What are the assumptions of Realism, and why has it been so influential in the study of international relations?
Originating from Ancient Greece, realism is the theory, which has been one of the leading and most prominent ways of thinking in terms of international relations in modern times. Thucydides, a Greek Historian, was first to deduce that aspirations for power and domination were prominent aspects of mankind (Dunne & Shmidt 2001: 267).
Its dominance in international relations however, really began at the Treaty of Westphalia, which effectively set out the very principles for nation states to protect their own interests. These basic principles of Realism together have forged the stem to all other common assumptions in the Realist school of thought.
Instead of referring to itself as an ideology, realists see it as more of a straightforward rational theory, a way of thinking reasonably in a situation, rather than idealistically. Indeed, it is argued that Realism has dominated International Relations to such a degree, that people forget it is just a perspective, as it is commonly recognized as a ‘commonsense’ view of world politics (Steans 2005: 50).
Dunne and Schmidt point out that the outbreak of the Second World War confirmed inadequacies of inter-war idealist approaches (2001: 162), and that the realities of an incessant struggle for power among states (Steans 2005: 51) were perceptible. After the war, over ¾ of phenomena noted and over 90% of hypothesis tested, was realist in inspiration (Doyle 1997: 15).
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This is evidence to prove that Realism has been manifestly influential in international relations. As to why, the changing balance of power and the way in which states would now perceive foreign policy, following the war, ushered a new dominant theory behind world politics, where “Policy makers since have looked at the world through a realist lens” (Dunne & Schmidt 2001: 162).
In Realism, States are the primary actors in the international system, being rational unitary actors who are functionally identical (Slaughter 1995: 503).
No actor apart from the state and its executive have independence or influence in their own boundaries, as they have ultimate legal authority. As McGrew cited, international organizations are “merely creatures of a state” (McGrew & Lewis: 1992).
The EU is a prime example of states acting in a Realist fashion, showing how Realism has been an influence in such a prominent part of International Relations. Arguably, states more often than not, will only pool sovereignty if it is in their own interests to do so. Furthermore, the fundamental governing principle of European Union law, ‘subsidiarity,’ is realist in nature. According to this principle, the EU may only act (i.e. make laws) where member states agree that action at local level is less effective than at community level. Therefore, states via subsidiarity must give the ‘go ahead’ first, to allow sovereignty to be pooled at the community level. Thus, the notion of states being the primary actors in the EU is preserved.
In essence, this is why Realists see the world as anarchic, as the interests and legitimacy of sovereign states would override national law explaining why a world government would not work. Unsuccessful attempts were made throughout the first half of the 20th century to establish global institutions to resolve international disputes peacefully, most notably the ‘League of Nations.’ Instead of peace however, World War II broke out and following this, Realism was the accepted wisdom of International Relations, as conflict appeared to reiterate (Steans 2005; 51), despite many efforts to appease and keep peace between nations. It has lead many to believe that “Idealism is now just a synonym for gullibility and naïveté – for well intended optimists” (Crawford 2000: 64) and thus, had an effect on how people perceived the UN; an ambitious attempt to outlaw aggression and to provide collective security against it (Hoffman 1987: 75).
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This has indeed been the case for the UN since its formation in 1945, especially seen in Africa, as Hoffman goes on to point out that international agencies like the UN can “only perform modest services; they can’t produce or enforce peace” (1987: 75).
This not only allows, but also galvanizes the most horrific aspects of human nature to take place. The Holocaust and other genocides alike in the 1990’s in Srebrenica and Rwanda are evidence for this. And so, where a world government doesn’t exist “the law of the jungle, still prevails” (Donnelly 2000: 10).
With an anarchic world that these states live in, fighting for their survival and security is paramount. The Realist theory assumes that states must be reliant on their own resources to achieve this and when necessary use force to uphold them. Therefore, realism places great stress on the significance of military power in shaping global politics, as without a military, states can’t defend their own interests (McGrew & Lewis 1992: 19).
Without a world government then, states can run havoc in international relations, using force to fulfill national goals and interests. This was greatly seen for example in Spanish and British Imperialism centuries ago and even today through the hegemony of the USA, welcoming power politics into international relations. The notion of states’ interests defined and achieved in terms of power within Realism was tremendously appealing for USA in 1945; a country who emerged from the biggest war the world had seen with more power than any other nation, both economically and militarily (Hoffman 1987: 77).
Hoffman also states that an “indefinite extension of the scope of US interests (1987: 316) occurred, for example McGrew stresses it was clear that US policy in Central America, particularly post-war has been interventionist (1992: 63), where such actions were seen in the struggle for Cuba in the Cold War with the Soviets. Even today, the emergence of ‘neo-realism’ has given particular weight to hegemonic powers in establishing and maintaining order in the global system (McGrew & Lewis 1992: 19).
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Such developments have been seen through America’s use of ‘power politics’ as they illegitimately intervened in Iraq without substantial UN resolutions. However, it is not only hegemony and interests of the USA that has been a prominent factor of their foreign policy, but also their security and defense. In 1983 alone, their defense budget was a massive $258 billion, a considerable amount more used on security than any other nation state (Hoffman 1987: 321).
In the Cold War, both superpowers attempted to police their own spheres of influence, controlling any of their subordinates’ actions, which may have altered the balance of power against them (McGrew & Lewis 1992: 19).
The Cold War therefore set aside perfect conditions for Realism to take place, allowing two states to compete and play against each other in a bi-polar world, explaining further as to why Realism has been so dominant in International Relations.
A common phrase used to interpret Realism is that ‘nation states have permanent interests, but not permanent allies.’ Realism assumes that there is a general distrust of long cooperation and alliances. Machiavelli an Italian political thinker of the 16th century supports this, as he advised state leaders how to maximize their power, even if it meant breaking promises in order to do so (Steans 2005: 52).
A ‘Machiavellian’ then, as its known, is someone who acts in a cunning manner, and it is not unknown in modern times as, Neville Chamberlain once announced ‘peace for our time,’ as promised by Hitler. However, we all know a year later Hitler invaded Poland and Europe was plunged into World War II. If nation states act like this then cooperation between one another are clearly not intended or even present. Even after the war, the ‘Big 3’ had come to an agreement talk at Yalta, however by 1948 the Soviets had gone against their word and started to consolidate their power and influence in the Eastern Block. This part of the Realist theory has reiterated throughout time and has indeed, been the cause of many wars. And so, lies will be told in order to pursue interests making Realism a very attractive theory for policy making in International Relations, explaining why it has been so influential.
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In Realism, “States interact with one another within a system like billiard balls: hard, opaque, unitary actors colliding with one another” (Wolfers 1962: 70).
The last ball standing however is the state with the most power, as they have ensured the security and interests of their state. And so, the hierarchy of the international system is seen as the hierarchy of military might (Hoffman 1987: 73).
The assumptions of Realism themselves are why it is so influential in International Relations. Human nature is inherently egoistic in passion (Donnely 2000: 10).
It is the mentality perfectly suited, for States to exploit the Realist approach in International Relations. However, where two egos clash, a dark world of “international politics, like all politics [becomes] a struggle for power” (Morgenthau 1978: 29).
Dunne, T. (2001) ‘Realism’, in Baylis, J & Smith, S (ed.) The Globalization of World Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 162- 183.
Steans, J with Pettiford, L. (2005) Introduction to International Relations: Perspectives and themes- 2nd edition. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.
Doyle, I. (1997) Ways of War and Peace- 1st edition. USA: Norton & company, inc.
McGrew, A & Lewis, P. (1992) Global Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Crawford, R. (2000) Idealism and Realism in International Relations. Oxon: Routledge.
Hoffman, S. (1987) Janus and Minerva: Essays in the Theory and Practice of International Politics. Colorado: Western Press inc.
Donnely, J. (2000) Realism and International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Arnold Wolfers (1962) Discord and Collaboration: Essays on International Politics Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.
Morgenthau, H. (1978) Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and peace- 5th edition. New York: Knopf.
Slaughter, A. (1995) ‘International Law in a World of Liberal State’. European journal of international law. 6/4: pp. 503- 538.