What are the assumptions of realism and why has it
been so influential in the studies of International
Originating from the German word 'Realpolitik' , realism is of ten used as a term which fits a more
realistic and unpretentious political theory, as opposed to an unrealistic ideological theo ry. It is this
theory which has been one of the leading and most prominent ways of thinking in terms of
international relations in modern times, with its stark view of nation states and people appealing
greatly to the Western leading political institutions, as recently it has become another phrase for
'power politics'. Instead of referring to itself as an ideology, realists see it as more of a straight forward
rational theory, a way of thinking reasonably in the situation, rather than seeing the world as a far
fetched and ideological utopia. Political realism is seen as a way of explaining political philosophy
models, and to prescribe political relations. It makes many assumptions, the key one being that power
is indeed (or ought to be) the first p o int in political action, be it in an international or domestic sphere.
Domestically, this theo ry d eclares that the politicians must look to take full advantage of their power.
However when in the international arena the nation states should be the primary agents that advance
and seek to make the most of the power available to them. It can b e seen therefore that nations and
politicians ought to pursue power or their own interests in theo ry, but in reality the ruling nation state of
affairs-that nations and politicians only selfishly pursue power.
In the late 20th century, realism was seen as a way of managing all of the world's powerful nations
peacefully and co-operating for the advantage of those concerned. The international interaction was
based less on political principles and more upon the balance of power between the worlds leading
nations, as introduced to Western politics by Henry Kissinger, to the Nixon Government. 'We must
remember the only time in the history of the world that we have had any extended periods of peace is
when there has been a balance of power.' Examples of this can be seen in the way Kissinger gave the
go ahead to t he invasion of East Timor by the tyrant Suharto, or Nixon's mediation with one of its
ideological enemies, the People's Republic of China.
Realism is based upon a series of fundamental assumptions, which when looked at, can explain why
indeed realism has been so successful within the sphere of international relations. Its first and key
assumption is a pessimistic view of human nature. This sees humans as primarily concerned with
their own interests, looking to fur ther themselves in a selfish demeanour, as Morgenthau put it, a 'will
to power'. This means hu man beings everywhere are to behave in the same way, regardless of
nationality, looking to be one step ahead of opposition so as not to be taken advantage of. Hobbes
also shares this view, 'Whe re there is no common Power, t here is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice
if there be no Power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will and may lawfully rely
on his own strength and ar t, for caution against all other men.' Therefore, as a result of t his on a
worldwide scale, the international arena is a constant battle for survival to ensure the constant
advantage for ones nation, thus world politics unfurls into an international anarchy, in which the state
becomes the pre-eminent actor. This leaves the states foreign policies to best protect the interests and
advance the status of the state against all others in the international hierarchy of power.
If it is the sovereign state which wields all of the power on the global stage, then it is an assumption
that any other organisation is of little or no impor tance in the ef fect it has on international relations as
a whole. Th e prominence of international figures, independent international organisations a nd NGO's
are all dismissed by the realist thinker, as it is the states which hold the power, the amount depending
on the standing of the state in question.
This leads to the fact that if realists believe the above to be true, they envisage the global stage as
one which houses many powers that distrust each other in a constant and inevitable competition. If
each state is the rational actor, looking to act in its own interest, it leaves a distrust of long term co-
operation or alliances. This is echoed by Thucydides, who saw conflict as inevitable between ancient
Greek cities; states have the need to adjust themselves according to the unequal power in order to