The Crisis of the Realist Paradigm of Politics

Lucio Levi 
Member of WFM Council and UEF Federal Committee, Former President of UEF Italy


The joint effect of globalization and the erosion of state sovereignty have led several scholars in international relations to denounce the crisis of the paradigm of political realism. The latter was codified with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the formation of the European system of powers and was supplanted in 1945 after the end of the Second World War by the system composed of two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, of macro-regional dimensions.

The realist theory of politics is based on two postulates: the subordination of civil society to the state, and the centrality of the sovereign state in international relations. Globalization has broken the two pillars on which rests the edifice of traditional political science. 

The more debatable aspect of political realism is the assumption that the nature of politics cannot change. Kenneth Waltz wrote of this: “The web of international politics remains fairly constant, with recurring patterns and endlessly repeating events… The enduring anarchic character of international politics accounts for the surprising equality in the quality of life internationally through the millennia”. In reality, the concepts of state, power, national interest, security have a historical character, and globalization can be interpreted as the process that feeds the tendency to go beyond the division of the world into sovereign states, and to constitutionalize international relations. If this is the basic trend of contemporary history, we can deduce that the conditions on which the normal science of politics is based, i.e. the separation between domestic politics and international politics, are falling.

The state-centric approach prevents consideration of the reciprocal relations between domestic politics and international politics, and the study of politics in its unity. This approach represents the point of view allowing the study of the political systems in a determined phase of history: that of the system of Westphalia. But today it has become an obstacle to the progress of knowledge, because it prevents understanding the change underway in political life: the overcoming of the separation between domestic and international politics. At the same time, it is an obstacle to regulate globalization, because it calls into question the dogma of state sovereignty, and therefore does not allow the consideration of forms of unity between states that go beyond international cooperation.

Those who would like to draw the conclusion from the crisis of the sovereign state that the problem of sovereignty is over and that we must get rid of this concept, would be making a tragic mistake. It would mean giving up some of the most important conquests made by the modern state. The monopoly of force is the guarantee of peace and certainty of the law within the borders of the state. The monopoly of force must of course be transferred to the United Nations. This means that the monopoly of coercive power must be exercised by the United Nations in the name and on behalf of all the peoples of the world and all the inhabitants of the earth. It should be remembered that the UN Statute claims the power to ensure world peace, but without success, because the UN lacks the powers necessary to pursue the purposes for which it was established.

It has been frequently observed that the national state, which assigns the ultimate decision-making power to a single center, is too small for big problems and too big for small problems. In an important book on war and peace, written while the UN Statute was being drafted, Mortimer Adler remarked that the nation state is not the last form of political organization, but only the most recent (the latest). The evolution of the forms of organization of political life shows that, throughout history, the dimension of democratic communities has constantly widened from the city, to the national state, to the federation of states, and that this process is a process of pacification between larger and larger communities, which will be crowned by the world federation. Ultimately, the state is a form of legal order that has not always existed. Moreover, the process that will lead to its overcoming has already begun.

The ancients were unaware of the notion of state. They called politeia (the Greeks) or civitas (the Romans) the political institutions that governed them. It was modern scholars who introduced the expression “city-state” into the political lexicon, and extended the concept of the state to periods preceding its formation (the 16th century).

Analogously, the expression federal state represents the attempt to extend the notion of state to the time of the crisis of and the overcoming of the national state. Indeed, the federation is at the same time a new form of state and a new form of international organization. It has some of the institutional characteristics of the state, but not all of them, for example the concentration of competences in the hands of the central government. The novelty of federalism consists in the attempt to go beyond, firstly, the division into sovereign states of the major regions of the world, and, secondly, of the whole world. The ultimate goal is the abolition of war. While the United States, the first federation in history, belongs to the era of national states (at the time, the division of the world into sovereign states presented itself as an insurmountable reality), the objective that inspired the formation of the EU was the will to renounce power politics in Europe and build the edifice of peace. The pacification of Europe is conceived as a stage on the way to the pacification of the world.

Redistributing power to new levels of government, to be organized internationally and sub-nationally, is an inescapable imperative if we want to improve the effectiveness of political institutions and, at the same time, give back to democracy the power to decide on political issues, decisive for the future of peoples. The federal model, articulating sovereignty over several levels of government, from the local to the global level, seems the most appropriate to direct the reorganization of the state in the era of globalization. State sovereignty, eroded by the process of globalization, must become global, but at the same time must be articulated on several levels of "coordinated and independent" (Wheare) government, from the local community to the United Nations.

The end line of the peacebuilding process will not be a world state (which, as Karl Jaspers noted, would be an empire), but a federation of the major regions of the world. The world federation must therefore be conceived as a multi-level structure, a federation of the major regions of the world (European Union, African Union, ASEAN, UNASUR, etc.); the great regions of the world will be federations of states; the states will be federations of regions, and so on. This articulation of power on several levels would make it possible to avoid the concentration of power in a single constitutional body, and combat the authoritarian degenerations which threaten freedom.

It should be emphasized that the world government will be an entirely new form of political organization, since it will have no foreign policy. It will therefore not be necessary to confer on it the powers that have traditionally enabled states to assert themselves on the international level through power politics. Need we recall that throughout history the most powerful incentive for the centralization of power, tyranny and despotism has come from the presence of an external threat? Indeed, authoritarian tendencies ripen in a climate of international tension and preparation for war that the institution of a world government would remove.

Centro Studi sul Federalismo

© 2001 - 2023 - Centro Studi sul Federalismo - Codice Fiscale 94067130016

About  |  Contacts  |  Privacy Policy  |  Cookies
Fondazione Compagnia San Paolo
The activities of the Centre for Studies on Federalism are  accomplished thanks to the support of Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo
Fondazione Collegio Carlo Alberto
Our thanks to Fondazione Collegio Carlo Alberto