International relations consist of both thought and ideas on the one hand, and material conditions and forces on the other. One cannot simply separate the two. The Social Constructivist school emphasizes the role that ideas play in society at the expense of material realities. However, that is not the case. Humans perceive what exists outside, and think about them. Ideas cannot be generated a priori but only when they relate to material objects and forces. The social and political world may not be part of nature, but they are definitely created because of human nature. (Big rant about the role of ethology here – I’ll reserve it for another occasion) Ideas and concepts are not everything – the feeling of pain is not just an idea, but also a real physiological feeling. One cannot have an idea of happiness when experiencing pain. Ideas are derived from material realities and sentiments. The existence of groups based on family and kinship may be socially constructed, but was inherited through evolution from our primate ancestors, and was accepted as a given. The idea of the family is not merely an intersubjective idea but also a sentiment rooted in our psychology through evolution.
Now that my philosophical basis has been laid out, what is the most important material reality to be considered in International Relations? The driving force behind global politics is power, a sentiment which we have psychologically inherited too. Power is the ability of individuals or entities to influence the thoughts, behaviors and actions of other individuals or entities. It is the imposition of one’s will on the other. Power can be exercised either in a positive way (i.e. through persuasion) or in a negative way (i.e. through force). The latter method is a much more effective way of influencing others because the use of force causes physical destruction and pain. Power is not effective merely because of the idea that it is capable of influence. At the receiving end of pain and destruction, individuals and entities buck down and give in to influence; whether they think that power can influence them or not is immaterial. Even if force is not used, the threat of force can cause compellance through fear.
However, the constructivists are right in arguing that institutions like anarchy and sovereignty are intersubjective in their nature, and that they have acquired a particular meaning through historical processes and due to the underlying nature of the power distribution at the time of their institution. There is no material reality that can be referred to when talking about anarchy or sovereignty. Before the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, the principalities of Europe were subservient not to any earthly power, but to God. But with the recognition of secular principles in inter-state politics, a state of anarchy was created. Similarly, due to secularist reasons, the Catholic Church was prohibited from interfering in the internal affairs of a state through the creation of the institution of sovereignty. Therefore, anarchy and sovereignty are not part of a universal structure of the global system, but created at a particular time and space.
This is not to say that anarchy never existed before 1648. Kautilya talks about in the Arthashastra, Thucydides and Machiavelli implicitly assume that it exists in their works. The presence of anarchy is very much dependent on the visualization by the peoples of different lands about their worlds. In my opinion, therefore, anarchy need not be an indivisible institution that exists all over the world. Rather, improvising on Mearsheimer’s idea of regional hegemony, anarchy exists in regions where there is no hegemon. In the Americas, the USA is the regional hegemon, and by definition, there cannot be any anarchy in the region. But in other regions, such as Europe, Africa, Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, South-East Asia and North-East Asia, there is no regional hegemon, and therefore there exists a state of anarchy.
However, the presence of anarchy does not necessarily mean that it would be a competitive system. Anarchy may play a permissive role in the creation of wars, but in no way does it play a causative role. The states of Europe have formed a union among themselves in order to collectivize security; although how much of that was voluntary can be debated, today’s leaders wish to continue it despite there being no existential threat that they face. I personally think that the concept of security co-binding (as proposed by Deudney and Ikenberry) is a brilliant idea as well completely workable, although it has a few weak spots. If a bunch of states decide to give up the pursuit of power completely in order to maximize their own security, it is definitely possible. However, the larger the group gets, the more difficult it would be to organize security and solve inter-state issues. But the larger question is, if anarchy does not ‘necessarily’ lead to war, then what causes all the wars in the world?
War is caused due to a number of reasons – competition over limited resources such as land, consolidation of identities and loyalties, quest for fame, glory and prestige, and domestic considerations such as elections. However, more than any other reason, it is the fact that the use of force through military is the quickest, most effective and most efficient way of compelling states to do your bidding. However, four wars question this theory – the Vietnam War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. These wars dragged on for years without any end in sight, and the invader left the country humiliated. Why wasn’t the military effective in these wars?
The first reason is pretty straightforward. If the goal of the war is limited, such as securing a piece of territory, eliminating a military threat, securing hegemony, etc, the military can be extremely efficient. This is because these goals are military in nature, and therefore, can be achieved by the military. However, if the goal is to impose democracy (or communism, for that matter) in a country, the military cannot do it, for it is not within their mandate to do so.
One can argue that such a goal was achieved in World War II, when democracies were set up in Italy, Germany and Japan. But that involved six years of war resulting in 50 million dead and 100s of millions of wounded or missing combatants and civilians, and millions of refugees. In addition, the allied armies stay put in these countries to ensure the stability of the nascent democracies (in fact, US forces are still based there).
A second, much deeper reason is the change in the nature of warfare itself. The very first wars among humans were fought by polities that were tribal in nature, and the entire tribe was involved some way or the other in the war. Such wars were genocidal in nature because of the mass-involvement of the members of the polity. But with the rise of other polities such as kingdoms and empires, there was a growing disconnect between the king and society. Thus, the people had no interest in which king ruled over them as long as they were not oppressed or taxed heavily. Therefore, kings relied on professional standing armies composed of soldiers who were trained to be career soldiers fighting under the king’s orders. Wars primarily affected only the combatants, and civilians were largely kept out of harm’s way.
However, with the rise of nationalist ideologies and the formation of nation-states, there was increasing involvement of the people in war – what I call the ‘democratization of warfare’. ‘Citizens’ took an active interest in ensuring victory in wars, and the introduction of mass conscription increased both the size of armies and the scale of warfare. The peak of such kind of warfare was World War II. After that war, nationalism was largely discredited and the citizens of western states lost interest in war in varying degrees.
But that doesn’t mean that the nature of warfare changed uniformly all over the world. In most regions outside of the West, primordial identities of family, tribe, clan, race, religion and language still exact immense loyalties. With the mass involvement of the entire polity, wars are ‘democratized’ and therefore, genocidal. International pressure on the recognition of human rights, however, limits the genocidal capacity of those polities which have accepted them. For example, in the US war in Afghanistan, any Afghan can be an enemy combatant, or a collaborator with enemy combatants. How does one distinguish between a combatant and a non-combatant in this scenario? Thus, we see how the hands of the USA are tied – it cannot go on a genocidal spree to achieve victory, especially considering its goal of imposing democracy in Afghanistan.
This is where one finds the limitation of the just war theory. A just war is a contradiction in terms, for wars involve death and destruction. Any attempt at regulating that strikes at the very heart of war itself and makes it toothless. Also, since there is generally a victor and a loser in war, the one who loses can be said to face injustice. The just war theory, therefore, cannot be a universal law. Justice is always found at the tip of a sword (or a rifle), and justice in war can be achieved only through strength.
Mary Kaldor gives a third reason for the ineffectiveness of the military. Globalization has transformed the way states and societies interact with each other. The increasingly multicultural and transnational character of civil societies undermining traditional authoritarian regimes, new layers of political institutions creating multiple and overlapping loyalties, and the growing influence of the new media and the emergence of a human consciousness have transformed the concept of the sovereign state that can use the military as an instrument of power.
However, all this is from a very West-centric view. With the resurgence of tribal identities and religious fundamentalism in the West, and with the failure of democratic and capitalist institutions as is evident in the USA and the EU, there is a distinct chance of these entities collapsing and giving rise to civil disorder and ‘new wars’ in the very heartland of cosmopolitanism, putting an end to the theory once and for all.
Now that we have established that power is the most important aspect of global politics (especially under the assumption that there is no role for God in politics, i.e., in a state of anarchy) and that the primary way of exerting power is through the application of military force, the role of theory in this field should be to provide a practical framework for the strategic application of power (either war or the threat of war). In this respect, the normative aspect of realism and neorealism present the best practical tradition in this direction. Therefore, the different strategies that Kautilya, Machiavelli and Mearsheimer suggested are still applicable.
I think that military power is still relevant – all it requires for it to be effective is a change of military strategy and the rejection of humanitarian principles in war. The first point is fairly simple – instead of a doctrine which advocates sending entire divisions and army corps into pitched battles, we need to develop a new doctrine that would emphasize sending smaller units such as sniper platoons consisting of elite troops behind enemy lines, eliminating key targets and destroying vital communication networks in a sort of covert ops.
The second point is more controversial than impractical. In a progressive humanitarian world, how can one deny fundamental human rights and condone genocides? This is where we have to make a choice – live according to reality by following the diktat of power and disregard human rights, or discard reality and try to create a distorted world which will fall apart the moment there is a tiny crack. And large cracks are appearing. As I mentioned, tribal identities are on the rise (as they should be). The atomistic individualist societies of the Christian West are crumbling under the weight of their own intellectual progeny (capitalism, democracy, materialism, etc). These tribal identities assure their members of a solid self-contained community, at the expense of inter-community rivalry. With the booming population on this earth, along with the food and water shortages that we face, wars are soon going to be bloodier and more widespread than ever before. With such a bleak situation unfolding in front of me, I shall take the pragmatic approach of recognizing the predominant role of power in global politics.