This chapter reflects on the tradition of political thought known as realism. Its main purposes are 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 chapter then 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.
Historically, realism has been the dominant theory of International Relations (IR) 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, particularly 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 that was felt to be necessary in the tragic realm of international politics.
Realists lay claim to a long tradition of political thought, including such eminent thinkers as Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes, whose point of departure is the study of conflict and power politics. According to realists, conflict is inevitable – even necessary – in international politics. When disputes cannot be resolved peacefully or diplomatically, force – which ultimately leads to war – is viewed as a decisive means of settling matters. Insofar as order exists in international relations, it is the precarious product of the balance of power or hegemony (supremacy by a great power and its allies), according to realists (Dehio 1963; Levy 1983). The pragmatic acceptance of conflict and power politics is essential to realism's outlook. But who are the realists? And what is realism? This chapter provides answers these two questions.
Realism is best understood as both an eclectic and plural tradition of thought, rather than a theory as such, and a practical guide to the politics of international relations. Realists are political theorists and practitioners who, since the interwar years (1918–38), have self-consciously subscribed to this tradition of thought. They know the relationship between theory and practice is complex.