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