Realism is one of the strongest theories that apply to international relations. Realism can be defined in a general sense as a theory of international relations where a state’s primary concern is security. The goal is to have the most security within one owns state rather than being concerned with other states issues or security. When speaking of the state, the realist theory believes that states are rational actors, power seeking, as well as insecure (Hess 2018). When thinking of realism many argue that realists can be competitive as well as conflictual when being compared to idealism or liberalism (Dunne & Schmidt, 2008). It is a theory that is more exclusive rather than inclusive, therefore if you are not within the state, you are not important. This can be applied to concepts of war very easily
Relation to Current Event:
A current event that this theory can be related to is the conflict in Syria. The two states to be examined are Russia and Syria. Russia, in this case, is acting in the realist manner. An idea that plays into this is the concept of statism. Statism is defined as “the state is the pre-eminent actor and all other actors in world politics are of lesser significance”(Dunne & Schmidt, 2008). The conflict that occurred between Russia and Syria was based on the thought that Russia essentially did not want to help Syria when they were in the midst of their civil war. Russia, as well as China who are members of the Security Council, vetoed resolutions to the violence within Syria. Along with these acts, in 2011, Russia abstained from aiding in a Syrian intervention when there was a no-fly zone protection that would help the civilians of Libya. Russia, in this case, has no interest in helping the Northern African country. All of these conflicts can be explained by Russia’s need for power. Russia does not want to aid in another state’s issues, as that could potentially be an issue for the power that the state holds (Guardian, 2011).
Russia only decided to intervene in the war when they realized how detrimental the fall of Assad could be to not only Syria but also themselves. Russia believed that if Assad fell, it could allow Syria to be taken over by terrorists. This is not only bad for Syria but also bad for Russia as well as the United States. With Assad as president Russia is an ally with Syria, without him, they could potentially be the enemy. This falls into realism because though Russia is only concerned about the safety of their state, the plight of Assad could put the safety of Russia at risk. Not only this, if Russia did not intervene, they could have lost the United States as an ally. If Russia lost the United States, who is also a powerful state, it could be very bad for the safety of Russia (Parasiliti, 2018).
Positives of Realism:
The positives of realism fall into the hands of the practicing state. In the case of Russia, they were protecting themselves from potential conflict. They did not want to involve their military in something that might not be beneficial to them. Following the theory of realism, if Russia does not involve themselves with conflict in other states, they are not putting the safety of their own state at risk. In addition to that, the amount of power that Russia holds cannot be lessened by intervening in a war, potentially losing, and then being looked at by other states as a weak link. As previously stated, power and safety are the most important ideas for Realists; therefore these aspects would be protected by Russia doing nothing.
Negatives of Realism:
The positives of realism when working correctly are a good way to keep a state safe. However, when it is not working correctly, it can be very negative for the realist state. The problems with realism include allies not wanting to help the realist state if they are ever in trouble, other outside allies could potentially be lost, and if a state’s power is overthrown, the realist state could be the first one to be attacked.
In the case of Russia and Syria, if Russia would have never intervened in the Syrian civil war, and Assad would have somehow remained in power, it could cause potential conflict if Russia is ever in trouble. Think of it as a “you didn’t help me so why should I help you” situation. They might be allies, but that means nothing if they do not help one another when there is conflict. This is a negative part of realism, because though you might be powerful, and safe in your state at that moment, it does not mean the tables will not one day turn for the worst.
As for outside allies like the United States, by Russia not helping out Syria through their civil war, it would have put both superpowers at risk. If a terrorist group took over Syria, it could be bad for both of them. The United States has a very strong desire to take out terroristic groups, and Russia as an ally should naturally want to do the same. If Russia had not intervened, it could have potentially brought the relationship between the United States and Russia to a halt. In terms of realism, Russia wants to be safe and secure within their state, so if the United States is not an ally with them, they could become unsafe. Being that the United States is as powerful, if not more powerful than Russia, Russians want the United States as an ally. Russia may have only aided in the war for the reason of protecting themselves from the United States.
The last negative, of realism, in this case, one that has been implied but not spoken about is retaliation. In the case of Russia and Syria, if Assad had been overrun by terrorists, in Syria, Russia could be the first state that the terrorists decide to take out. Syria would no longer see them as allies especially because if Russia had intervened, it would have been to the aid of the enemy of the terrorists or Assad. This could again put a target on the back of Russia, which in terms of realism would put the safety of the state at risk.
All in all, if Russia had stood behind realism throughout the Syrian civil war, it would have put a target on the back of the state. Not only would they be a target from Syria, but also the United States. The safety of Russia would have been at an even greater risk, and the chance of them remaining a powerful state would have been small. Looking at realism in wartime, it does not make sense unless there are no allies who could be hurt. If there are allies who could be hurt, the state needs to make arrangements outside of the realist theory that can help protect the safety of the state as well as the power that the state holds. Realism is not necessarily the best approach to war when being applied to allies.
- Dunne, T. and Schmidt, B. C. (2008) ‘Realism’ in Baylis, J., Smith, S., and Owens, P. (eds), The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, 4thedition, Oxford: Oxford University Press;
- Hess, J. (2018) War and Peace. Realism in International Relations. PowerPoint Week 2.
- Salter, L. (2018, March 19). Why Russia is so involved in the Syrian Civil War. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/why-russia-is-so-involved-in-the-syrian-civil-war-2018-3
- The Guardian (2011) “UN Security Council resolution 1973 (2011) on Libya – full text”
- http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/17/un-security-council-resolution, Date Accessed 09/25/2018