The Ideologies of Idealism and Realism in the 21st Century

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Nations as a concept run on ideologies. Capitalism vs Socialism, Communism vs Democracy and much more. One such unnoticed comparison is the Idealism vs Realism debate, which influences several policies, but is not given much importance. It may seem convenient to place idealism and realism in the context of international relations in a simple optimism v/s realism binary. However, doing so is reductionist as it is much more than that. To understand these ideologies we need to not look at them as binaries, but look at them historically.

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Realism: Realists are people who concentrate on state and the importance of the centrality of state and its need for survival and security in an anarchical system, that is, with no system of rule-making at the international level. “War made the state, and the state made war” ― Charles Tilly, popular critical realist. Realists believe that war is inevitable, and is born out of a human egotistical struggle for power. The idea of power is central to realism and is given by Hans J Morgenthau, “International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power”. The basic idea is that thinking through idealism might lead to weakness and a rational realist leader would never create such a policy. Realists believe that since anarchy exists, the onus of survival and security is on the state.

Russia is a prime example of a realist state. as a P-5 member, with China, it vetoed 3 resolutions which would’ve sanctioned the Syrian state. This also reflects its underlying ideology of state sovereignty. However, in a very similar incident with Libya, the Russian state chose to abstain. This is because it had vested interests in the Syrian issues as it exported arms to the state and also due to its geopolitical location. Hence, the Russian state’s actions are a prime example of “own welfare above humanitarian ethics”, one of the basic tenets of political realism.

Idealism: Idealism, on the other hand, can be almost viewed as optimism. Liberals or Idealists believe in an approach to international politics that seeks to promote certain moral purposes, like making the world a more ethical place, or promoting peace. Idealism says that war, violence etc can be eliminated. It believes in the establishment of a harmonious world order. Northern Europe and Canada are prime examples of idealism tightly connected with liberalism characterised by individual freedom, interdependence, human rights etc.


At first, idealism as an ideology prevailed during the aftermath of the First World War. Realism during this period was born as a response. The idealists of the 1920s and 1930s wanted to create a system of international law characterised by international cooperation. This was the backing ideology behind the creation of the League of Nations in 1920 and in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. They did not look at war as inevitable but rather as resulting out of improper political situations which could be modified.

During the Cold War, realism could be noticed at its peak. However, this realism could not provide a reason for the end of the Cold War. Post-Cold War, there was a reemergence of idealistic notions, reflected by the aspiration for limited competition and more cooperation. 9/11 caused realistic notions to come back into the public sphere.

Hence we can see that the international sphere swung to and fro from idealism to realism back to idealism, much like a pendulum which brings us to the point that idealism and realism are not a binary, but rather a spectrum or a continuum. Let us take the issue of security through the boycott of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (UNTPNW). We can say that the USA functioned both realistically and ideally in this issue, Under the realist perspective, security is a crucial factor as states are inherently competitive. This means tensions exist and states try to safeguard themselves, such as through the use of nuclear weapons. In such a situation, the stockpiling of nuclear weapons takes place. No country wants to go to war with nuclear weapons, but at the same time, why would a country want to give up its safeguards.This treaty would only make sense if all countries with nuclear weapon sign it, but as Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador said, “We have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?”

However, the existence of NATO severely affected the decision. Powerful NATO countries exerted their influence over smaller NATO countries to boycott the signing of the UNTPNW. Almost all NATO countries boycotted the signing hence. Therefore, we can see one of the most important tenets of liberalism in play, that collective international actors play an important role in shaping the decisions of the state and that these decisions are born out of mutual cooperation.

The very basic idea here is that different states believe in different levels of idealism or realism and the fact that they have to cooperate on the international stage, whether as a collective or as individual actors, will lead them to choose some sort of middle ground and hence, no state can completely be a realist or idealist in the 21st century.

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