Strength and Weaknesses of Classical Realism

1 January 2017

Classical Realism, with its implication that humans are intrinsically evil, is often characterized as a pessimistic analysis of human nature. While this characterization is undeniably true, Classical Realism should not be reduced to merely a cynical view of politics. Philosophically, Classical Realism is the epitome of the modern philosophical departure from ancient Greek philosophy, especially under Aristotle who contends that human nature is a “tabula rasa. ” As our worldview changes, so do our views pertaining to politics. In this essay, we examine some of the strengths and weaknesses of Classical Realism in international affairs.

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One the greatest strengths of Classical Realism is that it recognizes the similarities between the domestic political sphere and the global political sphere. In both, community and a sense of common values are pre-conditions for stability. Thus, Classical Realism gives us insight as to why violence has decreased dramatically since the beginning of the 20th century. Classical Realists contend that the decreased violence is the result of identity shifts through liberal democracies’ forceful integration of states into the liberal democratic “world community.

In contrast to Liberalism, Classical Realism asserts that the deterring of conflict is not correlated to the material effects of economic integration. Instead, it has to do with the shared feeling of community within the liberal democratic states. Democracies and advocates of liberal economies tend to expand and sustain this community through exercising their power in the name of justice and differentiating themselves from outsiders. Given the decreased amount of conflict in today’s world, there is still violence from those who oppose the liberal democratic “world community. One may ask, how would a Classical Realist explain the “irrationality” behind these aggressors?

Unlike Liberalism, Classical Realism recognizes the need for theory to be in touch with concrete realties and distinctive contexts for different events. The expansion of democracy and liberal economy is in reality the exercising of power of a group of people who hold distinctive values. On the other hand, there will be other people, including the aggressors who hold different values that also will struggle for power.

Thus, international relations is shaped by distinct communities with different values, history, culture and ideological doctrines etc. Owing to this division, there is no “universal rational” that explains aggression against the “world community. ” Therefore, Classical Realism also warns us against the fragility of the balance of power and all other international arrangements. With such uncertainty in the behavior of states, states can easily miscalculate their capabilities and the capabilities of their adversaries, which could lead to nuances.

Take the Japanese’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 for instance. The Americans were thoroughly shocked because the Japanese attacked while negotiations were still ongoing. Using the lens of Classical Realism, perhaps it is not all that shocking that the US who rose into a hegemon during the period, was targeted by the weaker Japan. Because Classical Realism takes into account the essential strength and weaknesses of human collectives, it discourages any form of destruction to mankind in alleged efforts to establish human utopias on a mass scale.

Take Stalin’s Soviet Union for instance. In contrast to Stalin who justifies his revolution as necessary for the transition from capitalism to socialism, a Classical Realist would dismiss such thought as propaganda. The propaganda is merely a tool that Communists use to expand their own power and challenge the hegemony of the US. While Classical Realism helps explain some of the contentious issues in international relations, its weaknesses stem from its emphasis on the struggle for power. Human’s passion for power can neither be measured nor validated.

Without empirical evaluation of such passion, the Classical Realist analysis would be largely based upon uncertainty. Take China’s current rise as an illustration. Scholars find it difficult to predict its effects on the world because of the unknown intentions of the Chinese Communist Party. In contrast, liberalism explains China’s rise and increased openness to the world, stating that its involvement in international organizations and interdependence with other countries contributes to its stability.

This also brings us to another weakness of Classical Realism, which is that it neglects non-state actors such as international organizations and multi-national corporations. Also, Classical Realism does not focus enough on contemporary non-military issues with security implications as refugees, environmental issues, and political economy issues that can weaken the state. Take China’s rise as an example again. With China’s economic growth, its subsequent environmental issues have also led to global attention. It is a known fact that Beijing, the nation’s capital suffers from immense air pollution.

Scholars such as Bruce Dickson claim that while the costs of China’s environmental issues are not obvious in the short run, these problems will eventually weaken the state. Moreover, with China’s growth gradually decreasing, economists predict a housing crisis in China with the same level of volatility as the credit crisis that devastated the US in 2008. In contrast to Liberalists who would account for these weaknesses of China, Classical Realists would disclaim the importance of non-military issues that might weaken the state.

Another often-criticized facet of Classical Realism is its recognition of the relevance of justice to effective interaction internationally is subject to abuse. Claims of justice can serve as a rationale for unjustified and unnecessary interventions. Take the United States’ intervention in the Middle-East as an illustration. George W. Bush, calls his war on “Terrorism” a “moral imperative” to justify his sending of US troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, justice and morality are societally based and interpreted differently. Thus, for an Afghan whose family had been killed in the war, George W.Bush’s war on “Terrorism” would be the opposite of justice. In all, despite its strengths in explaining the conflicts of the world, Classical realism’s stress on the cyclical nature of history with conflict is overly pessimistic. Just as Classical Realism suggests that we should not overly emphasize scientific methods in our rationale, we should not over-indulge in human nature’s passion for power to explain the events of international relations. Rather, we should see the world pragmatically, using Classical Realism when appropriate and Liberalism when it is apt.

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Strength and Weaknesses of Classical Realism. (2017, Jan 16). Retrieved February 24, 2019, from
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