The Realist Approach to International Relations

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The Realist Approach to International Relations

The realist approach to international relations has its roots in the state’s pursuit of power and the outright importance of the state above all else. Realism states that international relations should not be studied as how things should be but as how they are. We can distinguish between the ‘economic person’, the ‘religious person’, the ‘moral person’, the ‘political person’ etc. In order to understand politics, we must study only the ‘political person’ for example we should study the political actions of a statesman as a synonym of a state. The theory of political realism is based on the idea of a rational actor. We should compare the real events to this ideal, normative picture. Realism begins with the principle that states must act to preserve their security by amassing instruments of violence.

Necessity prevails as the dominant concept in realist theory. The necessity of preserving immediate security and survival while overlooking the search for international harmony, the necessity of identifying the unavoidable constrictions on political choice, and the necessity of not pushing the boundaries of political change. Today’s notion of realism developed as a reaction to the idealism of liberalists after the First World War. Idealism puts forward morality, international law and international organization as opposed to power as the basis of international relations.

Be it with its ancient philosophical inheritance, its critical analysis of utopian ideology or its influence on diplomacy, realism has secured an important part in the international relations of today. It might be thought that realism, being such an old and recognized theory is fairly easy to define, but looking at examples of representative definitions of realism by political theorists and scholars proves that there is a relative amount of diversity in the definition of realism.

A too precise definition excludes some areas of realism; too broad a definition loses some trains of thought. Of the ideas that make up the realist school, the most important ideas include:

International relations are open to objective study. Events can be described in terms of laws, in much the way that a theory in the sciences might be described. These laws remain true at all places and times.

The state is the most important actor. At times the state may be represented by the city-state, empire, kingdom or tribe. Individuals are of lesser importance. Thus the United Nations, Shell, the Papacy, political parties, etc, are all relatively unimportant.

The first consequence is that the international system is one of anarchy, with no common sovereign.

A second consequence is that the state is a unitary actor. The state acts in a consistent way, without any sign of divided aims.

State behaviour is rational – or can be best estimated by rational decision-making. States act as though they logically assess the costs and benefits of each course open to them.

States act to maximise either their security or power. The distinction here often proves debatable as the optimum method to guarantee security is frequently equal to maximising power.

States often rely on force or the threat of force to achieve their ends.

The most important factor in determining what happens in international relations is the distribution of power.

Ethical considerations are usually discounted. Universal moral values are difficult to define, and unachievable without both survival and power.

There are many arguments for and against this approach to the relationship between states. A totally Machiavellian approach to international relations only results in continual conflict. Idealism fails however because of the inevitability of conflict. Successful policy theories should encompass aspects of both idealism and realism.

Political realism, also known as realpolitik or simply power politics, has a history which dates back to the Greek historian Thucydides who, in the fifth
century BC, stated that “the strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept.” Thucydides is often thought of as the founder of realism. His analysis of the Peloponnesian War was an example of realist concepts. He thought that the real reason for the war was the growth of Athenian power and the fear that this caused in Sparta. Thucydides founded a school of thought that, in Europe at least, went into recession.

Idealists believe that the practice of international relations should stem from morality. The Chinese writer Mo Ti called attention to the fact that every person knows that murder is wrong, but when murder is committed in war it is applauded and dubbed to be a righteous act. Mo Ti, who lived over 2000 years ago, found this nonsensical, he said “If a man calls black black if it is seen on a small scale, but calls black white when it is seen on a large scale, then he is one who cannot tell black from white.” At around the same time, during the “warring states” period, Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, who advised the rulers of the era to use power to further their welfare, argued that morality should be discarded as it was not very useful to rulers of states who were faced with armed and dangerous opponents.

It was not until the early 1500s that a realist political philosopher could share Thucydides’ status. Niccolo Machiavelli was widely condemned at the time, and since, for his cynical and amoral advice on the way government should be conducted. However, what he captured in his writings became the soul of what we know today as realism. In his book, The Prince and the Discourses, he states:

But since my intention is to say something that will prove of practical use to the inquirer, I have thought it proper to represent things as they are in real truth, rather than as they are imagined. Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist; the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than self-preservation. The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Therefore if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must learn how not to be virtuous, and make use of this or not according to need.

The First World War presented a major challenge to Realism. Realist practices were increasingly challenged, particularly in the United States whose national experience to date differed markedly from the European states. The US President, Woodrow Wilson framed his Fourteen Points as the basis for the subsequent peace. These points included banning secret treaties, freedom of navigation and trade (aimed at increasing interdependence), arms reductions, self-determination and the formation of what became the League of Nations. The allies largely acquiesced. The post-war era was one of optimism and pacifism.

By the late 1930s the optimism that accompanied the end of the First World War was unravelling. The new Nazi regime in Germany was intimidating its neighbours, Italy had swallowed up Ethiopia, Japan was carving a new empire out of China, civil war had swept through Spain – and the World could do little to stop these new catastrophes. In this climate the historian and former diplomat, E.H. Carr launched an attack on the liberal principles that had marked the young international relations theory of the inter-war years. According to Carr, every field of study passes through a naive phase of “utopianism”. He offered as an example the efforts of early alchemists, which eventually gave way to the physical sciences. Carr argued that the antidote to utopianism was “realism”:

The impact of thinking upon wishing, in the development of a science, follows the breakdown of its first visionary projects, and marks the end of the specifically utopian period, is commonly called realism. Representing a reaction against the wish-dreams of the initial stage, realism is liable to assume a critical and somewhat cynical aspect. In the field of thought, it places its emphasis on the acceptance of facts and on the analysis of their causes and consequences.

Yet while Carr, argued his case strongly, he saw that as the discipline matured there was scope for the blending of realism and utopianism. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Hans J. Morganthau was credited with having systematised classical Realism. Morgenthau starts with the claim that he is presenting a “theory of international politics”. He sees his theory bringing “order and meaning” to the mass of facts. It both explains the observed phenomena and is logically consistent, based on fixed premises. Like Carr, he sees this realism as a contrast to liberal-idealism. Morgenthau’s theory is based on six principles he states in his first chapter. In summary, these principles were:

International relations “…is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature”.

The key consideration “…is the concept of interest defined in terms of power’.

“…Interest defined as power is an objective category which is universally valid”, although its exact meaning may change with time and circumstance.

While moral principles have a place, they cannot be defined identically at every time and place, and apply differently to individuals and the state.

“The moral aspirations of a particular nation…” are not “moral laws that govern the universe”.

Politics is an autonomous sphere that needs to be analysed as an entity, without being subordinated to outside values.

In 1979 Kenneth N. Waltz attempted to reformulate realism in a new and distinctive way. His aim was to cure the defects with earlier theories of international relations, including classical realism, by applying a more scientific approach. The approach he took in Theory of International Politics became known as Neorealism.

While classical Realists saw international politics in terms of the characteristics of states and their interaction with each other, Waltz believed that there was a level above this. According to Waltz, “The idea that international politics can be thought of as a system with a precisely defined structure is Neorealism’s fundamental departure from traditional realism” . The conditions of the system as a whole influenced state behaviour, not just state level factors.

By concentrating on the nature of the system-level structure, Waltz avoided the need to make assumptions about human nature, morality, power and interest. Neorealists were thus able to see power in a different way. For the classical Realists power was both a means and an end, and rational state behaviour was simply accumulating the most power. Neorealists found a better guide was provided by assuming that the ultimate state interest was in security, and while gathering power often ensured that, in some cases it merely provoked an arms race. Yet while power was no longer the prime motivator, its distribution was the major factor determining the nature of the structure.

Realists believe that states exist in a natural anarchy of world politics where every state looks out for its own national interest. The security dilemma stems from the idea that all states are potential enemies and that enhancing the security of one state produces a relative loss of power for all other states. Realists believe that peace can only be achieved by a balance of power among several states as opposed to a bi-polar, hegemonic world. Idealists or liberal institutionalists believe that states can achieve security through construction of international regimes and structures. There are many alternative approaches to realism, for example constructivism or identity politics which explores world politics from the viewpoint that international relations can be best explained by a collection of identities, rather than states.

Instead of taking the state as the given and only relevant unit of analysis this theory imagines the possibility of many different states, many distinct identities. It then follows that alternative kinds of states do not treat each other in a similar manner. This approach has been used to explain many of the hard questions in international politics that realism has difficulty answering. For example, the notion that there is more than on “Russian state” is a prime concern of identity politics. Russia’s behaviour in international politics is an outgrowth of these identities. What are Russia’s identities? Consider the vast number of terms used to describe Russia in journals and newspapers. Russia is an “ex-communist state”, it is a “developing state”, it is a “democratic state”, it is an “Asian state”, a “nuclear state” and so on. According to theories of identity politics, we can best understand Russian behaviour by studying these particular identities and how policy choices influence these identities. Therefore, identity politics considers a dramatically different set of variables than realism.

Critical theory appeals to a number of different non-quantitative fields to analyze world politics, whereas realists believe that the influence of religion, culture, history and other variables is subordinate to precise measurements of material capabilities. Realist theory is also unable to explain major events in world politics such as the end of the Cold War and the two world wars. Whereas realists measure only the role of states and the balance of power between them in world politics, critical theories take a more expansive course, incorporating actors like non-governmental organisations, transnational corporations and factors like domestic politics into their explanation of world politics. Thus a succesful international relations policy should include aspects of realism and other maybe more idealistic theories.


Linklater, A., Beyond Realism and Marxism – Critical Theory and International Relations, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire RG21 2XS, The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1990, pg.1-8.

Goldstein, J.S., International Relations, London, Pearson Longman, 2004, 5th Edition. pg.71-78.

Spegele, R.D., Political Realism in International Theory, The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1RP, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pg.230-244.

Donnelly, J., Realism and International Relations, The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 2RU, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pg.6-13.

Burchill, S. and Linklater A., Theories of International Relations, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, St.Martin’s Press, Inc., 1996, pg.67-90.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

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  • Date: 23 July 2016

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