States, selfishness and sanctions.

So here’s the little International Relations puzzle I promised. For those of you with little familiarity with this branch of political science, a leading theory hypothesised to explain foreign policy and phenomena is ‘realism’, which largely follows common sense in saying, in short, that it’s all about power and advancing one’s own interests, as that Thucydides quote earlier implied.

If that’s true, then, how are we to explain the fact that systematic, widespread, robust economic sanctions were enforced upon the South African regime as they refused to budge on their Apartheid policy, despite it costing multiple nations billions in lost trade? It’s when we find such instances of what appears to be simply straightforward, value-driven, moral behaviour from states that realists start to look in trouble. If they’re right in saying states decide what to do on the basis of what best promotes their security, it’s not clear why they’d bother with any humanitarian policy at all.


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