The struggle for an intellectually satisfying path to action. Critical Theory and Realism in International Relations

Essay, 2017

17 Pages



1. Introduction

2. Realism
2.1 Classical Realism
2.2 Neorealism
2.3 Contemporary Realism

3. Critical Theory
3.1 The Ukraine crisis through the lens of Realism
3.2 The Ukraine crisis through the lens of Critical Theory

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Realism and liberalism [1] are the classic theories in the studies of international relations. In the last decades, these traditional ideas have been challenged by new ideas such as social constructivism, post-positivism and a variety of marxist theories. One of the neo-marxist approaches to international relations is critical theory.

In his well-received article “Social forces, states, and world orders” Robert W. Cox used the distinction between critical theory and “problem solving theory” to distinguish critical theory from traditional approaches to the study of international relation (Cox 1981: 129-130). At first sight, this seems to implicate that critical theory is not interested in problem-solving.

This essay will analyse the question whether critical theory provides a more intellectually satisfying approach to the study of international relations than realism – or if realism offers a more useful guide for political action. One could also ask: is there still a need for realism today?

In order to establish a basis for further examination, this essay will sketch out realist thought and critical theory in international relations. This will be followed by a case study, which will reflect the suitability of both approaches in the Ukraine crisis. This essay does not attempt to offer an extensive analysis of the conflict but will discuss how realist and critical prisms shape the perception of this conflict. Finally, it will question if the theories offer practical guidance for political action.

2. Realism

Realism is best considered as a family of ideas, because while families have similarities, they have differences.”

(Booth 2007: 33)

Realism has become the most dominant and influential concept of world politics since the introduction of academic international relations studies (Dunne 2011: 86-89). It appears in different forms, such as classical realism, neorealism, offensive and defensive structural realism and neoclassical realism. Apart from various differences in detail, they share some major assumptions: Its commitment to the sovereign state as the main object of analysis (statism), the faith in the state’s focus on self-preservation (survival) and the lack of confidence in supranational organisations within the post-Westphalian era [2] (self-help).

2.1 Classical Realism

Supporters of realism point to intellectual roots such as Thucydides, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes, or draw parallels to Carl von Clausewitz’ theories.[3]

Twentieth-century classical realism commenced in 1939 as an alternative to the dominant liberal approaches of that time. Its most significant work is Hans Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace which remained the most influential book about political realism for decades (Elman, Jensen 2013: 17). Classical realism was influenced by the experience of two World Wars, the failure of the League of Nations and the bipolar international system of the Cold War. In contradiction to liberals, realists argued that universal moral principles could not be implied to state affairs if they weren’t “filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place.” (Morgenthau 1960: 10)

Proponents of classical realism identified the desire for power and thus the reason for conflicts in the flawed nature of human beings. While the individual’s desire for power was countered by the authority of the state, states found themselves continuously struggling to increase their capabilities because of the absence of an overarching global authority.

It is a characteristic aspect of all politics, domestic as well as international, that frequently its basic manifestations do not appear as what they actually are – manifestations of a struggle for power. Rather, the element of power as the immediate goal of the policy pursued is explained and justified in ethical, legal, or biological terms. That is to say: the true nature of the policy is concealed by ideological justifications and rationalizations.

(Morgenthau 1960: 86)

Classical realists believed insecurity is primarily caused by inter-state conflicts and could only be encountered with military power. Therefore, maximising military power became the main national interest to guarantee the state’s survival (Smith 2015: 15).

2.2 Neorealism

In the 1970’s the dominant realist’s world view suffered significant challenges: In consideration of the thaw of the Cold War the international system turned out not to be as inflexible as predicted. Additionally, the impact of two oil crises illustrated the vulnerability of states to threats which could not be solved with the established perspective on inter-state conflicts (Smith 2015: 15).

With that said Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics replaced Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations as the main reference for realist thought and founded the discipline of neorealism. Waltz (Waltz 2008: 314) defined power as the ability to get people to do what they otherwise would not do. He argued political structures would be composed of three elements: An ordering principle, the character of units and the distribution of capabilities. For him two elements of international relations were persistent: First, the ordering principle of structural anarchy, caused by the lack of global authority. And second, the functional character of the units (states): The principle of self-help (Elman, Jensen 2013: 17).

Because in anarchy there is no automatic harmony […] A state will use to attain its goals if, after assessing the prospects for success it values those goals more than it values the pleasures of peace.

(Waltz 2001, p. 160)

2.3 Contemporary Realism

Apart from neorealism, which still remains important, there are further contemporary approaches to realism: The most important are offensive and defensive structural realism[4] and neoclassical realism .

Structural realism shares neorealism’s core assumption that the security of states in the anarchic international system is threatened by other states. It relies solely on rationality to explain the behaviour of states. Supporters of structural defensive realism, such as Stephen M. Walt, stress the importance of balancing of powers and state that revisionist and aggressive behaviour would be self-defeating (Elman, Jensen 2013: 20-21). This implies, a state’s security need can - at least temporary – be satisfied. Nevertheless, the overall defensive character of the theory could mislead to the assumption defensive structural realism is passive or even pacifistic.

From an offensive realist’s point of view, total (interstate) security is almost impossible to achieve. Becoming a hegemonic power is, according to John Mearsheimer, the only way to gain a certain degree of security. Thus, states are “forced to aggressively maximise their power” (Smith 2015: 18) which unavoidably leads to inter-state conflicts.

Neoclassical realism incorporates elements of classic realism and defensive structural realism thought. Thus, actions of states are dependent on the distribution of capabilities, but also on cognitive variables. The relationships between two (or more) states are not only influenced by the actual dispersal of power, but also by the perception of systemic pressures. Neoclassical realism highlights the role and perception of elites and the influence of domestic-level of threat awareness (Elman, Jensen 2013: 26).

3. Critical Theory

Influenced by the ideas and theories of Marxism, Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School,[5] critical theory in international relations emerged in the late 20th century. When traditional approaches failed to explain (or predict) the end of the bipolar system it gained in importance.

An important movement of contemporary critical theory is the Aberystwyth School. Its standard bearer is Andrew Linklater. For him, knowledge reflects pre-existing social purposes and is not the result of an individual’s neutral analysis of an objective reality (Linklater 2007: 45). Therefore, interpretations of current events arise from a psychological process shaped by politics and historical memory. In contradiction to neoclassical realism, critical theory sees reasons for different approaches to security not only in different perceptions of threats but also in different conceptions of security, which descend from the individual political outlook (Bilgin 2013: 95).

Security is to be understood as a culture-bound spin-off concept. Its addressee is the subject. The contrast to Waltz’s neo-realistic definition of power makes evident how incompatible neorealist approaches and critical theory can be:

Security means the absence of threats. Emancipation is the freeing of people (as individual and groups) from those physical and human constraints which stop them carrying out what they would freely choose to do. […] Security and emancipation are two sides of the same coin. Emancipation, not power or order, produces true security.

(Booth 1991: 319)

From a critical perspective emancipation – including sexual equality – of the individual is inseparable from security. Both, individualism and emancipation are core elements of human security and human development concepts (Achyra 2011: 480-481).

Critical theory concentrates on the influence of culture, sociology, history, philosophy, and psychology. It questions the balance of power and neither accepts the state-centric view on international relations nor the focus on military power. Advocates of critical security studies argue that in many cases states are part of the security problem, not their solution (Hobden, Wyn Jones 2011: 142).

Critical approaches provide their intellectual satisfying character from the belief in the power of ideas and definitions. Questioning the process which shapes perceptions of security or threat, the critical approach embraces disciplines that are not considered in realism and Liberalism. Thus, it opens the door for inter-disciplinary cross-thinking and analyses phenomena such as failed states, global terrorism, economic recession, environmental disasters, pandemic diseases and global poverty.

The analytical deconstruction of destabilising factors offers an overwhelming variety of academic research possibilities that contributes to the understanding of the conflict.

3.1 The Ukraine crisis through the lens of Realism

Proponents of a contemporary realist approach would point out to the motivation of Western states to tie Ukraine closer to the European Union and NATO. This was seen as an opportunity to enhance Western influence, develop a new market, and increase the power and influence. From a realist’s perspective, the Euromaidan movement favoured an orientation to the West to enhance Ukraine’s security by gaining independence from Russia – just as the Baltic States had done when they joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.

Since the end of the Cold War Ukraine’s associate membership of the Commonwealth of Independent States, together with its close economic connections and the direct support of Russian-friendly politicians like President Yanukovych and the deployment of the Black Sea Fleet guaranteed Russia’s influence. When the pro-Western Euromaidan movement overthrew the pro-Russian government, this influence was threatened.

Russian foreign policy is traditionally driven by a realist philosophy. Moscow perceives an EU at its western border as a threat to Russian vital interests. The Ukraine is seen as part of the Russian hemisphere and in “the eyes of Russian leaders, EU expansion is a stalking horse for NATO expansion.” (Mearsheimer 2014: 79)

Ukraine’s turn to the west provoked what neorealists would call a security dilemma. A conflict which “arises when the attempts of one state to satisfy its security needs, however peacefully in intent, lead to rising insecurity for other states.” (Smith 2015: 23)

When in February 2014 anti-government and pro-Russian demonstrations took place in the east and south of Ukraine, the situation escalated. Russia annexed the Crimea using military force and “legitimized” this with an internationally criticized referendum. In addition to that protests Moscow supported pro-Russian separatist’s activities in the oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk. The result is a still ongoing armed intra-state conflict as well as a sustainable destabilization of Ukraine.

Since Ukraine was neither a member of the NATO nor the European Union, both organisations were obviously not interested in getting heavily involved in the conflict. The support for Ukraine was more of symbolic in character. The Russian annexation of the Crimea was not formally accepted, economic and military joint-ventures were cancelled and economic and political sanctions were imposed – most of them against confidants of Vladimir Putin. Finally, in 2016 the “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area” was established, as a mutual trade zone with the Ukraine and the EU. However, both the European Union and NATO did not pursue a Ukrainian entry into their organisations. Instead – especially NATO – concentrated on the consolidation of military power in the Baltic States and Poland.

Russia’s original ambitions and motives remain nebulous. However, it is most likely that they shifted over the time of the conflict, rationally exploiting the situation (Sakwa 2015: 205-206). In the short term, Russia’s policy seems to have been successful. Putin has managed to contain the Western influence in Russia’s backyard. While Russia’s political reputation and economy have suffered, the annexation of the Crimea gathered a huge propagandistic success for Putin and guaranteed strategically important access to the Black Sea and shattered the Euromaidan ’s hope to join the EU or NATO.

This example shows how realpolitik can project influence on the ground. Contrary to possible arguments from structural defensive realist’s, there is little reason to indicate that Russia’s offensive behaviour will be self-defeating. The geographical vicinity, the dissimilar balance of power and Ukraine’s lack of allies ensured Putin’s success. But defensive realism may be correct in the assessment that defence is stronger. Therefore, Russia should be able to maintain the current status quo.


[1] For a closer examination of similarities of and differences between the traditional approaches see: The traditional routes to security. Realism and Liberalism (Smith 2015).

[2] This point of view reaches back to the year 1648 when the Peace of Westphalia sealed the end of the European Wars of religion, including the Thirty Years War. Until then transitions between private and regular belligerents were fluid. The Peace of Westphalia became an archetype for peace treaties based upon diplomatic effort and promoted a new political order in Europe. The concept rested upon the idea of peacefully co-existing sovereign states. Interference in domestic affairs by another state became unacceptable. The normative system – later called the Westphalian sovereignty – should be protected by a balance of power and became an integral part of International Law (Kantner, Sandawi 2012: 49).

[3] Elman and Jensen point out that the widespread assumption, twentieth-century realism is an incarnation of a long-existing intellectual tradition, is not unchallenged (Elman, Jensen 2013: 17). However, it is recognisable that many realists refer to the mentioned authors.

[4] Also called defensive realism respectively offensive realism.

[5] Hobden and Wyn Jones argue there would be overlaps between Antonio Gramsci’s (and Robert Cox’s) ideas and critical theory and describe gramscianism as an independent school of thought, whereas Bilgin sees in them two godfathers of critical theory in international relations (Bilgin 2013: 93). Hobden and Wyn Jones also introduce the sub-category of critical security studies (CSS), which combines gramscianism and critical thinking with aspects of peace research. A deeper examination has to be avoided in this essay. For a more detailed overview of critical theory in international and their sub-categories compare: Hobden / Wyn Jones (Hobden, Wyn Jones 2011: 137-142) and Bilgin (Bilgin 2013).

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The struggle for an intellectually satisfying path to action. Critical Theory and Realism in International Relations
National University of Ireland, Maynooth  (Military College)
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criticaltheory, russia, usa, ukraine, russland, liberal, liberalismus, liberalism, classical realism, neoclassical realism, realismus, post-westphalian, 9/11, self-help, statism, survival, morgenthau, neorealism, neorealismus, contemporary, neoclassical, classical, offensive, structural, defensive, critical, theory, kritische, theorie, frankfurt, school, frankfurter schule, gramsci, waltz, cold war, war, cold, euromaidan, crisis, foreign, policy, clausewitz
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Aaron Faßbender (Author), 2017, The struggle for an intellectually satisfying path to action. Critical Theory and Realism in International Relations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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