Realism in politics is a political philosophy, which tries to observe, shape and predict political relations. It is based upon assumption that power should be the primary goal of any political act, both in international or domestic sphere. As far as domestic affairs are concerned, this theory states that political figures are supposed to direct all efforts to maximizing their power. Accordingly, in the international sphere nation should aim at maximizing its power among other states. This theory can be regarded as a prescription to be followed by politicians and states or as a description of current affairs of the state or politician pursuing self-interest.
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Realism in politics is often defined as a principle of power supremacy, and it has a long history since the ancient times. It was reflected in Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. This theory was also touched by Machiavelli in his writing The Prince, as well as by other outstanding philosophers like Spinoza, Hobbes and Rousseau. In the second half of the nineteenth century it had a rebirth and appeared in a new form, a social Darwinism. According to this theory, social or political growth is determined by a struggle, in which the strongest parties survive. According to the theory of political realism, interests should be satisfied by means of power exercise, and the world is defined by competing powers. In this context, the adherents of Marxist theory refer to classes, while other political theorists to states. (Ahrensdorf)
Political realism is explained in the following way:
“Prior to the French Revolution in which nationalism as a political doctrine truly entered the world’s stage, political realism involved the political jurisdictions of ruling dynasties, whilst in the nineteenth century, nationalist sentiments focused realists’ attentions on the development of the nation-state, a policy that was later extended to include imperialist ambitions on the part of the major Western powers-Britain and France, and even Belgium, Germany and the United States were influenced by imperialism.” (Viotti, Kauppi)
Important difference between social darwinism and other branches political realism is as follows: adherents of the former state that some nations are destined to rule over other nations, while other part of realists pays most attention to the need of ensuring that nation, culture or politician sets or secures own needs before needs or interests of others.
Political realism in international affairs
Political realism of an expressive kind stands for the suggestion that international commonwealth is distinguished by anarchy, since there is no absolute world government, that could rule with an all-purpose policy code. Since the anarchy does not need a chaotic nature, thus allowing member nations be involved into trading schemes or treaties, the theorists mostly agree that morality or law are not the dominating factors outside one particular state. In this particular characteristic this hypothesis agrees with the Hobb’s theory: “Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice ¼ if there be no Power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art, for caution against all other men.” (Hobbes, Leviathan , Part I, Ch.13 ‘Of Man’, and Part II, Ch.17, ‘Of Commonwealth, cited in Griffiths, O’Callaghan).
Respectively, without any supreme international force, nations treat each other with hostility or fear, and it damages the system.
Another aspect of the theory is an assumption that a state can promote its interest against the needs and interests of other states, it proves that international surrounding is not stable. Any order is affected if states compete for the same need, and under such circumstances, as the realists state, the nation may rely on itself only.
There are definite contradictions that can be found in the concept of political realism: descriptive realism may be regarded as a true theory or false concept. Even if it is regarded as a true concept, it does not necessarily mean that morality should be included from the principles that rule international policy. One of the strong forms if descriptive type of political realism states that states should be self-seeking, that they should build their policy basing upon desired gains of the nation and should not ignore their interests and demands.
Simultaneously, “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 example, evidence of a nation offering support to a neighbor 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 didn’t, and so on), then any attempt to introduce morality into international affairs would prove futile.” (Stern)
The assessment of expressive kind of political realism power depends upon the chance of understanding political reasons, which requests understanding the causes of state diplomats and representatives. The pattern of officers’ relations, their motives and actions is complex. Waltz says that the closed nature of expressive realism includes a oppose scheme that nations does not serve any needs at all, or can serve the needs of others only. The logical value of the three theories resulting from this concept offers that preferring one condition to another is an optional decision, if an assumption is accepted, or not. (Waltz)
The present international sphere of nations’ interaction is defined by the lack of supreme power. In the past, wars were a strong argument in support of political realism – there have been more than 200 wars since the middle of the 17th century. This condition seems to have a chaotic nature, and some thinkers are likely to compare it to domestic anarchy, when state government is not able to rule the state:
‘Without a world power, war, conflict, tension, and insecurity have been the regular state of affairs; just 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”. (Kegley, Wittkopf)
At the same time, such comparison leads to a conclusion that the relations between the state and the individuals are alike. Such argument includes the personification of the states and collectivization of individuals. Some theorists state that the relations between states and the citizens cannot be compared to the relations between the states and the relations of the individuals, and therefore should be differently judged.
In addition to the propositions of descriptive realism, there are notions offered by prescriptive political realism, for instance, the statement that a certain nation should follow its own interests and needs independently of the relevant state of international relations. This theory can be divided into various aspects, depending upon proclaimed interest of the nation and the allowability of the tools that would be used to reach desired goals. As far as the national interest is concerned, there are distinct opinions of what it should be, but all of them agree that the state should be self-efficient in economical and political sphere, cutting dependency on other nations. (The Globalization of World Politics: an Introduction to International Relations)
The statement supporting the supremacy of self-sufficiency of the state has appeared long time ago. Plato and Aristotle referred to this aspect as a ground necessary to provide security of the national power, they insisted that nation should import only insignificant commodities. This economic theory has been used for supporting political realism, especially in the 18th century the theorists of political sphere stated that the political power of the nation is reached and supported in the terms of reduced import and increased export only.
Difference between neorealism and classical realism
Conflict is regarded as a key element in politics, including international affairs, by all realists, however, there are two different sources of conflict, pointed out by different realist authors. For instance, classical realism theory starts with a pessimistic viewpoint on the human nature. As the adherents of this theory believe, selfish, competitive and striving for power behavior in inherent for the humans.
Hans Morgenthau states that each individual is enforced to act uncaringly to protect himself, and this situation leads to the disagreement:
“What the one wants for himself, the other already possesses or wants, too. Struggle and competition ensue…. Man cannot [therefore] hope to be good, but must be content with not being too evil”. (Morgenthau) Niccolo Machiavelli shares this opinion: “how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it”. (cited in The Globalization of World Politics: an Introduction to International Relations)
These ideas performed specific approach to a strategy applied in international affairs: a careful statesman must avoid optimistic view on others’ aims and intentions and limits their initiatives to those that may help if the situation goes better. For instance, Henry Kissinger warned the leaders of the USA and Israeli against the intentions of Syria and Palestine, during the negotiations on Middle East conflict: “It is likely that agreements will be reached … because the alternatives will, in the end, seem more dangerous. But when this happens, we must avoid euphoria…. An agreement will represent a strategic interlude for the Syrians and most of the Palestinians, not a commitment to a new world order.” (Legro, Moravcsik)
In other words, classical type of realism regards conflict and competition as essential element of international affairs, referring the origin of conflict to the human nature. Humans struggle with each other for resources they need and strive for power to rule over other people. This is a set pattern, which cannot be changed. Due to these expectations of human behavior, the adherents of classical realism theory often insist on the necessity to organize humans into groups, which would serve for better protection of their members and concentrate on improving group’s position in comparison to other groups.
Another theory, neorealism or structural realism, refers the origin of conflict to interstate condition, the lack of legally restricting rules in particular, rather than to human nature. The adherents of neorealism state, that “the absence of a neutral authority that can enforce rules and agreements creates an insecure, self-help situation in which all policy makers are pressured to act competitively, regardless of their individual natures or personal preferences.” (Kegley, Wittkopf)
This statement is not new, it appeared in the 17th century in the work of Thomas Hobbes. In his writing Leviathan he states that the in the world, which lacks supreme power that could provide security, people has a right to use any tools to protect themselves. Besides, he assumed that “all mankind … [has] a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceases only in death.” (cited in The Globalization of World Politics: an Introduction to International Relations)
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Modern tradition in neorealist theory declines the assumption that individuals strive for power due to a natural inclination, and concentrates on the motives produced by a lack of a neutral power that can set rules for interstate relations. For instance, Kenneth Waltz says that “the main cause of war must lie in some regularity at the level of the interstate system, rather than within particular leaders or states, since war has been waged for all sorts of specific reasons and by “good” as well as “bad” leaders.” (Waltz) According to Waltz, this regularity is the pressure, produced by anarchy: “Without enforceable interstate rules, states must either resist possible domination by others through a policy of balancing against others’ power capabilities, or by bandwagoning-joining a coalition that supports an aggressive state, in hopes of turning its aggression elsewhere”. (Waltz) Waltz states that large states possess the capacity and desire to withstand the strength of other states. This results, as he sees it, in a tendency of competitiveness among states independently of the views of their leaders concerning domestic policy.
Actually, the prediction of this statement is not much different from the assumption made by the adherents of classical realism. As soon as it is based on the assumptions concerning human nature, classic realists expect that the makers of policy also act competitively. The difference lies in the way this conclusion is reached. As Waltz sees it, this is the pressure of competitiveness, produced by anarchy, which significantly influences the human behavior. Those strategies that are oriented on power, appear because the leaders are forced to struggle for security, rather than because they desire just to obtain power.
Realistic approach in modern international affairs
Realism was a concept for analyzing world politics since remote times, because much of humankind history was characterized by wars. As soon as the states’ interests come across in conflict, it is expected that leaders pay much attention to their positions in power. “The classical realist worldview appealed to many statesmen during the period that states were evolving in Western Europe-an era rife with conflict, as medieval forms of rule broke down and rulers asserted new claims to authority against feudal lords or the Pope. It jumped to the United States when the experiences of World War II were followed by the onset of the Cold War. Neorealism later emerged when the bipolarity of the Cold War drew analysts’ attention to the effects of the structure of the interstate system”. (Lieven, Hulsman)
At present, ethical realism is offered to the USA as a leading principle that should define the foreign policy of this state. As it is described by the supporters of this type of realism, it bases upon “prudence; a concentration on possible results rather than good intentions; a close study of the nature, views and interests of other states, and a willingness to accommodate them when these do not contradict America’s own truly vital interests; and a mixture of profound American patriotism with an equally profound awareness of the limits on both American power and on American goodness” (Lieven, Hulsman)
The concept of the Great Capitalist Peace is also derived from the theory of ethical realism concept. It is based upon the ideas of Kennan and Morgenthau, including the concepts of diplomacy purposes and international order. It proclaims that a global order is needed to be agreed by the largest states, to provide the promotion of their interests and reduce the threat of terrorists. Accordingly, the USA power is treated as an element, vital for keeping the Great Capitalist Peace.
At the same time, it is added that the limits should be put on the US power, in order to legitimate interests and needs of other states should be satisfied. Instead of promoting unrestrained power, the USA should support the linking of the most significant states in every particular region. For instance, in the Middle East region the USA should use its power and resources to support creation of a regional patter for the states, including Syria and Iran, and to make this pattern functional enough to regulate Iraq conflict after withdrawal of the US troops from this country. (Lieven, Hulsman)
As far as the Far East is concerned, the USA should paid attention to the primary role, which should be played by China in this region, but not by the United States. China is treated as a state, ready to act in cooperation with other states and act responsibly, that’s why USA should allow China to occupy a leading position in finding resolutions to the actions of the regime in the North Korea, and other possible challenges in this region. (Lieven, Hulsman)
Waltz, K. N. Structural Realism after the Cold War. International Security. Summer. 2000
Morgenthau, H. J. Politics Among Nations: the Struggle for Power and Peace. McGraw Hill: NY, 1993.
Stern, G. The Structure of International Society. London: Pinter Publishers, 2000.
The Globalization of World Politics: an Introduction to International Relations. edited by Baylis, J. and S. Smith. Oxford University Press, 2004
Griffiths, M., O’Callaghan, T. International Relations: The Key Concepts. London, Routledge, 2002
Kegley, C. Wittkopf, E. World Politics. Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005.
Viotti, P.R. Kauppi, M.V. International Relations Theory: Realism, Pluralism, Globalism. Macmillan Pub Co, 1993.
Legro, J.W. Moravcsik, A. Is Anybody Still a Realist? International Security. Fall 1999
Jervis, R. Realism, Neoliberalism, and Cooperation.. International Security. Summer 1999
Ahrensdorf, P. J. Thucydides’ realistic critique of realism. Polity Winter 1997
Lieven, A. Hulsman, J. America’s World Role Has to be Realistic and Moral. October 17, 2006, retrieved at
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