The turn to realism

Image_Marcio Costa


Realism has been the dominant theory in the study of international relations since the end of World War II.

Three geopolitical events of the first magnitude have shaken the international panorama in the 75 years that have elapsed since 1945, after the end of the Second World War and the creation of the United Nations Organization – UN, until today: (1) European unification; (2) the disintegration of the Soviet Union and (3) China's unprecedented economic growth, particularly during the last three decades.

We thus arrive at the international scenario in which three consolidated poles of power are clearly outlined in the current context: the USA and Russia, successor to the Soviet empire, former contenders of the Cold War, plus China, the largest economy on the planet for almost all of the history of mankind, until the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. To these three consolidated poles of power, one could add the new aspiring pole of world power: the European Union, especially after the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon, in 2009. Current Europe, driven by Emmanuel Macron's France and by Angela Merkel's Germany clearly understands that, in this new international context, there is no longer room for European nation-states to act in isolation.

According to one of the most relevant classical theories in the study of international relations, called the theory of realism, the main characteristic of international systems, whether unipolar or multipolar, is the fact that the poles of hegemonic power always try to guarantee their hegemony. Realism has, in fact, been the dominant theory in the study of international relations since the end of World War II.

Starting from premises established by classical authors such as Thucydides, Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Max Weber, realism contemplates the international system as a political system devoid of a central police authority, in which there is no monopoly of the use of force. In this essentially chaotic scenario, composed of sovereign entities in permanent competition with each other, the maxim of “Realpolitik”, according to which States do not have friends, but interests.

Within the theoretical perspective of realism, the guarantee of hegemony by the hegemonic pole is for the study of international relations in the same way as the survival of species is for biology: it seems to be the clearest and most constant mark, the most evident characteristic, in all objects and times of study. Strategies may vary. The objectives, however, always seem to be the same: the species seeks to survive, through adaptation to the environment. Similarly, the hegemonic states or empires always seek to preserve their hegemony and avoid their "resign”, his disappearance.

If we look at the history of humanity, over the last two millennia, we will see that this “Hobesian” pattern of international relations is confirmed over the centuries. All the major empires sought to preserve their hegemony: the Romans, the Chinese, the Mongols, the Persians, the Habsburg empire. The same applies to the great nation-states that emerged more recently: Spain and France. It also applies to the British Empire, the largest territorial empire in human history, and to the American Empire, the preponderant actor in today's international system. All, in their own way, fought and still fight hard to preserve their preponderance.

Evidently, just as it happens with the survival of species, in which each one conceives its unique strategy of permanence, Empires and States differ in the strategies and tactics they adopt to guarantee their hegemony. There is, however, one constant among them: just as living species seem to be unanimous in seeking survival through better adaptation to the environment (in biology, Darwin's lesson remains universal), Empires and States also seem to have their maximum law . On the one hand, they seek to preserve their power, preventing their disintegration or dismemberment. On the other hand, they try to prevent the emergence of new States or new coalitions of States that might be strong enough, individually or collectively, to threaten the status quo and therefore threaten his supremacy. These are the structuring premises of realism as the most universal theory of foreign relations.

In order to prevent such opponents from arising, with sufficient force to subtract the conquered hegemonic power from them, Empires or States use two strategies: preventive war, whose objective is to annihilate, even at the root, all potential threats to their hegemony ; and the tactic expressed by the Roman maxim "Divide and conquer“, divide and conquer.

The Romans devastated Carthage ("delenda Carthage); the Habsburgs tried (and succeeded!) to avoid German unification for centuries; the British tried unsuccessfully, but at great cost and sacrifice, to prevent American independence and unification. Henry Kissinger, in his brilliant book “Diplomacy”, refers to the history of the United Kingdom's foreign policy as having always had a single deeper meaning: to avoid the unification of continental Europe, with the consequent creation of a superstate that could threaten the its sovereignty or its hegemony. According to Kissinger, the British resisted Napoleon and Hitler, mainly due to the fact that both represented the threat of European unification. They strictly applied, in this sense, the Roman precept that a unified and powerful enemy could represent a concrete threat to their hegemony.

In a current context, the theory of realism in international relations seems to provide a plausible explanation for the profound transformations the international system has undergone since Donald Trump took office in the USA. If, on the one hand, US foreign policy has always oscillated between realism and idealism (the UN was an American project, inspired by idealism), the foreign policies of Russia and China in modern times, on the other hand, have always they had enormous constancy, despite very different nuances and approaches: they are profoundly realistic in their essences.

The decisive and euphoric support of Donald Trump, President of the United States, for the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union (Brexit); the symbolism of his attacks directed at Germany; the strategic choice of Poland for its first bilateral visit to the European continent; the repeated attacks on multilateral institutions such as the UN, the WTO and the WHO reveal that US foreign policy seems to have undergone a profound shift towards realism in recent years.

In fact, although, in the past, two world poles (China and Russia) adopted a realistic posture, the third and most relevant for the international system (USA) oscillated between realism and idealism. The tension between realism and idealism therefore remained present. Multilateralism had not yet suffered its deadliest blows. The recent shift in US foreign policy has, however, changed this picture and generated alignment of the three poles of world power around realistic assumptions. The obvious conclusion of this alignment of powers, from the point of view of the adoption of such assumptions, is that, as can already be clearly observed, in today's world, the trends towards the intensification of disputes and the weakening of multilateral cooperation mechanisms are accentuated.

In a recent article on the outcome of the first G-20 meeting in which Trump participated, the prestigious magazine “The Economist,” states that “in the recent past, Germans have developed the notion of a cohesive Europe, governed from Brussels, controlled by the Germans, but underwritten and guaranteed by American power”. The magazine adds: “Germans now fear a future in which powerful people in Washington, Moscow and Beijing divide Europe and tear it to pieces”. Apparently, in fact, two of the three consolidated poles of power (USA and Russia) currently seem to have, as predicted by the theory of realism in international relations, a shared interest: to avoid the emergence of a fourth pole of power: the aspiring pole, Europe.

The concrete case of the USA did not correspond to the predictions of the theory of realism. Perhaps due to the oscillations between realism and idealism, the US, which had been viscerally opposed to the emergence of the Soviet Union and China as poles of power (the policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union and opposition to the reunification of China with Taiwan are the best examples of this), not only had they consented to European unification, but also provided it with geopolitical and military support, through transatlantic cooperation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO.

This consent and this support for European unity, apparently paradoxical, seemed to contradict the realistic prediction, which would have expected vigorous opposition from the hegemonic power to any possibility of the emergence of an aspiring pole of power that could threaten its hegemony or compete with it. Such support is understandable, however, in the context of the Cold War and the imperative to contain communism, according to the prevailing American theory in post-war international relations.

The US oscillation between realism and idealism seems to have given way, nowadays, to an option determined by realism as an attempt to stop the long process of American decline, in terms of relative economic and political power. Donald Trump, more than an eccentric president, as some uninformed souls suppose, seems to want to represent this option for realism, deliberately and consciously.

During the Munich Security Conference in 2016, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev characterized the current political situation as a “new Cold War”. There are controversies in academia regarding the assessment that we are currently witnessing a second Cold War. It is certain, however, that, in the current scenario, the disputes and contradictions between the heirs of the former Cold War powers are intensifying and deepening, now with the presence of China as a new pole of world power and the emergence of a Europe unified, new aspiring pole of power.

There is no doubt, therefore, that we are facing a new international scenario, unprecedented in terms of power configuration, in recent times. The “new Cold War”, unlike the first, emerges in a more complex situation of power distribution, with world hegemony disputed by three or four different poles. It is a more fragmented and unpredictable world, unlike the bipolar world that characterized the first Cold War.

This unprecedented situation, regardless of the terminology used to characterize it, will require skill and cunning from our diplomacy in achieving the best national interests. The main objective of our diplomatic action should be, in this context, the guarantee of sovereignty and national independence, in addition to economic growth, peacekeeping and the improvement of Brazil's insertion in the international scenario.

Brazil's foreign policy

More than ever, at this stage of profound structural transformations under way in the international system, it seems that the time has come, in Brazil, for a new foreign policy that is not automatically linked to blocs or power poles and is intransigent in the defense of the interest nationality, sovereignty and the Fatherland. A foreign policy that, to paraphrase the famous and wise words of Chancellor San Tiago Dantas, “is based on the exclusive consideration of the interest of Brazil, seen as a country that aspires to development, world peace, and the economic and social emancipation of our people".

This new foreign policy should be based on Brazil's independence, the sovereignty of the Homeland and the prevalence of national interests. It should, in short, be inspired by the examples and teachings of the Baron of Rio Branco, patron of Diplomacy; of the Marechal and Duque de Caxias, patron saint of the Army; the Admiral and Marquis of Tamandaré, patron of the Navy; and Alberto Santos-Dumont, patron of the Air Force. As the Pacifier Caxias used to say: “those who are Brazilians should follow us”!

In an article recently published in the country's main newspapers, former Ministers of Foreign Affairs Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Aloysio Nunes Ferreira, Celso Amorim, Celso Lafer, Francisco Rezek and José Serra (accompanied by Rubens Ricupero and Hussein Kalout) state that "the reconstruction of Brazilian foreign policy is urgent and indispensable. Leaving behind this shameful page of subservience and irrationality, let us once again place at the center of diplomatic action the defense of independence, sovereignty, dignity and national interests, of all those values, such as solidarity and the pursuit of dialogue, which the diplomacy helped build as a heritage and a source of pride for the Brazilian people”. In fact, as the ex-chancellors affirm, the beloved Nation, faced with the enemy, is in danger!

The reconstruction of Brazilian foreign policy is the starting point. The point of arrival, undoubtedly, will have to be the uncompromising defense of the national territory and the interests of our beloved homeland, Brazil.

The primary objective of the new foreign policy, which I will henceforth call the new foreign policy of Pragmatism and the National Interest, must be the resumption of the national interest, so that the glory of our manly Brazil may shine forth. We dedicate it, therefore, entirely to the “service of the Homeland, whose honor, integrity and institutions we will have to defend with the sacrifice of our own life.”

The essential pillars of the new foreign policy of Pragmatism and the National Interest should be: 1) the defense of national sovereignty and the protection of the integrity and territorial unity of Brazil; 2) the exclusive consideration of Brazil's interest, seen as a country that aspires to the development of the national space and economic emancipation; 3) the refusal of “unconditional alignments or automatic oppositions”, breaking free from ideological commitments in favor of greater pragmatism; 4) autonomy vis-à-vis the poles of power on the world stage with a view to correcting the asymmetries in the terms of trade that still characterize the international system; 5) the defense of the constitutional principles of non-intervention, the preservation of international peace, the self-determination of peoples and the peaceful resolution of conflicts, as pillars that characterize Brazil's international action since the beginning; 6) the economic, political, social and cultural integration of the peoples of the region; 7) the desire for greater participation by Brazil in international decision-making processes; 8) the promotion and defense of Brazilian commercial interests and the opening of new markets, in addition to the relentless pursuit of maintaining current markets and, finally; 9) the aspiration for the full development of the Nation, a fundamental condition for the preservation of Law and Order and the maintenance of free institutions, which members of the Armed Forces and diplomats swear to defend.

It is precisely these values, which diplomacy helped to build as the Nation's heritage and pride, which should guide, from now on, Brazil's new lofty and sovereign foreign policy.

The pillars of the new foreign policy of Pragmatism and the National Interest outlined here derive from the Constitution of the Republic and the best Brazilian diplomatic tradition. They form, in summary, a complete set of guidelines formulated by State Careers, diplomats and military personnel, during several decades and at different moments of the Republic. They derive their vigor, above all, from the principles enshrined in the Independent Foreign Policy, by Afonso Arinos and San Tiago Dantas; in the diplomacy of Prosperity, by Costa e Silva; and in Ecumenical and Responsible Pragmatism, by Geisel and Figueiredo.

Thousands of diplomats and loyal members of the three Armed Forces worked on the elaboration of the principles of this Brazilian diplomatic tradition, recognized and admired worldwide. Despite their differences and nuances, some basic principles unite them: Brazil's sovereignty, national interest and the understanding that such interests are and will be better served, in the specific case of the Nation, by neutrality in terms of major conflicts and disputes. world of our era.

Historical experience has shown that, from the point of view of countries like Brazil, the main danger of a highly antagonized international system, dominated by powerful rival blocs, is the risk of triggering large-scale conflicts in peripheral zones, through local adversaries, manipulated by the hegemonic blocs (the so-called “proxy wars”). During the first Cold War, violent wars of this nature destroyed Vietnam, Korea, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Now, during the “new Cold War”, new strife is already tearing Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen and parts of Ukraine (the Donetzk and Lugansk regions) apart. Given recent historical patterns, one cannot currently exclude the possibility that conflicts of this nature will reach our continent, during the “new Cold War”, perhaps threatening Brazil's national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Another risk that must be taken into account is the danger that sovereign nations become satellites of one of the poles of power. From the “spheres of influence” of the USA and the USSR during the Cold War, to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, during the Second World War, history is full of infamous examples of States that succumbed to the hegemonic powers and the logic of satelliteization of foreign relations .

Finally, the risk of undue political interference in the sovereign affairs of independent nations cannot be ruled out. Puppet regimes, manipulated by competing powers, often riddled with corruption, were rife during the Cold War. To hell with scruples: the logic of exacerbated competition compelled the powers to support all governments that were subservient to them at the international level. There are no guarantees, at the present time, that such historical patterns cannot be repeated, to the detriment of the national interests of sovereign countries such as Brazil.

In this uncertain context in which we find ourselves on the international scene, it is imperative that we adopt, with due urgency, the principles of the new foreign policy of Pragmatism and National Interest. In building the Nation, diplomats and members of the Armed Forces were always together, united in the defense of the Homeland and the best national interests. May they continue in this way, with the blessing of Brazil, the Constitution and the Brazilian people!

*Francisco Afonso Pereira Torres is a political scientist.

Originally published in the electronic magazine Boniface []


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