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
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
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
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
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
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
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.