Summary: Realism in International Relations


Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.

Download PDF

Realism’s roots can be found in various works through history from authors such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes or Morgenthau. The latest with his book entitled Politics among Nations has been considered as the foundation of realism. It is not until WWI and the following crisis that realism encountered its first great crisis with the other ‘fundamental’ theory: liberalism. Since the 70s realism seems to have regained its status of respected theory in the « museum of International relations theory ». In this essay it shall be argued that the main reason of the popularity of realism remains in the theory itself. Critics provided by other schools of thought pushed it to adapt and improve. Finally, it is an essential theory in world affairs and the international sphere nowadays.

Essay due? We'll write it for you!

Any subject

Min. 3-hour delivery

Pay if satisfied

Get your price

While classical realism defends that human beings are inherently selfish emphasizing their egoistic characteristic, neorealism considers that the state-system operates in a sphere of international anarchy where the higher authority is the sovereign state. This can be considered as a ‘rational choice’ approach, with an inclination towards ‘scientific’ methods allowing the study of objective knowledge, explaining that states are predictable and are to be considered as rational actors. Waltz proposed a new approach to realism with 3 levels of analysis: the individual, the state and the international system. Waltz shook realists and mostly classical realists. These theories have in common the core realist tenets: groupism, egoism, anarchy and power politics. Groupism is the cohesion within and between groups and is key in domestic and international politics to reduce conflict and increase cooperation. Egoism is the second main aspect as numerous realists judge human beings self-interested. These tendencies seem rooted in human nature and drive the politics of states. Anarchy is the third stage of realism that is possible because of the absence of a world government. Finally, the merger of the first three aspects creates the last one: power politics. All states focus on their national interests, their national security and the gain of power in The Theory of International Relations Humans ‘are driven by non-rational appetites: aversions, fears, hopes and desires especially for power’.

Adding to this, interaction with other schools of thought allowed realists to update their own theory. Some realists understand that no theory is perfection and that by collaborating with ‘opponents’ they hone their capacity of self-criticism. In the specific case of realism, it is important because many theories appeared in response to its arguments such as post-modernism or feminism. Numerous works have been published showing the renaissance of realism and how modern it can be with, for instance, books on the origins of war. As Schörnig expressed it, two main debates can be distinguished. First, the « neo-neo debate » between neorealists and neoinstitutionalists during the 80s and the debate based on the constructionist critique of the neorealist conception of anarchy. Neoinstitutionalists such as Keohane and Axelrod argued that cooperation was possible between states. This led them to claim that the problem of conflict could be resolved through an adequate international framework. The neorealist Grieco countered this view by taking up an argument made by Waltz on “relative gains”. The second debate appeared when Wendt criticized Waltz in one of his articles. For him, « it is not logically necessary to assume that international anarchy will automatically give rise to a self-help system featuring an irresistible impulse to engage in power politics ». « Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics » in published in International Organization.

Finally, neorealism is more prominent since September 11th 2001. The state-centric theory became more suitable for understanding the international scene with the ’new’ threats and the question of security. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States of America were left as the only superpower. However, realists predicted that its hegemony would collapse rapidly creating a multipolar world. Even if these predictions did not come to fruition, realists adapted their views and some argued that they could explain why unipolarity lasted, while Waltz or Layne said that a return to a balance of power was expected. Scholars predicted three ways unipolarity would end: counterbalancing powers, integration at a regional level or the differential growth in power. Layne stated that Waltzian realists were wrong because they ignored the « duality of American power » endorsed by second-tier major powers and counterbalancing powers such as Russia, Japan or China. Realism analyzes the European cooperation as an attempt to counterbalance American power but this is debatable. Mearsheimer is certain that the future of Europe is characterized by fear and security competition (balance-of-power theory). On the other hand, Posen explains that European cooperation is going to persist in regional and international security. Realism’s revival has a lot to do with threats coming from international terrorism, non-state actors and insurgency. Therefore, their analysis of China’s growing power against American hegemony seems to be best able to explain the conflicts in the international structure. Mearsheimer also argues that the rise of Chinese power will lead to its dominance on Asia and to the creation of a coalition of the US, Japan and Russia that will most likely guide the world towards a « catastrophic war ». 

In a nutshell, there are many problems with realism in International Relations, but it not an « exclusive club that restricts its members from using theories and other concepts from other approaches to explain non-traditional conflict »[footnoteRef:8]. Consequently, realism remains popular and prominent in most of the policy-making circles: it has recently accomplished more than its rivals despite the fact that it remains absent in major publications.

writers online
to help you with essay
banner clock
Clock is ticking and inspiration doesn't come?
We`ll do boring work for you. No plagiarism guarantee. Deadline from 3 hours.

We use cookies to offer you the best experience. By continuing, we’ll assume you agree with our Cookies policy.