An Introduction to Realism in International Relations

Author: Notre Dame International Security Center

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Within the study of international relations (IR), there are many ideologies practitioners of this political science investigate and frequently find themselves gravitating towards. Whether the theory is liberalism, Marxism, constructivism, or any of the other dominant theories, realism in international relations is still one of the most dominant. What is realism and why does it continue to maintain its dominance in IR studies? What is its history and who are the most famous realists? 


What is Realism? 

Since World War II, realism has been considered the most dominant school of thought, and it remains an ever-present in twenty-first century politics. The theory of realism posits five basic outlines: 

  • International politics are anarchic; 
  • Sovereign states are principal actors in international politics; 
  • States are rational unitary actors acting under their own national interests; 
  • The state’s primary goals are its own national security and survival; 
  • National power and capabilities are a key litmus test for relationships between states. 

In summation, realism says nation-states (or ‘states’) are the main characters in the unfolding tale of international relations. Other characters exist—individual people and businesses, in particular—but they have limited power. In times of war, states will speak and act as one with their own national interests in mind. 


A Brief History of Realism in International Relations 

Like many other aspects of international relations, the theory of realism finds its roots in Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War.” While Thucydides is not considered among the realists since the theory wasn’t given a name until the twentieth century, modern scholars and theorists have made comparisons between the thought patterns and behaviors he wrote about in Ancient Greece and those of a more modern context. This lends credence to the idea that realism is, in fact, a timeless theory that is part of our history. 


Notre Dame International Security Center (NDISC) Director Michael Desch says, “Almost 2500 years ago, the Athenian historian claimed that his history of the war between Athens and Sparta would be a lasting work because it captured the core dynamics of international politics: the continuous struggle for power.  Thinkers and statesmen keep coming back to Thucydides because they continually discover and rediscover this core insight.” 

Not long after Thucydides, but in a different part of the world, Indian writer Chanakya wrote “Arthashastra,” which translates to ‘The Science of Material Gain’ or ‘Science of Polity.’ In it, Chanakya said that a king’s main goal is to increase the power of his state, expand his empire, and destroy his enemy. “One should neither submit spinelessly nor sacrifice oneself in foolhardy valor,” he said, “it is better to adopt such policies as would enable one to survive and live to fight another day.” 

Other writers who helped develop the theory of realism include Niccolo Mechiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Hans J. Morgenthau


Morgenthau’s 6 Principles of Realism 

In his book “Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace,” Hans J. Morgenthau identified six principles of political realism: 

  1. Politics, like society, is governed by objective laws rooted in human nature; 
  2. International politics are shaped by a state’s interests, especially in terms of power; 
  3. Interest in power is objective and universal, but not fixed—there is room for nuance; 
  4. Realism is aware of the moral significance of political action. In other words, if a friendly country is being attacked, as much as we may want to help, it may be unrealistic to believe that we can do so without unacceptable risks; 
  5. Realism does not liken the moral aspirations of a particular nation to the moral laws which govern the universe. So, if one country invades another on the basis of God’s will, realists don’t identify this as a justifiable cause of war; 
  6. Realism is profoundly different from other schools of thought. Realists are aware of the existence and relevance of other fields and the experts within, but sometimes politics must be separated from economics, morality, and even law: 

Morgenthau says the realist “thinks in terms of interest defined as power, as the economist thinks in terms of interest defined as wealth; the lawyer, of the conformity of action with legal rules; the moralist, of the conformity of action with moral principles.” 


What Does the Future Hold for Realism in International Relations? 

As noted, realism has been the dominant IR theory for nearly a century—especially prevalent during the Cold War—but many IR scholars find themselves wondering what the future holds for the theory and its role going forward in international security. In a 2018 “Foreign Policy” article, Harvard international relations professor Stephen Walt said that despite government official claims of actions on the basis of realism, both Democrats and Republicans have shown a tendency to view foreign policy through the lens of liberal idealism, framing the political climate as a rigid divide between virtuous allies (usually democracies) and evil adversaries (usually dictatorships). 

So, what does the future hold for realism? The answer lies in the hands of emerging scholars and practitioners of international relations. 

Desch says, “Realism has proven so durable as a theoretical lens to understanding international relations and as a guide to statecraft because it is based upon a cold-blooded recognition of the realities of international relations: first, there is no global 9-1-1 states can call when they get in trouble, so they have to take care of themselves. Second, the best way to take care of yourself is to have sufficient power to do so.” 

If you or someone you know is interested in being one of those scholars or practitioners, the Notre Dame International Security Center wants to talk to you.