Realism Overwhelming Validity in International Relations


  • This essay examines the hypothesis that Realism possesses overwhelming validity in practical application of IR theory for managing state to state relations.
  • The essay first explains the characteristics of Realism in detail outlining Hans Morgenthau’s six principles that form the bedrock of the Realist theory.
  • The essay then explains Liberalism, Institutionalism, Constructivism, Feminism and Marxism to amplify that while each theory had or has its relevance, their practical application is not as developed as the Realist theory.
  • The essay then develops the practical application of the Realist theory taking the example of the United States of America to prove why the Realist theory is overwhelmingly valid as compared to the other IR theories.
  • The essay next explains the flaws in the Realist theory and then dwells on its linkages with other IR theories especially Liberalism before summarising the entire essay in the conclusion.

The Overwhelming Validity of Realism in International Relations

The field of International Relations (IR) is governed by many theories, which have striking contrasts and some similarities. Of the most popular ones, Realism has shown greater success compared to the some other theories such as Liberalism, Institutionalism, Constructivism, Feminism and Marxism in its practical application to International Relations. This essay examines the hypothesis that Realism possesses overwhelming validity in practical application of IR theory for managing state to state relations.

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The Realist school of International Relations posits that the international system is always anarchic and that struggle, survival and national security of every state is the overriding national interest, which determines the relations between countries (Baylis, Smith, & Owens, 2008, p. 5). Hans Morgenthau, one of the best known theorists of Political Realism succinctly laid down six principles, which according to him clearly explained state to state relations. Firstly, according to Morgenthau (1972), politics is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature and that such laws can be organized into a rational theory of politics that could drive politics among nations (p. 4). Secondly, the central “concept of interest [which when] defined in terms of power” provides the understanding of international politics (Morgenthau, p. 5). Thirdly, this “key concept of interest defined as power is an objective category that is universally valid” (Morgenthau, p. 8). Fourthly, Realism recognises the importance of morality in political action but believes that “universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states” (Morgenthau, p. 10). Fifthly, the moral aspirations of a state cannot be referenced to the moral laws of the universe (Morgenthau, p. 10) and sixthly, the precepts of Political Realism are significantly different from other schools of thought which is more or less autonomous (Morgenthau, p. 11). A statesman must therefore “think in terms of the national interest, conceived as power amongst the other powers” (Morgenthau & Thompson, 1985, p. 165). Under such circumstances, the relative military and economic power determines the ‘Balance of Power’ of nations in the global order that helps prevent war (Brown, 2001, p. 103). Concepts of morality, ethics as understood by humanists, therefore take a back seat and are viewed in relative terms when compared to the fundamental national interests of the state (Baylis, Smith, & Owens, p. 127). Under such circumstances ‘self help’ (Baylis, Smith, & Owens, p. 103) is the best help that a nation can hope or aspire for. ‘Self help’ in such cases includes developing power in ways that best describe the interests of the nation even if it involves resort to use of force, turning a blind eye to ‘crimes against humanity’ if it does not directly or indirectly affect own state and propping up dictators and autocracies if it suits the purposes of the state.

Liberalism, on the other hand looks at states as bureaucratic organizations each having their “own interests” (Baylis, Smith, & Owens, p. 5). Liberalism emphasizes the importance of individual freedom and that every person of a country has equal rights, equal opportunity and enjoys basic freedoms such as right to life, property, speech and a host of other freedoms that define the human condition. The words of John Locke that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions” (Locke, 2005, p. 73) inspired the foundation of the American liberal state. Equal opportunities and freedom to conduct one’s own way of life also implies having tolerance to other ideologies and religious beliefs as has been enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. federal constitution (Green, 2003, p. 316) which has also been the case in all enlightened democracies the world over. Liberalism believes that while military power is valid, a “complex system of bargaining” (Baylis, Smith, & Owens, p. 5) between states can achieve international cooperation and produce peace and stability.

The Realist school scoffs at such ideas emphasizing that the Hobbessian construct that humans by nature are “apt to invade and destroy each other” (Hobbes, 1651, p. 86) can only be controlled by coercive power. Hobbes, one of the earlier proponents of Institutionalism believed that it was necessary to build “strong institutions to save mankind from its own worst instincts” (Peters, 2005, p. 4). The Hobbessian constructs were readily adopted by the Realist school which deemed ‘institutions’ to be strong economic and military power aimed at preserving the core national interests of the state. Institutionalism as theorised by Keohane however argued that international institutions have greater validity today as they continue to remain functional and valid even if the classic ‘balance of power’ as per the Realist theory changes (Lucarelli, 2000, p. 88). While such a statement seems facilely correct, the further development of the Intuitionalist theory as a standalone construct separated from Realism has not been proved.

Constructivists on the other hand believe that the extreme views of the Realists in the importance of power is misplaced and that human interactions are determined and generated by these shared ideas rather than due to material forces and human nature to dominate (Zehfuss, 2002, pp. 38-39). Constructivist theories unfortunately have not yet provided demonstrable practical instances for its acceptance though its proponents claim that the ‘middle ground approach’ (Zehfuss, p. 253) allows the theory greater validity as an alternative to mainstream IR theories.

Feminism with its focus on achieving equality for women in all aspects of human endeavours can best be considered as an adjunct to IR theory. Feminism has never been a factor in the starting or cessation of wars, building or dismantling of empires or determining the hierarchy of nations in the world order. Rethinking the concept of power through Feminism was attempted by a few feminist thinkers but was largely ignored (Weber, 2005, p. 82). It is possible that over a period of time, Feminism may demasculinise IR theory of its overt dependence on power and war and may lead to the possible emancipation of IR theory to be more inclusive (Laferriere & Stoett, 1999, p. 148).

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Realism has overwhelming validity because it has achieved significant success and progress for its practitioners. The U.S. has been a prime beneficiary of Realist policies. In the early years after its independence, America chose to stay away from European politics and meddling in the affairs of the world. American leadership at that point in time felt that it suited American national interests better if the country concentrated on nation building rather than involve itself in futile conflicts far removed from its shores. Geographical isolation, vast natural resources and the need to build a nation were realistically termed to be more important than seeking pre-eminence in the world. This isolationist policy gave rise to the Monroe Doctrine which firmly affirmed the principle that America would stay away from interfering in European affairs and would tolerate no interference by European powers in the Americas. The Monroe Doctrine was steeped in Realism because it laid down practical steps for limiting European power politics from spilling into America’s domain (Williams, 2007, p. 48). However, after the Second World War, the threat of expanding Soviet power forced America to conclude that it was a matter of national survival, of world freedom, of democracy that the U.S. rise up to contain the Soviet Union. This was a Realist articulation of foreign policy that led to the Cold War and endless proxy wars that dominated the next four decades (Little & Smith, 2006, p. 387). American Realist approach worked successfully as the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of it own contradictions and the economic strain of having to match the U.S. led Western Bloc militarily. Issues such as global warming, climate change and global ecosystem for the Realist school are only important in as much as they can help further own national interests. For example if it is not in the interest of the United States to sign the Kyoto Protocol then it must be rejected (Roberts & Parks, 2006, p. 3) irrespective of its legitimacy and international acceptance. If the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) 1982, which has over 159 signatories is seen to impinge on the American notions of ‘Freedom of the Seas’, then it must be challenged and not be allowed to pass the Senate (Winkler, 2000, p. 1840). These are some examples of practical Realism has been successful so far in as much as the U.S. is concerned. By that yardstick, Marxism as a successful practical theory has failed spectacularly with the defeat of the Soviet Union and rejection of most of its ideology (Chen, 1995, p. 44) by an increasingly capitalist China.

The Realist theory is not without flaws. The homogenisation of the concept of power ruling out their various forms and classes particularly in terms of domestic, social or ideological content of internal politics (Saull, 2001, p. 33) robs the theory of its comprehensiveness. Realism is challenged by the ‘Democratic peace theory’ that states that democracies do not go to war with each other (Layne, 2000, p. 963). The central tenet of Realism that coercive power is ultimately necessary to ensure stability and peace, fails to explain the successful formation of the European Union.

That European countries could get over their dearly held concepts of national sovereignty and form a Union is a startling testimony of what Liberalism can achieve (Ingham, 2003, p. 245). The inclusion of former Communist countries in the Union can be likened to Liberalism being coupled with the Realist strategy of bandwagoning (Waltz, 1979, p. 126) by the former communist countries to join up with the stronger more prosperous bloc. The continued relevance of NATO in the E.U-U.S. partnership is an example of Realism coexisting with Liberalism in an external environment. The U.S. is another example of how Liberalism and Realism co-exist almost harmoniously. American domestic laws, and civil society interaction are based on a liberalist philosophy while its external interactions have for most part been based on a Realist approach.

It therefore can be concluded that while other IR theories have some validity such as Institutionalism, Constructivism and Feminism, it is Realism which has stood the test of practical application. Theory such as Marxism had its run of the day but could not stand the test of time which was demonstrated starkly by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its rejection by China. Liberalism seems to be the only theory which has shown demonstrable success in the formation of the E.U. but here too, liberalism has entered in a happy partnership with Realism as is demonstrated by the E.U – U.S. partnership, continued relevance of NATO and in case of the U.S. liberalism dominating its internal domestic policies and Realism its external interaction with the world.

Works Cited

Baylis, J., Smith, S., & Owens, P, 2008, The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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Brown, C., 2001, Understanding International Relations, Palgrave Macmillan, NY.

Chen, F.,1995, Economic Transition and Politcal Legitimacy in Post-Mao China: Ideology and Reform, SUNY Press, NY.

Green, W. S., 2003, Religion and Society in America, In J. Neusner, World Religions in America: An Introduction (pp. 315-321), Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY.

Hobbes, T., 1651, Leviathan, Forgotten Books, NY.

Ingham, M., 2003, EU Expansion to the East: Prospects and Problems, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK.

Laferriere, E., & Stoett, P. J.,1999, International Relations Theory and Ecological Thought: Towards a Synthesisi, Routledge, NY.

Layne, C. , 2000, Kant or Cant: The Myth of the Democratic Peace, In A. Linklater, International Relations: Critical Concepts in Political Science (pp. 961-1000), Taylor & Francis, Florence, KY.

Little, R., & Smith, M., 2006, Perspectives on World Politics, Routledge, NY.

Locke, J. , 2005, Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Publishing, Massachusetts.

Lucarelli, S.,2000, Europe and the Breakup of Yugoslavia: A Political Failure in Search of a Scholarly Explanation, Kluwer Law International, Cambridge.

Morgenthau, H. , 1972, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Alfred A Knopf, NY.

Morgenthau, H., & Thompson, K. , 1985, Politics Among Nations, McGraw Hill, NY.

Peters, B. G., 2005, Institutional Theory in Politcal Science: The ‘New’ Institutionalism, Continuum International Publishing Group, London.

Roberts, J. T., & Parks, B. C. , 2006, A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality, North-South Politics, and Climate Policy, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Saull, R. , 2001, Rethinking Theory and History in the Cold War: The State, Military Power, and Social Revolution, Taylor & Francis, Florence, KY.

Waltz, K. , 1979, The Theory of International Politics, McGraw Hill, NY.

Weber, C., 2005, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, NY.

Williams, M. C.,2007, Realism Reconsidered: The Legacy of Hans Morgenthau in International Relations, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Winkler, A., 2000, Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, Volume 4, Macmillan Reference USA, NY.

Zehfuss, M., 2002, Constructivism in International Relations: The Politics of Reality, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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