Nothing New to See Here: Questioning Today’s Major Power Relations –Anthony DeSantis

This week’s readings have lent themselves—quite well, might I add—to the notion that not much has changed on the international stage in terms of power relations. Granted, many of the more ostentatious trappings of the Cold War are now gone. Our palate of key actors has seen some considerable transformations as well. And many of the issues we now confront are arguably inherent to a world of more globalization, more accessible information, and more powerful non-state actors. Nonetheless, our work this week has strong-armed me into recognizing that international organizations are indeed competing with the age-old politics of balances-of-power. Furthermore, these same international organizations may be proving inflammatory to those politics. 


My initial reading of Pease’s dissemination of the realist stance found me rather uncomfortable. Her historical account of the briefly-enjoyed “effectiveness” of the UNSC, the end of that effectiveness, and the resumption of aggression on the part of major powers culminates with her writing that “[i]f great powers wish to use force, no organization is going to stop them.” This suggests that aggression is a form of default for actors within the international system. To be sure, this suggestion is not surprising or new, as realism depicts such a system as an “…arena where states look for opportunities to take advantage of each other, and therefore have little reason to trust each other” (Mearsheimer).


If Pease is correct, though, and we are to treat aggression as a default-setting on the part of states, can we argue that international organizations are capable—in an ideal world—of “switching states off of their default-setting?” If I may use another extended, technology-oriented metaphor, perhaps international organizations serve the purpose of resistors in a current, reducing the strength of the power running through any given system. If this too is correct, we may say that international organizations are artificial constraints on a system of politics that realists assert comes quite naturally to states. Hence, there exists an extreme dissonance as international organizations try to structure a system devoid of (or at least less concerned with) traditional power.


Rather than delve into any other theoretical argument, I allude to another piece by Mearsheimer demonstrating that realism is by no means dead in the water. I recently came across his argument that the crisis in the Ukraine can be blamed more accurately on the West than on Putin. As in his False Promise of International Institutions, Mearsheimer here expresses dissatisfaction with the “Neo-Wilsonians” of the West and their moves to expand international institutions such as NATO. Quite convincingly, Mearsheimer arrives at the conclusion that encroachment of Western institutions—economic and political (NATO, EU, etc.)—upon Russia’s borders (i.e., Ukraine) has prompted Putin to feel that he is losing the “zero-sum game” of the realists.


To maintain power within the sphere of influence that is Eastern Europe, Russia has entered into a timeless power dynamic with Ukraine. The contemporaneity of this situation confirms that, truly, no matter how much we emphasize the changes and the progressions within the international system, many things have yet to change. The politics of balance-of-power persist. Given this, where and what are the actual roles of an effective international organization?     


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