Is there a “timeless wisdom” to realism?

Essay, 2007
6 Pages

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Is there a “timeless wisdom” to realism?

I argue that there is no ´timeless wisdom´ to realism, because in my opinion wisdom has nothing to do with realism. If realism is a timeless theory, then it should be viewed differently from the concept of wisdom. Both will be discussed in the following essay.

Before we can fully answer the question if there is a ´timeless wisdom´ to realism, we should focus on the meaning of wisdom. The term wisdom has a varity of different meanings and implications in depending on your particular point of view. If you search the online lexiconencarta, you find for instance explanations of “Western philosophic theories on wisdom”, “wisdom in Chinese philosopic tradition”, mythological definitions of wisdom and there exist other understandings of wisdom. (encarta. 13.11.07) Probably the political scientists have another meaning of wisdom in their mind than the psychologists.

For this essay the definition of wisdom will be the one used in theencarta dictionary. It declares wisdom as “the ability to make sensible decisions and judgments based on personal knowledge and experience.” (encarta dictionary. 13.11.07)

When we use this definition, which is of course mainly used to describe the behavior of human beings rather than a political theory, it is very doubtful to describe someone who sees power politics and e.g. the use of war merely as a political instument, as a sensible being.

From a realist viewpoint states are “self-help agents” which only see their own interests and carry it through in an anarchic world order. (Doyle et al., 1997, p. 165) In regard toMachiavelliandHobbes, humans are born bad.CarrandMorgenthauassume that the mankind learned by sociological factors to be self-maximizers. (Brown, 2007) Realist politics is power politics.Morgenthauclaims that “power may comprise anything that establishes and maintains the control of man over man. Thus power covers all social relationships which serve that end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.” (Morgenthau, 1948, p. 11) Does this sound sensible? The focus on realism is rather power politics, conflict and war in which the values of cooperation, peace and progress are focused in the theories of liberalism. (Jackson et al, 2003 ) Of course, if we want to be 100 per cent correct, we also have to define the meaning of sensible decisions making, which is used in the definiton of wisedom. This would be the right way to work scientificly.

But in the definition of wisdom it is also claimed that the ability to make ´sensible´ decisions and judgments is based on knowledge and experience. So you can support the critics who argue with a lack in sensibility in that the classical realism was “developed in reaction to both the practical and the intellectual failures of the inter-war period, and the experiences of the Second World War and the Cold War.” (Buzan, 1996, p. 48) “Theorists such as Hans Morgenthau were well read in history and wanted to warn their countrymen against reverting to the idealism and isolationism that they believed helped to bring on World War II.” (Nye, 2004, p. 15) Therefore regarding the experience of two cruel World Wars and a dangerous Cold War, perhaps it might be necessary and advisable to judge state behavior in the way a realist does. But if it could be called ‘sensible’, it can only be valued in a context of war. So far, the heyday of realists’ thought was from the 1940 upwards.

If there is a wisdom in realism, as the question might imply, another question should be raised. Is this wisdom timeless, or not? To find out, firstly we have to go to the root of realism and then look at its significance in contemporary thought, before we can make assumptions about its significance in the future. Realism can be traced back to the Peloponnesian war and realist thinking is at least as old as 400BC. Realists say that even the Peloponnesian war was to establish a balance of power, the core assumption in realist theory, between Athens and Sparta. (Brown, 2007)

“A realist revival under the label neo-realism started in the late 1970s...” (Buzan, 1996, p. 49) And even after the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, realism “remains the cornerstone of much theoretical debate within the discipline” of International Relations. (Buzan, 1996, p. 50) From my point of view in the logic of power politics even the current atomic conflict between the West and Iran might be more understandable in a realist point of view. If Iran should gain nuclear weapons, this could be a mayor threat to the West regarding the balance of power1. A nuclear Iran is seen by many Western states as a security threat, and may at least affect their survivial. One option to minimise their vulnerabilities and dominate the upcomming Middle East hegemony is ´the state of war´. This option is now discussed in the world press and maybe in some governmental offices, too. A pre-emptive military strike should prevent Iran´s president’s announcement to extinguish the Israeli regime from coming true and to re-establish the balance of power. This shows that even current considerations in world politics fit in the realists model of thought.


1It should be noted that the major concern of the U.S. is the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons to terrorist organisations. But since the U.S. has blacklisted the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on the list of terrorists, this scenario becomes more probable.

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Is there a “timeless wisdom” to realism?
University of Sheffield  (Department of Politics)
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Markus Minning (Author), 2007, Is there a “timeless wisdom” to realism?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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