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Is International Politics Just A Struggle For Power Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2652 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Discuss critically Hans Morgenthau’s contention that ‘international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.’ Hans Morgenthau was one of the leading twentieth century figures in the study of International Politics. He made essential contributions to international relations theory and the study of international law, and his ‘Politics Among Nations’, first published in 1948, went through many editions and was for decades the most used textbook in its field in U.S. universities. It is in this book that he declares, “International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power”. In order to discuss Morgenthau’s contention one has to have an understanding of the ‘power’ that he regards as the centre piece of international politics. This is because power is a broad term that can encompass many factors, for example, man’s power over nature; or over the means of production or consumption; or over oneself in the sense of self-control. In the context of Morgenthau’s book, “When we speak of power we mean man’s control over the minds and actions of other men. By political power we refer to the mutual relations of control among the holders of public authority and between the latter and the people at large.” (MORGENTHAU, 2006: 30) Morgenthau comes from the realist school of international relations. Therefore we must also explore exactly what this entails; and where the struggle for power within politics fits in to this train of thought. The belief is that there is not one Realism but many. A number of classifications have been presented to differentiate realism into three main forms: classical realism, structural realism and neoclassical realism. The ideas of all three, with regards to the link between power and politics, must also be examined; as well as the views of the critics of realism and the other political schools of thought.

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Firstly further power often may not be the net result of political action but Morgenthau states that, “Whatever the ultimate aims of international politics, power is always the immediate aim.” (MORGENTHAU, 2006: 29) In essence Morgenthau is saying if power is always the ‘immediate aim’, then anything that is arrived at via political means must be a by product of mans ‘struggle’ for power. Much of politics, and many actions taken as a result of decisions made in politics, are seen by certain political theorists as a result of mans natural desire/nature to want more power over others. Morgenthau discusses the political relevance of human nature in his first principle of political realism: “Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.” (MORGENTHAU, 2006: 4) Essentially this is the classical realist lineage which began with Thucydides’ representation of power politics as a law of human behaviour. Classical realists, like Morgenthau, believe the drive for power and the will to dominate are held to be fundamental aspects of human nature. What he is saying is that politics is rooted in permanent and unchanging objective laws, with their roots in human nature, which is self-centred, self-regarding and self-interested. Therefore if international politics is self-interested then a struggle for power will always lie at the heart of politics if, by the logic of classical realists, it is human nature to have power as ones innate primary concern. “It is human nature that explains why international politics is necessarily power politics.” (BAYLIS, SMITH, OWENS, 2008: 95) Classical realists argue that the essential features of politics, and in this case the struggle for power, are inherited from the nature of man. “For both Thucydides and Morgenthau, the essential continuity of power seeking behaviour of states is rooted in the biological drives of human beings.” (BAYLIS, SMITH, OWENS, 2008: 96) If it is in our nature to have the immediate aim of gaining more power, then Morgenthau’s contention is perfectly understandable as politics is the best means to go about doing just that. In Morgenthau’s era, the classical realist theory was confirmed on a number of occasions, such as with Nazi Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1939, and the Soviet Union and Hungary in1956. This cycle of violence confirmed in the minds of twentieth century classical realists that aggressive impulses lie in human nature. For Morgenthau, “the drives to live, to propagate, and to dominate are common to all men” (MORGENTHAU, 2006: 30)

All political theorists would agree on the importance of power in politics. However, there is some disagreement with Morgenthau’s contention among the political scholars of structural realism. Structural realism derives from classical realism except that instead of human nature, its focus is predominantly on the international system. We currently live in an international system of anarchy, which refers to the decentralised realm of international politics, and hierarchy, which is the basis of domestic order. Structural realists concur to a certain degree with Morgenthau’s viewpoint that international politics is essentially a struggle for power, but they do not support the classical realist assumption that this is a result of human nature. “Instead structural realists attribute security competition and inter-state conflict to the lack of an overarching authority above states and the relative distribution of power in the international system.” (BAYLIS, SMITH, OWENS, 2008: 98) According to the school of structural realism, the relative distribution of power in the international system is the key independent variable to understanding important international outcomes such as war and peace, alliance politics, and the balance of power. Many structural realists like Waltz believe that within the international system, power will be used in politics as a means to acquire security. This theoretical angle conflicts with Morgenthau’s contention which illustrates politics as simply a means to gain more power over others. Waltz writes “because power is a possibly useful means, sensible statesmen try to have an appropriate amount of it.” He adds, “in crucial situations, however, the ultimate concern of states is not for power but for security” (WALTZ, 1989: 40) Essentially Waltz believes that the states in our international system seek to maximise security rather than maximise power over others. Therefore politics can be viewed as the process by which to achieve and maintain a position of security, rather than a struggle for power.

Realism is often synonymous with power politics which prioritises national self-interest over the interest of other nations or the international community. Waltz’s view may differ from that of Morgenthau but essentially it is still about self-interest but rather in the form of security rather than political aggression and power. The power dynamics of the anarchic system are approached from a different angle by John Mearseheimer’s theory of ‘offensive realism’, another variant of structural realism. It is similar in many ways to Waltz’s structural realist theory, which is often called ‘defensive realism’, but it differs when describing the behaviour of states. Most fundamentally, “offensive realism parts company with defensive realism over the question of how much power states want” (MEARSHEIMER, 2001: 21). Mearsheimer believes that no states are content with their position, “rather all states are continuously searching for opportunities to gain power at the expense of other states” (BAYLIS, SMITH, OWENS, 2008: 99). Moreover, the structure of the international system compels states to try and augment their position of power. Mearshemier theory of offensive realism, therefore, has a lot in common with Morgenthau’s contention. If the international system provides an environment where the main aim of states is to increase their power respectively at the expense of others, then that will certainly be the intention in international politics. Consequently, from this theoretical angle, Morgenthau’s contention that international politics is a struggle for power, seems to have a solid foundation. Furthermore, as Mearsheimer believes, having the international system in a position as a global hegemony is virtually impossible, and so “the world is condemned to perpetual great power competition” (BAYLIS, SMITH, OWENS, 2008: 99).

Since the end of the cold war a group of political theorists have moved past the assumptions of structural realism and incorporated a number of additional factors located at the individual and domestic level into their explanation of international politics. This group of scholars has been characterised by Gideon Rose (1998) as ‘neoclassical realists’. According to Stephen Walt, the causal logic of neoclassical realism “places domestic politics as an intervening variable between the distribution of power and foreign policy behaviour” (WALTZ, 2002: 211). The aim of international politics will vary depending on certain variables such as the leaders themselves, namely how they perceive the international distribution of power. Morgenthau’s contention that politics is more about power than anything else can be viewed as short sighted as essentially it is assuming that all states, or leaders, have similar interests. Neoclassical realists argue that this is not the case. “Not only do states differ in terms of their interests, but they also differ in terms of their ability to extract and direct resources from the societies they rule.” (BAYLIS, SMITH, OWENS, 2008: 99) Furthermore, the nature of politics must surely depend on the circumstances that a particular state is in with regards to what is happening internationally and domestically. Also the aims of politics will change over time. Morgenthau’s contention is perhaps a representation of the time he was writing in, which involved a global power struggle between developing states that resulted in wars like World War Two. Moreover, the extent to which politics becomes a struggle for power will often depend on what stage of development a state is in as the needs of the nation will ultimately differ.

Realists claim that in our anarchic international system, states compete with other states for power and security. Given that the first move of the state is to organise power domestically, and the second is to accumulate power internationally, it is important to consider in more depth what realists mean by their fusion of power and politics. Morgenthau believes politics is a means to an end, and that end is power: “whenever they strive to realize their goals by means of international politics, they do so by striving for power.” (MORGENTHAU, 2006: 29) Realists argue that power is a relational concept; one does not exercise power in a vacuum, but in relation to another entity. They also believe that power is a relative concept where calculations need to be made over one’s own power capabilities and that of other states. However, critics argue that the concept of power within realist theory has been inconsistently used. Waltz attempted to overcome the problems of centring a theory too much around the concept of power. He shifts the focus from power to capabilities which could possibly be ranked according to their strength in the following areas: “size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence” (WALTZ, 1979: 131). Nevertheless defining power in terms of capabilities would not be successful at explaining the relative economic success of Japan over China for example. However, whether power be regarded as man’s control over man or a state’s capabilities, Morgenthau’s contention still regards power as the primary goal of politics. But, “Surely power is a means to an end rather than an end in itself?” (BAYLIS, SMITH, OWENS, 208: 101)

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The pre-eminent goal of international politics surely has to be survival. According to Waltz, “beyond the survival motive, the aims of states may be endlessly varied” (WALTZ, 1979: 91). Survival must unquestionably be a precondition for attaining all other goals. With regard to Morgenthau’s contention, controversy arises over the question of whether states are in fact principally security or power maximisers. Defensive realists like Waltz have argued that the primary interest of states is for security and therefore they only seek the requisite amount of power to ensure their own survival. On the other hand offensive realists such as Mearsheimer have argued that “the ultimate goal of all states is to achieve a hegemonic position in the international system” (BAYLIS, SMITH, OWENS, 2008: 101). From this point of view international politics does appear to involve a struggle for power as states seek a dominant position over other states. However exploring the real nature of international politics from a realist perspective reveals conflicting views. In the words of Henry Kissinger, the academic realist who became Secretary of State during the Nixon presidency, “a nation’s survival is its first and ultimate responsibility; it cannot be compromised or put to risk” (KISSINGER, 1977: 204). Realists indeed disagree over what is more important power or security, but even though Morgenthau’s contention says politics is a struggle for power, he is not necessarily disregarding the security argument. This is because often the best way for a state to become secure is by having power over others, and therefore nullifying their threat.

As we have discussed the primary issues of international politics, according to the realists, are national security and power. States seek to maximise their national interest and achieve power and security, while working within an anarchic international system. And, “According to the theory of political realism conflicts are inevitable in the international system.” (LUNDESTAD, 2005: 8) However, there are other theories of international relations that would disagree with the viewpoints of many realists like Morgenthau. Pluralists for example highlight that power is not a physical entity that individuals either have or do not have, but flows from a variety of sources. Therefore people become powerful by controlling various resources. Realists like Waltz have attempted to calculate the power capabilities of states taking into account areas like military strength and economic capability. But pluralists argue that power cannot be measured in such a manner; “a particular resource like money cannot automatically be equated with power because the resource can be used skilfully or clumsily, fully or partially, or not at all.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pluralism_(politcal_theory) From this angle a contention like Morgenthau’s can be seen to misunderstand the nature of what power really involves. Moreover, pluralism highlights a number of issues that international politics could have more concern with other than Morgenthau’s ‘power’. These are multiple including welfare, human rights and economic prosperity. Moreover if we approach international politics from a Marxist perspective then the primary issues become economic factors and global inequality which is far from the idea that politics is always a struggle for power.

In conclusion,


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