Symbiotic Realism and just power

Shutterstock/Sunny studio. All rights reserved.In an era of widespread decentralization, formation
of regional blocs, and popular uprisings the role of states will continue to
evolve dramatically. While they will without doubt remain pivotal, their
nature and the ways in which they deploy power are in a profound

In parallel to these developments, the discipline
of International Relations can now benefit from a more complex understanding of
human nature than what was previously held as perennially true. The role of
rationality and egoism, long touted by the Realist school as critical to our
understanding of human and state behaviour has become subject to significant

Neuroscience has contributed largely to providing a
more nuanced view of humans and their neurochemistry. More circumspect accounts
of human nature show that emotionality in fact plays a much more prominent
role than previously believed, which overturns the conception of the
foundations for interstate relations. A strong case can be made for the
emotionality of states alongside a greater appreciation for the role of
emotions in individual thought. These conceptions substantially undermine
classical Realism in which the structure of IR itself was taken to be both
zero-sum and analyzable in terms of pure rational self interest.

Alternatively, the theory of Symbiotic Realism adheres to our best
neurobiologically-informed understanding of human nature, and offers the
potential for a more collaborative conception of International Relations
through the use of just power.

One important tenet of Symbiotic Realism is the
acknowledgment that emotional vulnerabilities are shared by all parties, and
that these can be orchestrated for good or for ill. While the human nature of
classical Realism was fundamentally that of a pure rational egoist, Symbiotic
Realism acknowledges the importance of symbiotic relationships in which both
parties benefit from their willingness to interact cooperatively and compete in
a non-conflictual way.

As such, Symbiotic Realism recognizes four
interlocking elements which shape the global system: the neurobiological
substrates of human nature
(which provides a more complex account of human
nature), the continuing persistence of global anarchy, which today
coexists with conditions of instant connectivity and interdependence

Emotionality, individuals, and states

Neuroscience and advanced brain-scanning technology
has helped to elaborate our understanding of human nature in at least two
important ways. The first is to lessen the role of reason in human
decision-making, in large part by demonstrating the immensely important role of emotions. The second is to name
and characterize aspects of the ego that do not manifest straightforwardly in
terms of self-interest or power-seeking. With regard to the first of these,
there is growing consensus in both neurological and psychological research that
human beings have long overestimated the role of reason in their
thoughts.  Reason has an important role, but comes into play more rarely
than is usually understood, and typically only after emotions have had their

The circumstances necessary for reason can best be
realized where just power is consistently employed. The term
“just power” is defined here as the exercise of power that respects human
dignity and international norms, is savvy with regard to current global
conditions, and protects the national interest. In these conditions, emotions
will inevitably be present and have causal efficacy, but their effects will be
accommodated rather than downplayed or ignored. Just power generates stability
as well as a wider recognition of the equal availability and legitimacy of this

This consideration does not override the basic
tenet of international politics that self-interest is the fundamental attribute
of human nature nor the argument about emotionality. This self-interest evolved
according to selection pressures in precisely the same ways as all other
features of human beings, and these attributes are marked by a strong
inclination towards self-preservation. The fundamental nature of these emotions
also highlights the importance of group inclusion and a narrative of identity
in fully developed human beings. Therefore, these attributes might broadly be
construed as egoist in the sense that they are required for individual human
flourishing, yet they simultaneously indicate an irreducible interdependence of
people which undermines a simplistic conception of self-interested rational

Although states differ in many ways from
individuals, it is worth noting that the decisions that inform interstate
relations are ultimately in the hands of individual human beings, even in cases
of collaborative decision-making. Evidence for the emotionality of states is ubiquitous if we
realize that genuine existential threats to states are far less common than
challenges to a state’s self-conception. In contemporary events, it is often
issues with a state’s self-conception that results in conflict.

For example the desire for vengeance across generations
is very difficult to characterize in terms of (purely) rational actors, but is
sufficiently emotionally compelling to motivate some of the
world’s longest-standing and most intractable conflicts.

Modern states, power, and sustainability

The game-theoretic interpretation of Classical
Realism was characterized by a structural situation in which each actor was
forced to act egoistically in order to avoid being taken advantage of or
defeated by free-riders. Typically these actors were seen as rational and
egotistical states and the zero-sum assumption that underpinned this idea meant
that one party’s gain implied another’s loss.

Symbiotic Realism also recognizes the inherent
propensity of actors to be egoistic yet in a more accommodative manner as
implies a wider appreciation for cultural synergy and recognizes the
possibility to move beyond a zero-sum scenario.

Globalization has greatly increased the
interdependence between actors in areas such as environmental integrity, the stability
of financial markets or the control of nuclear proliferation. This theory
remains realist in the sense that it acknowledges an important role for
rational self-interest, but Symbiotic Realism is better attuned to the
realities of an interdependent world and emphasizes that mutual benefits should be possible in
collaborative circumstances.

Cultural borrowing has been a source of great
gain for centuries and now the opportunities for such shared benefits are more
readily available than ever. Despite the significantly anarchic circumstances
of contemporary interstate relations, connectivity and increasing interdependence
now ensure that more intercultural exchanges are inevitable, and that
problems of governance will arise (and are already arising) that cannot be
resolved unilaterally. To put this in a simple scenario: suppose that “A” discovers
a highly advanced and effective technology for mitigating carbon pollution,
while actor “B” but not “A” has the resources and infrastructure to implement
this technology successfully. In an arrangement in which both A and B will have
absolute gain—that is, both will gain more than they lose if the technology is
shared, Symbiotic Realism can overcome the zero-sum limitations of Realism. The
pressing policy objective for the future will thus be to create the conditions
in which such good faith arrangements are encouraged and implemented.

Just power includes conceptions of “hard,” “soft,”
and “smart” power, with additional parameters of respect for human dignity,
and a basic guarantee of justice and compliance with international law. These
are the necessary conditions for this good faith to become the norm between
states. Power conscientiously exercised in this way provides assurances to all
the parties in the system and to would-be collaborators that their
contributions will not be used unfairly. In order to be sustainable in our
radically interdependent world, uses of power must be demonstrably just, as the
misuse of power quickly destabilizes interstate relations.

The recent reporting of extensive torture in
the name of security, and the violation of international norms should be
examined in exactly this light. Such actions radically undermine the
possibility of good faith agreements in the international theatre.

While Realism asserts an almost exclusive focus on
the balance of power with an implicit assumption about the malign intentions of
other powers, Symbiotic Realism is more nuanced in this view and alludes to the
inescapable interdependence now predominant in the international system. The
new climate of international relations imposes new mechanisms of deploying
power. Manifestations of power that uphold robust regard for human dignity and
respect for international norms enable the sine
qua non
trust that is necessary for mutually beneficial decisions. When
such just power is exercised and recognized to be operational, the conditions
are created for collaboration and the possibility of absolute gain among

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