political revue

Year LXII, 2020, Single Issue, Page 76



Political realism*





The aim of this brief contribution is to clarify key aspects of the relationship between political realism, which is the most recent expression of the reason of state theory that began with Machiavelli, and the theoretical paradigm on the basis of which the European Federalist Movement (MFE) strives to understand the reality of international relations, and thus to determine its stance on, and practical approach towards, this reality.

Before going any further, it is necessary to underline two fundamental features of the federalist paradigm: first, its acceptance of the main ideas underlying the theory of political realism (whose leading exponents include, in particular, Morghentau, Aron, Waltz and Mearsheimer), and second, its overcoming of this same theory on the basis of the teachings of Kant.

With regard to the first point, the realist paradigm rests on the basic assumption that there is a structural difference between states’ internal and international relations, which creates a dichotomy between state sovereignty (founded on the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force) and international anarchy. Basically, because internal relations are governed on the basis of legal rules, any conflicts within the state are resolved without recourse to force; in other words, peace is established as an expression of the structural impossibility of resorting to force. Obviously, this does not apply in the case of violent revolutions, civil wars, failed states and states that have never actually come into being: all these are examples of situations in which there is a return to (or a failure to overcome) the condition of war of all against all that underpins international relations.

By establishing the aforementioned monopoly on the legitimate use of force, the modern sovereign state has also succeeded, through a lengthy process, in part still ongoing, in bringing about a remarkable civilisation of the populations of modern states. The key aspects of this important process are, first, the moral advancement that comes from learning to relinquish the use of violence, and therefore from progressively rejecting the principle of private violence as a means of protecting personal interests, and second, the economic and social progress made possible by the certainty of law. Indeed, the state, as it evolved, underwent a series of deep transformations driven by the emancipating ideologies rooted in the Enlightenment, namely liberalism, democracy and socialism. Moreover, it should also be underlined that the peacemaking function of the state, rooted essentially in its monopoly on the legitimate use of force, has been consolidated in the Western world thanks to its integration with the rule of law and the separation of powers (liberalism), universal suffrage (democracy), and structured social solidarity or the welfare state (socialism). These mechanisms, which over the course of history have progressively been combined, help to prevent the state from being perceived as a power pursuing the interests of only one section of society instead of the general interest; this, in turn favours consensus and a reduction of the tendency to resort to violence. From this perspective, it is important to underline that political realism (and federalism even more) argues that the state, to correspond to the fullest description of the term, must be characterised by the structural presence of emancipatory ideologies.

Moving on to examine the realist vision of international relations, we find that these, unlike relations within states, are regulated on the basis of power relationships between the parties, given that, in this context, sovereignty as the key structural element is replaced by international anarchy, meaning the lack of a government, i.e., of a supreme authority with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force that can enforce a valid and effective legal system. In this situation, the elementary instinct for survival is such that trials of strength between the parties are inevitably the last resort method for resolving conflicts. As a result, war is always on the agenda — Aron has noted that relationships between states always unfold in the shadow of war — and every state is forced to practice “power politics”. This does not mean that it automatically pursues an overly aggressive foreign policy, but rather that, in formulating its foreign policy, it takes into account the permanent possibility of trials of strength, in the form of actual or threatened use of force, and seeks to set up (ready for use in extreme circumstances) a series of essential power resources (arms, alliances, guarantees of protection from major powers, pre-emptive filling of power vacuums), or alternatively to apply cunning and deception.

Having said all this, the idea that there exists a structural difference between states’ internal and international relations should not, according to the realist paradigm, be taken to mean that the international situation is simply a form of chaos, dominated by continuous, irrational and unpredictable clashes between states, and lacking any kind of order. Indeed, political realists highlight the presence of the following key structural elements that reduce the chaos of international anarchy and make its developments more predictable.

First, a hierarchy of states has been established that distinguishes major powers (those that are effectively able to look after their own security and interests) from medium-size or small powers (that, instead, must seek protection from one of the major powers). This has given rise to a sort of global government that, unable to guarantee structural peace, nevertheless mitigates the violent effects of international anarchy.

Second, a balance mechanism has evolved that, albeit unable to eliminate power conflicts, nevertheless prevents hegemonies and thus guarantees the existence of a pluralistic system of sovereign states.

Third, the above two elements, combined, have allowed states to live side by side, without however leading them to abandon power politics; this is the circumstance that explains the birth of international law and international organisations.

Let us now turn to the second feature of the federalist paradigm, mentioned at the start. Whereas the first, as explained, is recognition of the structural difference between internal and international relations, the second pillar of federalist theory is its complete rejection of the political realist argument that international anarchy cannot be overcome because the creation of a world state is not possible — an argument based on a nationalistic ideological prejudice that leads the plurality of states (and, by extension, conflicts between states) to be viewed as an irreplaceable element of progress. Whereas the key value of realism is the power of one’s own state, the guiding-value of federalism, on the other hand, is peace, as reflected in the firm belief that, in the historical phase that began with the advanced Industrial Revolution, commitment to the progress of mankind is irrevocably bound up with the endeavour to overcome violence in international relations, and therefore to gradually unify humanity through the pursuit of a world federal state.

This orientation is underpinned by the enlightening reflections on peace developed by Kant, who, starting from a realistic view rooted in the dichotomy between state sovereignty and international anarchy, clarified beyond doubt that peace corresponds to an organisation of power that overcomes international anarchy, because it transforms power relations among states into true juridical relations, and thus, through the extension of statehood on a universal scale (by means of the federal system), renders war structurally impossible. Kant’s project of perpetual peace is based on a clear awareness that it will take humanity a very long time to mature and realise it, but also that it is a process that has a real chance of taking place. First of all, the overcoming of anarchy within states is a real historical precedent that makes it impossible to exclude in principle — here we see that Kant manages to overcome the anthropological pessimism of Hobbes and of today’s political realists — the possibility of further progress that will ultimately result in the overcoming of international anarchy. Second, such progress will be favoured by the combined impetus of two powerful historical forces: i) the growth of trade (i.e., of economic interdependence, which will create more opportunities for conflict, but at the same time render ever more pressing the need to develop instruments for peaceful conflict resolution, so as not to undermine the benefits deriving from interdependence); and ii) the increasing destructiveness of war, an effect of scientific and technical progress, which is making it increasingly urgent to overcome, through concrete measures, the very system of war, so that mankind’s destiny is not one of collective self-destruction.

It should be emphasised Kant’s considerations, set out above, reveal a deeper realism than that of the of reason-of-state theorists and therefore of modern political realists, in other words, a realism that seeks the “actual truth”, and avoids being trapped by ideological prejudices that lead the system of sovereign states to be regarded not as a phase in the evolution of humanity, but as an insuperable point of arrival. The realism that distinguishes the theory of federalism espoused by the MFE is, in fact, based on efforts to develop and probe this very aspect of Kantian thought. In this regard, it is worth underlining the growing recognition of the idea of the historical relevance of the struggle for peace. This recognition rests, fundamentally, on a full awareness of the consequences, on the evolution of states and interstate relations, of the epochal changes brought by the advanced Industrial Revolution, and now the Technical-Scientific Revolution. Political realists are certainly not unaware of the enormous importance of a series of phenomena: the growing economic interdependence between states (part of the process of globalisation), the advent of weapons of mass destruction, ecological interdependence, and the upsetting of global environmental balances. But since their ideological orientation leads them to perceive the plurality of sovereign states as an insurmountable difficulty, they fail to see that these developments have introduced a new and hugely significant factor into the system of international relations: the historical crisis of the system of sovereign states (also called the “Westphalian system”) — a situation that makes commitment to overcoming international anarchy not only an ethical-political imperative, but also a very real political necessity.

The discourse surrounding this problem can be summarised by focusing on three key aspects.

The first concerns the extent of the economic interdependence gradually created with the advance of the Industrial Revolution and Post-Industrial Revolution. This brought to light the unavoidable need to create states of continental dimensions in order to avert social and economic decline and, therefore, to prevent democratic progress from drawing to a halt. But it also began a process destined, in the long term, to render even continental-size states obsolete and consequently to place on the agenda, in order not to impede progress, the project to achieve political unification of the whole of mankind. A grasp of the political implications of economic interdependence is indispensable in order to understand the fundamental developments of the XX century. The first of these was the decline of the European nation-states, which led to attempts to find hegemonic-imperial solutions to the problem of the need for a continental-size European state, and thus to the spread of authoritarian and totalitarian tendencies (accompanied by heinous crimes). The power of the European states dwindled as their absorption into the bipolar (USA-URSS) world order opened up the way for the dismantling of the colonial empires and, above all, for the process of European unification on a peaceful and democratic basis, a development that radically altered the situation in Europe, restoring momentum to socioeconomic development, democratic progress and peacemaking endeavours, and also stimulated, in other parts of the world, similar although much less deep-rooted processes (regional integrations). Then came the formation — this process accelerated sharply after the end of the Cold War — of an increasingly integrated global economic system dominated by the USA, which brought strong overall economic growth but at the same time recurrent, and increasingly severe, economic-financial crises and persistent serious social and regional imbalances (giving rise to destructive instability in entire regions and migrations of “biblical” proportions). At this point, it should be remarked that the development of global economic interdependence prompted the formation of international economic organisations (the IMF, World Bank, GATT-WTO, OECD, ILO, FAO, G7, G8 and G20) which, while they have not produced a level of integration comparable to that seen in Europe, do underline the need to treat world unification as a real prospect, however distant, and no longer just a utopian idea.

The second aspect concerns the emergence of challenges deriving from the discovery of weapons of mass destruction (among which we can now also include cyber weapons) and the upsetting of the world’s natural environment, which, together with the phenomenon of economic interdependence, are decisive factors in the historical crisis of the system of sovereign states. While the destructiveness of modern warfare, combined with the phenomenon of economic decline, presented the European states with the stark choice — “unite or perish” — that is at the very root of the process of European integration, the development of weapons of mass destruction marked the start of the extension of this choice to global level. In other words, it put the need to overcome war as an instrument for resolving conflicts among states onto the historical agenda, since a general war would mean not the continuation of politics through other means, but rather, as the consequence of a collective suicide, the end of politics altogether. And here it should be underlined that it is entirely unrealistic to think that the inconceivableness of a general war between the major powers constitutes structural protection against the risk of a nuclear holocaust. After all, there is no sure guarantee that deterrence cannot fail; moreover, it must also be considered that the inevitable proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will, in a setting characterised by chronic instability of the world’s underdeveloped regions, eventually see these weapons finding their way into the hands of states, led by extremist and fanatical ruling classes, that have no democratic mechanisms, or even into the hands of terrorist organisations that do not have a territory that deterrence can hold to ransom. In reality, the value of deterrence and security policies aimed at arms control and reduction can only be temporary. In other words, all they can do is provide the setting within which, to be truly realist, the extremely difficult and long-term plan to eliminate structurally the possibility of wars — a plan to which there exist no valid alternatives — must be pursued through the building of a global democratic state. The same argument applies to the danger of an environmental holocaust. International cooperation alone cannot be regarded as anything other than a temporary remedy — one whose coherent development is possible only within the context of the gradual construction of a global state.

The third and final aspect concerns the decisive role, in favour of world unification, that a fully unified Europe is called upon to play. At this point, it must be underlined that Europe is structurally designed to work towards a more peaceful, more just and more environmentally sustainable world. In essence, Europe has an ingrained tendency to act as a “civil power”, a power that pursues structural policies based on peaceful cooperation, and thus the overcoming of power politics. Precisely because European unification was born from the catastrophe of the two World Wars, as the first significant response to the historical crisis of the Westphalian system of sovereign states, the EU is genetically programmed to strive to export the positive elements of its own experience, which we might refer to as the European way of life (liberal democracy, the welfare state, human rights, environmental awareness, low military spending), as well as the unification process itself. Indeed, in setting out (in Treaties and strategic doctrine) its planned international role, the EU speaks not only of European interests and security, but also of world peace, to be built through the instruments of solidarity, the rule of law, the liberal-democratic system, the globalisation of human rights, and regional integrations. All this is concretely reflected in the leadership role that, despite Europe’s unification still being incomplete, is played by the EU in the areas of development and food aid, peace missions and the pursuit of human rights, as well as its key involvement in initiatives such as the International Criminal Court and agreements designed to combat the global ecological crisis. Obviously, to manifest this structural vocation far more effectively than it does at present, the EU needs to be much more than just an economic power. It also needs to become, through the adoption of a true common foreign, security and defence policy, a fully-fledged global player.

Other writings by the author on the topic dealt with in this presentation:  

Considerazioni orientative sul tema della Casa Comune Europea, Proceedings of the 2009 Congress of the MFE in Catania, p. 99.

Political Realism, Federalism and the Crisis of the World Order, The Federalist, 58 (2016), p. 16.

Difesa europea e unione politica, Proceedings of the 2017 Congress of the MFE in Latina, p. 54,

L’Unione Europea di fronte all’alternativa: federazione europea o tracollo dell’Europa, Paradoxa Forum, July 2019.

* Contribution presented during a debate on Federalism and the Concepts of Political Power, Power, Statehood and Sovereignty, held in Florence on 17-18 October 2020 and organised by the Debate Office of the European Federalist Movement.

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