A Brief Introduction to Realism

Main Tenets of Realism

Under the realist thought, states are the unit of analysis.

States exist in a condition known as anarchy, where no singular outside force binds the system.

Due to the inherent chaos of an anarchical system states may choose to take their security into their own hands, which could lead to a situation of escalating threats with needs for balancing.

It is generally assumed that the leaders of the states, and therefore the states themselves, are rational actors. Although, humans are often seen as flawed and self-serving.

Thus, a government's foreign policy is subject to "realpolitik" -- pragmatically making decisions based on the facts of the situation at hand. This includes in international relations. Realpolitik is not only found in realism and dates to the earliest eras of human civilization around the world.

Ontologies & Epistemologies of Realism

In a system where material is the scale by which everything else is measured, then the individual with the most material is the dominant individual. It is in this way that realism is an ontology of the individual, acting out volition upon other individuals.

Much of realism's epistemological outlook relies on a belief in states that exist in anarchy with imperfect humans at the helm and locked into a security dilemma with a choice on how to balance. Most of the primary sources of realist thought stem elite institutions from highly developed and powerful sovereign nations.

Origins of Realism

The concept of realism stems from ancient Greek, renaissance European and modern American metaphysical traditions.

Thucydides (460 – c. 400 BC), a Greek historian from Athens, authored a detailed account of the Peloponnesian War between the Greek states of Sparta and Athens. His writing often concerns human nature. In his view all acts are political, and the masses guide the state through fear and self-interest.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), an Italian political philosopher, also wrote about human nature in his work, where he describes the politics of the states of his day and how historical international relations related to his era. He saw his society as inherently immoral and prescribed many virtues for aspiring princes and states to gain strength.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), an English political philosopher, described the state-society relationship and interstate system of his time, in his work. He lived through two English civil wars and saw the seeds of what would become Great Britain. He argued for a strong, unified government that provided for a stable order in which society could operate. His ideal government is a reflection of the people and responds to the morals of those it governs.

In the early 20th century as the United States was becoming a large world power, realism gained in popularity in the mainstream academic circles in the West. After WWI, scholars saw raw power as the best tool for ensuring stability. This led to the birth of Classical Realism as a school of International Relations.

E. H. Carr (1892 – 1982), a British diplomat and scholar, authored a historical work that argues ideas of peace and cooperation often fail in the face of a drive for power.

Hans Morgenthau (1904 – 1980) a German-American, wrote about human nature and the need for national self-interest. Mogenthau saw too much reliance on technology and legal systems to provide the peace when might makes right.

Over the last century, realism has continued to exist as one of the primary schools of IR theory in the United States. Realism has grown and changed to include sub-schools, including: (structural) neorealism, neoclassical realism, and blends of realism with other schools such as liberal realism, constructivist realism, and moral realism.

Kenneth Waltz (1924 – 2013), an American political scientist, argued that it was not only human nature that led to chaos in the international, but more so that structural realities causes leaders to balance against what they see as threats.

Around the time of Waltz's work, the realist camp split into classical realists, who saw human nature as the independent variable, and neorealists who the structure of the international order as the independent variable.

A sub-school of neorealism, defensive realism, argues that states seeking power upsets the balance and therefore does not ensure security; while states should pursue self-strengthening, they should also pursue self-restraint. Another sub-school of neorealism, offensive realism, argues that only by seeking to be the hegemon can a state ensure security.

Later, a blend of structural and classical realism re-emerged as neoclassical realism, which focuses heavily on defensive balancing as the agent of order.

Core Canon of Realism

Classical Realism

  • Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. 411 BC.

  • Niccolò Machiavelli. The Prince. 1532.

  • Thomas Hobbes. The Leviathan. 1651.

  • E. H. Carr. The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939. 1946.

  • Hans Morgenthau. Politics Among Nations. 1948.

  • Arnold Wolfers. "Discord and Collaboration." 1962.

Neorealism (Structural)

  • Kenneth Waltz. Man, the State, and War. 1959.

  • Kenneth Waltz. Theory of International Politics. 1979.

  • Robert Gilpin. War and Change in World Politics. 1981.

  • Stephen D. Krasner. International Regimes. 1983.

  • John Mearsheimer. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. 2001.

  • Charles Glaser. Rational theory of international politics. 2010.

  • Jack Snyder. Myths of Empire. 2013.

  • Stephen Van Evera. Causes of war: Power and the roots of conflict. 2013.

  • Stephen Walt. The Origins of Alliances. 2013.

  • Barry Posen. Restraint. 2014.

Neoclassical Realism

  • William Wohlforth. Elusive Balance. 1993.

  • Thomas J. Christensen. Useful Adversaries. 1996.

  • Alastair J. H. Murray. Reconstructing Realism. 1997.

  • Gideon Rose. "Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy." 1998.

  • Fareed Zakaria. The Post-American World. 2008.

  • Randall Schweller. Unanswered Threats. 2010.

  • Aaron Friedberg. Contest for Supremacy. 2011.

  • Robert Jervis. Perception and Misperception in International Politics. 2017.

Notable Discussants of Realism

Albert Hirschman, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Anne Murray, Christopher Layne, David Allen Baldwin, George F. Kennan, Halford Mackinder, Henrik Larsen, Henry Kissinger, Herman Kahn, John H. Herz, Joseph Grieco, Lloyd Gruber, Marc Trachtenberg, Nicholas Spykman, Otto von Bismark, Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard K. Betts, Robert J. Art, Robert W. Tucker, Stephen G. Brooks, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and many more...