Chapter Three Notes
What is Realism?
Realism is based on three assumptions:
1.States are the only actors in international relations that matter.
2. A policy maker’s primary responsibility is to create, maintain, and increase national power
(the means available to a state to secure its national interests) at all costs.
3. No central authority stands above the state. The anarchic nature of the international system is
an essential assumption for realist thinkers.
The world perceived by realists is lawless, competitive, and uncertain.
The Essential Realism
Three essential elements to Realism:
Within their territorial space, sovereignty means that the sate has supreme authority to make and
enforce laws. This is the basis of the unwritten contract between individuals and the state. Realist
international theory assumes that, domestically, the problem of order and security is solved.
However, in the real world insecurities, dangers, and threats to the very existence of the state
loom large. Realists explain this on the basis that the very condition for order and security
namely the existence of a sovereign world government is missing from the international realm.
In this condition of anarchy, states compete with other states for power and security.
This competitive logic of power politics makes agreement on universal principles difficult, apart
from the principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of tother sovereign states. But realists
suspend even this principle and argue that in practice, nonintervention does not apply in relations
between great powers and their regional neighbors.
There are two important points that realists make about power. First, power is a relational
concept; one does not exercise power in a vacuum but in relation to another entity. Second,
power is a relative concept; calculations need to be made not only about one’s own power
capabilities but also about the power that other states possess.
Survival is held to be a precondition for attaining all other goals, whether these involve conquest
or merely independence. Their guide must be an ethic of responsibility: the careful weighing of
consequences an the realization that individual immoral acts might need to be carried out for the
greater good. An ethic of responsibility is frequently used as a justification for breaking the laws
of war. The problem with this is that while instructing leaders to consider the consequences of
their actions, it does not provide a guide for how state leaders should weigh the consequences. Starting from the assumption that each state has its own particular values and beliefs, realists
argue that the state is the supreme good and there can be no community beyond borders.
The key difference between domestic and international order lies in their structure. In the
domestic polity, citizens usually do not need to defend themselves. In the international system,
there is no higher authority, no global police officer, to prevent and counter the use of force.
Security can therefore be realized only through selfhelp.
Security dilemmas exist when the military preparations of one state create an irresolvable
uncertainty in the mind of another as to whether those preparations are for defensive purposes
only (to enhance its security in an uncertain world), or whether they are for offensive purposes
(to change the status quo to its advantage). This suggests that one state’s quest for security is
often another state’s source of insecurity.
In a selfhelp system, structural realists argue that the balance of power, or parity and stability
among competing powers, will emerge even in the absence of a conscious policy to maintain it.
In an anarchic system populated by states with leaders who seek to perpetuate themselves,
alliances will be formed that seek to check and balance the power against threatening states.
What the perennial collapsing of the balance of power demonstrates is that states are at best able
to mitigate the worst consequences of the security dilemma but are not able to escape it. The
reason for this terminal condition is the absence of trust in international relations. This comes
through Th. problem of coordinating the interests of the individual versus the interests of the
common good and the payoff between shortterm interests and longterm interests.
According to the theory of comparative advantage, all states would be wealthier in a world that
allowed freedom of goods and services across borders. But individual states, can increase their
wealth by pursuing protectionist policies, like tariffs on foreign goods, as long as other states do
not respond in kind.
One Realism or Many?
The classicalrealist lineage begins with Thucydides’ representation of power politics as a law of
human behavior. They argue that the drive for power and the will to dominate are the
fundamental aspects of human nature. The behavior of the state as a selfseeking egoist is
understood to be merely a reflection of the characteristics of the people that comprise the state.
Therefore, it is human nature that explains why international politics is necessarily power
politics. Classical realists argue that human nature explains the essential features of international
politics, such as competition, fear, and war. The most important thing to do is to first recognize that these laws exist, and second, to devise the most appropriate policies that are consistent with
the basic fact that human beings are flawed creatures.
Classical realism also believes in the primordial character of power and ethics. Classical realism
is fundamentally about the struggle for belonging, a struggle that is often violent. Patriotic virtue
is required for communities to survive in this historic battle between good and evil.
All obligations and treaties with other states must be disregarded if the security of the
community is under threat, classical realists say. Moreover, imperial expansion is legitimate, as it
is a means of gaining greater security.
Structural Realism, or Neorealism
Structural realists, sometimes called neorealists, concur that international politics is essentially a
struggle for power, but they do not endorse the classicalrealist assumption that this a result of
human nature. Instead, structural realists attribute security competition and interstate conflict to
the lack of an overarching authority above states and the relative distribution of power in the
Kenneth Waltz, the bestknown structural realist, defined the structure of the international system
in terms of three elements: organizing principle, differentiation of units, and distribution of
He argues that the units of the international system are functionally similar sovereign states;
hence, unitlevel variation is irrelevant in explaining international outcomes. According to
structural realists the relative distribution of power in the international system is the key
independent variable to understanding important international outcomes such as war and peace,
alliance politics, and the balance of power. The number of great powers that exist at any point in
time in turn determines the structure of the international system.
Waltz argues that states, especially the great pores, must be sensitive to the capabilities of other
states. The possibility that any state may use force to advance its interests results in all states
being worried about their survival. Power is a means to the end of security. Therefore, rather than
being power maximizers, states are security maximizers. This is known as defensive realism.
Offensive realism parts company with defensive realism over the question of how much power
states want. According to offensive realists, the structure of the internal system compels states to
maximize their relative power position. Thus, offensive realists are power maximizers. Yet he
also argues that not only do all states possess some offensive military capability, but there is a
great real of uncertainty about the intentions of other states. All states are continuously searching
for opportunities to gain power at the expense of others states. And states realize that the best
path to peace is to accumulate more power than anyone else.
Contemporary Realist Challenges to Structural Realism Some contemporary realists are skeptical of the notion that the international distribution of
power alone can explain the behavior of states. While systemic factors are recognized to be an
important influence on the behavior of states, so are factors such as the perceptions of state
leaders, statesociety relationships, and the motivations of states. This group of neoclassical
realist scholars are attempting to build a bridge between international structural factors and unit
There is no objective, independent reading of the distribution of power: rather, what matters is
how state leaders derive an understanding of the distribution of power. Neoclassical realists
argue that historically not all states have a similar set of interests. The assumption that all states
have an interest in security results in neorealism exhibiting a profoundly status quo bias.
Neoclassical realists argue that different types of states possess different capacities to translate
the various elements of national power into state power.
What is Liberalism?
Liberal thought is grounded in the political and economic philosophies articulated by several
scholars: Immanuel Kant, John Locke, etc. These liberal thinkers argued that human nature is
good, not evil; that states can thrive best in a world governed by mortality and law; and that
reason and rationality will compel states to cooperate to achieve mutually held goals in peace.
When drafting the 1919 Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I, the United States, United
Kingdom, and France sought to recast the rules of international relations where compliance with
the principles of liberalism would facilitate more harmonious relations among global actors.
Just as realism derives from the observations and interpretations of political situations, so does
liberalism. The seeds of a a liberal perspective had been sown in the wake of the fifteenth
century’s socalled Age of Discovery, which fostered the rampant expansion of global commerce
as states, explore entrepreneurs, and trading companies became involved in the business of
exchanging goods and services.
To exchange in commerce, these pioneer global traders had to negotiate the terms of trade; that
is, how much of one commodity was worth how much of another. They also had to abide by new
and different cultural norms and legal systems, and had to bargain with political leaders to gain
and maintain market access.
As economic and social interactions crossed political boundaries with increasing frequency, trade
and immigration patterns rendered realist guidelines decreasingly useful to policy makers. It was
no longer so easy to engage in unilateral actions without experiencing economic repercussions.
In the end, however, realism prevailed. No country was able and willing to provide the
leadership that might have prevented renewed belligerence after the League of Nations was
formed after World War I. After World War II and the drop of the atomic bomb no country was
safe from war, and leaders and citizens alike feared the possible consequences of combat. The
introduction of weapons of mass destruction meant that future conflicts might lead to the
extinction of the human race. With the creation of the United Nations came a multilateralist approach to global governance and
a new principle of political liberalism; those governed (states) should have a say in the
development of those rules, norms, and principles by which they will be governed. The United
States and other nations created a whole host of international governmental organizations to
manage global relations in key political and economic arenas, and, in the long run, to govern an
anarchic system. The mandates of these IGOs were informed by liberal internationalism, a
combination of: democratically values (political liberalism), free trade markets (economic
liberalism), multilateral cooperation (multilateralism), and a rule based international society that
respects sovereignty and human rights.
There is a fourdimensional definition of liberalism:
1.All citizens are equal before the law and possess certain basic rights to education, access to a
free press, and religious toleration.
2.The legislative assembly of the state possesses only the authority invested in it by the people,
whose basic rights it may not abuse.
3.A key dimension of the liberty of the individual is the right to own property, including
4.Liberalism contends that the most effective system of economic exchange is one that is largely
market driven and not one that is subordinate to bureaucratic regulation and control, either
domestically or internationally.
Properly conceived, liberal thought on a global scale embodies a domestic political and
economic system operating at the international level. Liberals see a further parallel between
individuals and sovereign states. Although the character of states may differ, all states in a global
society are accorded certain natural rights, such as the generalized right to nonintervention in
their domestic affairs. In a sense, liberal thinkers seek to create an international system that
embodies the values and structures of liberal democratic governments.
Historically, liberals have agreed with realists that war is a recurring feature of the anarchic states
system, but unlike realists, they do not identify anarchy as the cause of war.
Certain strands of liberalism see the causes of war located in imperialism, others in the failure of
the balance of power, and still others in the problem of undemocratic regimes.
Liberalism is at its heart a doctrine of change and belief in progress. Liberalism pulls in two
directions: its commitment to freedom in the economic and social spheres leans in the directio