International politics works well. This statement may seem banale, but it is not. Scholars of international relations repeatedly emphasize negative developments, which is especially true for those following the realist school. In the end, we need to be aware that international politics offers both encouraging developments towards peace and stability and a depressingly enduring tendency for conflicts.
That international politics works well becomes clear from everyday’s news. Wars are rare, conflicts the exception, crises outstanding events. The bad news transported in the media represents only a small percentage of all good and positive developments all around the world at any single moment. In general, the development of humanity is a unique success story. Not just do we grow richer, wiser and do our technologies steadily advance, but also did the world become a safer place since quite some time.
Indeed, international politics is working better and better. International institutions, economic development and interdependence, information technology, the spread of democracy, human rights movements, regional integration – those are just a few catchwords to highlight the growing stability of international relations. Theory as well teaches us that international politics is working better and better. Liberal, institutionalist and constructivist theories make important claims about why politics today is not the same as before, and why it today is more peaceful than ever.
Nonetheless realist theories, especially their most recent approach structural realism, seem not to be able to cope with these positive developments. This is not true. Structural realism claims that international politics is essentially a competitive self-help realm and thus conflictive. It argues that this is the case because politics is defined by anarchy, which has been a stable aspect of international relations over the last centuries. Accordingly, the fundamental nature of politics has not changed. But contrary to conventional wisdom, this claim does not imply the notion that wars, conflicts or crises are a constant factor of international politics. All that structural realism says is that conflicts always loom in the background. Accordingly, peaceful times do not devaluate the theory. Indeed, I would say that most structural realists would agree with the notion that today’s international politics is, thanks to the above mentioned developments, less likely to escalate than in previous days. All they would reject is that the nature of international politics has more fundamentally changed than that. No realist would rule out the possibility of major interstate war, thus the most lethal of all potential conflicts, for instance, while many liberal scholars do.
These days, to sum up, international politics is more stable and more likely to remain peaceful then ever before, but this does not necessarily mean that we have to believe in eternal peace. Indeed, the main explanatory variable for structural realists, polarity, is shifting in an unwishable direction towards multipolarity. And the most fundamental positive claim made at the beginning of this post, namely that we live in more peaceful times than ever, can very quickly turn out to be wrong. Just think that the First and Second World Wars have been the deadliest in the history of mankind, and it becomes clear that not all is well with human development.
Nonetheless, given its complexity, international politics works surprisingly well. Let us hope that it remains so, but let us not forget that a peaceful world is not simply factual and by no means can be expected to last forever. And let us not forget that at this very moment, countless people suffer from violence, diseases, and hunger.