Sunday, January 12, 2014
Chapter 2: Realist Theories
• Realism — or political realism, explains international relations in terms of power. The
exercise of power by states toward each other is sometimes called realpolitik, or power politics.
• The state is the main actor, and is unitary, and state survival is the goal.
• Idealism — emphasizes international law, morality, and international organization, rather
than power alone, as key inﬂuences on international events. Idealists think that human nature is
basically good and the principles of IR must ﬂow from morality.
• US president Woodrow Wilson led the effort to create the League of Nations, a fore-
runner of today’s UN, but the US Senate did not approve, and the League proved
• In an effort to appease German ambitions during the 1930s, Britain and France agreed in
the Munich Agreement of 1938 to let Germany occupy part of Czechoslovakia. From
the failure of the Munich Agreement in 1938 to appease Hitler, many people have
concluded that only a hard-line foreign policy with preparedness for war will deter
aggression and prevent war. Yet in 1914 it was just such lard-line policies that apparently
led Europe into a disastrous war.
Issue Realism Idealism
Human nature Selﬁsh Altruistic
Most important actors States States and other strong
Causes of state behavior Rational pursuit of self- Psychological motives of
interest decision makers
Nature of international Anarchy Community
Thucydides wrote an account of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), and states that “the
strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”
• Scholar Hans Morgenthau argued after WWII that international politics is governed by
objective, universal laws based on national interests deﬁned in terms of power (not
psychological motives of decision makers).
• Realists do not always favour using military power, although they recognize the necessity of
doing so at times
• Realists see states with very different religions, ideologies, or economic systems as quite
similar in their actions with regard to national power, thus, realism’s foundation is the
principle of dominance.
• Power — often deﬁned as the ability to get another actor to do what it would not otherwise
have done (or not to do what it would have done). A variation is that actors are powerful to the
extent that they affect others more than others affect them. Can be measured through the
military or the national GDP. Sunday, January 12, 2014
• Power is not inﬂuence itself, but the ability or potential to inﬂuence others. Potential is
based on speciﬁc characteristics or possessions of states — such as their size, levels or
incomes, armed forces — this power is capability.
• Capabilities give a state the potential to inﬂuence others only to the extent that political
leaders can mobilize and deploy these capabilities effectively and strategically. This depends
on national will, diplomatic skill, popular support for the government (legitimacy), and so
• Soft power — of a state’s own values become widely shared among other states, that state will
easily inﬂuence others.
• Relative power — the ratio of the power that two states can bring to bear against each other.
• The logic of power suggests that in wars, the more powerful state will generally prevail. Thus,
estimates of the relative power of the two antagonists should help explain the outcome of each
• Fungible — the extent that one element of power can be converted into another. Generally,
money is the most fungible capability because it can buy other capabilities.
• Realists tend to see military force as the most important element of national power in the
short term, and other elements such as economic strength, diplomatic skill, or moral
legitimacy as being important to the extent that they are fungible into military power.
Geopolitics — the use of geography as an element of power.
• States increase their power to the extent that they can use geography to enhance their
military capabilities, such as by securing allies and bases close to a rival power, or by
controlling key natural resources.
• Zero-sum game — a gain in security by one state, in realist terms, is a loss of security by
another state. There are no win-win situations.
The International System
• Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 ended the Thirty Years’ War and set out the basic rules that have
deﬁned the international system since — the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states as
equal and independent members of an international system. Key to this system was the ability
of one state, or a coalition, to balance the power of another state so that is could not gobble up
smaller states and create a universal empire.
Realists believe that the international system exists in a state of anarchy — a term that implies
the lack of a central government that can enforce rules.
• The power of one state is countered only by the power of other states. Thus, states should
pay attention not to the intentions of other states but rather to their capabilities.
• Norms of behaviour — shared expectations about what behaviour is considered proper.
• Sovereignty — traditionally the most important norm, means that a government has the
right in principle to do whatever it wants in its own territory. States are separate and
autonomous and answer to no higher authority. Sovereignty also means that states are not
supposed to interfere in the internal affairs of other states.
• Sovereignty and territorial integrity make it difﬁcult to enforce international norms. Thus,
states have developed norms of diplomacy to facilitate their interactions.
• Security dilemma — a situation in which actions taken by states to ensure their own
security threaten the security of other states. The dilemma is a negative consequence of
anarchy in the international system.
▯2 Sunday, January 12, 2014
• Balance of power — the general concept of one or more states’ power being used to balance
that of another state or group of states. Alternatively, balance of power can refer to the process
by which counterbalancing coalitions have repeatedly formed in history to prevent one state
from conquering an entire region. The theory of balance of power argues that such
counterbalancing occurs regularly and maintains the stability of the international system.
Balance of power if the response to an anarchical system.
• Alliances play a key role in the balance of power. Building up one’s own capabilities against
a rival is a form of power balancing, but forming an alliance against a threatening state is
often quicker, cheaper, and more effective.
• The predominance of US power has led to counterbalancing, as predicted by balance-of-
Great powers — generally considered the half-dozen or so most powerful sates. The structure
is a balance of power among the six or so most powerful states, which form and break alliances,
ﬁght wars, and make peace, letting no single state conquer the others. In general, great powers
are often deﬁned as the states that can be defeated militarily only by another great power.
• The great powers generally have the world’s strongest military forces and the strongest
economies to pay for them. These large economies in turn rest on some combination of
large populations, plentiful natural resources, advanced technology, and educated labor
• Great powers today: US, China, Russia, Japan, Germany, France, and Britain. Together