Classical realism is a political philosophy and methodology for understanding international relations. At its core, classical realism posits that how nations and states undertake politics is driven by the emotions and desires which are endemic to mankind.
This philosophy is connected to a wider branch of political thought called realism, which has been one of the driving forces of political theory for centuries. Classical realism has some parallels with the tenets of Isolation Moderation, mainly in the ideas regarding how states should approach political alliances.
In this piece, we will delve into the history and theorists behind classical realism, from its roots in Ancient Greece through to modern thinkers. We will also explore how the ideas of classical realism relate directly to Isolation Moderation.
What is Realism?
Realism as a whole can trace its roots back to Ancient Greece and the Athenian historian Thucydides, who was writing in the 5th Century B.C. Realism as a whole characterizes international politics as a constant state of conflict among competing nations, referred to as 'actors'.
These nations pursue power to achieve their own goals, sometimes attempting to disguise this lust for power with a facade of morality. The reasons behind this approach are explained differently by each of Realism's three dominant schools.
Classical realists, whom we will be focusing on throughout this article, believe that the reason that states pursue political influence can be explained by the basic workings of the human mind. This vision of human nature is extremely cynical, as classical realists theorize that nations, like individuals, only really act through the lens of their self-interest. Classical realism suggests that both political and individual responses to conflict or stress are driven mainly by fear, and not by any benevolent sentiments as we sometimes like to convince ourselves. Classical realists see mankind as naturally self-serving animals.
Neoclassical realists suggest that states pursue power because of three things; natural human selfishness, the anarchic dynamics of global relations, and the municipal needs of a nation. Neorealists see international relations as a chaotic mess that drives nations to act selfishly.
Realists define politics through four central tenets. The first tenet is that the collective approach of a state or nation is the main actor on the political stage, not figurehead leaders or international assemblies. The second central idea is that, as neorealists are keen to point out, international politics is chaotic, resembling little more than anarchy. No organization, such as the U.N., could ever hope to maintain supranational control over the competing states. The third tenet is that states use rational egoism to justify their policies. A state will only agree to something or decide to pursue a certain course of action if they can gain the maximum advantage from it. This extreme self-interest drives every action that a state might take. The fourth and final core tenet of realism is that nations seek to protect themselves by accumulating power and influence.
How does Classical Realism relate to Isolation Moderation?
Classical realism's cynical view of global relations has direct correlations with the ideas presented in Isolation Moderation. As we have discovered, realists believe that no overarching organization could ever hope to legitimately control the anarchy of global politics.
This means that organizations such as the U.N. are ultimately a waste of time because states are only really going to act through self-interest. States will only join an international assembly to advance their individual goals.
Complex alliance networks that bind nations into restrictive obligations do not serve the interests of the state. History has shown that such alliances can be extremely detrimental to the self-interest and personal security of states. In Thucydides' era, the Peloponnesian War wracked Greece and forced several Greek city-states to take sides and declare whether they supported Athens or Sparta.
Several of these city-states suffered catastrophic damage during the various wars. There are also examples in modern history of the cycle of destructive alliances repeating itself. In 1914 the First World War broke out due to the powerful nations of Europe embroiling themselves in a dense network of alliances and pacts. “These 'entangling alliances' caused a staggering amount of destruction, left millions of people dead and ignited bloody revolutions from Arabia to Russia.”
But whereas classical realism and its fellow realist schools of thought hold a pessimistic view of the self-interest of nations, Isolation Moderation proposes that by acting to further their independent self-interests, states can better provide for their citizens without becoming caught up in the affairs of others.
As Isolation Moderation states, “each individual country is in the best position to support its own people, and large political alliances simply take money and power away from countries and localities that can be used to benefit the people at the closest level”. This position represents a difference of opinion between classical realism and Isolation Moderation.
This offers some justification as to why states may act due to the endemic emotions of human nature. Our instincts are primed to prioritize our own survival and the protection of those closest to us. Because each nation has different goals and values, no other organization or nation can decide what a state and its people need at the domestic level.
This idea of benevolent self-interest is best explained by Isolation Moderation: “Nations are in the best position to determine what courses of action are right for themselves and their people. An outside authority simply is not in the ideal position to determine what is best for another group of people—particularly true if they each have different value systems.”
While classical realists will see this as little more than self-interest predicated on fear, IM proponents believe that only by improving its own situation first can a state then extend assistance to its neighbors. By building a strong foundation in terms of economic and military might, a state eliminates many of its own problems and can direct its attention to helping others.
“When nations improve themselves from within they are in a much better position to help other nations that need assistance. A prosperous nation will have more resources to expend in helping poorer nations”. This positive self-interest has more in common with liberalism, the traditional antithesis to realism.
Classical Realist Thinkers and Isolation Moderation
The theories of classical realism were developed over the centuries by several prominent political thinkers. In this section, we'll go over the main classical realists throughout history and explore whether any of their ideas can be linked with Isolation Moderation.
The 5th Century B.C. Athenian historian Thucydides is thought to be the first thinker who demonstrated theories now associated with classical realism. Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War is as much a discourse on political ideas as it is a historical account. His works showcase a cynical view of politics which would later come to influence realism.
Thucydides was born sometime around 460 B.C., although very little is known about his life. According to his brief autobiography, Thucydides fought in the Peloponnesian War before being exiled from Greece. Regardless of his personal history, Thucydides no doubt experienced things that caused him to formulate a cynical, pessimistic opinion of human nature that would inform his political theories.
Thucydides saw first-hand what destructive entangling alliances could do. The Peloponnesian War between rivals Athens and Sparta dragged several other Greek city-states into the conflict as both sides sought to expand their influence. The two powers formed their own 'Leagues' – alliances with other city-states in their spheres of influence. Athens formed the Delian League, whilst Sparta headed the Peloponnesian League.
While giving an account of a debate held in Sparta before the outbreak of the war, Thucydides attaches selfish reasons for Athenian involvement. He characterizes them as being led more by the pursuit of self-interested advancement rather than any moral compulsion to fight. Their reasoning, as recorded by Thucydides, was that moral concerns “never turned people aside from the opportunities of aggrandizement offered by superior strength.”
This rather cynical view differs slightly from Isolation Moderation's theory of 'armed neutrality' as a way of maintaining peace between competing powers but also captures some of the thinking behind this principle. Thucydides' Athenians are driven by self-interest and a belief in their own superiority, whereas an IM nation would follow this idea purely as a way of protecting themselves from external attack.
As argued in Isolation Moderation, “the main objective of having a strong national defense should not be to take more territory or resources from other nations, but rather as a means of self-preservation." However, as classical realists would argue, the fear of external attack is driven purely by the inherent framework of the human mind. Classical realism and Isolation Moderation share the sentiment of protecting against external attack but differ slightly in their reasons why a state would do so.
Another realist writer who spoke about how a state should protect itself by force was Niccolo Machiavelli, one of the most famous philosophers of the Renaissance period. Best known for his seminal work ‘The Prince’, which outlined how Machiavelli thought a ruler should act towards domestic rule and international politics. Machiavelli's ideas represent some of the main tenets of realist philosophy.
Machiavelli was born as the son of a lawyer in Florence in 1469. The political climate of Renaissance Italy was characterized by various city-states, as well as a series of papal wars against these disparate cities. Political experiments rose and fell, such as the Republic of Florence that regained control of the city after ousting the powerful Medici family.
Machiavelli came to idolize ruthless contemporaries such as Cesare Borgia, who inspired passages of The Prince. Machiavelli advocated that a good ruler may use ruthless force when the situation demands it, such as the execution of political rivals. In Machiavelli's mind, this was justified if the end result was beneficial for the well-being of the state. For Machiavelli, a powerful ruler should wield power outside of the constraints of moral conventions.
One of the main areas where Machiavelli emphasized strength and ruthlessness was when it came to the defense of the state. Machiavelli came to believe that a strong, powerful army was necessary to protect a just society and vice versa. As Machiavelli said, "The main foundations of every state are good laws and good arms you cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow”.
This position is echoed to an extent by Isolation Moderation, which argues that a strong national defense is vital to create a flourishing state that allows its citizens to experience true freedom. "With a strong military in place, citizens can live their lives in the absence of war and pursue their own lifestyles without the threat of having their lives disrupted by living in a constant state of possible war with foreign armies or rebel groups.”
The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes is perhaps best known for his cynical, depressing quote regarding the life of most people. Hobbes believed that, especially for the poor, life was “nasty, brutish, and short” and governed by what he called the “state of nature”. Hobbes envisioned that life without a centralized powerful government would be barbaric.
Hobbes was born in 1588 as the son of a vicar. He attended both Oxford and Cambridge but quickly began to follow his own path. Hobbes was the first man to translate Thucydides' ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ from Greek into English, and he was no doubt influenced by the Greek historian's ideas.
Like Machiavelli, Hobbes believed that a powerful sovereign, whom he called the 'leviathan', should wield absolute power in exchange for protecting the populace. This would create a 'social contract' which was a series of unspoken codes of conduct for a civilized society. If a society followed the social contract, it would avoid the free-for-all of the state of nature.
The safety and security of its citizens should be a government's top priority, although Hobbes' sovereign seems more heavy-handed than the leaders of an IM state would be. Isolation Moderation advocates the principle of 'normalcy' to help citizens to live without fear. This echoes the feeling behind Hobbes' social contract.
The vision of normalcy in Isolation Moderation advocates that “people should be able to go about and live their lives without disruption, chaos, or unlawful coercion. Order must be preserved at all levels of society”. This appeals to the natural human need for security and self-preservation. We must be able to trust our fellow citizens not to pose a danger to our safety.
While Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Thucydides created the early foundations of classical realism, the theory did not become a modern political philosophy until the writer Hans Morgenthau developed their ideas in the 20th Century. Morgenthau was born in Germany in 1904 and emigrated to the United States in 1937. His most famous work, ‘Politics Among Nations’, made classical realism a mainstream idea in contemporary politics.
Hobbes influenced Morgenthau the most, as both shared a cynical opinion of human nature. Both thinkers believed that the crux of why humans and nations act the way they do was selfishness. Morgenthau developed this further and identified the human lust for power as the central driving force in global politics.
Morgenthau theorized that this drive for power influenced the political decisions of nations according to their self-interest. Morgenthau theorized that this was a rational political position that was set apart from ethics and moral expectations, a stance he shared with Machiavelli.
But Morgenthau maintained that ethics did still have some a part to play in politics, unlike Machiavelli. Morgenthau argued that humans are both political and moral animals. Without a moral compass to inform society, political decisions would be suppressed by barbarism. Instead, political influence should be pursued for the physical and moral protection of a nation's citizens.
Of all the classical realists, it is Morgenthau's ideas that align most closely with Isolation Moderation. This is reflected in both the need for a strong national defense as well as a policy of avoiding binding alliances. This protection also extends to the concept of normalcy.
As Isolation Moderation suggests, a strong social foundation allows a state to more effectively pursue its national self-interest. "If society is not stable from within, then having a good foreign policy will do little good”. It is in a nation's self-interest to provide a safe and free environment for its citizens.
There are clearly some parallels between Isolation Moderation and classical realism. The two philosophies both oppose binding international pacts that actually bring more harm than good to member states.
Both political philosophies also believe that the self-interest of the state is what drives a nation to take certain political decisions. However, the two ideologies differ when it comes to the reasons why a state would act like this.
Classical realism believes that the ugly flaws of human nature, such as fear, the need for self-preservation, and a lust for power are the true components of political policy. Classical realists such as Hobbes and Machiavelli advocate the totalitarian power of a ruthless, strong-willed sovereign to help control the more brutish elements of human nature.
Isolation Moderation, however, attaches a more beneficial outlook to the self-interested decisions of a state. If a state provides a strong national defense and retains its sovereignty, then it provides a safer, more open society for its citizens. This should not be achieved by bullying other nations, but instead turning inwards to create as solid a foundation as possible.
If you are interested in learning more about these ideas, please order your own copy of Isolation Moderation.