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Chapter 2

POLB80 chapter2

Political Science
Course Code
Francis Wiafe- Amoako

of 42
Realist Theories
Israeli artillery firing on Gaza, 2009.
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No single theory reliably explains the wide range of international interactions, but one
theoretical framework has historically held a central position in the study of IR. This
approach, called realism, is favored by some IR scholars and vigorously contested by
others, but almost all take it into account.
Realism (or political realism) is a school of thought that explains international rela-
tions in terms of power. The exercise of power by states toward each other is sometimes
called realpolitik, or just power politics.
Modern realist theory developed in reaction to a liberal tradition that realists called
idealism (of course, idealists themselves do not consider their approach unrealistic).
Idealism emphasizes international law, morality, and international organizations, rather
than power alone, as key influences on international events.1Idealists think that human
nature is basically good. They see the international system as one based on a community
of states that have the potential to work together to overcome mutual problems (see
Chapter 3). For idealists, the principles of IR must flow from morality. Idealists were par-
ticularly active between World War I and World War II, following the painful experience
of World War I. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson and other idealists placed their hopes
for peace in the League of Nations as a formal structure for the community of nations.
Those hopes were dashed when that structure proved helpless to stop German,
Italian, and Japanese aggression in the 1930s. Since World War II, realists have blamed
idealists for looking too much at how the world ought to be instead of how it really is.
Sobered by the experiences of World War II, realists set out to understand the principles
of power politics without succumbing to wishful thinking. Realism provided a theoretical
foundation for the Cold War policy of containment and the determination of U.S. policy
makers not to appease the Soviet Union and China as the West had appeased Hitler at
Munich in 1938.
Realists ground themselves in a long tradition. The Chinese strategist Sun Tzu,
who lived 2,000 years ago, advised the rulers of states how to survive in an era when war
had become a systematic instrument of power for the first time (the “warring states” pe-
riod). Sun Tzu argued that moral reasoning was not very useful to the state rulers of the
day, faced with armed and dangerous neighbors. He showed rulers how to use power to
advance their interests and protect their survival.2
At roughly the same time, in Greece, Thucydides wrote an account of the
Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.) focusing on relative power among the Greek city-
states. He stated that “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak
accept what they have to accept.”3Much later, in Renaissance Italy (around 1500),
Niccolò Machiavelli urged princes to concentrate on expedient actions to stay in power,
including the manipulation of the public and military alliances. Today the adjective
Machiavellian refers to excessively manipulative power maneuvers.4
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century discussed the free-for-all
that exists when government is absent and people seek their own self-interests. He called
Defining Power
Estimating Power
Elements of Power
The International System
Anarchy and Sovereignty
Balance of Power
Great Powers and
Middle Powers
Power Distribution
The Great Power System,
Purposes of Alliances
Other Alliances
Regional Alignments
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
1 Nardin, Terry, and David R. Mapel, eds. Traditions of International Ethics. Cambridge, 1992. Long, David,
and Peter Wilson, eds. Thinkers of the Twenty Years’ Crisis: Inter-War Idealism Reassessed. Oxford, 1995.
2Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Translated by Samuel B. Griffith. Oxford, 1963.
3Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by R. Warner. Penguin, 1972, p. 402.
4Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince, and the Discourses. Translated by Luigi Ricci. Revised by E. R. P.
Vincent. NY: Modern Library, 1950. Meinecke, Friedrich. Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison d’État and
Its Place in Modern History. Translated by D. Scott. Yale, 1957.
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44 Chapter 2 Realist Theories
FIGURE 2.1 Theories of IR
Liberal Theories
Liberal Institutionalism
Peace Studies
Gender Theories
it the “state of nature” or “state of war”—what we would now call the “law of the jungle”
in contrast to the rule of law. Hobbes favored a strong monarchy (which he labeled a
Leviathan) to tame this condition—essentially advocating a dominance approach to solve
the collective goods problem in domestic societies. Realists see in these historical figures
evidence that the importance of power politics is timeless and cross-cultural.
After World War II, scholar Hans Morgenthau argued that international politics is gov-
erned by objective, universal laws based on national interests defined in terms of power
(not psychological motives of decision makers). He reasoned that no nation had “God on
its side” (a universal morality) and that all nations had to base their actions on prudence
and practicality. He opposed the Vietnam War, arguing in 1965 that a communist
Vietnam would not harm U.S. national interests.
Similarly, in 2002, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, leading realists figured promi-
nently among the 33 IR scholars signing a New York Times advertisement warning that
“war with Iraq is not in America’s national interest.”5Thus realists do not always favor
using military power, although they recognize the necessity of doing so at times. The
target of the IR scholars’ ad was the group of foreign policy makers in the Bush adminis-
tration known as neoconservatives, who advocated more energetic use of American power,
especially military force, to accomplish ambitious and moralistic goals such as democratizing
the Middle East.
Thus, realism’s foundation is the principle of dominance; alternatives based on
reciprocity and identity will be reviewed in Chapter 3. Figure 2.1 lays out the various
theoretical approaches to the study of IR we discuss in Chapters 2 and 3.
Realists tend to treat political power as separate from, and predominant over, morality,
ideology, and other social and economic aspects of life. For realists, ideologies do not matter
much, nor do religions or other cultural factors with which states may justify their actions.
5Morgenthau, Hans. We Are Deluding Ourselves in Vietnam. New York Times Magazine, April 18, 1965.
Advertisement, New York Times, September 26, 2002.
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