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Essay: Human nature is the driving factor of conflict and cooperation within international politics

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  • Subject area(s): International Relations
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  • Published: December 27, 2019*
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  • Human nature is the driving factor of conflict and cooperation within international politics
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Human nature in itself does not solely explain patterns of conflict and cooperation within international politics, however it is the basis upon which all other forces of these patterns can be explained. Many will claim that interactions between ethnicities, pursuits of national interests or protection of a state’s citizens also allow for an explanation of state-to-state interactions, but what they fail to recognize is that human nature allows each of these factors to take shape. As such, this essay will focus on realism’s view of human nature and primarily on defensive and offensive realism, as both go beyond the realm of classical realism in explaining why states behave the way they do. In order for this explanation to make sense, one must first analyze the duality of views of international politics within realism and neorealism. After this is addressed, one can then begin to examine how any other rationalization of patterns of conflict and cooperation is inevitably reliant on human nature, no matter which side of realism is used to understand it.

Realism is an interesting political theory in that it encompasses several disciplines rather than just one rigid and specific explanation of the interactions of political states. These subdivisions of realism are necessary to understand before explaining how realism is able to go beyond just human nature as a justification for conflict and cooperation. To begin, classical realism infers that human nature, which coincides with the behavior of an individual state, is based solely on the desire for power. This was first described by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan in which he lays out four main explanations of why humanity acts the way it does in this conquest for power. These four assumptions of human nature are that all humans seek glory and pride, that humanity fears death, that humans are all equally vulnerable, and lastly, that humans are not always rational but are, in fact, always capable of rationality (76-77). The initial desire for power is what leads classical realists to believe that human nature is in a consistent state of competition, that human nature is inherently greedy and power hungry (Walt, 31).  However, a new wave of realism called neorealism was furthered by Kenneth Waltz, and moves beyond human nature to define international politics. Neorealists address international politics as a “balance of power” in which weaker states team up against stronger states to create bipolarity, which neorealists believe to be more stable than the multipolar model of the world that classical realism illustrates (Walt, 31). There are even further divisions beyond neorealism, which will aid in illustrating how it is not only human nature, but also the influence of the international system that shapes the behavior of each state. The first subdivision, “defensive realism,” describes how a state will work to increase its power by focusing on its internal forces, such as military growth and forming alliances in order to maintain a balance of power against larger states that may employ an offensive foreign policy. The opposing view, “offensive realism,” implies that a state will always work to extend its power by expanding its control and influence to as many states as possible (Rose, 145). It is important to note that neither offensive nor defensive realism focuses on human nature, rather they focus on the anarchic structure of international politics defined by realism.

It is with these explanations in mind that one can now analyze several historical events in which classical realism’s definition of human nature was not the initial factor that encouraged both conflict and cooperation. The United States intervention in the Middle East to spark the Gulf War is one of many examples that illustrate such factors. However, in this example, it must be noted that the United Nations works as a main actor in the political stage despite that most realists agree that individual states are the main actors. Jim George stated, “…[the invasion] was at various times and to varying degrees about Kuwaiti democracy, Kuwaiti self-determination, the principle of state sovereignty, [and] the preservation of Middle East stability” (200). By this, George implies that the United States-led invasion, combined with the power of the United Nations was not in search of power, as classical realism’s assumption about human nature would declare, rather the invasion was in pursuit of neorealism’s balance of power. The balance of power, in this case, was important because had the United Nations not intervened, Iraq would be a superpower within the Middle East and have too much control over oil and oil prices. This clearly threatened any other modernized country that used oil as their main energy source, as the Iraqi government was known for lack of cooperation. Thus, it was imperative that the less powerful nations of OPEC had combined power that was equal or greater than that of Iraq (George, 200). One could argue that defensive realists would go further to explain that though it is the balance of power that motivated this invasion, it is in the definition of human nature that one can discover the basis for the balance of power. Defensive realists regard that the international system allows for expansion of power through internal affairs, like forming an alliance or joining a coalition against another nation in this circumstance. This means that the invasion of Kuwait specifically reflects back to Hobbes’ assumption of human nature that all of humanity fears death, as many nations got involved in order to preserve state sovereignty (George, 200). This is illustrative of Hobbes’ assumption because many states involved for this reason acknowledged that allowing one state to lose its sovereignty opens the door for state sovereignty to not be respected by any power, leading to the “death” of a state which proves that defensive realism is actually just a way of further explaining the impact of human nature on the world (Taliaferro, 128).

Despite the fact that realism specifically states that the world is naturally at war, defensive realist’s explanation of human nature and its role in the basis of international politics can also justify cooperation. This use of defensive realism is particularly seen in cooperation between the United States, Britain and Soviet Union during the Second World War. In this situation, the United States and Britain recognized the need to enter into an alliance with the Soviet Union in order to maintain a balance of power against Hitler’s Nazi Germany (Royde-Smith and Hughes). This time, the attempt to regulate the balance of power relates back to human nature in a very similar way. Hobbes’ assumptions about humanity’s irrefutable fear of death, which would explain that this balance of power was a reaction in fear because Hitler had already overtaken so many nations that if he were to fully conquer the Soviet Union, his power would presumably be one that could eliminate the United States and/or Great Britain. The United States and Great Britain were using this defensive alliance to prevent their own destruction in such a way that this balance of power was clearly developed on the basis human nature. No one explained this better than Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time, Winston Churchill, who told his nation after forming the alliance, “No one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism for the last twenty-five years. I will unsay no word I have spoken about it. But all this fades away before the spectacle which is now unfolding…The Russian danger is therefore our danger, and the danger of the United States, just as the cause of any Russian fighting for hearth and house is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe.”

It is necessary to point out that human nature does not only relate to this singular form of realism, as it can be an explanatory force in offensive realism as well. The United States has seen a rapid rise to power in the past 200 years by establishing itself as a regional hegemon in the Western hemisphere. Specifically, one of the first ways that the United States established itself within the explanations of offensive realism was through the Louisiana Purchase. However, the selling of the Louisiana Territory by Napoleon Bonaparte and the French in 1803 was more indicative of offensive realism than the United States’ purchase of it, as the French analyzed all possibilities of local power that they would leave by selling the territory. For reference, the French knew that if they continued to hold the Louisiana Territory, they would not be able to focus on building up their empire within Europe. Selling the Louisiana Territory, however, would improve the relationship that the French had with the United States (Elman, 572). The French leaders of the time recognized that keeping their empirical holdings in America would inhibit their ability to expand within Europe, as they lacked the manpower and leadership capabilities to focus on both. For this reason, their action of selling the Louisiana Purchase is illustrative of offensive realism because they focused on expanding their power as much as possible within Europe, since it would be a limited expansion within the Western hemisphere. Furthermore, by establishing peaceful agreements with the United States, the French also allowed themselves to be more likely trade partners with the United States than the British, which also allowed the French to maintain some power in the United States (Elman, 571). Again, it becomes important to recognize that though this act that could simply be seen as power-maximization to prevent the growth of Britain and expand the power of the French, it is also a reflection of human nature within such action. One of Hobbes’ four tenets of human nature stands that humans do not always behave in a rational way, but they are always capable of rationality. This same statement gives rise to the fact that Napoleon was able to rationalize between himself and French officials of the time that the state would benefit more from focusing on their European empire and selling their only holdings of whatever empire they had in the Western hemisphere. As such, the selling of their land in North America demonstrates offensive realism, but more importantly how human nature played a developmental role in allowing this example of offensive realism to form.

It appears, after these examples and explanations of both defensive and offensive realism, that yes, human nature was in fact the driving factor of conflict and cooperation within international politics. However, it is also relevant to recognize that human nature is almost too much of a simplification of international politics, that human nature is only the beginning of an explanation. Human nature is the foundation to the larger structure of realism and all of its subdivisions. It is this same understanding of human nature and the larger whole of realism that requires a detailed understanding of each situation and the various ways in which human nature can begin to result in the behaviors between states. Among these actions between states were those taken by the United States and United Nations in Kuwait, those of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States in World War Two, as well as the actions of the French in the United States by selling the Louisiana Territory in 1803. In such examples, it seems the obvious conclusion is that human nature is not the only way to explain interstate behavior. However,  it is the baseline explanation for why the internal growth theory can be described by defensive realists, as well as an explanation for the power-maximizing theory created by offensive realists. In both theories though, the common ground is that human nature is only the beginning of explaining patterns of  behaviors within international politics.

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