Guide to International Relations: Realism

This second article of our three part series on International relations deals with realism. As an International Relations approach, realism is considered by some to be the most powerful one and to provide the most useful toolkit for understanding international politics. The aim of this short text is to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and also to question whether realism is still the clearest lens through which to analyze contemporary international relations.

During the second part of the XX century, the disappointment with the optimistic view of the liberals/idealists sparked a more  pessimistic/deterministic reaction that found expression in the realist theory.

Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli Source: David [email protected]

The most important reason why realism was immediately influential had to do with its explanatory power on the causes of the Second World War, mainly by destroying the idea that there is an international harmony of interests between states. The liberal doctrine promotes the idea that the highest interest of the individual and the highest interest of the community coincide. In pursuing his own interest, the individual pursues the interest of the community. The conflict between almost all the nations of the world proved that a conflict of interests does exist on the international level.  The conflict was so powerful that it even eliminated peace itself, which was supposed to be the ultimate international common goal.

Another advantage for realism was an empirical one, the ability to explain the Cold War by applying the famous concept of ‘balance of power’ to the foreign policy of both the US and the Soviet Union. Each of these super powers tried to overcome the rise of the other by developing its own influence in different geographical regions. According to realists, there is no such thing as good or bad countries. Every state has only one moral duty, and that is to protect its national security and interest. Defensive realists argue that security is the motivation behind any interaction in the international system, while offensive realists put more focus on the pursuit of power and domination. However, even in this case the imperialistic path is justified only by the necessity to protect the state against future potential threats.


Source: Wikipedia

A normative point of strength in realism is its considerations on international law. The main idea is that law is to be separated from ethics. Law is binding not because humans have a natural tendency towards order or other utopian values but because authority enforces its obedience. Therefore, it is used instrumentally by the stronger. On the international level, the anarchic structure dictates that units (states) are independent, under no central authority. Sovereign states respect treaties whenever it is in their interest. When this is no longer the case, law loses all legal force. Moreover, going back to laws as instruments, the proof is that many treaties have been imposed to states that found themselves in a position of disadvantage (peace treaties). From a normative perspective, change in the international system is not a consequence of legislation but of the threat of conflict or war. Nevertheless, even conflicts are put under value/ethical considerations based on power distribution. Those who wish to maintain the status quo present violence as immoral, while those who could have an interest in military engagement or in regime change will find ethical justifications for violence (see humanitarian intervention).

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Despite this good review, realism has some empirical limitations as well. First of all, with regard to neorealism, because it tries to create a scientific theory it has to simplify all the assumptions. For example, Waltz considers only capability as attribute of states. Under international anarchy, the uneven distribution of power creates polarity. For the rest, units are all the same. Their only motive is survival. This is why such reduction fails to explain much of the international affairs. As a consequence, realism must be an essential part of the pluralistic discipline of IR but not the only one.


Source: the US [email protected]

Secondly, realism fails to understand the importance of norms and institutions on global level. Shared values can shape units even more than structure. For example, sovereignty is based not only on a states’s capability (power) but mainly on the recognition of its right to exist. The principle of self-determination created new weak states, and their survival was not a consequence of their power but of the internationally shared value of the right to exist. There are currently many centers of power out there that call themselves sovereign states but that are not functionally part of the international system since they are not recognized by most actors.

From the normative point of view, realism has the weakness of being sterile. It considers the real, harsh world conditions and tries to mold policy under those circumstances without trying to change them. The concept of relativity that realists like to use so much takes away any ground for meaningful action: if our thought is conditioned by our status or interest, then both thought and action become purposeless and non authentic. Realism does not come with any prescriptions on how to improve state relations.

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To conclude, in our contemporary world, I personally think that the most useful theory for explaining international affairs is neoliberalism. However, realism created the foundations for this new theoretical approach. According to both, the dominant units (states) exist in anarchy and are shaped by this structure. Both of them see states as being rationally involved on a strategic level. The difference is that neoliberalism focuses on cooperation rather than conflict. Thus, one cannot underestimate this theory’s value if one considers the radical changes brought by globalization. Institutions reduce uncertainty, transaction costs and more importantly the security dilemma. Also, interdependency creates economic, social and political bonds that can turn out to be hard to untie.

For a detailed study of IR theories, the following sources and scholars are recommended:


Burchill S., Linklater A., Devetak R., Donnelly J., Paterson M., Reus-Smit C. and True J., Theories of International  Relations, Third edition, 2005, Palgrave Macmillan;

E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939. An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, 1946;

Mearsheimer J., Waltz K., Keohane R., Morgenthau H., Buzan B., Wendt A., Bull H.,  – articles, books, interviews.

What Next? Why do we need International Relations?

And Later: Guide to International Relations II: Marxism and Constructivism

Claudiu Sonda
Passionate student of IR and European politics with an interest in developing a high-level expertise in International Security and geopolitics.