Realism in International Relations
by Alexander Dugin
Alexander Dugin discusses the emerging multipolar world, highlighting the distinctive ideological and civilisational paths of various global regions in opposition to the Western liberal paradigm.
Realists believe that human nature is inherently flawed (a legacy of Hobbes’ anthropological pessimism, and even deeper, echoes of Christian notions of the fall from grace — lapsus in Latin) and cannot be fundamentally corrected. Therefore, egoism, predation, and violence are ineradicable. From this, it is concluded that only a strong state can restrain and organise humans (who, according to Hobbes, are wolves to each other). The state is inevitable and carries the highest sovereignty. Moreover, the state projects the predatory and selfish nature of humans, hence a national state has its interests which are its only considerations. The will to violence and greed make war always possible. This has always been and will always be the case, realists believe. International relations, therefore, are built only on the balance of power between fully sovereign entities. No long-term world order can exist; there is only chaos, which changes as some states weaken and others strengthen. In this theory, the term ‘chaos’ is not negative — it is merely a statement of the factual state of affairs resulting from the most serious approach to the concept of sovereignty. If several truly sovereign states exist, no supranational order can be established that all would obey. If such an order existed, sovereignty would not be complete, and in fact, there would be none, and the supranational entity itself would be the only sovereign.
The school of realism is traditionally very strong in the USA, starting with its first founders: the Americans Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan, and the Englishman Edward Carr.
Liberalism in International Relations
Liberals in international relations oppose the realist school. They rely not on Hobbes with his anthropological pessimism but on Locke with his notions of the human being as a blank slate (tabula rasa) and partly on Kant with his pacifism, stemming from the morality of practical reason and its universality. Liberals in international relations believe that people can be changed through re-education and enlightenment. This is the Enlightenment project: to transform the predatory egoist into a rational and tolerant altruist, ready to consider others and treat them with reason and tolerance. Hence the theory of progress. If realists believe that human nature cannot be changed, liberals are convinced it can and should be. But both believe that humans are former apes. Realists accept this as an inescapable fact (man as a wolf), while liberals are confident that society can change the very nature of the former beast and write anything they want on his ‘blank slate’.
But if so, then the state is needed only for enlightenment. Its functions end there, and when society becomes sufficiently liberal and civic, the state can be dissolved. Sovereignty, therefore, does not carry anything absolute — it is a temporary measure. And if the state does not aim to make its subjects liberals, then it becomes evil. Only a liberal state can exist, as ‘democracies do not fight each other’.
But these liberal states should gradually die out, giving way to a world government. Having prepared civil society, they abolish themselves. Such a gradual abolition of states is unconditional progress. In the modern European Union, we see precisely this logic. And American globalists, among whom are Biden, Obama, or the promoter of the ‘open society’ George Soros, specify that during progress, the world government will be formed based on the USA and its direct satellites — this is the project of the league of democracies.
In a technical sense, liberalism in international relations, opposed to realism, is often called ‘idealism’. That is, realists in international relations believe that humanity is doomed to remain as it has always essentially been, while liberals in international relations ‘idealistically’ believe in progress, in the possibility of changing the very nature of man. Gender theory and posthumanism belong to this type of ideology —they stem from liberalism.
Marxism in International Relations
Another direction in international relations worth mentioning is Marxism. Here, ‘Marxism’ is not quite what constituted the core of foreign policy in the USSR. Edward Carr, a classical realist in international relations, demonstratively showed that the USSR’s foreign policy — especially under Stalin — was built on the principles of pure realism. Stalin’s practical steps were based on the principle of full sovereignty, which he associated not so much with the national state as with his ‘red Empire’ and its interests.
What is called ‘Marxism in international relations’ is more represented in Trotskyism or the world-system theories of Immanuel Wallerstein. This is also a form of idealism, but a ‘proletarian’ one.
Here, the world is viewed as a single zone of social progress, as a result of which the capitalist system is destined to become global. That is, everything is moving towards the creation of a world government under the complete hegemony of global capital, which is international by nature. Here, like with liberals, the essence of a human being depends on society, or, more precisely, on the relationship to the ownership of the means of production. Therefore, human nature is class-based. Society eliminates the beast in him but turns him into a social mechanism, completely dependent on the class structure. A person does not live and think; it is the class that lives and thinks through him.
However, unlike liberalism in international relations, Marxists in international relations believe that the creation of a world government and the full integration of humanity without states and cultures will not be the end of history. After this (but not before, and this is the main difference from the Soviet system, from ‘Stalinism’), class contradictions will reach their culmination, and a world revolution will occur. The mistake of Stalinism here is considered to be the attempt to build socialism in one country, which leads to a left version of national-socialism. Only after capitalism completes its mission of destroying states and abolishing sovereignties can a true international proletarian revolution occur. Until then, it is necessary to support capitalism — and above all, mass migration, the ideology of human rights, all kinds of minorities, and especially sexual ones.
Contemporary Marxism is predominantly pro-liberal, globalist, and accelerationist.
Realism in the Theory of a Multipolar World
Here, the question arises: what is closer to the theory of a multipolar world? Realism or idealism?
As a reminder, in this theory, the subject is not the classical bourgeois nation-state of the modern era (in the spirit of the Westphalian system and the sovereignty theory of Machiavelli-Bodin), but the state-civilisation (Zhang Weiwei) or ‘great space’ (Carl Schmitt). Samuel Huntington insightfully sketched such a multipolar world order at the beginning of the 1990s. Several state-civilisations, having carried out regional integration processes, become independent centres of world politics. I developed this theme in the The Theory of a Multipolar World.
At first glance, the theory of a multipolar world is about sovereignty. And that means realism. But with a very important caveat: here, the bearer of sovereignty is not just a nation-state representing a collection of individual citizens, but a state-civilisation, in which entire peoples and cultures are united under the leadership of a higher horizon — religion, historical mission, ruling idea (as with the Eurasianists). The state-civilisation is a new purely technical name for the empire. Chinese, Islamic, Russian, Ottoman, and, of course, Western. Such state-civilisations defined the balance of planetary politics in the pre-Columbian era. Colonisation and the rise of the West in modern times changed this balance in favor of the West. Now a certain historical correction is taking place. The non-West is reasserting itself. Russia is fighting with the West in Ukraine for control over a crucial liminal area. China is competing for dominance in the world economy. Islam is waging a cultural-religious jihad against Western imperialism and hegemony. India is growing into a full-fledged world subject. Africa’s resource and demographic potential automatically makes it a major player in the near future. Latin America is also asserting its rights to independence.
The new subjects — state-civilisations and, for now, only civilisations, increasingly contemplating their integration into sovereign powerful blocs, ‘great spaces’ — are conceived as new figures of planetary realism.
But unlike conventional nation-states, created in the mold of European bourgeois regimes of the modern era, state-civilisations are already inherently more than a random amalgamation of aggressive, selfish animals, as Western realists conceive of society. Unlike ordinary states, a state-civilisation is built around a mission, an idea, and around a system of values that are not just practical and pragmatic. This means that the principle of realism, which does not take into account this ideal dimension, cannot be fully applied here. Thus, we are dealing with idealism, fundamentally different from liberalism, since liberalism is the dominant ideology of only one civilisation — the Western one. All the others, being unique and relying on their traditional values, are oriented towards other ideas. Therefore, we can call such idealism of the rising non-Western civilisations, forming a multipolar world, illiberal.
State-civilisations in the theory of a multipolar world, thus, simultaneously adopt elements of both realism and liberalism in international relations.
From realism, they take the principle of absolute sovereignty and the absence of any mandatory authority at the planetary level. Each civilisation is fully sovereign and does not submit to any world government. Thus, between the state-civilisations, there exists a conditional ‘chaos’, as in the theories of classical realism. But unlike these theories, we are dealing with a different subject — not with a nation-state constituted according to the principles of European modern times, but with a fundamentally different system based on an autonomous understanding of man, God, society, space, and time, stemming from the specifics of a particular cultural code — Eurasian, Chinese, Islamic, Indian, etc.
Such realism can be called civilisational, and it is not based on Hobbes’ logic, justifying the existence of the Leviathan from the inherently flawed and aggressive nature of human beasts, but on the belief of large societies, united by a common tradition (often sacred) in the supremacy of those ideas and norms they consider universal. This universality is limited to the ‘great space’, i.e., the boundaries of a specific empire. Within such a ‘great space’, it is recognised and constitutive. This is the basis of its sovereignty. But in this case, it is not selfish and material, but sacred and spiritual.
Idealism in the Theory of a Multipolar World
But at the same time, we see clear idealism here. This is not the idealism of Locke or Kant, as there is no universalism, no notion of ‘universal human values’ that are obligatory and for which sovereignty must be sacrificed. This civilisational idealism is not at all liberal, and even more so — illiberal. Each civilisation believes in the absoluteness of its traditional values, and they all significantly differ from what the contemporary globalist West offers. And the religions are different, the anthropologies are different, and the ontologies are different. And political science, which boils down to American political science, where everything is built on the opposition of ‘democracies’ and ‘authoritarian regimes’, is completely negated. There is idealism, but not in favour of liberal democracy as the ‘goal and pinnacle of progress’. Each civilisation has its ideal. Sometimes it is not at all similar to the Western one. Sometimes it is similar but only in part. This is the essence of illiberalism — the theses of the contemporary Western liberal civilisation as a universal model are rejected. And in their place, each civilisation offers its system of traditional values — Russian, Chinese, Islamic, Indian, etc.
In the case of state-civilisations, idealism is coupled with a specific idea that reflects the goals, foundations, and orientations of this civilisation. This is not just about relying on history and the past, but about a project requiring concentration of efforts, will, and a significant intellectual horizon. This idea has a different nature than the simple calculation of national interests, which limits realism. The presence of a higher (in some sense transcendental) goal determines the vector of the future, the path of development in accordance with what each civilisation considers good and the guide of its historical existence. Like in liberal idealism, it is about striving for what ought to be, which defines the goals and means of moving into the future. But the ideal itself here is fundamentally different: instead of the ultimate individualism, materialism, and perfection of purely technical aspects of society, which the liberal West seeks to assert as a universal human criterion, reflecting only the historical-cultural trend of the West in the postmodern era, each of the non-Western civilisations puts forward its own form. This form can very well contain the claim to become universal in turn, but unlike the West, the state-Civilisations recognise the legitimacy of other forms and take them into account. The multipolar world is inherently built on the recognition of the Other, who is nearby and may well not coincide in either interests or values. Thus, multipolarity recognises the pluralism of ideas and ideals, considers them, and does not deny the Other the right to exist and be different. This is the main difference between unipolarity and multipolarity.
The liberal West assumes that all humanity has only one ideal and one vector of development: the Western one. Anything related to the Other that does not coincide with the identity and value system of the West itself is seen as ‘hostile’, ‘authoritarian’, and ‘illegitimate’. At best, it is viewed as ‘lagging behind the West’, which needs to be corrected. Therefore, liberal idealism in its globalist expression in practice coincides with cultural racism, imperialism, and hegemony. State-civilisations in the multipolar model counter this ‘ideal’ with their own conceptions and orientations.
Versions of the Illiberal Idea
Russia traditionally has tried to justify a continental Eurasian power based on the values of collectivism, solidarity, and justice, and on Orthodox traditions. This is a completely different ideal. Quite illiberal, if we agree with how contemporary Western liberalism defines itself. At the same time, in Russian civilisation (in the Russian world), there is its unique universalism, manifested both in the ecumenical nature of the Orthodox Church and in the Soviet period — in the belief in the victory of socialism and communism on a global scale.
Xi Jinping’s Chinese project of the ‘community of a shared future for mankind’ (人類命運共同體) or the theory of Tianxia (天下) represents a scaled-up principle of the traditional Confucian ideal of the Celestial Empire, the Chinese Empire, at the centre of the world, offering surrounding peoples the Chinese cultural code as an ethical, philosophical, and socio-political ideal. But the Chinese dream — both in its communist and openly anti-bourgeois, anti-individualistic form, and in its traditionally Confucian version — is very far in its foundations from Western liberalism, and is thus essentially illiberal.
Islamic civilisation also has its unwavering principles and is oriented towards the spread of Islam on a global scale — as the ‘last religion’. It is normal for this civilisation to base its socio-political system on the principles of sharia and adherence to fundamental religious tenets. This, in turn, is an illiberal project.
In recent decades, India has increasingly turned to the foundations of its Vedic civilisation — and partly to the system of castes (varnas), as well as to the liberation from colonial models of philosophy and the assertion of Hindu principles in culture, education, and politics. India also considers itself the centre of world civilisation and its tradition the pinnacle of human spirit. This is indirectly manifested through the spread of simplified proselytising forms of Hinduism — such as yoga and light spiritual practices. Obviously, the philosophy of Vedanta has nothing in common with the tenets of liberal globalism. In the eyes of a traditional Hindu, contemporary Western society is the extreme form of degeneration, mixing and turning all values upside down, characteristic of the dark age: Kali Yuga.
On the African continent, its own civilisational projects are emerging, most often in the form of pan-Africanism. They are based on an anti-Western vector and a call for the indigenous peoples of Africa to turn to their pre-colonial traditions. Pan-Africanism has several directions, differently interpreting the African Idea and the ways of its realisation in the future. But all of them unanimously reject liberalism, and, thus, Africa is oriented in an illiberal way.
The same is characteristic of the countries of Latin America, striving to establish their distinction from both the United States and Western Europe. The Latin American idea is built on the combination of Catholicism (diminishing or completely degenerated in the West, but very much alive in South America) and the revived traditions of indigenous peoples. This is another case of civilisational illiberalism.
The Clash of Civilisations — A Battle of Ideas
Thus, the Russian, Chinese, and Islamic ideas each have a distinctly expressed universal potential. Following them is India, while Africa and Latin America currently limit their projects within the confines of their respective continents. However, the widespread dispersion of Africans across the world has led some theorists to propose the creation — primarily in the USA and the European Union — of African autonomous self-governing zones on the principle of Brazilian quilombos. The growing Latino-American population in the USA could also significantly influence North American civilisation and the dominant value system in the future. Due to its Catholic foundation and the preserved connection with traditional society, it will undoubtedly, sooner or later, come into conflict with liberalism, which has Protestant and distinctly Anglo-Saxon roots.
Therefore, the struggle between a unipolar world order and a multipolar one represents a clash of ideas. On one hand, there is liberalism, trying to defend its dominant positions on a global scale, and, on the other hand, several versions of illiberalism, which are becoming increasingly clearly expressed in countries that make up the multipolar bloc.
(translated by Constantin von Hoffmeister)