When it comes to understanding the world around us, we are our own greatest adversaries. The cognitive biases that lurk under the the film of ideology quietly obscure the clarity of our perception. In global politics, like in any other intellectual sphere, the consequences of such subconscious prejudices can disarm the potency of otherwise great minds.
If you seek to change the world, you must first understand it. Observe the world as it is, not as you want it to be, and you’re halfway there. This is the realm of the political realist, a creature shunned for his apparent ruthlessness and amorality. The towering heights of Western punditry, such as the New York Times, Washington Post and The Guardian, are all but hostile to them. Instead, they see a world of good guys and bad guys, both domestically and abroad. Trump, Brexit, Putin and the Eurosceptic Visegrad Countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic et al.) are the perennial villains, facing down the heroes (Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel, and, when times are tough, even Jeremy Corbyn). Needless to say, this attempt to make binary something so multi-faceted as global politics is reckless and irresponsible, coming from media outlets that command a sprawling and international audience.
Instead, think like a realist. Take the rise of China. For decades, policymaking and media elites alike have applauded its integration into the global community, anticipating that with market liberalisation, political liberalisation would follow. Realists were not surprised when it became clear that this would not be the case – that instead, political freedom in China would be restrained and monitored further, and Deng Xiaoping’s “peaceful rise” strategy would be formally scrapped in 2017. It’s perfectly rational – a peaceful rise made sense when China was geopolitically dwarfed by the West, and it would benefit from inclusion under the Western umbrella. Now that China is a great power in its own right, it would, sensibly, start setting terms that befitted its national interests.
Thinking like a realist would help you understand why Putin invaded Crimea. Unlike the conventional narrative, which squarely accuses Putin of unwarranted aggression, consider that any great power is incredibly sensitive to its borders, especially when it senses the interference of other great power rivals. Immediately after the Cold War, the majority of the Soviet European sphere of influence was snapped up by Nato, leaving only Belarus and Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea was not unwarranted – it was a response to rhetoric indicating Ukraine, for centuries a Russian region, was seeking to join the EU. America wouldn’t have acted any different if Mexico entered into a military alliance with the Chinese.
And of course, realists knew that North Korea was never going to denuclearise – not even with Donald Trump sprinkling magic dust on Kim Jong-un. In an anarchic world, small states are always at the mercy of bigger fish – unless the smaller fish has a nuclear warhead. Hand holding and a ‘terrific relationship” with the US President will not change that fundamental reality.
It’s not always fun to be a realist. One is innately skeptical of the admirable projects idealists come up with – usually something to do with a better world. Yet I think people who think like realists are more capable of this than any idealist, simply because they don’t suffer delusions of grandeur. If you anticipate what will happen, not what you want to happen, and act on it, you stand a far better chance of improving our terrestrial squalor than those who harbour great visions of how things should be. Accept the world at face value, and replace notions of pure evil and whole virtue with nuance – it’s complicated. The world is a realist’s oyster.