Why Do Realists Place So Much Emphasis On Security?

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The realists’ emphasis on security follows from the definition of realism in the theory of international relations and political science. Certainly, there are diverse approaches to what realism itself means. (Donnelly 2000, 1) Nevertheless, traditional realism in international relations is fairly consistent, since it places nation-states as the key figures in international relations. (Freyberg-Inan 2004, 2) From this it follows that international relations are viewed from the point of view of separate nation-states. These nation-states as the actors of politics try to preserve their own existence or in other words their own sovereignty, or as Freyberg-Inan (2004) writes, the “goal is the survival of the nation-state as an independent entity.” (3)

The emphasis on security is thus a logical consequence of this way of looking at international relations. If the chief aim of nation-states is to survive in the struggle between nation-states, nation-states must place security at the center of all their policy decisions. All policy decisions, in other words, are tied to the basic question: how does this particular policy decision affect, positively or negatively, the security and therefore survival of the particular nation-state?

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Accordingly, in terms of international relations and therefore the relations between individual nation-states, these relations are thought in terms of self-interest primarily defined by survival. When one nation-state defines its international policies towards another state, from the realist perspective, it wants to maintain its existence: relations between nations are ultimately reduced to the question of what this particular relationship does towards maintaining the nation-state’s survival. Security, in other words, is another name for survival of the nation-state.

From the perspective of realism alone, this emphasis on security makes sense. This is because if the only goal of the state is to maintain its own existence, then it must protect itself from possible threats. On the other hand, however, realism can also include concepts of maintaining or increasing political power and influence. In this situation, the emphasis on security becomes more questionable. Consider for example the following scenario: a small nation-state wants to continue to exist, therefore, it makes a deal with a larger nation-state to enter, for example, an organization controlled by this nation-state. Therefore, when a country such as Slovakia decides to enter NATO, controlled by the much larger nation-state of the U.S., perhaps Slovakia is trying to maintain its security by making an alliance with a stronger military power. However, from another perspective, it could be argued that Slovakia is giving up its sovereignty in military affairs by making an alliance with NATO.

This is one of the problems with the emphasis on security in realism. Some times it may seem that such security may not be in the best interest of nation-states, since it means they must surrender sovereignty. From another perspective, however, this surrendering is usually decided upon because of a threat to security that would leave the state with no sovereignty whatsoever. (Cheng 2007, 298) In this regard, security makes sense from the perspective of realism and the state trying to maintain its own existence.

In world politics, security is obviously crucial. This is because nation-states try to maintain their existence and voice in international relations: this can only be done by trying to ensure that the state itself continues to exist. The importance of security in world politics thus also explains why there are conflicts in world politics. Namely, following historical realist thinkers like Thucydides and Machiavelli, there is a “formal distinction between ethics and politics.” (Laferriere & Stoett 1999, 78) This means that ethical questions, such as “what is good?” and “what is just?”, for the realist, do not play a fundamental role in politics: politics, instead, is about security and sovereignty.
Certainly, this does not mean that ethical questions are not mentioned in world politics.

But the realist view helps us unmask some of these ethical claims as really claims about power. So, for example, when the United States invades Iraq for democratic purposes, it does not also invade Saudi Arabia, which is not a democracy, because Saudi Arabia is an ally of the U.S. Taking a realist perspective helps us understand therefore much of the “schizophrenic and dual morality” (Dugin 2012, 76) that exists in world politics.

  • Cheng, J.Y.S. 2007. Challenges and Policy Programmes of China’s New Leadership. Hong
    Kong: City University of HK Press.
  • Donnelly, J. 2000. Realism and International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University
  • Dugin, A. 2012. The Fourth Political Theory. London: Arktos.
  • Freyberg-Inan, A. 2004. What Moves Man: The Realist Theory of International Relations and Its Judgment of Human Nature. Albany: SUNY.
  • Laferriere, E. & Stoett, P.J. 1999. International Relations Theory and Ecological Thought: Towards a Synthesis. London: Routledge.

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