The Realism Fallacy

Ishtiaq AhmedIshtiaq
Visiting Research Professor, ISAS

No two states in the contemporary era are more completely hostage to the perverted logic of the Realism School of International Relations than India and Pakistan. The underlying wisdom that permeates that School’s reasoning is that, states like human beings are egotistical entities that seek to protect themselves from the constant threats posed to their existence by their peers. This they do by making themselves more powerful. They are also on the lookout to attack first. Premised on such “naturalness” of state behaviour the military and security establishments of states are always urging greater spending on defence to ward off attack.

Not surprisingly, an arms race follows, and as one side acquires better weapons the other side must try to offset that advantage and thus aim for even better killing capacity and capability. However, as both sides engage in such a competition both objective and subjective levels of insecurity go up because the new weapons and the training and preparation that is invested in learning to use them incrementally provides a higher level than before. In other words, the increased number and quality of weapons do not lower the fear and anxiety of the enemy but heighten it.

The hectic India–Pakistan arms race of course is not determined entirely by their notorious rivalry. India insists that it needs to arm itself better to thwart Chinese aggression, but Pakistan perceives a militarily stronger India as a greater threat to its security. Such a chain of reaction however dates only from 1962 when the Sino-India border war took place. It is also true that even when Pakistan began to receive military aid from the United States in the mid-1950s it was not until the 1965 war between India and Pakistan that they seriously began to outdo each other in terms of a serious arms race between them.

One would have imagined that when both sides demonstrated their ability to explode nuclear devices in May 1998, a “rational level” had been reached, because both were now in a position to inflict such massive injury on each other that they could just consolidate their positions on that level. However, the Chinese factor complicated that situation. Recent Indian hike on defence spending has made Pakistan nervous and it will seek to balance that by cultivating Chinese help.

In the past, realism-driven arms races have usually ended up in war – World War I and II are cases in point. Then, of course, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union ended with the dissolution of the latter during 1989-91. The moral of the story is that an India-Pakistan arms race cannot go on interminably without dragging them into a war that neither will win but both will suffer unimaginable harm and damage, or one of them disintegrating under the weight of overspending on weapons. Even the latter outcome will greatly undermine the stability of the South Asian region. I would not venture speculating which of the two possibilities is more likely.

Their salvation lies in a negotiated settlement of their differences and disputes. In order to do that, they have to wrest themselves free from the fetters of realism and seek instead a relationship based on mutual trust and solidarity. Unfortunately, Europe learnt such a lesson only after millions of its people were consumed by world wars.

Hobbes, who along with Machiavelli is considered the main theorist of realism was not a cynic like the latter. He did have a solution in mind to the perpetual state of war and anarchy that prevailed in his state of nature. It was that a Sovereign should be established who could curtail the freedoms of enemies in return for ensuring them peace. The nearest to Hobbes’ idea of a Sovereign could be some third party that can compel them to enter negotiations and not abandon them until they agree to a resolution of their conflicts that is qualified by the imperative of all winners and no losers. India will probably resist that fiercely. In that case the onus is on India to demonstrate that it can transform realism by a novel bilateral initiative that assures Pakistan that it can be a partner in peace with it. Doing nothing is another option, of course, but it can prove to be a myopic decision or rather indecision.

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