Realism is an approach to international relations that has developed progressively through the works of numerous political analysts who have based themselves within, and therefore have not exceeded a characteristic but yet assorted approach or conventional evaluation. Realism focuses on global political challenges attributable to individual characteristics and lack of universal watchdog.
These two elements make global relations basically a sphere of power and interests (Griffiths 2009, p. 13). Individual characteristics have not changed since time immemorial. According to the realists, humans are still self-centred, and therefore inherently inclined towards decadence.
Machiavelli explains that in the world of politics, individuals tend to be immoral and will always find expression for malignity engraved in their brains when opportunity strikes (Griffiths 2009, p. 14; Donnelly 2000, p. 17).
In other words, realists give primary attention to inconsiderate passions and the catastrophic presence of wickedness in global politics. Since these passions can not be eradicated, conflicts are not bound to end any time soon (Donnelly 2000, p. 26).
Even though realists have disagreed in some areas, they all agree that humans are inconsiderately zealous and this zeal is the root of all political challenges in the globe. The new political dispensations are aimed at curbing this side of human nature. Locally, human nature is normally regulated by hierarchical political power and constitution (Donnelly 2000, p. 26).
In the global front, political disorder not only permits but also promotes the evil side of human nature. Therefore, the chaotic nature of national politics and the inconsiderate nature of humans call for an overall watchdog (Griffiths 2009, p. 17). Realist considers the structure of global system as vital in maintaining international relations.
According to classical realists, absence of central power to resolve disputes is the reason behind the current security dilemma. They also argue that cumulative effect of actions by state and none-state actors can have considerable impact beyond national borders (Waltz 1979, p. 3).
Classical realists argue that hunger for power which is more rooted in human beings is the reason why most countries are struggling to enhance their capacities. For that reason, the absence of global watch dog is an accommodative condition for state actors to operate without restraint (Waltz 1979, p. 4).
In other words, classical realists also explain egoistic nature of human beings which is the cause of many global problems.
Therefore, a number of global conflicts are attributed to aggressive behaviour of state actors or local political systems that provide opportunity for narrow-minded leaders to pursue selfish expansionist policies in the global arena. In short, classical realists argue that global politics is full of immorality because policies governing international relations are made by bad people (Griffiths 2009, p. 20).
According to neo-realists the structure of the global system comprises of two aspects: lack of overall authority means chaotic state of affairs, and the egoistic nature of humans means all countries are functionally the same. One of the differences between neo-realism and classical realism is in the essence and basis of state priorities. In addition, unlike classical realists, neo-realists only focus on global state of affairs.
Neo-realists state that countries will do what they have to do to survive in the current competitive and anarchic environment. On the other hand, states can opt to pursue certain norms because they are advantageous or because they are already internalized locally (Donnelly 2000, p. 32).
Neo-realists explain that international systems are characterized by similar results given their similarity in structure. As stated earlier, neo-realists tend to ignore local conditions which are apparently different (Griffiths 2009, p. 17). There are other strands of political realism at the moment, for instance, rise and fall realism, neo-classical realism, and structural realism (defensive and offensive structural realism).
They all view international relations in terms of endless and inevitable conflicts. Rise and fall realists explain that rules and practices of global system are determined by the most powerful state.
Since the most powerful state accrues most benefits, other leading states will always try to find ways to get to top position. Given the small gap between the leading state and other powerful states, the rivalry between them normally end up in some form of conflict (Donnelly 2000, p. 38).
On the other hand, neoclassical realists stress that state actions are normally driven by domestic preferences. Neoclassical realists explain that incidences that are being witnessed in the global political arena are mostly influenced by domestic structures, institutions, beliefs, and aspirations.
Most foreign policies tend to be upsetting or predatory. The most famous account of neoclassical realism is the balance of interest theory which states that most leaders are motivated by power and self-indulgence. Therefore, foreign policies are all about power and individual interests (Mearsheimer 2001, p. 6).
Defensive structural realism is an improved version of neo-realism. The most prominent version of defensive structural realism is the balance of threat theory. According to balance of threat theory, countries tend to protect themselves through regional or global alliances. The behaviour of these states is influenced by the perceived threat and the power of the state or none-state actor posing threat (Donnelly 2000, p. 45).
On the other hand, offensive structural realism differs with defensive structural realism on the subject of enemy’s power. Instead of relying on regional or global alliances, offensive structural realism encourages acquisition of more power by an individual state for offensive reason.
Offensive structural realism stresses that when a country acquires more power than others, it can easily protect itself and not rely on external forces/alliances. Such powers are important to tackle emergency cases or where regional alliances are missing (Mearsheimer 2001, p. 8).
Realism focuses on global political challenges caused by individual characteristics and lack of global watchdog. These two elements make global relations basically a sphere of power and interests. From the different strands of realism explored in the study, actions of most states/state actors are immoral (especially those that are driven by greed of power and interest at the expense of others) while some are justified (defensive measures).
Donnelly, J 2000, Realism and International Relations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Griffiths, M 2009, Fifty Key Thinkers in International Relations, 2nd edn, Routledge, London.
Mearsheimer, J 2001, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Norton, New York: WW.
Waltz, K 1979, Theory of International Politics, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.