For years the realist school in international political economy argued that the state was the primary actor in the anarchical global system, that relative gains were more important than absolute gains and that the use of force was the ultimate instrument of statecraft in international affairs. Robert G. Gilpin, who was renowned as one of the leading realist scholars studying the interaction of international politics and economy from the perspective of power games, passed away on June 20. But the perspective that Gilpin and his fellow scholars helped to establish continues to provide a powerful analytical tool to evaluate ongoing dynamics of change and continuity in the global system.
While Marxists were highlighting social classes and capitalism, and liberals were concentrating on individual rationality and market forces as central mechanisms of change, realists insisted that the engine of history was competition between states for national interests. The actual use or the threat to use force was seen as the foremost instrument to accomplish those interests; therefore, wars were conceived as a continuation of diplomacy. Likewise, processes such as economic globalization were not taken very seriously by the realists as they believed that global powers that were not very constrained by economic interdependence could easily manipulate these processes to maximize their interests under any conditions. Recent trends in the global system, such as the resurgence of nationalism and neo-mercantilist economic policies, the unprecedented rise of China in the global system and the ascension of populist leaders in advanced industrial democracies, have all confirmed that realism is still alive and gives the approach renewed relevance.
Besides their fixation with power politics, realist thinkers and analysts frequently underlined the importance of a hegemonic power with sufficient capacity to provide common goods req uired for stability, engage in conflict resolution and support economic integration within the liberal international system. The "theory of hegemonic stability" elaborated by Gilpin, Kindleberger and similar American scholars stressed that stability and predictability in the international system could only be achieved via undisputed hegemony of a single dominant global power.
The Pax Britannica of the 19th century, when Great Britain ensured global power balances and security of the international trading system as a global banker, security force and conflict resolver was given as an example. A more recent example was the post-war U.S. hegemony reflecting political and economic stability on a global scale thanks to the global governance architecture formed around the U.N. system and the Bretton Woods institutions. Regional cooperation bodies such as NAFTA and the EU, as well as multilateral platforms such as G20 were depicted as useful adjuncts for this hegemonic system, facilitating burden sharing among the leading actors.
But more recently, the global strategy of the U.S. shifted from the maintenance of hegemonic stability to the pursuit of pure power politics in a chaotic and poorly managed international system. The Trump administration started to disregard the majority of liberal global norms, traditions, values and institutions on which the post-war regime itself had been established by its predecessors. The reluctance of the U.S. to provide public goods such as political and economic stability, regulatory regimes and institutional frameworks for a liberal world economy, in turn, cast doubt over the future of the international order.
Supported by the military-industrial complex and ideologically motivated civil society groups, the Trump administration has embarked on economic protectionism, trade wars, warmongering in the Middle East and domestic xenophobia against black, Latin, Muslim and migrant communities. Therefore, the classical version of American hegemony based on the maintenance of a liberal global order by providing public goods in return for widespread social consent seems to be well and truly over. Since the dominant power in the global system has lost its belief in the extraction of consent via soft power tools and public diplomacy, what is left behind is only pure power politics based on undermining potential rivals via military, economic, cultural and socio-psychological warfare. The diplomatic and economic spats between the U.S. and Turkey, China, Russia, Canada, Germany and Iran might be just the early signals of more serious conflicts that are forthcoming.
The global system is set for the emergence of a more chaotic, multipolar and conflictual order in which bilateral alliances, rivalries and issue-based partnerships will replace multilateral international platforms and rule-based regimes. It is better to accept this grim reality and develop national strategies according to new global circumstances.