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The State As A Primary Actor

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2676 words Published: 18th Apr 2017

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My main argument is to state that the state rather than many recognizable actors is the principle actor in international relations. In doing this, I wish to state from the outset that being the principal actor does not diminish the importance of other actors which I here to refer to as the agents of the state. It is a truism that every principal be it governmental or business concern, as we know, do have agents who act on behalf of the principal without necessarily revealing whether or not they are principal or agents.

Based on the above posited statement, I will argue my points by juxtaposing the various schools of thoughts in regard to the following concepts; Harmony, sovereignty, cooperation, interdependence and terrorism. However before diving into explaining these concepts, it is of utmost importance to give a brief description of realism and what it stands for.

Realism can be viewed as an explanation of the human condition regardless of what others considered to be pessimistic nature of that view. According to Gilpin (1986:290), all realists, the neo, classical, structural, share three assumptions pertaining international politics. These assumptions are:

Firstly, they all believe that the international arena is anarchical in nature because of lack of a coordinated governmental system that exists in nation-states. Secondly, they all share the view that the nucleus of “social reality” is the group, with the emphasis that the individuals are merely building blocks of that social group unlike the emphasis placed on the individuals by the liberals. Thirdly, all realists believe the supremacy of power is security and the core foundation of all motivation.

There are divergent views about how international politics should operate. To the liberals and idealist, they advocate for

“nationalistic universalism (globalisation) where one state has the right to impose its own valuations and standards of actions upon all the other nations; as opposed to realists’ notion of seeing the nation -states as the ultimate point of reference for political loyalties and actions” (Mongethau,1948:156).

Realists however see this as an impossible adventure. This view is as a result of the nature of man who is constantly in a state of fear and mistrust. For according to Rousseau, “if harmony is to exist in anarchy, not only must I be perfectly rational but must be able to assume that everyone else is too” (Rousseau in Waltz, 2001:169). The notion held by the realists in this regard is that there cannot be harmony in the international arena as individual states hold dear their national interest rather than the interest that is general to all.

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For the state to realise its interests, it relies strongly on her own means, capabilities and form such alliances to further that interest (Lebow, 2007:55). This point was further buttressed by Waltz (2001:191) where he used the allegory of the stag -hurt and the hare. Here, Rousseau depicts man in the state of nature, and that instead of going by the interest that will benefit all decided to consider him first before others, not trusting that others in the group will keep to the original arrangement.

The state is sovereign. The general idea of sovereignty simply means the principle source of authority in the society or community (Haggue, Harrop 2007:16). The liberals argue that states in international arena need to give up their sovereign status for some kind of universalism, as there are no supra powers in international political arena challenging the sovereignty of individual nation-states. What the critics sort to do is “reinterpreting sovereignty and the validity of the state as actor” (Baldwin, 1993:1).

The realists however argue that there is no moral principle that justifies the nation-state surrendering part of its sovereignty to a superior body in international arena as this is unattainable. “The main bulk of the rules of international laws own its existence to the sovereignty of the individual nations” (Morgenthau 1948:154). And the main reason was not to contain the powers of the individual nations rather to enhance their powers in relation to other nations. He further stressed that the continuous conflicting situation in the international politics is as a result of the unending quest for “human lust for power” rather than the view of surrendering of sovereignty (Baylis, Smith, Owens 2008:93).

On cooperation, Baldwin (1993:5) states that both realists and the liberals agree on the importance and significance of cooperation among nation-states in international relations, they however differ on the sustainability of such cooperation. The realist believe that “it is harder to achieve”, more difficult to maintain and it is dependent on state power” Waltz (2001:167-168). Dishonesty and mistrust are features of international politics. It is a truism that most if not all the institutions set up to mitigate in the issues of international relations are weak and readily taken advantage of by the more powerful nations in international politics.

The question here then is how many times have the five permanent members of the Security Council agreed on anything? And how many times has the decision of the United Nations been overruled by these powerful nations? Sanctions imposed by the body fail because one or more of the members of the council fail to agree with others for what is perceived to be member state’s interest. “No player could go very far in his aspirations for power without being sure of the support of at least one or the other of his co-players” (Morgenthau, 1948:158). According to Axerold and Keohane, (1993:85)”harmony requires complete identity of interest” in the case of international politics, harmony of interest is in short supply.

One other strong factor identified by the liberals as a means of having a stable politics international relations is the interdependence of nation-states. Interdependence “affects world politics and the behaviour of states”. However, “government actions of the nation-state equally influence patterns of interdependence “(Keohane and Nye 2001:5). The main flow of interdependence as observed by the realist is that it does not simply imply that nation-states involved have some sort of mutual benefit.

The imperfection in the arrangement of interdependence is that nations involved could gain more than others depending on how strategic the particular issue and circumstances of the needs of nations involved were (ibid:9). The underlying factor of interdependence is to help tighten the effect of cooperation but as it turns out, where there is no comparative advantage; nation-states will always choose to do what they believed to be in the best interest of their states. Furthermore, the realists believe that military, rather than non-military cooperation will continue to take the top most priority in this respect and emphasise non-military cooperation amongst the nation-states will be taken up because of “their politico-military implications” (ibid:25).

In the aspect of international economy, there is no gainsaying of the security implication it has for the nation-states. Nation-states are said to be powerful not just because of their military hardware. Though the liberals have tried to downplay this aspect as an area that the realists have not put into consideration in their analysis of how best to keep the nation-states secured. Particular interest was taken on the writings of Thucydides and Morgenthau for not mentioning the subject. Needless to say that argument has been debunked by Gilpin (1986:294) where he states “contrary to Ashley’s allegation, economic aspects of international relations have always been a major concern of the realists”.

Though the control limits of private firms differ from country to country, the involvement of big firms not under the direct control of the state has become a norm (Gilpin 2001) rather than an exception. The recent world financial meltdown was a case in point but for the timely intervention of the states in the bail out of those businesses. No one puts it more directly like Gilpin when he states:

“whereas economists regard markets as self-regulating mechanisms isolated from political affairs, specialists in international economy are interested in the fact that the world economy has a considerable impact on power, values, and political autonomy of nation-states”(ibid:77).

And nation-states are aware of this fact and so will keep in touch and actively engage in it whether by proxy for its own advantage.

It is believed in some quarters that the relevance of realism in international relations is only important in accounting for past events and the major weakness is its limitation in explaining changes happening in the international arena; for example, end of the cold war and predicting future happenings.

One of the starring examples given to expatiate on the above position is the new security threats to international security. The non-realists tend to argue that in the past the state has been the key factor in international relations. They pointed out that in today’s international arena, non-state actors have emerged. What they meant here by non-state actors are terrorist groups and as far as they are concerned realism have no explanation for their emergence.

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I however beg to differ from the above assertion, the reason being that countries in the world can choose to wage wars by whatever means available to them and that choice could be the use of terrorist groups. To elicit for a conventional war form will simply mean ethics and morality is well founded in international arena. As Mongethau’s fourth principle states, while realists are conscious of the importance of moral in political action, they are equally in the know of the tension between morality and the requirements of successful political action. According to him, “Universal moral principle cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place” (Korab-Karpowicz, 2010).

Barnaby (2007:24) did mention the former US President, George Bush in the state of the union address on the 29th January, 2002 as being the first to describe the states and governments that are sponsors of terrorist groups as “axis of evil”. This statement implies that terrorist groups do not operate on their own but as proxy of the states. Some countries in the world whether we accept this or not will do all they could to uproot democratic practices and to them terrorism is an equal threat to democracy, as terrorists activities do undermine the doctrine of western democracy.

The approach of dealing with this menace differs significantly between an authoritarian regime and a liberal society. Whereas the former will do all within its powers to uproot the menace from its borders, the later however, will rely on the rule of law in doing so. These different methods equally have different measure of success.

According to Chalk in (Barnaby, 2007:55) “Any liberal response to terrorism has to rest on one overriding maxim; a commitment to uphold and maintain the rule of law”. He further stressed that “terrorism can be minimised, if not entirely eliminated, by any state that is prepared to use the fullest extent the entire range of coercive powers at its disposal”.

It is a known fact that “the great social and political upheavals throughout history have been preceded by major advances in the technology of transportation and communication” (Mc Neil 1954 in Gilpin 1981:56). The current terrorist activities are not an exception. The technological advancement of the world today had made Thucydides time world apart. America as a nation-state will care nothing about Afghanistan in the times of Thucydides as some of security threat because of the distance between them but technology has dictated otherwise.

According to Ignatieff (2003:21), “Nowhere after all could have been more distant than Afghanistan, yet it was in this remote and desperate place that the attack of 9/11 was prepared. Terror has collapse distance and with this collapse has come sharpened forces in imperial capital on the necessity of bringing order to the barbarian zones”.

Nation-states, whether liberal or authoritarian will indeed want to use such force at their disposal. However, the way such force is applied differs. While the authoritarian regimes may deplore without recourse to the rule of law, the liberals will use all convincing methods with the issue of rule of law as its guide to engage such force. When such engagement is successful, no one usually raises his voice as to whether it was lawful in the first place. The question one will like to pose here therefore is, would the situation have been different if the attack on Iraq or the terrorists in Afghanistan by the allied forces had brought about desired peace in those areas with minimum loss of lives to especially the allied forces? Is it not appropriate to then conclude that every uproar today concerning the wars is mere hypocrisies?

In conclusion therefore, I will like to summarise the major issues highlighted above. Firstly, there is need to understand that no part of the various schools of thought can be dismissed without such stand not having some sort of implications on the overall standing of international relations no matter how very remote we think that view is.

All the observations of the liberals are very vital to world peace and concord. Is it cooperation, interdependence, harmony, or the operations of the Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and their relevance to bringing about the desired order in international politics? The benefit of the above is evident.

The question that I will however pose here is, has all these ground breaking innovations and practices eroded the importance of the state in the role she plays as the principal actor? Has globalisation and global economic integration mean the end of the state as viewed by the liberal scholars correct? My answers with due respect to the liberal scholars is a definite no. The reason is that every nationality in that order tries to keep its national identity and there are certain core norms they will never give up no matter how hard and strong that order maybe. A very good example in this respect is European Union (EU). Just take critical look at the various states that make up the EU, has the influence of the union make them less important in their roles as states?

To be candid agreement is always on those areas which member states feel is beneficial to their national interest and nothing more. From whichever point we look at the matter at hand, there are overwhelming evidence of security problems in the system, ranging from chemical terrorism, Christian fundamentalist terrorism, cyber terrorism, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, just to mention a few (Barnaby, 2007:42-55). There is so much at stake for the state to turn blind eye, otherwise all the economic advancement and social development presently experienced will amount to nothing.

Finally, it could be logical for one to ask if this craze for world political harmony is not just another ploy by the dominant “states” of the world to further dominate others all in the name of peace and harmony that we all know will never exist (Carr 1993:75). For as long as some have in abundance and others do not, the prospect of world peace and harmony will continue to be a mirage and state will continue to be on guard.


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