the realist interpretation of nationalism do exist. Realists believe that “nationalism is produced by and anchored in objective socioeconomic conditions material interests” (Gershoni & Jankowski 1997).

Various forms of imagined communities have competed for Arab loyalties: territorial nationalism, nation state nationalism and a broad range of Islamic nationalism. “However, none have been successful in proselytizing Arab communities as a nationalism based on the cultural linguistic dimension of Arabness, crossing geographic and religious boundaries” (Gershoni 1997). Arab nationalism remains an integral part of identity and ideology even though it is a modern notion to believe that pan-Arab nationalism is declining.

Defining the Middle East is a strenuous task; because of its unique features it defies general analyses, and therefore needs a combination of several conceptual approaches to international relations. The Middle East is “constituted around an Arab core, with a shared identity but fragmented into multiple territorial states; the core is flanked by a periphery of non-Arab states – Turkey, Iran and Israel- which are intimate part of the region’s conflicts and an integral part of its balance of power” (Hinnebusch 2003). What is the realist paradigm? Realism is the belief that power is the most important component of the international system.

There are various types of realists, who have different views on state interaction and the need for state power. As previously explained, Classical realists such as Hans Morgenthau believe states want power simply because it is a part of human nature. Structural realists on the other hand believe human nature has nothing to do with it, they maintain that states want power because of the architecture of the international system. They ignore cultural differences and regime type, mainly because the international system creates the same basic incentives for all regime types.

Defensive realists, such as Kenneth Waltz, believe it is foolish for states to try to maximize their power because the system will punish them if they exceed certain limitations. “They believe the pursuit of hegemony is fool hardy” (Mearsheimer 2006). Structural realists perceive five assumptions why states want power. They believe great states operate in an anarchic system, not in the sense of chaos. It simply means there is no centralized authority or ultimate arbiter that stands above the state. The second assumption is that every state has some offensive military capability.

Thus implying that a state can always be under attack by another. Structural Realists also believe that ultimately all states want to know if the other is a revisionist or status quo state. The intentions of the state are of primary knowledge to its neighbors. However, intentions cannot be empirically verified, they are in the minds of the leaders. The fourth assumption is that the primary goal of any state is survival. Each state will seek to maintain its territorial integrity and will therefore place survival above any other goals.

The fifth assumption is states are rational actors; they are capable of coming up with beneficial strategies that will maximize their prospects of survival. Mearsheimer believes these assumptions if examined individually will not explain why states want power. However, if one were to combine all five together circumstances would arise “where states not only become preoccupied with the balance of power, but acquire powerful incentives to gain power at each other’s expense” (Mearsheimer 2006). Mearsheimer believes Americans and Europeans think Realism has been rendered obsolete.

In his opinion after the Cold War, the world has entered a stage of little prospect of security competition. Other critics of Realism, for instance John Muller believe great-power wars no longer serves a useful purpose, much like dueling or slaves. Theorists such as Kenneth Waltz agree that new times call for new concepts. However, he believes that the basic structure of the international system has remained the same; states are still the key actors in world politics.

He claims the biggest change within the system that has taken place in history is the invention of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons decisively change how some states provide for their own and possibly for others’ security; but nuclear weapons have not altered the anarchic structure of the international political system” (Waltz 2000). This anarchic nature is what allows Realism to be the dominating theory of International Relations. Not many scholars will consider the UN to be a coercive force or have any power to leverage. Moreover, there is no plausible replacement for the state in the horizon, and even less interest to change the system and find a suitable alternative.

Many believe that security competition between states is now an antiquated notion. However, if that is the case it is hard to describe conflicts such as Iran and Iraq, India and Pakistan and interstate conflicts within Africa. These prove that security competitions are not out dated. Also the fact that America maintains over hundred thousand troops in Europe and North East Asia. One can see a cluster of great powers in this district, even though they maintain peace with one another, the question of American troops brings up the notion of whether America can trust the Europeans not to go to war again.

Another region where security competition and anarchy are effervescent is the Middle East. Inter state conflict; religious sectarianism, religious fundamentalism, terrorism, human rights violation and other such atrocities regularly take place within this ‘imagined community’. The Middle East “is arguably the epicenter of world crisis, chronically war prone and the site of the world’s most protracted conflicts” (Hinnebusch 2003). Realism best describes the anarchic situation currently prevailing in the Middle East.

The greatest strength of Realism in this region is that it holds most relevance when describing the areas tumultuous political system. Structural realists believe the primary goal of any state is survival. How does a state survive? It must have the military capabilities to protect itself from any attack. This notion is reiterated by Iran’s recent threat to build a nuclear weapon. Even though it has delayed this process by a few months, the effects have begun to ripple. World leaders such as David Cameron have claimed that it could instigate an arms race in the region. I think it could trigger a nuclear arms race across the whole region. That would make the Middle East a more dangerous, more unstable part of the world. ” Another aspect of Realism that could be a strength if implemented is the Realist theory in the ethnic realm. This theory simply argues that when ethnic communities become extremely hardened by conflict, “ethnic separation, both physical and political, is necessary to prevent endemic bloody ethnic conflict and chronic instability” (Ben-Porat 2008).

Had this theory been implemented with the Shia Sunni divide, years of conflict and terror may have been avoided. Realism has a number of strengths, however, in relation to the Middle East, I believe the points mentioned earlier are the only positive traits. On the other hand, there are a number of weaknesses in the Realist paradigm that can be explored. For instance Realism has a narrow a-historic conception of the state. The main problem with neo-realism – a primary facet of the Realist paradigm – is a reliance on a preoccupation with the Great Power relations.

It has a Eurocentric, neo-colonial epistemology that privileges the global North over the global South, the powerful minority over the weak but numerous majority” (Ayoob 1998). For Realism the state is the most important actor in International Politics. However, this is problematic, as realists perceive the state to be a monolithic, unchanging entity. This is particularly troublesome for the Middle East states as they are by and large the result of foreign domination, and are struggling with the legacy of imperialism.

The neorealism theory is limited when conceptualising the state, as it does not account for agency. It does not take into consideration the internal factors that effect state behaviour. For instance “the decline of pan Arabism undoubtedly contributed to the movement towards Arab-Israeli peace. The rise of transnational Islamist politics helps explain the Iraq-Iran war and alignment behaviour in the region more generally since the Iranian revolution” (Gause 1999). The realist theory is also incapable of adequately explaining and analysing conflict (therefore resolving conflict).

Even a perfunctory inspection of conflict in the Middle East contradicts the fundamental neo-realist assumption regarding the predominance of systemic factors in explaining state behaviour. Fred Halliday believes neo-realism does not posses a sufficient explanatory and predictive capacity, especially in the arena of managing and alleviating the majority of conflicts in the Middle East. “Their inability emerges out of the fact that these conflicts are inextricably enmeshed with the process of state building and the formation of political communities that both of the theories do not address” (Halliday 2005).

Mohammed Ayoob says, “Neorealist theories neglect domestic variables affecting conflict and order. This explains their inability to account for the origins – in both senses of that word, as beginnings and causes – and evolution of the large majority of current and previous conflict in the region” (Ayoob 1998). The Iran-Iraq war is a good example of this point since one could argue the Iraqi regime was pushed into conflict with Iran by its fear of the demonstration effect of the Iranian revolution on the Iraqi population and the consequent Ba’athist regime. The sad fact is International Politics has always been a ruthless and dangerous business and it is likely to remain that way” (Rourke 2005). This rather cynical statement comes from a Classical Realism theorist. One who I presume believes in the inherent dark side of humanity, as many other realists do. Many will agree with this school of thought, each state has one agenda, to survive, and will therefore go through any means to make that happen. However, there are others who believe there may be more to human nature and more to state agenda than Realism describes.

For the purpose of this essay, I have studied the strengths and weaknesses of the Realist paradigm, and have come to find that even though both sides have compelling arguments, the weaknesses outweigh the strengths. The Middle East is a complex region, hence it is difficult to analyse its international relations through the implementation of one theory. Realism over looks a number of aspects that contribute towards Middle East politics. For instance it does not pay enough attention to domestic politics. “Domestic conflicts in postcolonial states are a result of imperial imposition.

They can easily spill across political boundaries into contiguous states, whose populations may aid one side in such conflicts thus involving neighboring populations and eventually neighboring states in these conflicts” (Ayoob 1998). To understand International politics of the Middle East, one must “combine the fundamental insights of classical realism with an appreciation of the dynamics of conflict currently clearly visible in large parts of the international system” (Ayoob 1998). This will result in a paradigm that can properly examine and analyse international politics in the region. As for the Realist paradigm, I believe it does not help us to fully understand the depth of the Middle East international system.

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Nationalism and Middle East. (2016, Sep 14). Retrieved May 26, 2019, from https://newyorkessays.com/essay-nationalism-and-middle-east/
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