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Political Realism in International Relations

In the discipline of international relations there are contending general theories or theoretical
perspectives. Realism, also known as political realism, is a view of international politics that
stresses its competitive and conflictual side. It is usually contrasted with idealism or liberalism,
which tends to emphasize cooperation. Realists consider the principal actors in the international
arena to be states, which are concerned with their own security, act in pursuit of their own
national interests, and struggle for power. The negative side of the realists' emphasis on power
and self-interest is often their skepticism regarding the relevance of ethical norms to relations
among states. ational politics is the realm of authority and law, whereas international politics,
they sometimes claim, is a sphere without !ustice, characterized by active or potential conflict
among states.
ot all realists, however, deny the presence of ethics in international relations. The distinction
should be drawn between classical realism"represented by such twentieth-century theorists as
Reinhold iebuhr and #ans $orgenthau"and radical or e%treme realism. &hile classical
realism emphasizes the concept of national interest, it is not the $achiavellian doctrine 'that
anything is !ustified by reason of state( )*ull +,,-, +.,/. or does it involve the glorification of
war or conflict. The classical realists do not re!ect the possibility of moral !udgment in
international politics. Rather, they are critical of moralism"abstract moral discourse that does
not take into account political realities. They assign supreme value to successful political action
based on prudence0 the ability to !udge the rightness of a given action from among possible
alternatives on the basis of its likely political conse1uences.
Realism encompasses a variety of approaches and claims a long theoretical tradition. 2mong its
founding fathers, Thucydides, $achiavelli and #obbes are the names most usually mentioned.
Twentieth-century classical realism has today been largely replaced by neorealism, which is an
attempt to construct a more scientific approach to the study of international relations. *oth
classical realism and neorealism have been sub!ected to criticism from IR theorists representing
liberal, critical, and post-modern perspectives.
+. The Roots of the Realist Tradition
o +.+ Thucydides and the Importance of 3ower
o +.4 $achiavelli's 5riti1ue of the $oral Tradition
o +.6 #obbes's 2narchic 7tate of ature
4. Twentieth 5entury 5lassical Realism
o 4.+ 8. #. 5arr's 5hallenge of 9topian Idealism
o 4.4 #ans $orgenthau's Realist 3rinciples
6. eorealism
o 6.+ :enneth &altz's International 7ystem
o 6.4 ;b!ections to eorealism
<. 5onclusion0 The 5autionary and 5hanging 5haracter of Realism
*ibliography
2cademic Tools
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Related 8ntries
+. The Roots of the Realist Tradition
+.+ Thucydides and the Importance of 3ower
=ike other classical political theorists, Thucydides )<>?@<++ *.5.8./ saw politics as involving
moral 1uestions. $ost importantly, he asks whether relations among states to which power is
crucial can also be guided by the norms of !ustice. #is History of the Peloponnesian War is in
fact neither a work of political philosophy nor a sustained theory of international relations. $uch
of this work, which presents a partial account of the armed conflict between 2thens and 7parta
that took place from <6+ to <?< *.5.8., consists of paired speeches by personages who argue
opposing sides of an issue. evertheless, if the History is described as the only acknowledged
classical te%t in international relations, and if it inspires theorists from #obbes to contemporary
international relations scholars, this is because it is more than a chronicle of events, and a
theoretical position can be e%trapolated from it. Realism is e%pressed in the very first speech of
the 2thenians recorded in the History"a speech given at the debate that took place in 7parta !ust
before the war. $oreover, a realist perspective is implied in the way Thucydides e%plains the
cause of the 3eloponnesian &ar, and also in the famous '$elian Aialogue,( in the statements
made by the 2thenian envoys.
+.+.+ Beneral Ceatures of Realism in International Relations
International relations realists emphasize the constraints imposed on politics by the nature of
human beings, whom they consider egoistic, and by the absence of international government.
Together these factors contribute to a conflict-based paradigm of international relations, in which
the key actors are states, in which power and security become the main issues, and in which there
is little place for morality. The set of premises concerning state actors, egoism, anarchy, power,
security, and morality that define the realist tradition are all present in Thucydides.
)+/ #uman nature is a starting point for classical political realism. Realists view human beings as
inherently egoistic and self-interested to the e%tent that self-interest overcomes moral principles.
2t the debate in 7parta, described in *ook I of Thucydides' History, the 2thenians affirm the
priority of self-interest over morality. They say that considerations of right and wrong have
'never turned people aside from the opportunities of aggrandizement offered by superior
strength( )chap. + par. D>/.
)4/ Realists, and especially today's neorealists, consider the absence of government, literally
anarchy, to be the primary determinant of international political outcomes. The lack of a
common rule-making and enforcing authority means, they argue, that the international arena is
essentially a self-help system. 8ach state is responsible for its own survival and is free to define
its own interests and to pursue power. 2narchy thus leads to a situation in which power has the
overriding role in shaping interstate relations. In the words of the 2thenian envoys at $elos,
without any common authority that can enforce order, 'the independent states survive EonlyF
when they are powerful( )-.,D/.
)6/ Insofar as realists envision the world of states as anarchic, they likewise view security as a
central issue. To attain security, states try to increase their power and engage in power-balancing
for the purpose of deterring potential aggressors. &ars are fought to prevent competing nations
from becoming militarily stronger. Thucydides, while distinguishing between the immediate and
underlying causes of the 3eloponnesian &ar, does not see its real cause in any of the particular
events that immediately preceded its outbreak. #e instead locates the cause of the war in the
changing distribution of power between the two blocs of Breek city-states0 the Aelian =eague,
under the leadership of 2thens, and the 3eloponnesian =eague, under the leadership of 7parta.
2ccording to him, the growth of 2thenian power made the 7partans afraid for their security, and
thus propelled them into war )+.46/.
)</ Realists are generally skeptical about the relevance of morality to international politics. This
can lead them to claim that there is no place for morality in international relations, or that there is
a tension between demands of morality and re1uirements of successful political action, or that
states have their own morality that is different from customary morality, or that morality, if any,
is merely used instrumentally to !ustify states' conduct. 2 clear case of the re!ection of ethical
norms in relations among states can be found in the '$elian Aialogue( )-..-@++6/. This
dialogue relates to the events of <+> *.5.8., when 2thens invaded the island of $elos. The
2thenian envoys presented the $elians with a choice, destruction or surrender, and from the
outset asked them not to appeal to !ustice, but to think only about their survival. In the envoys'
words, '&e both know that the decisions about !ustice are made in human discussions only when
both sides are under e1ual compulsion, but when one side is stronger, it gets as much as it can,
and the weak must accept that( )-..,/. To be 'under e1ual compulsion( means to be under the
force of law, and thus to be sub!ected to a common lawgiving authority ):orab-:arpowicz 4??>,
46</. 7ince such an authority above states does not e%ist, the 2thenians argue that in this lawless
condition of international anarchy, the only right is the right of the stronger to dominate the
weaker. They e%plicitly e1uate right with might, and e%clude considerations of !ustice from
foreign affairs.
+.+.4 The '$elian Aialogue("The Cirst Realist-Idealist Aebate
&e can thus find strong support for a realist perspective in the statements of the 2thenians. The
1uestion remains, however, to what e%tent their realism coincides with Thucydides' own
viewpoint. 2lthough substantial passages of the '$elian Aialogue,( as well as other parts of the
History support a realistic reading, Thucydides' position cannot be deduced from such selected
fragments, but rather must be assessed on the basis of the wider conte%t of his book. In fact, even
the '$elian Aialogue( itself provides us with a number of contending views.
3olitical realism is usually contrasted by IR scholars with idealism or liberalism, a theoretical
perspective that emphasizes international norms, interdependence among states, and international
cooperation. The '$elian Aialogue,( which is one of the most fre1uently commented-upon parts
of Thucydides' History, presents the classic debate between the idealist and realist views0 5an
international politics be based on a moral order derived from the principles of !ustice, or will it
forever remain the arena of conflicting national interests and powerG
Cor the $elians, who employ idealistic arguments, the choice is between war and sub!ection
)-..>/. They are courageous and love their country. They do not wish to lose their freedom, and
in spite of the fact that they are militarily weaker than the 2thenians, they are prepared to defend
themselves )-.+??H -.++4/. They base their arguments on an appeal to !ustice, which they
associate with fairness, and regard the 2thenians as un!ust )-.,?H -.+?</. They are pious,
believing that gods will support their !ust cause and compensate for their weakness, and trust in
alliances, thinking that their allies, the 7partans, who are also related to them, will help them
)-.+?<H -.++4/. #ence, one can identify in the speech of the $elians elements of the idealistic or
liberal world view0 the belief that nations have the right to e%ercise political independence, that
they have mutual obligations to one another and will carry out such obligations, and that a war of
aggression is un!ust. &hat the $elians nevertheless lack are resources and foresight. In their
decision to defend themselves, they are guided more by their hopes than by the evidence at hand
or by prudent calculations.
The 2thenian argument is based on key realist concepts such as security and power, and is
informed not by what the world should be, but by what it is. The 2thenians disregard any moral
talk and urge the $elians to look at the facts"that is, to recognize their military inferiority, to
consider the potential conse1uences of their decision, and to think about their own survival )-..DH
-.+?+/. There appears to be a powerful realist logic behind the 2thenian arguments. Their
position, based on security concerns and self-interest, seemingly involves reliance on rationality,
intelligence, and foresight. #owever, upon close e%amination, their logic proves to be seriously
flawed. $elos, a relatively weak state, does not pose any real security threat to them. The
eventual destruction of $elos does not change the course of the 3eloponnesian &ar, which
2thens will lose a few years later.
In the History, Thucydides shows that power, if it is unrestrained by moderation and a sense of
!ustice, brings about the uncontrolled desire for more power. There are no logical limits to the
size of an empire. Arunk with the prospect of glory and gain after con1uering $elos, the
2thenians engaged in war against 7icily. They paid no attention to the $elian argument that
considerations of !ustice are useful to all in the longer run )-.,?/. 2nd, as the 2thenians
overestimate their strength and in the end lose the war, their self-interested logic proves to be
very shortsighted indeed.
It is utopian to ignore the reality of power in international relations, but it is e1ually blind to rely
on power alone. Thucydides appears to support neither the naive idealism of the $elians nor the
cynicism of their 2thenian opponents. #e teaches us to be on guard 'against naIve-dreaming on
international politics,( on the one hand, and 'against the other pernicious e%treme0 unrestrained
cynicism,( on the other )Aonnelly 4???, +,6/. If he can be regarded as a political realist, his
realism is nonetheless not a prefiguring of either realpolitik, in which traditional ethics is denied,
or today's scientific neorealism, in which moral 1uestions are largely ignored. Thucydides'
realism, neither immoral nor amoral, can rather be compared to that of #ans $orgenthau,
Raymond 2ron, and other twentieth-century classical realists, who, although sensible to the
demands of national interest, would not deny that political actors on the international scene are
sub!ect to moral !udgment.
+.4 $achiavelli's 5riti1ue of the $oral Tradition
Idealism in international relations, like realism, can lay claim to a long tradition. 9nsatisfied with
the world as they have found it, idealists have always tried to answer the 1uestion of 'what ought
to be( in politics. 3lato, 2ristotle, and 5icero were all political idealists who believed that there
were some universal moral values on which political life could be based. *uilding on the work of
his predecessors, 5icero developed the idea of a natural moral law that was applicable to both
domestic and international politics. #is ideas concerning righteousness in war were carried
further in the writings of the 5hristian thinkers 7t. 2ugustine and 7t. Thomas 21uinas. In the late
fifteenth century, when iccolJ $achiavelli was born, the idea that politics, including the
relations among states, should be virtuous, and that the methods of warfare should remain
subordinated to ethical standards, still predominated in political literature.
$achiavelli )+<>,@+-4D/ challenged this well-established moral tradition, thus positioning
himself as a political innovator. The novelty of his approach lies in his criti1ue of classical
&estern political thought as unrealistic, and in his separation of politics from ethics. #e thereby
lays the foundations for modern politics. In chapter KL of The Prince, $achiavelli announces
that in departing from the teachings of earlier thinkers, he seeks 'the effectual truth of the matter
rather than the imagined one.( The 'effectual truth( is for him the only truth worth seeking. It
represents the sum of the practical conditions that he believes are re1uired to make both the
individual and the country prosperous and strong. $achiavelli replaces the ancient virtue )a
moral 1uality of the individual, such as !ustice or self-restraint/ with virt, ability or vigor. 2s a
prophet of virt, he promises to lead both nations and individuals to earthly glory and power.
Machiavellianism is a radical type of political realism that is applied to both domestic and
international affairs. It is a doctrine which denies the relevance of morality in politics, and claims
that all means )moral and immoral/ are !ustified to achieve certain political ends. 2lthough
$achiavelli never uses the phrase ragione di stato or its Crench e1uivalent, raison d'tat, what
ultimately counts for him is precisely that0 whatever is good for the state and not ethical scruples
or norms
$achiavelli !ustified immoral actions in politics, but never refused to admit that they are evil. #e
operated within the single framework of traditional morality. It became a specific task of his
nineteenth-century followers to develop the doctrine of a double ethics0 one public and one
private, to push $achiavellian realism to even further e%tremes, and to apply it to international
relations. *y asserting that 'the state has no higher duty than of maintaining itself,( #egel gave
an ethical sanction to the state's promotion of its own interest and advantage against other states
)$einecke 6-D/. Thus he overturned the traditional morality. The good of the state was
perversely interpreted as the highest moral value, with the e%tension of national power regarded
as a nation's right and duty. Referring to $achiavelli, #einrich von Treitschke declared that the
state was power, precisely in order to assert itself as against other e1ually independent powers,
and that the supreme moral duty of the state was to foster this power. #e considered international
agreements to be binding only insofar as it was e%pedient for the state. The idea of an
autonomous ethics of state behavior and the concept of realpolitik were thus introduced.
Traditional ethics was denied and power politics was associated with a 'higher( type of morality.
These concepts, along with the belief in the superiority of Bermanic culture, served as weapons
with which Berman statesmen, from the eighteenth century to the end of the 7econd &orld &ar,
!ustified their policies of con1uest and e%termination.
$achiavelli is often praised for his prudential advice to leaders )which has caused him to be
regarded as a founding master of modern political strategy/ and for his defense of the republican
form of government. There are certainly many aspects of his thought that merit such praise.
evertheless, it is also possible to see him as the thinker who bears foremost responsibility for
demoralization of 8urope. The argument of the 2thenian envoys presented in Thucydides'
'$elian Aialogue,( that of Thrasymachus in 3lato's Republic, or that of 5arneades, to whom
5icero refers"all of these challenge the ancient and 5hristian views of the unity of politics and
ethics. #owever, before $achiavelli, this amoral or immoral mode of thinking had never
prevailed in the mainstream of &estern political thought. It was the force and timeliness of his
!ustification of resorting to evil as a legitimate means of achieving political ends that persuaded
so many of the thinkers and political practitioners who followed him. The effects of
$achiavellian ideas, such as the notion that the employment of all possible means was
permissible in war, would be seen on the battlefields of modern 8urope, as mass citizen armies
fought against each other to the deadly end without regard for the rules of !ustice. The tension
between e%pediency and morality lost its validity in the sphere of politics. The concept of a
double ethics, private and public, that created a further damage to traditional, customary ethics
was invented. The doctrine of raison d'tat ultimately led to the politics of ebensraum, two
world wars, and the #olocaust.
3erhaps the greatest problem with realism in international relations is that it has a tendency to
slip into its e%treme version, which accepts any policy that can benefit the state at the e%pense of
other states, no matter how morally problematic the policy is. 8ven if they do not e%plicitly raise
ethical 1uestions, in the works of &altz and of many other of today's neorealists, a double ethics
is presupposed and words such realpolitik no longer have the negative connotations that they had
for classical realists, such as #ans $orgenthau.
+.6 #obbes's 2narchic 7tate of ature
Thomas #obbes )+-..@+>.6/ was part of an intellectual movement whose goal was to free the
emerging modern science from the constraints of the classical and scholastic heritage. 2ccording
to classical political philosophy, on which the idealist perspective is based, human beings can
control their desires through reason and can work for the benefit of others, even at the e%pense of
their own benefit. They are thus both rational and moral agents, capable of distinguishing
between right and wrong, and of making moral choices. They are also naturally social. &ith
great skill #obbes attacks these views. #is human beings, e%tremely individualistic rather than
moral or social, are sub!ect to 'a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases
only in death( )eviathan KI 4/. They therefore inevitably struggle for power. In setting out such
ideas, #obbes contributes to some of the basic conceptions fundamental to the realist tradition in
international relations, and especially to neorealism. These include the characterization of human
nature as egoistic, the concept of international anarchy, and the view that politics, rooted in the
struggle for power, can be rationalized and studied scientifically.
;ne of the most widely known #obbesian concepts is that of the anarchic state of nature, seen as
entailing a state of war"and 'such a war as is of every man against every man( )KII ./. #e
derives his notion of the state of war from his views of both human nature and the condition in
which individuals e%ist. 7ince in the state of nature there is no government and everyone en!oys
e1ual status, every individual has a right to everythingH that is, there are no constraints on an
individual's behavior. 2nyone may at any time use force, and all must constantly be ready to
counter such force with force. #ence, driven by ac1uisitiveness, having no moral restraints, and
motivated to compete for scarce goods, individuals are apt to 'invade( one another for gain.
*eing suspicious of one another and driven by fear, they are also likely to engage in preemptive
actions and invade one another to ensure their own safety. Cinally, individuals are also driven by
pride and a desire for glory. &hether for gain, safety, or reputation, power-seeking individuals
will thus 'endeavor to destroy or subdue one another( )KIII 6/. In such uncertain conditions
where everyone is a potential aggressor, making war on others is a more advantageous strategy
than peaceable behavior, and one needs to learn that domination over others is necessary for
one's own continued survival.
#obbes is primarily concerned with the relationship between individuals and the state, and his
comments about relations among states are scarce. evertheless, what he says about the lives of
individuals in the state of nature can also be interpreted as a description of how states e%ist in
relation to one another. ;nce states are established, the individual drive for power becomes the
basis for the states' behavior, which often manifests itself in their efforts to dominate other states
and peoples. 7tates, 'for their own security,( writes #obbes, 'enlarge their dominions upon all
pretences of danger and fear of invasion or assistance that may be given to invaders, EandF
endeavour as much as they can, to subdue and weaken their neighbors( )KIK </. 2ccordingly,
the 1uest and struggle for power lies at the core of the #obbesian vision of relations among
states. The same would later be true of the model of international relations developed by #ans
$orgenthau, who was deeply influenced by #obbes and adopted the same view of human nature.
7imilarly, the neorealist :enneth &altz would follow #obbes' lead regarding international
anarchy )the fact that sovereign states are not sub!ect to any higher common sovereign/ as the
essential element of international relations.
*y sub!ecting themselves to a sovereign, individuals escape the war of all against all which
#obbes associates with the state of natureH however, this war continues to dominate relations
among states. This does not mean that states are always fighting, but rather that they have a
disposition to fight )KIII ./. &ith each state deciding for itself whether or not to use force, war
may break out at any time. The achievement of domestic security through the creation of a state
is then paralleled by a condition of inter-state insecurity. ;ne can argue that if #obbes were fully
consistent, he would agree with the notion that, to escape this condition, states should also enter
into a contract and submit themselves to a world sovereign. 2lthough the idea of a world state
would find support among some of today's realists, this is not a position taken by #obbes
himself. #e does not propose that a social contract among nations be implemented to bring
international anarchy to an end. This is because the condition of insecurity in which states are
placed does not necessarily lead to insecurity for individuals. 2s long as an armed conflict or
other type of hostility between states does not actually break out, individuals within a state can
feel relatively secure. #e does not e%pect that war could ever be removed from the face of earth
or banned.
The denial of the e%istence of universal moral principles in the relations among states brings
#obbes close to the $achiavellians and the followers of the doctrine of raison d'tat. #is theory
of international relations, which assumes that independent states, like independent individuals,
are enemies by nature, asocial and selfish, and that there is no moral limitation on their behavior,
is a great challenge to the idealist political vision based on human sociability and to the concept
of the international !urisprudence that is built on this vision. #owever, what separates #obbes
from $achiavelli and associates him more with classical realism is his insistence on the
defensive character of foreign policy. #is political theory does not put forward the invitation to
do whatever may be advantageous for the state. #is approach to international relations is
prudential and pacific0 sovereign states, like individuals, should be disposed towards peace
which is commended by reason.
&hat &altz and other neorealist readers of #obbes's works sometimes overlook is that he does
not perceive international anarchy as an environment without any rules. *y suggesting that
certain dictates of reason apply even in the state of nature, he affirms that more peaceful and
cooperative international relations are possible. either does he deny the e%istence of
international law. 7overeign states can sign treaties with one another to provide a legal basis for
their relations. 2t the same time, however, #obbes seems aware that international rules will
often prove ineffective in restraining the struggle for power. 7tates will interpret them to their
own advantage, and so international law will be obeyed or ignored according to the interests of
the states affected. #ence, international relations will always tend to be a precarious affair. This
grim view of global politics lies at the core of #obbes's realism.
4. Twentieth 5entury 5lassical Realism
Twentieth-century realism was born in response to the idealist perspective that dominated
international relations scholarship in the aftermath of the Cirst &orld &ar. The idealists of the
+,4?s and +,6?s )also called liberal internationalists or utopians/ had the goal of building peace
in order to prevent another world conflict. They saw the solution to inter-state problems as being
the creation of a respected system of international law, backed by international organizations.
This interwar idealism resulted in the founding of the =eague of ations in +,4? and in the
:ellogg-*riand 3act of +,4. outlawing war and providing for the peaceful settlements of
disputes. 9.7. 3resident &oodrow &ilson, scholars such as orman 2ngell, 2lfred Mimmern,
and Reymond A. Cosdick, and other prominent idealists of the era, gave their intellectual support
to the =eague of ations. Instead of focusing on what some might see as the inevitability of
conflict between states and peoples, they chose to emphasize the common interests that could
unite humanity, and attempted to appeal to rationality and morality. Cor them, war did not
originate in an egoistic human nature, but rather in imperfect social conditions and political
arrangements, which could be improved. Net their ideas were already being criticized in the early
+,6?s by Reinhold iebuhr and within a few years by 8. #. 5arr. The =eague of ations, which
the 9nited 7tates never !oined, and from which Oapan and Bermany withdrew, could not prevent
the outbreak of the 7econd &orld &ar. This fact, perhaps more than any theoretical argument,
produced a strong realist reaction. 2lthough the 9nited ations, founded in +,<-, can still be
regarded as a product of idealist political thinking, the discipline of international relations was
profoundly influenced in the initial years of the post-war period by the works of 'classical(
realists such as Oohn #. #erz, #ans $orgenthau, Beorge :ennan, and Raymond 2ron. Then,
during the +,-?s and +,>?s, classical realism came under challenge of scholars who tried to
introduce a more scientific approach to the study of international politics. Auring the +,.?s it
gave way to another trend in international relations theory"neorealism.
7ince it is impossible within the scope of this article to introduce all of the thinkers who
contributed to the development of twentieth-century classical realism, 8. #. 5arr and #ans
$orgenthau, as perhaps the most influential among them, have been selected for discussion here.
4.+ 8. #. 5arr's 5hallenge of 9topian Idealism
In his main work on international relations, The T!enty "ears' #risis, first published in Ouly
+,6,, 8dward #allett 5arr )+.,4@+,.4/ attacks the idealist position, which he describes as
'utopianism.( #e characterizes this position as encompassing faith in reason, confidence in
progress, a sense of moral rectitude, and a belief in an underlying harmony of interests.
2ccording to the idealists, war is an aberration in the course of normal life and the way to
prevent it is to educate people for peace, and to build systems of collective security such as the
=eague of ations or today's 9nited ations. 5arr challenges idealism by 1uestioning its claim
to moral universalism and its idea of the harmony of interests. #e declares that 'morality can
only be relative, not universal( )+,/, and states that the doctrine of the harmony of interests is
invoked by privileged groups 'to !ustify and maintain their dominant position( )D-/.
5arr uses the concept of the relativity of thought, which he traces to $ar% and other modern
theorists, to show that standards by which policies are !udged are the products of circumstances
and interests. #is central idea is that the interests of a given party always determine what this
party regards as moral principles, and hence, these principles are not universal. 5arr observes
that politicians, for e%ample, often use the language of !ustice to cloak the particular interests of
their own countries, or to create negative images of other people to !ustify acts of aggression.
The e%istence of such instances of morally discrediting a potential enemy or morally !ustifying
one's own position shows, he argues, that moral ideas are derived from actual policies. 3olicies
are not, as the idealists would have it, based on some universal norms, independent of interests of
the parties involved.
If specific moral standards are de facto founded on interests, 5arr's argument goes, there are also
interests underlying what are regarded as absolute principles or universal moral values. &hile the
idealists tend to regard such values, such as peace or !ustice, as universal and claim that
upholding them is in the interest of all, 5arr argues against this view. 2ccording to him, there are
neither universal values nor universal interests. #e claims that those who refer to universal
interests are in fact acting in their own interests )D+/. They think that what is best for them is best
for everyone, and identify their own interests with the universal interest of the world at large.
The idealist concept of the harmony of interests is based on the notion that human beings can
rationally recognize that they have some interests in common, and that cooperation is therefore
possible. 5arr contrasts this idea with the reality of conflict of interests. 2ccording to him, the
world is torn apart by the particular interests of different individuals and groups. In such a
conflictual environment, order is based on power, not on morality. Curther, morality itself is the
product of power )>+/. =ike #obbes, 5arr regards morality as constructed by the particular legal
system that is enforced by a coercive power. International moral norms are imposed on other
countries by dominant nations or groups of nations that present themselves as the international
community as a whole. They are invented to perpetuate those nations' dominance.
Lalues that idealists view as good for all, such as peace, social !ustice, prosperity, and
international order, are regarded by 5arr as mere status $uo notions. The powers that are
satisfied with the status 1uo regard the arrangement in place as !ust and therefore preach peace.
They try to rally everyone around their idea of what is good. 'Oust as the ruling class in a
community prays for domestic peace, which guarantees its own security and predominance, P
so international peace becomes a special vested interest of predominant powers( )D>/. ;n the
other hand, the unsatisfied powers consider the same arrangement as un!ust, and so prepare for
war. #ence, the way to obtain peace, if it cannot be simply enforced, is to satisfy the unsatisfied
powers. 'Those who profit most by EinternationalF order can in the longer run only hope to
maintain it by making sufficient concessions to make it tolerable to those who profit by it least(
)+-4/. The logical conclusion to be drawn by the reader of 5arr's book is the policy of
appeasement.
5arr was a sophisticated thinker. #e recognized himself that the logic of 'pure realism can offer
nothing but a naked struggle for power which makes any kind of international society
impossible( ).D/. 2lthough he demolishes what he calls 'the current utopia( of idealism, he at
the same time attempts to build 'a new utopia,( a realist world order )ibid./. Thus, he
acknowledges that human beings need certain fundamental, universally acknowledged norms
and values, and contradicts his own argument by which he tries to deny universality to any
norms or values. To make further ob!ections, the fact that the language of universal moral values
can be misused in politics for the benefit of one party or another, and that such values can only
be imperfectly implemented in political institutions, does not mean that such values do not e%ist.
There is a deep yearning in many human beings, both privileged and unprivileged, for peace,
order, prosperity, and !ustice. The legitimacy of idealism consists in the constant attempt to
reflect upon and uphold these values. Idealists fail if in their attempt they do not pay enough
attention to the reality of power. ;n the other hand, in the world of pure realism, in which all
values are made relative to interests, life turns into nothing more than a power game and is
unbearable.
The T!enty "ears' #risis touches on a number of universal ideas, but it also reflects the spirit of
its time. &hile we can fault the interwar idealists for their inability to construct international
institutions strong enough to prevent the outbreak of the 7econd &orld &ar, this book indicates
that interwar realists were likewise unprepared to meet the challenge. 5arr fre1uently refers to
Bermany under azi rule as if it were a country like any other. #e says that should Bermany
cease to be an unsatisfied power and 'become supreme in 8urope,( it would adopt a language of
international solidarity similar to that of other &estern powers )D,/. The inability of 5arr and
other realists to recognize the perilous nature of azism, and their belief that Bermany could be
satisfied by territorial concessions, helped to foster a political environment in which the latter
was to grow in power, anne% 5zechoslovakia at will, and be militarily opposed in 7eptember
+,6, by 3oland alone.
2 theory of international relations is not !ust an intellectual enterpriseH it has practical
conse1uences. It influences our thinking and political practice. ;n the practical side, the realists
of the +,6?s, to whom 5arr gave intellectual support, were people opposed to the system of
collective security embodied in the =eague of ations. &orking within the foreign policy
establishments of the day, they contributed to its weakness. ;nce they had weakened the =eague,
they pursued a policy of appeasement and accommodation with Bermany as an alternative to
collective security )2shworth <>/. 2fter the anne%ation of 5zechoslovakia, when the failure of
the anti-=eague realist conservatives gathered around eville 5hamberlain and of this policy
became clear, they tried to rebuild the very security system they had earlier demolished. Those
who supported collective security were labeled idealists.
4.4 #ans $orgenthau's Realist 3rinciples
#ans O. $orgenthau )+,?<@+,.?/ developed realism into a comprehensive international relations
theory. Influenced by the 3rotestant theologian and political writer Reinhold iebuhr, as well as
by #obbes, he places selfishness and power-lust at the center of his picture of human e%istence.
The insatiable human lust for power, timeless and universal, which he identifies with animus
dominandi, the desire to dominate, is for him the main cause of conflict. 2s he asserts in his
main work, Politics among %ations& The 'truggle for Po!er and Peace, first published in +,<.,
'international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power( )4-/.
$orgenthau systematizes realism in international relations on the basis of si% principles that he
includes in the second edition of Politics among %ations. 2lthough he is a traditionalist and
opposes the so-called scientists )the scholars who, especially in the +,-?s, tried to reduce the
discipline of international relations to a branch of behavioral science/, in the first principle he
states that realism is based on ob!ective laws that have their roots in unchanging human nature
)</. #e wants to develop realism into both a theory of international politics and a political art, a
useful tool of foreign policy.
The keystone of $orgenthau's realist theory is the concept of po!er or 'of interest defined in
terms of power,( which informs his second principle0 the assumption that political leaders 'think
and act in terms of interest defined as power( )-/. This concept defines the autonomy of politics,
and allows for the analysis of foreign policy regardless of the different motives, preferences, and
intellectual and moral 1ualities of individual politicians. Curthermore, it is the foundation of a
rational picture of politics.
2lthough, as $orgenthau e%plains in the third principle, interest defined as power is a
universally valid category, and indeed an essential element of politics, various things can be
associated with interest or power at different times and in different circumstances. Its content and
the manner of its use are determined by the political and cultural environment.
In the fourth principle, $orgenthau considers the relationship between realism and ethics. #e
says that while realists are aware of the moral significance of political action, they are also aware
of the tension between morality and the re1uirements of successful political action. '9niversal
moral principles,( he asserts, 'cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal
formulation, but Pthey must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place(
),/. These principles must be accompanied by prudence for as he cautions 'there can be no
political morality without prudenceH that is, without consideration of the political conse1uences
of seemingly moral action( )ibid./.
3rudence, and not conviction of one's own moral or ideological superiority, should guide
political action. This is stressed in the fifth principle, where $orgenthau again emphasizes the
idea that all state actors, including our own, must be looked at solely as political entities pursuing
their respective interests defined in terms of power. *y taking this point of view vis-Q-vis its
counterparts and thus avoiding ideological confrontation, a state would then be able to pursue
policies that respected the interests of other states, while protecting and promoting its own.
Insofar as power or interest defined as power is the concept that defines politics, politics is an
autonomous sphere, as $orgenthau says in his si%th principle of realism. It cannot be
subordinated to ethics. #owever, ethics does still play a role in politics. '2 man who was
nothing but Rpolitical manS would be a beast, for he would be completely lacking in moral
restraints. 2 man who was nothing but Rmoral manS would be a fool, for he would be completely
lacking in prudence( )+4/. 3olitical art re1uires that these two dimensions of human life, power
and morality, be taken into consideration.
&hile $orgenthau's si% principles of realism contain repetitions and inconsistencies, we can
nonetheless obtain from them the following picture0 3ower or interest is the central concept that
makes politics into an autonomous discipline. Rational state actors pursue their national interests.
Therefore, a rational theory of international politics can be constructed. 7uch a theory is not
concerned with the morality, religious beliefs, motives or ideological preferences of individual
political leaders. It also indicates that in order to avoid conflicts, states should avoid moral
crusades or ideological confrontations, and look for compromise on the basis of satisfaction of
their mutual interests alone.
2lthough he defines politics as an autonomous sphere, $orgenthau does not follow the
$achiavellian route of completely removing ethics from politics. #e suggests that, although
human beings are political animals, who pursue their interests, they are moral animals. Aeprived
of any morality, they would descend to the level of beasts or sub-humans. 8ven if it is not guided
by universal moral principles, political action thus has for $orgenthau a moral significance.
9ltimately directed toward the ob!ective of national survival, it also involves prudence. The
effective protection of citizens' lives from harm is not merely a forceful physical actionH it has
prudential and moral dimensions.
$orgenthau regards realism as a way of thinking about international relations and a useful tool
for devising policies. #owever, some of the basic conceptions of his theory, and especially the
idea of conflict as stemming from human nature, as well as the concept of power itself, have
provoked criticism.
International politics, like all politics, is for $orgenthau a struggle for power because of the
basic human lust for power. *ut regarding every individual as being engaged in a perpetual 1uest
for power"the view that he shares with #obbes"is a 1uestionable premise. #uman nature is an
unobservable. It cannot be proved by any empirical research, but only imposed on us as a matter
of belief and inculcated by education.
$orgenthau himself reinforces this belief by introducing a normative aspect of his theory, which
is rationality. 2 rational foreign policy is considered 'to be a good foreign policy( )D/. *ut he
defines rationality as a process of calculating the costs and benefits of all alternative policies in
order to determine their relative utility, i.e. their ability to ma%imize power. 7tatesmen 'think and
act in terms of interest defined as power( )-/. ;nly intellectual weakness of policy makers can
result in foreign policies that deviate from a rational course aimed at minimizing risks and
ma%imizing benefits. Rather than presenting an actual portrait of human affairs, $orgenthau
emphasizes the pursuit of power and sets it up as a norm.
2s Raymond 2ron and other scholars have noticed, power, the fundamental concept of
$orgenthau's realism, is ambiguous. It can be either a means or an end in politics. *ut if power
is only a means for gaining something else, it does not define the nature of international politics
in the way $orgenthau claims. It does not allow us to understand the actions of states
independently from the motives and ideological preferences of their political leaders. It cannot
serve as the basis for defining politics as an autonomous sphere. $orgenthau's principles of
realism are thus open to doubt. 'Is this true,( 2ron asks, 'that states, whatever their regime,
pursue the same kind of foreign policy( )-,D/ and that the foreign policies of apoleon or 7talin
are essentially identical to those of #itler, =ouis KLI or icholas II, amounting to no more than
the struggle for powerG 'If one answers yes, then the proposition is incontestable, but not very
instructive( )-,./. 2ccordingly, it is useless to define actions of states by e%clusive reference to
power, security or national interest. International politics cannot be studied independently of the
wider historical and cultural conte%t.
2lthough 5arr and $orgenthau concentrate primarily on international relations, their realism can
also be applied to domestic politics. To be a classical realist is in general to perceive politics a
conflict of interests and a struggle for power, and to seek peace by trying to recognize common
group and individual interests rather than by moralizing.
6. eorealism
In spite of its ambiguities and weaknesses, $orgenthau's Politics among %ations became a
standard te%tbook and influenced thinking about international politics for a generation or so. 2t
the same time, as mentioned above, there was an attempt to develop a more methodologically
rigorous approach to theorizing about international affairs. In the +,-?s and +,>?s a large influ%
of scientists from different fields entered the discipline of International Relations and attempted
to replace the 'wisdom literature( of classical realists with scientific concepts and reasoning
)*rown 6-/. This in turn provoked a counterattack by $orgenthau and scholars associated with
the so-called 8nglish 7chool, especially #edley *ull, who defended a traditional approach.
evertheless, the scientists had established a strong presence in the field, especially in the area of
methodology. *y the mid-+,>?s, the ma!ority of 2merican students in international relations
were trained in 1uantitative research, game theory, and other new research techni1ues of the
social sciences. This, along with the changing international environment, had a significant effect
on the discipline.
The realist assumption was that the state is the key actor in international politics, and that
relations among states are the core of actual international relations. #owever, with the receding
of the 5old &ar during the +,D?s, one could witness the growing importance of international and
non-governmental organizations, as well as of multinational corporations. This development led
to a revival of idealist thinking, which became known as neoliberalism or pluralism. &hile
accepting some basic assumptions of realism, the leading pluralists, Robert :eohane and Ooseph
ye, have proposed the concept of comple( interdependence to describe this more sophisticated
picture of global politics. They would argue that there can be progress in international relations
and that the future does not need to look like the past.
6.+ :enneth &altz's International 7ystem
The realist response came most prominently from :enneth . &altz, who reformulated realism
in international relations in a new and distinctive way. In his book Theory of )nternational
Politics, first published in +,D,, he responded to the liberal challenge and attempted to cure the
defects of the classical realism of #ans $orgenthau with his more scientific approach, which has
became known as structural realism or neorealism. &hereas $orgenthau rooted his theory in the
struggle for power, which he related to human nature, &altz made an effort to avoid any
philosophical discussion of human nature, and set out instead to build a theory of international
politics analogous to microeconomics. #e argues that states in the international system are like
firms in a domestic economy and have the same fundamental interest0 to survive.
'Internationally, the environment of states' actions, or the structure of their system, is set by the
fact that some states prefer survival over other ends obtainable in the short run and act with
relative efficiency to achieve that end( ),6/.
&altz maintains that by paying attention to the individual state, and to ideological, moral and
economic issues, both traditional liberals and classical realists make the same mistake. They fail
to develop a serious account of the international system"one that can be abstracted from the
wider socio-political domain. &altz acknowledges that such an abstraction distorts reality and
omits many of the factors that were important for classical realism. It does not allow for the
analysis of the development of specific foreign policies. #owever, it also has utility. otably, it
assists in understanding the primary determinants of international politics. &altz's neorealist
theory cannot be applied to domestic politics. It cannot serve to develop policies of states
concerning their international or domestic affairs. #is theory helps only to e%plain why states
behave in similar ways despite their different forms of government and diverse political
ideologies, and why, despite of their growing interdependence, the overall picture of
international relations is unlikely to change.
2ccording to &altz, the uniform behavior of states over centuries can be e%plained by the
constraints on their behavior that are imposed by the structure of the international system. 2
system's structure is defined first by the principle by which it is organized, then by the
differentiation of its units, and finally by the distribution of capabilities )power/ across units.
2narchy, or the absence of central authority, is for &altz the ordering principle of the
international system. The units of the international system are states. &altz recognizes the
e%istence of non-state actors, but dismisses them as relatively unimportant. 7ince all states want
to survive, and anarchy presupposes a self-help system in which each state has to take care of
itself, there is no division of labor or functional differentiation among them. &hile functionally
similar, they are nonetheless distinguished by their relative capabilities )the power each of them
represents/ to perform the same function.
5onse1uently, &altz sees power and state behavior in a different way from the classical realists.
Cor $orgenthau power was both a means and an end, and rational state behavior was understood
as simply the course of action that would accumulate the most power. In contrast, neorealists
assume that the fundamental interest of each state is security and would therefore concentrate on
the distribution of power. &hat also sets neorealism apart from classical realism is
methodological rigor and scientific self-conception )Buzinni +,,., +4D-+4./. &altz insists on
empirical testability of knowledge and on falsificationism as a methodological ideal, which, as
he himself admits, can have only a limited application in international relations.
The distribution of capabilities among states can varyH however, anarchy, the ordering principle
of international relations, remains unchanged. This has a lasting effect on the behavior of states
that become socialized into the logic of self-help. Trying to refute neoliberal ideas concerning
the effects of interdependence, &altz identifies two reasons why the anarchic international
system limits cooperation0 insecurity and une1ual gains. In the conte%t of anarchy, each state is
uncertain about the intentions of others and is afraid that the possible gains resulting from
cooperation may favor other states more than itself, and thus lead it to dependence on others.
'7tates do not willingly place themselves in situations of increased dependence. In a self-help
system, considerations of security subordinate economic gain to political interest.( )&altz +,D,,
+?D/.
*ecause of its theoretical elegance and methodological rigor, neorealism has become very
influential within the discipline of international relations. In the eyes of many scholars,
$orgenthau's realism has come to be seen as anachronistic"'an interesting and important
episode in the history of thinking about the sub!ect, no doubt, but one scarcely to be seen as a
serious contribution of the rigorously scientific theory( )&illiams 4??D, +/. #owever, while
initially gaining more acceptance than classical realism, neorealism has also provoked strong
criti1ues on a number of fronts.
6.4 ;b!ections to eorealism
In +,D, &altz wrote that in the nuclear age the international bipolar system, based on two
superpowers"the 9nited 7tates and the 7oviet 9nion"was not only stable but likely to persist
)+D>@D/. &ith the fall of the *erlin &all and the subse1uent disintegration of the 977R this
prediction was proven wrong. The bipolar world turned out to have been more precarious than
most realist analysts had supposed. Its end opened new possibilities and challenges related to
globalization. This has led many critics to argue that neorealism, like classical realism, cannot
ade1uately account for changes in world politics.
The new debate between international )neo/realists and )neo/liberals is no longer concerned with
the 1uestions of morality and human nature, but with the e%tent to which state behavior is
influenced by anarchic structure rather than by institutions, learning, and other factors that are
conductive to cooperation. In his +,., book )nternational )nstitutions and 'tate Po!er, Robert
:eohane accepts &altz's emphasis on system-level theory and his general assumption that states
are self-interested actors that rationally pursue their goals. #owever, by employing game theory
he shows that states can widen the perception of their self-interest through economic cooperation
and involvement in international institutions. 3atterns of interdependence can thus affect world
politics. :eohane calls for systemic theories that would be able to deal better with factors
affecting state interaction, and with change.
5ritical theorists, such as Robert &. 5o%, also focus on the alleged inability of neorealism to
deal with change. In their view, neorealists take a particular, historically determined state-based
structure of international relations and assume it to be universally valid. In contrast, critical
theorists believe that by analyzing the interplay of ideas, material factors, and social forces, one
can understand how this structure has come about, and how it may eventually change. They
contend that neorealism ignores both the historical process during which identities and interests
are formed, and the diverse methodological possibilities. It legitimates the e%isting status 1uo of
strategic relations among states and considers the scientific method as the only way of obtaining
knowledge. It represents an e%clusionary practice, an interest in domination and control.
&hile realists are concerned with relations among states, the focus for critical theorists is social
emancipation. Aespite their differences, critical theory, postmodernism and feminism all take
issue with the notion of state sovereignty and envision new political communities that would be
less e%clusionary vis-Q-vis marginal and disenfranchised groups. 5ritical theory argues against
state-based e%clusion and denies that the interests of a country's citizens take precedence over
those of outsiders. It insists that politicians should give as much weight to the interests of
foreigners as they give to those of their compatriots and envisions political structures beyond the
'fortress( nation-state. 3ostmodernism 1uestions the state's claim to be a legitimate focus of
human loyalties and its right to impose social and political boundaries. It supports cultural
diversity and stresses the interests of minorities. Ceminism argues that the realist theory e%hibits
a masculine bias and advocates the inclusion of woman and alternative values into public life.
The critical theory and other alternative perspectives, sometimes called 'reflectivist,( )&eaver
+>-/ represent a radical departure from the neorealist and neoliberal 'rationalist( international
relations theories. 5onstructivists, such as 2le%ander &endt, try to build a bridge between these
two approaches by on the one hand, taking the present state system and anarchy seriously, and on
the other hand, by focusing on the formation of identities and interests. 5ountering neorealist
ideas &endt argues that self-help does not follow logically or casually from the principle of
anarchy. It is socially constructed. &endt's idea that states' identities and interests are socially
constructed has earned his position the label 'constructivism(. 5onse1uently, in his view, 'self-
help and power politics are institutions, and not essential features of anarchy. 2narchy is what
states make of it( )&endt +,.D 6,-/. There is no single logic of anarchy but rather several,
depending on the roles with which states identify themselves and each other. 3ower and interests
are constituted by ideas and norms. &endt claims that neorealism cannot account for change in
world politics, but his norm-based constructivism can.
2 similar conclusion, although derived in a traditional way, comes from the theorists of the
8nglish school )International 7ociety approach/ who emphasize both systemic and normative
constraints on the behavior of states. Referring to the classical view of the human being as an
individual that is basically social and rational, capable of cooperating and learning from past
e%periences, these theorists emphasize that states, like individuals, have legitimate interests that
others can recognize and respect, and that they can recognize the general advantages of
observing a principle of reciprocity in their mutual relations )Oackson and 7Trensen +>D/.
Therefore, states can bind themselves to other states by treaties and develop some common
values with other states. #ence, the structure of the international system is not unchangeable as
the neorealists claim. It is not a permanent #obbesian anarchy, permeated by the danger of war.
2n anarchic international system based on pure power relations among actors can evolve into a
more cooperative and peaceful international society, in which state behavior is shaped by
commonly shared values and norms. 2 practical e%pression of international society are
international organizations that uphold the rule of law in international relations, especially the
9.
<. 5onclusion0 The 5autionary and 5hanging 5haracter of Realism
2n unintended and unfortunate conse1uence of the debate about neorealism is that neorealism
and a large part of its criti1ue )with the notable e%ception of the 8nglish 7chool/, e%pressed in
abstract scientific and philosophical terms, have made the theory of international politics almost
inaccessible to a layperson and have divided the discipline of international relations into
incompatible parts. &hereas classical realism was a theory aimed at supporting diplomatic
practice and provided a guide to be followed by those seeking to understand and deal with
potential threats, today's theories, concerned with various grand pictures and pro!ects, are ill-
suited to perform this task. This is perhaps the main reason why in recent years there has been a
renewed interest in classical realism, and particularly in the ideas of $orgenthau. Rather than
being seen as an obsolete form of pre-scientific realist thought, superseded by neorealist theory,
his thinking is now considered to be more comple% and of a greater contemporary relevance than
was earlier recognized )&illiams 4??D, +@,/. It fits uneasily in the orthodo% picture of realism he
is usually associated with.
In recent years scholars have 1uestioned prevailing narratives about clear theoretical traditions in
the discipline of international relations. Thucydides, $achiavelli, #obbes and other thinkers
have become sub!ect to re-e%amination as a means of challenging prevailing uses of their
legacies in the discipline and e%ploring other lineages and orientations. $orgenthau has
undergone a similar process of reinterpretation. 2 number of scholars have endorsed the
importance of his thought as a source of change for the standard interpretation of realism.
$urielle 5ozette stresses $orgenthau's critical dimension of realism e%pressed in his
commitment to 'speak truth to power( and to 'unmask power's claims to truth and morality,(
and in his tendency to assert different claims at different times )5ozette +?@+4/. This shows the
fle%ibility of his classical realism and his normative assumptions based on the promotion of
universal moral values. 'The protection of human life and freedom are given central importance
by $orgenthau, and constitute a Rtranscendent standard of ethicsS which should always animate
scientific en1uires( )+,/. &hile he assumes that states are power-oriented actors, he indicates
that international politics would be more pernicious than it actually is were it not for moral
restraints and the work of international law )*ehr and #eath 666/.
Realism is thus more than a static, amoral theory, and cannot be accommodated within a
scientific interpretation of international relations. It is a practical theory that depends on the
actual historical and political conditions, and is ultimately !udged by its ethical standards and by
its relevance in making prudent political decisions )$orgenthau +,>4/. Realism also performs a
useful cautionary role. It warns us against progressivism, moralism, legalism, and other
orientations that lose touch with the reality of self-interest and power. The neorealist revival of
the +,D?s can also be interpreted as a necessary corrective to an overoptimistic liberal belief in
international cooperation and change resulting from interdependence. #owever, when it becomes
a dogmatic enterprise, realism fails to perform its proper function. *y remaining stuck in a state-
centric and e%cessively simplified 'paradigm( such as neorealism and denying any progress in
interstate relations, it turns into an ideology. Its emphasis on power politics and national interest
can be misused to !ustify aggression. It has to be supplanted by theories that take better account
of the cooperation and changing picture of global politics. To its merely negative, cautionary
function, positive norms must be added. These norms e%tend from the rationality and prudence
stressed by classical realistsH through the vision of multilateralism, international law, and an
international society emphasized by liberals and members of the 8nglish 7choolH to the
cosmopolitanism and global solidarity advocated by many of today's writers.
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3olitical Realism
3olitical realism is a theory of political philosophy that attempts to e%plain, model, and prescribe
political relations. It takes as its assumption that power is )or ought to be/ the primary end of
political action, whether in the domestic or international arena. In the domestic arena, the theory
asserts that politicians do, or should, strive to ma%imize their power, whilst on the international
stage, nation states are seen as the primary agents that ma%imize, or ought to ma%imize, their
power. The theory is therefore to be e%amined as either a prescription of what ought to be the
case, that is, nations and politicians ought to pursue power or their own interests, or as a
description of the ruling state of affairs-that nations and politicians only pursue )and perhaps
only can pursue/ power or self-interest.
3olitical realism in essence reduces to the political-ethical principle that might is right. The
theory has a long history, being evident in ThucydidesS Pelopennesian War. It was e%panded on
by $achiavelli in The Prince, and others such as Thomas #obbes, 7pinoza, and Oean-Oac1ues
Rousseau followed )the theory was given great dramatical portrayed in 7hakespeareSs Richard
)))/. In the late nineteenth century it underwent a new incarnation in the form of social
darwinism, whose adherents e%plained social and hence political growth in terms of a struggle in
which only the fittest )strongest/ cultures or polities would survive. 3olitical realism assumes that
interests are to be maintained through the e%ercise of power, and that the world is characterised
by competing power bases. In international politics, most political theorists emphasise the nation
state as the relevant agent, whereas $ar%ists focus on classes. 3rior to the Crench Revolution in
which nationalism as a political doctrine truly entered the worldSs stage, political realism
involved the political !urisdictions of ruling dynasties, whilst in the nineteenth century,
nationalist sentiments focused realistsS attentions on the development of the nation-state, a policy
that was later e%tended to include imperialist ambitions on the part of the ma!or &estern powers-
*ritain and Crance, and even *elgium, Bermany and the 9nited 7tates were influenced by
imperialism. ationalist political realism later e%tended into geo-political theories, which
perceive the world to be divided into supra-national cultures, such as 8ast and &est, orth and
7outh, ;ld &orld and ew &orld, or focusing on the pan-national continental aspirations of
2frica, 2sia, etc. &hilst the social darwinist branch of political realism may claim that some
nations are born to rule over others )being RfitterS for the purpose, and echoing 2ristotleSs
ruminations on slavery in *ook + of the The Politics/, generally political realists focus on the
need or ethic of ensuring that the relevant agent )politician, nation, culture/ must ensure its own
survival by securing its own needs and interests before it looks to the needs of others.
To e%plore the various shades and implications of the theory, its application to international
affairs is e%amined.
Aescriptive political realism commonly holds that the international community is characterized
by anarchy, since there is no overriding world government that enforces a common code of rules.
&hilst this anarchy need not be chaotic, for various member states of the international
community may engage in treaties or in trading patterns that generate an order of sorts, most
theorists conclude that law or morality does not apply beyond the nationSs boundaries. 2rguably
political realism supports #obbesSs view of the state of nature, namely that the relations between
self-seeking political entities are necessarily a-moral. #obbes asserts that without a presiding
government to legislate codes of conduct, no morality or !ustice can e%ist0 '&here there is no
common 3ower, there is no =aw0 where no =aw, no In!usticeW if there be no 3ower erected, or
not great enough for our securityH every man will and may lawfully rely on his own strength and
art, for caution against all other men.( )#obbes, eviathan, 3art I, 5h.+6 R;f $anS, and 3art II,
5h.+D, R;f 5ommonwealthS/ 2ccordingly, without a supreme international power or tribunal,
states view each other with fear and hostility, and conflict, or the threat thereof, is endemic to the
system.
2nother proposition is that a nation can only advance its interests against the interests of other
nationsH this implies that the international environment is inherently unstable. &hatever order
may e%ists breaks down when nations compete for the same resources, for e%ample, and war may
follow. In such an environment, the realists argue, a nation has only itself to depend on.
8ither descriptive political realism is true or it is false. If it is true, it does not follow, however,
that morality ought not to be applied to international affairs0 what ought to be does not always
follow from what is. 2 strong form of descriptive political realism maintains that nations are
necessarily self-seeking, that they can only form foreign policy in terms of what the nation can
gain, and cannot, by their very nature, cast aside their own interests. #owever, if descriptive
realism is held, it is as a closed theory, which means that it can refute all counter-factual
evidence on its own terms )for e%ample, evidence of a nation offering support to a neighbour as
an ostensible act of altruism, is refuted by pointing to some self-serving motive the giving nation
presumably has@it would increase trade, it would gain an important ally, it would feel guilty if it
didnSt, and so on/, then any attempt to introduce morality into international affairs would prove
futile. 8%amining the soundness of descriptive political realism depends on the possibility of
knowing political motives, which in turn means knowing the motives of the various officers of
the state and diplomats. The comple%ity of the relationship between officersS actions, their
motives, subterfuge, and actual foreign policy makes this a difficult if not impossible task, one
for historians rather than philosophers. =ogically, the closed nature of descriptive realism implies
that a contrary proposition that nations serve no interests at all, or can only serve the interests of
others, could be !ust as valid. The logical validity of the three resulting theories suggests that
preferring one position to another is an arbitrary decision-i.e., an assumption to be held, or not.
This negates the soundness of descriptive realismH it is not a true or false description of
international relations but is reduced to an arbitrary assumption. 2ssumptions can be tested
against the evidence, but in themselves cannot be proved true or false. Cinally, what is the case
need not be, nor need it ought to be.
That the present international arena of states is characterized by the lack of an overarching power
is an acceptable description. 8videntially, war has been common enough to give support to
political realism-there have been over 4?? wars and conflicts since the signing of the Treaty of
&estphalia in +><.. The seemingly anarchic state of affairs has led some thinkers to make
comparisons with domestic anarchy, when a government does not e%ist to rule or control a
nation. &ithout a world power, they may reason, war, conflict, tension, and insecurity have been
the regular state of affairsH they may then conclude that !ust as a domestic government removes
internal strife and punishes local crime, so too ought a world government control the activities of
individual states-overseeing the legality of their affairs and punishing those nations that break the
laws, and thereby calming the insecure atmosphere nations find themselves in. #owever, the
Rdomestic analogyS makes the presumption that relations between individuals and relations
between states are the same. 5hristian &olff, for e%ample, holds that 'since states are regarded
as individual free persons living in a state of nature, nations must also be regarded in relation to
each other as individual free persons living in a state of nature.( )>us 7entium Methodo
'cientifica Pertractatum Trans. Ooseph Arake. 5larendon 3ress0 ;%ford, +,6<, X4, p.,/. 7uch an
argument involves the collectivization of individuals andYor the personification of states0 realism
may describe nations as individuals acting upon the world stage to further their own interests, but
behind the concept of RCranceS or R7outh 2fricaS e%ist millions of uni1ue individuals, who may
or may not agree with the claims for improving the national interest. 7ome )e.g., Bordon
Braham, /thics and )nternational Relations, +,,D/ claim that the relationships between states
and their civilians are much more different than those between nation states, since individuals
can hold beliefs and can suffer whereas states cannot. If the domestic analogy does not hold,
arguably a different theory must be proposed to e%plain the state of international affairs, which
either means revising political realism to take into account the more comple% relationship
between a collective and individual entities, or moving to a alternative theory of international
relations.
*eyond the descriptive propositions of political realism, prescriptive political realism argues that
whatever the actual state of international affairs, nations should pursue their own interests. This
theory resolves into various shades depending on what the standard of the national interest is
claimed to be and the moral permissibility of employing various means to desired ends. 7everal
definitions may be offered as to what ought to comprise the national interest0 more often than not
the claims invoke the need to be economically and politically self-sufficient, thereby reducing
dependency on untrustworthy nations.
The argument in supporting the primacy of self-sufficiency as forming the national interest has a
long history0 3lato and 2ristotle both argued in favour of economic self-sufficiency on grounds
of securing a nationSs power-nations, they both reasoned, should only import non-necessary
commodities. The power of this economic doctrine has been often been used to support political
realism0 in the eighteenth century especially, political theorists and mercantilists maintained that
political power could only be sustained and increased through reducing a nationSs imports and
increasing its e%ports. The common denominator between the two positions is the proposition
that a nation can only grow rich at the e%pense of others. If 8nglandSs wealth increases, CranceSs
must concomitantly decrease. This influential tier supporting political realism is, however,
unsound. Trade is not necessarily e%clusively beneficial to one party0 it is often mutually
beneficial. The economists 2dam 7mith and Aavid Ricardo e%plained the advantages to be
gained by both parties from free, unfettered trade. onetheless, the realist may admit this and
retort that despite the gains from trade, nations should not rely on others for their sustenance, or
that free trade ought not to be supported since it often implies undesired cultural changes. In that
respect, the nationSs interests are defined as lying over and above any material benefits to be
gained from international collaboration and co-operation. The right to a separate cultural identity
is a separate
3olitical realists are often characterised as a-moralists, that any means should be used to uphold
the national interest, but a poignant criticism is that the definition of morality is being twisted to
assume that acting in oneSs own or oneSs nationSs interests is immoral or amoral at best. This is
an unfair claim against serving oneSs national interest, !ust as claiming that any self-serving
action is necessarily immoral on the personal level. The discussion invokes the ethics of
impartialityH those who believe in a universal code of ethics argue that a self-serving action that
cannot be universalized is immoral. #owever, universalism is not the only standard of ethical
actions. 3artiality, it can be claimed, should play a role in ethical decisionsH partialists deem it
absurd that state officials should not give their own nation greater moral weight over other
nations, !ust as it would be absurd for parents to give e1ual consideration to their children and
othersS children. *ut if morality is employed in the sense of being altruistic, or at least
universalistic, then political realists would rightly admit that attempting to be moral will be
detrimental to the national interest or for the world as a whole, and therefore morality ought to be
ignored. *ut, if morality accepts the validity of at least some self-serving actions, then ipso facto
political realism may be a moral political doctrine.