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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: June 2018

3 - Realism

from Part I - Theories of international relations



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.

Aron, Raymond 1966, Peace and war: A theory of international relations, New York: Doubleday. A twentieth-century realist classic by leading French intellectual.
Bell, Duncan (ed.) 2009, Political thought and international relations: Variations on a realist theme, Oxford: Oxford University Press. An excellent collection of essays interpreting and examining the complex and rich contribution of realism.
Buzan, Barry, Jones, Charles and Little, Richard 1993, The logic of anarchy: Neorealism to structural realism, New York: Columbia University Press. An attempt to make neo-realism methodologically open and historically sensitive.
Haslam, Jonathan 2002, No virtue like necessity: Realist thought in international relations since Machiavelli, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. A wide-ranging history of realist thought.
Keohane, Robert (ed.) 1986, Neorealism and its critics, New York: Columbia University Press. As the title suggests, this is a collection of some of the most important neo-realist authors and their critics.
Smith, Michael J. 1986, Realist thought from Weber to Kissinger, Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press. An important account of political realism in the twentieth century.
Wight, Martin 1991, International theory: The three traditions, Wight, G. and Porter, B. (eds), London: Leicester University Press. A lively debate between realism and other traditions.
Williams, Michael C. 2005, The realist tradition and the limits of international relations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. A thoughtful reading of Hobbes, Rousseau and Morgenthau.