Chapter One – Idealism vs. Realism (27-35).
Lecture on Jan. 9
The Realists Versus the Idealists
Modern IR began in the wake of WWI. Because of the scale of devastation
and loss of life endured during the war, scholars became interested in
developing predictive and prescriptive theories.
Core Assumptions of Classical Idealism
1) Human behaviour can be perfected
2) There exists a harmony of interests between people and between
3) Therefore, war is never an appropriate way to solve disputes; instead,
the underlying harmony of interests should be uncovered and
4) If the correct laws and institutions guide behaviour, the good in
humans can be evoked (thereby illuminating the harmony of interests
between people and between states)
Idealists looked to legal philosophy and legal studies for inspiration. They
saw that laws influence the way people act; therefore, if one modifies the
laws, one can also modify the behaviour of people. Thus, idealists stressed
the potential for international law to bring about international peace.
Idealists also stressed choice, rationality, and the potential or actual
existence of a harmony of interests between people.
They also emphasized the normative goal of peace.
Idealists were considered to be utopian and unrealistic (note the pejorative
connotations associated with those words today) by their realist critics.
Core Assumptions of Classical Realism
1) Humans have a will to survive, which makes them selfish
2) The will to survive means a will to dominate the environment, including
3) Since this creates competition to dominate, the will to survive creates
a search for power
Realists assumed that humans were basically selfish, greedy, and interested
in dominating each other. They pointed to the failure of legalistic attempts to stop war in the 1930s as
evidence of idealism's deficiency.
E. H. Carr thought that idealists focused too much on normative goals, and
not enough on understanding actual conditions, while realists focused too
little on normative goals.
Reinhold Niebuhr drew upon Christianity, arguing that man was tainted by
sin, and that human behaviour could never be perfected. Rather, man had a
will to live, and a will to dominate.
Hans Morgenthau also appealed to human nature, arguing that the will to
survive is really a will to power.
Realists also argued that morality played no role in the policies of other
states, so it ought not play a role in the foreign policy of the U.S. or other
Realists maintain dominance today, though they have never enjoyed
During the first half of the Cold War, realists themselves began to question
certain assumptions of classical realism. One leading thinker was Kenneth
Waltz, whose theory became structural realism.
Core Assumptions of Structural Realism
1) States are the most important actors in international relations (but
they are not the only actors)
2) States are unitary, rational actors
3) The international system is anarchic
4) States, in order to protect their own interests, will seek to maximize
Realists also emphasize the notion of sovereignty. The international system
is one of anarchy, because there is no government superior than those of
nation-states. Because states have ultimate political authority, answering to
no higher actor while influencing actors underneath them (citizens), they are
the most important actor in international relations.
Each state can act as judge,