Book Title: An Unwritten Future: Realism and Uncertainty in World Politics
Author: Jonathan Kirshner
To grasp the nuances of critical events in the area of international politics, it becomes relevant to fall back upon the theory of classical realism. Jonathan Kirshner, Professor Emeritus at Cornell, explains how classical realism has been lately overshadowed by the theory of structural realism, but nevertheless, it still maintains its control over the in-depth analysis of the formative events of the past.
It would be wrong to say that the school of classical realism merely examines the past, as it is adequately equipped to examine critically the vital questions of the present, especially the noticeable impact of social and economic changes that “alter balance of power and the nature of international conflict”. With the US having slid to a secondary order, a far cry from its post-war hegemonic position globally, or with the rise of China or India as economic giants, the instability in the balance of power is there for everyone to see. The disastrous intervention of the US in Vietnam, for instance, shows how the US government miscalculated “the limits of American hegemony in world politics or hubris — rather than external factors that led to its demise”.
Kirshner goes on to explore contemporary issues such as the rise of new economic powers and the political implications of globalisation in modern world politics. At the moment, there seems to be a sense of uncertainty, contingency and contestation playing out on the world theatre, thereby leaving much to be desired for the understanding of international relations where the mathematical and mechanistic approach of structural realism and hyper-rationalism will not work.
‘An Unwritten Future’, therefore, takes up the contributions of thinkers, including Thucydides, Hans Morgenthau and Raymond Aron, among others, to accentuate the basic notion of admitting that scepticism lingers in this politically variable situation where ambiguity consistently marks international relations, admitting openly that “doubt is not an afterthought”. The inherent limitations are therefore an open admission by the school of classical realism when it accepts the assumptions about the protean quality of human nature. The theory is suspicious of absolute truths about human behaviour and stresses that people are predominantly inspired by self-interest and not higher moral or ethical objectives.
Kirshner rejects the allegation of classical realism being inherently unscientific and underscores that “it is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong”, a useful critical approach in a world that is deeply volatile and fickle. He brings to attention the tentativeness of postmodernity, especially the notion of classical realism that rejects any finality. It is indeed open-ended, always in the nature of incredulity towards the totalitarianism of a singly story, or a point of view.
The fundamental interest of classical realism is to start on the premise that the state is a “non-average unit” and its response to a particular situation is always provisional. The ‘average’ response in world politics is irrelevant when it comes to explaining, say, the power of the US and its extraordinary freedom for devious manipulations and subterraneous scheming. On the other hand, it becomes difficult to believe the structural realism’s notion of treating great powers as an organic unit that will always behave in a predictable manner in a well-defined context. Realism of uncertainty is indeed the undying ingredient of international politics. Structural realism can never replace classical realism, especially because it brings the tentative elements into the political and contingent nature of international relations.