International relations has long centered on struggles over hard power; wars, conquests, conflicts, domination, weaponry strategies, and the list goes on. Such activities are inextricably linked to culturally masculine characteristics, including aggression and strength. In comparison, socially feminine traits, including gentleness, empathy and compassion are at the peripheral of the political discourse. This overemphasis on masculine traits marginalizes women and the nonbinary in foreign affairs and normalizes militant geopolitics.
Realist theory, which dominates the international relations curriculum today, stresses the competitive and conflictual side of politics, building on the premise that human nature is innately self-interested and state governments inherently seek the maximization of power. Critics have argued, however, that this perspective is both insulated from ethical concerns and is unable to fully explain international cooperation. One of the reasons why they are right is realism’s marginalization of nonmasculine traits. Politics has traditionally valued culturally masculine qualities, such as strength, toughness, power, independence, leadership, courage and assertiveness. It establishes a “hegemonic masculinity” that elevates culturally idealized masculinity over feminine qualities. The realist study of politics excludes any quality short of the ideal masculine, which excludes the majority of human qualities and renders the realist model inaccurate.
That perspective has developed for a reason; masculinity has historically dominated politics and culture. The gods of war in Greek, Roman, Japanese and Germanic mythology are all male. Political scientists and philosophers have based their political models on actors’ masculinity, assuming them to be emotionless power-maximizers. In Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War,” Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” and Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” virtually all actors are male. Though Hobbes’s characterization of human nature in “Leviathan” appears to be degendered, it implicitly features solely masculine qualities. He holds that the principal origins of quarrels among humans are competition, diffidence and glory, all of which are traits closely associated with masculinity.
Authors like Hobbes and Machiavelli inevitably reflected the patriarchy of their times in their writings. Still, many contemporary political scientists, such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, have perpetuated realism’s overemphasis on power and masculinity. Though their work is empirically useful in some regards, they fail to account for the intersection between international violence and oppression. As research has shown, increased military spending is positively correlated with the frequency of violence against women. Since realism treats states as unitary “black boxes,” it overlooks the connection between security in public and private spheres.
Realism’s focus on toxic masculinity is not merely an issue in international relations theory; it also has real consequences for those who study and act on it. As late as 2017, there were only 15 female defense ministers worldwide, and only 15% of the world’s ambassadors were women. The underrepresentation of women stems in part from a political culture that denigrates feminine qualities and the public perception that only men can forcefully represent their country. Even women who rigorously engage in foreign politics feel the pressure to suppress their femininity. For example, former British Prime Minister Margeret Thatcher, also known as the “Iron Lady,” was famous for her uncompromising leadership in foreign affairs, which is largely considered a masculine trait.
Another dire consequence of the overemphasis of realism is the legitimization, even glorification, of aggression in international politics. A world that belittles traditionally non-masculine qualities, such as tenderness, cooperativeness, compassion and commiseration, will be nothing short of what Hobbes described as “the war of everyman against everyman.” It is not surprising that devoid of non-masculine qualities, humans’ lives are more often “nasty, brutish and short.” In an increasingly polarized and nationalistic world in need of collaboration on everything from environmental protection to pandemic response, the continuous glorification of toughness does the world more harm than good. Leaders who are aggressive and uncompromising in foreign affairs cannot facilitate peace or cooperation.
I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t read Hobbes or Morgenthau. Their groundbreaking ideas built the foundation of international relations and deserve careful study. But we need to read them through a gendered, critical lens instead of holding onto realist premises as infallible truths.
However, realism continues to dominate the international relations curriculum in universities worldwide over constructivist or critical theories, which provide a more nuanced perspective of international relations. Constructivist political theories analyze how fundamental principles, such as ideas, attitudes, values, cultures and norms, influence states’ strategic interactions. As such, its adherents hold that aggression between states is not something natural or inevitable, but a social construct. Meanwhile, feminist critical theories redefine security, emphasize the intersection of the public and private sphere, and acknowledge the interconnection between structural violence, such as sexism and domestic violence, and international violence, such as wars and conflicts. Though constructivist and feminist political theories can by no means replace realism, they can certianly complement it. Unfortunately, universities seldom teach constructivist or critical theories, predominantly centering realism — this needs to change.
What we need today is a feminist perspective of international relations that not only reflects on realist assumptions but also incorporates nonmasculine experiences into our analysis of human nature. For a more equitable foreign affairs ecosystem, a more cooperative geopolitical climate and a more rigorous international relations discipline, we need to break our addiction to toxically masculine realism.
Yun Zhu (23C) is from Shanghai, China.