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Why Anarchy Cannot be Transcended Essay

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Updated: Nov 23rd, 2021

This essay argues that liberalist assumptions are just figment of imagination and that the anarchic nature of world system as defined by the Realist theory cannot be transcended.

  • The essay first provides a historical backdrop of human conflict down the ages to explain why strife is inevitable in human affairs.
  • The essay then develops the argument by outlining the present day success of the U.S. in achieving primacy in global affairs through implementation of a realist approach and how anarchy prevails in regions where coercive power is not available in sufficient measure.
  • The essay then provides the liberalist argument and their claim to success through the formation of the European Union.
  • The essay refutes such a claim by explaining the formation of the EU through a Realist prism before summarising the entire essay in the conclusion.

The Realist school of international relations posits that the international system is always anarchic and that struggle, survival and national security of every state are the overriding national interests which determine the relations between countries (Baylis, Smith and Owens 5). Liberalism, on the other hand does not view the world to be in state of perpetual anarchy but as comprised of states that act as bureaucratic organizations that can cooperate to maintain stability. This essay argues that liberalist assumptions are just figment of imagination and that the anarchic nature of world system as defined by the Realist theory cannot be transcended.

Throughout human history, empirical evidence shows that state to state relations have always been dominated by strife and conflict. The Greek city states fought amongst themselves to achieve primacy but mostly to achieve their own security. The earliest proponent of Realism, Thucydides had observed that state power is unequal and that smaller states with lesser power had to agree to live under the shadow of the bigger powers if they are to survive and that such an arrangement was natural (Jackson and Sorenson 62). Thereon, came an age of empires, monarchies, oligarchies and theocracies where strife dominated and struggle for dominance was the defining factor. It is also equally true that peace could only prevail when a state or an empire had sufficient military power to enforce such a peace within its jurisdiction and in its periphery. Such a state of affairs is natural as man’s natural state is to oppose each other in deadly conflict out of fear of “violent death” (Hobbes 86) where only a coercive power can maintain peace. Without coercive power no treaties or agreement are worth the paper on which they are written and this is due to the anarchic nature of the world system. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) was signed to bring recognition to the concept of modern nation states formed on shared religious and ethnic groupings within defined geographical boundaries. The Treaty was meant to bring peace to war torn Europe. Yet, because of the anarchic nature of mankind, the Treaty of Westphalia did not bring peace and wars continued at a frenetic pace as no real ‘balance of power’ existed and each nation state strove to achieve pre eminence. In fact, the long series of wars since Westphalia only culminated in World War I. Yet again, nations tried to approach human dynamics of peace and stability through Utopian idealism as propounded by Woodrow Wilson when the League of Nations was formed in 1920. The League of Nations failed because it had no army of its own to enforce the decisions and most importantly the U.S. refused to ratify it. Man’s anarchic nature and struggle for power continued resulting in the madness that was the Second World War. Thus it was Realism that governed human affairs through much of its history.

That the Realist view is valid can be judged from the American success of “exercising power in an anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable” (Jackson and Sorenson 124). In the early years after its independence, America adopted the isolationist Monroe Doctrine which was a Realist approach because it laid down practical steps for limiting European power politics from spilling into America’s domain. After the Second World War, the threat of expanding Soviet power forced the US to discard isolationism and embrace a proactive and aggressive policy of Containment of the Soviet Union. This was a Realist articulation of foreign policy that led to the Cold War and endless proxy wars that dominated the next four decades. American Realist approach worked successfully as the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of it own contradictions and the economic strain of having to match the U.S. led Western Bloc militarily. Had America used the Liberalist approach of ‘cooperation’ with respect to the Soviet Union, the world today would have probably become a unipolar entity where life and liberty would have been severely proscribed under Pax Sovietana.

In the current unipolar world, globalization has added fillip to anarchy and not reduced it. Globalization now makes it possible for people across the world to interact more freely and exchange ideas. Not all ideas are constructive. The World Wide Web, advances in information technology, and 24 X 7 media coverage have made it easier for anarchic and terrorist groups to operate freely and carry out global recruitment. The world today is more anarchic than it was ever before. This is because terror groups operate across borders and this trans-national character of such groups makes it difficult for nations to take action because of national and international laws. So the same laws that were supposed to make nation states safer and preserve peace, today, have become an impediment in dealing with trans-national actors. Trans-national actors are not just restricted to terror groups like the Al Qaeda but also include drug cartels, human traffickers and smugglers (Naim 61-66). They include money laundering activities where entire economies of nations are being subverted. Piracy of intellectual property rights by unscrupulous elements sometimes with active collusion of states have resulted in billions of dollars in losses for the developers. Thus, anarchy too prevails in the economic sphere.

Even if one were to focus only on the aspect of physical security, then a current scrutiny of global security situation would reveal that anarchy prevails in regions where coercive state power is absent. This is true for most of Horn of Africa and Sub Saharan countries including Iraq and Afghanistan. A vivid current example of a state of anarchy is in Somalia where there has not been a functioning government for the last two decades and poverty is rampant. Consequently, a number of Somalians have taken to piracy which has forced the international community to take coercive measures such as deploying warships to protect merchant shipping in the Gulf of Aden. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a stable country held together with coercive state power. With the removal of Saddam Hussein, American attempts to cobble a democratic system in Iraq have failed spectacularly. This is because the fine ‘balance of terror’ that Saddam Hussein exercised has been removed and the anarchic impulses of the various ethnic groups that make up the kaleidoscope called Iraq have been unleashed resulting in almost daily bloodshed. The same is true for Afghanistan where absence of strong central power has led to a near continuous state of anarchy in the nation’s history. A counter argument to the ‘anarchist’ world view is the one proposed by the liberalists.

Liberalism argues that individual freedoms have greater importance and that these “individuals are aware of their dependence on collective action to obtain good life” (R. M. Jackson 197). Liberalism believes that while military power is valid, a “complex system of bargaining” (Baylis, Smith and Owens 5) between states can achieve international cooperation and produce peace and stability. Liberalist claim that the European Union is a typical example of what inspired Liberalism can do. Liberalists observe that the European continent despite having been wracked continuously with conflicts resulting in deaths of millions since settled life first began had been able to get over their dearly held concepts of national sovereignty and form a Union is a startling testimony of what Liberalism can achieve (Ingham 245). Even more startling is the fact that former Communist countries, with ideologies diagrammatically opposite to the liberal West have queued up to join the European Union. The author of this essay argues that the so-called liberalist triumph in the formation of the EU is actually a Realist approach by the smaller European countries to bandwagon together so as to compete with the larger, more powerful US. The former Communist countries line up to join the EU not because they have suddenly discovered the virtues of humanism, but because they have no other choice if they have to survive competition against a larger more prosperous economic grouping. The so-called liberalists still adhere to Realist formulations as is evident in their continued deployment of armed forces in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. NATO, a realist formulation born out of the necessities of the Cold War continues to be relevant to the so-called liberal European countries for the pursuance of their individual national interests and preventing anarchy in the wider world. Realists believe this to be a hypocritical stance as the liberalists continue to use realist tools while pretending to champion the cause of universal human rights.

It therefore can be concluded that empirical evidence of the history of human conflict suggests that war and strife are inherent to human nature and that the world system has, and will always remain in a state of anarchy which according to the Realist theorists requires coercive state power to maintain stability. American global primacy has been possible only because of their adherence to Realist policies that points to the validity of Realist formulations. The fact that even the so-called liberalist European nations continue to support NATO and send troops to far away lands only reinforces the view that anarchy exist as a natural state that requires coercive power to control.

Works Cited

Baylis, John, Steve Smith and Patricia Owens. The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Vancouver: Forgotten Books, 1651.

Ingham, Mike. EU Expansion to the East: Prospects and Problems. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2003.

Jackson, Robert H and Georg Sorenson. Introduction to International Relations: Theories and approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Jackson, Robert M. Annual Editions: Global Issues. NY: McGraw Hill, 2009.

Naim, Moises. “The Five Wars of Globalization.” Jackson, Robert. Annual Edition: Global Issues 05/06. NY: Dushkin, 2006. 61-66.

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