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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012

2 - Realism

from 1 - Theories of International Relations



This chapter reflects on the tradition of political thought known as realism. Its main purpose is to identify who realists are, and to explain what realism is in the study of international relations. The first part of the chapter introduces students to some important thinkers, both ancient and modern, ascribed to the realist tradition of thought. It also identifies two broad strands of realist thought: ‘classical’ and ‘structural’ or ‘neorealist’. The second part investigates attempts to conceive realism as a unified theory and practice of international relations. It highlights realism’s central concepts of the state and anarchy before reflecting on realism’s normative dimension.

Realism has historically been the dominant theory of International Relations and a point of reference for alternative theories, even if only critically. It aspires to be suprahistorical, explaining in all epochs the fundamental features of international politics: first and foremost, conflict and war. Emerging in the 1930s, realism’s polemical target was the progressive, reformist optimism connected with liberal internationalists such as American president Woodrow Wilson. Against this optimism, realism comported a more pessimistic outlook which was felt to be necessary in the tragic realm of international politics.

Further reading
Aron, Raymond 1966 Peace and war: a theory of international relationsNew YorkDoubleday
Bell, Duncan 2009 Political thought and international relations: variations on a realist themeOxfordOxford University Press
Buzan, BarryJones, CharlesRichard, Little 1993 The logic of anarchy: neorealism to structural realismNew YorkColumbia University Press
Haslam, Jonathan 2002 No virtue like necessity: realist thought in international relations since MachiavelliNew HavenYale University Press
Keohane, Robert 1986 Neorealism and its criticsNew YorkColumbia University Press
Smith, Michael J. 1986 Realist thought from Weber to KissingerBaton RougeLouisiana State University Press
Williams, Michael C. 2005 The realist tradition and the limits of international relationsCambridgeCambridge University Press