A Word on Classical Realism

In the eyes of Hans Morgenthau and Thucydides, arguably the founding fathers of Classical Realism in the field of International Relations, humanity has one defining adversary with the potential to crush all that it has accomplished: ourselves. The flaws of homo sapiens, our greed, lust, sloth, arrogance, and—perhaps our greatest shortcoming of all—irrationality, and so on could one day end each and everything we have worked, and are still striving for. Our accomplishments, essentially, are hanging by a thread, one sown by the ‘Human Condition’.

The view held by the found fathers are not far off the mark. How close had we come to nuclear annihilation in the Cold War era? How many lives, homes, ways of living have we burned down throughout the World Wars we waged? And in our personal lives, how many of our acquaintances, friends, brethren have we harmed with out words and actions? And now we face perhaps an inevitable calamity, also another result of our own actions. I am of course speaking about the catastrophic changes we’ve introduced to our one and only planet, most commonly referred to as Global Warming; wherein we and our children could witness a future of an earth flooded, with the notions of countries and cities being nothing but abstract relics of a time long gone. It is sobering, to say the least, to see how far we could ruin the future of our species by our hands alone.

Irrationality seems to have plagued us as a species ever since the time of our advent. This shortcoming could after all explain why we’d end the lives of our kin on such massive scales, endanger the sustainability of the one planet we’ve inhabited in all the years we’ve existed, made possible days that will never come because we had let our perversions sway us away from rationality—from cooperation, alliances, cultivation, tolerance, et cetera/ Hence, how should we tackle this challenge brought about by our most threatening imperfection? How, in other words, do we defeat this utterly base part of our psyche? In the eyes of Morgenthau and Thucydides, there two means which hold the potential to bring rationality into the forefront of our minds.

How does one unify a population chockfull of disparate peoples? The simplest method, as demonstrated by the archaeological records left behind by our ancestors (Fukuyama, 2011), would be by introducing an ideology acceptable to the members of said diverse population. A code of norms, ethics, beliefs, that each of them can harbor and operate by, would result in a communal bond. Unity via similarity is the method suggested by the two great thinkers.

Such an approach is indeed somewhat feasible. Religion was one of the methods used by tribal societies to unify themselves. Worship of the same gods, carrying out likewise rituals, and other traditions that are all basically within the boundaries of said beliefs done by ourselves creates a sort of bond; one birthed by the human instinct to befriend those who speak, act, and think in the same manner as we do. Which, is contradictorily exemplified by humanity’s penchant for assaulting those perceived as different, as in the cases of racism, sexism, bigotry, religious—ideological—extremism, alongside equally horrific habits of our species.

But of course, even if an entire population is somehow swindled into completely adhering  to one single ideology, it is unlikely that all other peoples across the globe would produce the same, or even a corresponding code of conduct. Simply glance at the diaspora of religions currently present: Buddhism, Catholicism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, the multiple interpretations birthed by them, and countless more less prominent belief systems. Now how should we, deriving from the wisdoms of Morgenthau and Thucydides, urge these myriads to unite as a species? The answer, comes as a bit of a disappointment. Mainly due to the lack of concrete examples that manage to illustrate ‘ideological unity’. This is a point for criticism, one which we will discuss further down the text.

Although neither Morgenthau nor Thucydides to concoct a concrete guide for unifying humanity under a particular banner—since what they hope for is nearly impossible—the other solution may lie in the judgment of the former.  Morgenthau believed in what he termed a “supranational authority.” An entity capable of transcending human boundaries, accomplish deeds previously unimaginable to us, and ultimately join us not as a nation nor a community, but as a species. Should it sound like I’m writing in rather vague terms, I have to concede to that point and apologize. For Morgenthau’s vision has not yet been realized, thus I am unable to concretely convey how a “supranational authority” would possibly manifest itself.

Now we have reached the point where both Morgenthau’s and Thucydides’ unification methods have been succinctly reiterated. Hence, this is also where we would be able to examine them more closely, and root out the flaws that exist behind them.

Returning to ideological unity, there is another limit to its unifying potential. Not only are there simply too many ideologies to count, they can further be interpreted in more ways than one; Sunni and Shia Muslims, Protestant and Adventist Christian, Moderate and Anarchic Liberals, so on and so forth. History shows us that no matter what ideology stands in prominence at its time, it will inevitably fragment, and at worst crushed by the boots of newer, more powerful  teachings (Marr, 2012). This disintegration of conducts is a major obstacle for achieving ideological unity, one that was sort of overlooked by both Morgenthau and Thucydides. Yet, if there could be a “supranational authority” one day, we may well be able to prevail over the wall of ideological disunity. For now though, we must still deal with the irrationality of humankind.

Have we finally found the trump card with which we could hold back the baser instincts of our minds? Unfortunately, I have to say that we haven’t found said card, as of yet anyway. Wars, terrorism, zealotry, all things counterintuitive to unity and cooperation are still being done today. And as I write this passage, automobiles—mine included—factories, mines, other nature-destroying actions continue to operate with only rare hints of slowing their activities. Yet do these facts condemn us to a course of irrationality? Not necessarily, as the multiple instances instances of recent history can tell us.

Centuries ago, a woman could be roasted alive at a stake for being accused of obviously unprovable witchcraft. In recent decades, Atheists were shun and thought to be devil-worshippers even in the most developed of countries—a trend that has fortunately lessened in these days, for instance, I can proclaim my Atheism inside campus grounds, within Indonesia, without fear of persecution. Furthermore, Indonesia’s Christmas seasons are no longer days of bombing churches, as was the case in my childhood, becoming just another red color on the calendar. Clearest of them all, witchcraft has ceased to be an acceptable reason for execution and torture.

Mother Nature, whom we’ve wrecked without relief for centuries and debatably millennia, has finally been given a helping hand in recent years. Governments, the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations, have compelled the enactment of laws and agreements with the sole purpose of preserving our planet. Reduction of carbons emissions, budgets limiting the amount of pollution a nation may produce in a given year, growing research in the field of clean and renewable energy, and more (Yergin, 2011). The battle for nature is slow and long, but it does illustrate how rationality is crawling through the more destructive desires of our species. In the form of preserving for long term gains, instead of immediate ones.

Yet for myself personally, the unmistakable victory of reason over insanity happened during the days of the Cold War. In those times, humankind laid on the brink of nuclear war and possible annihilation. A conflict which could result in the deaths of hundreds of millions, and if the doom-sayers were correct, of humanity itself. And the ones who wielded the nuclear weapons capable of ushering the extinction of humankind were a mere two nations. The leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union held the fate of humanity in their hands. Both sides eager to assault one another for the goal of becoming the unchallenged superpower of the globe. Such an end could be reached by preemptively annihilating the opposition, i.e. by launching a barrage of missiles and dropping bombs with payloads measuring in the megatons (Hoffman, 2009). A first strike could breed the desired outcome of ascending to the throne of Earth’s monarchy. Hence, what did either one do? Nothing.

Neither the US nor the USSR launched their nukes. Two parties lying on distinctly opposite camps as defined by their respective ideologies, in some way, agreed to not use their most powerful armaments. Why? Because the risk of annihilation, of humanity’s extinction, of setting a precedent in the utilization of nuclear weapons were too terrifying for either of the two to consider. Nevertheless make them realities. These two adversaries collectively averted nuclear holocaust, although both wished for the other’s utter destruction (Dobbs, 2008). The Cold War, is an excellent example of how much of a role rationality holds over us. It is a demonstration of our capacity to reason, and not be bogged down by our more absurd urges. Without the need for a supranational authority or ideological unity.

Thus, as with any other paradigm, Classical Realism has its virtues and limitations. It is useful and correct in deducing how we humans truly are imperfect, and that our imperfections could lead to our eventual downfall. Moreover, ideologies are wondrous tools for unifying diverse groups of individuals. Few would dare say that a common code of conduct hasn’t played in forging the multiple societies present in the world today.

However, a paradigm can only see so much. It has missed the significance of ideological fragmentation. How one formerly singular ideology could be interpreted and modified into various forms. At times clashing with its predecessor, as we’ve witnessed in the long-past war between the Catholics and Christians, plus contemporary conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims as signified by the waves emerging from the Middle East—to name but a few cases.

Additionally, even without a “supranational authority” humanity has in a number of instances, surpassed its desires. Or at the very least are working on finding ways to subvert them. Religious tolerance, conservation of nature, halting nuclear war as it stood on our doorstep, are but a few accomplishments humankind’s rationality have made possible.

Still we should not discredit the discoveries and words of Morgenthau and Thucydides. Through their works, imperfect as they may be, we have been granted illumination on the countless aspects of our nature. They have, essentially, built us a mirror with which we could see ourselves in honesty. What remains for us is to continue their endeavors, and reinforce the parts they have overlooked.

Dobbs, M. (2008). One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Kruschev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War.

Hoffman, D. (2009). The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy.

Yergin, D. (2011). The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World.

Fukuyama, F. ( 2011). The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.

Marr, A. (2012). A History of the World.


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