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Realism in International Relations and History Report

International relations as a discipline distinguishes between several perspectives and theories. Among them, there is realist (also referred to as the political realism) theory. The main purpose of the political realism as a theory is to provide the analysts with the opportunities to project and forecast the development of various political situations of the international and global character (Political Realism par. 1). Historically, this theory is one of the oldest, and it was explored by numerous outstanding thinkers of their times among whom there were Hobbes, Spinoza, Machiavelli, and Rousseau. This paper discusses the main points and assumptions of political realism, its development over centuries, and its implications with some examples from human history.

Definition and Description

As an approach, the political realism emphasizes the importance of power as the moving force in the political relations; this theory studies international political relations from the point of view of their competitiveness and conflicting nature (Political Realism in International Relations par. 1). The concept of self-interest plays a very important role in this theory. Political realism supports the perspective that the states are the main actors in the international arena, and each of them acts according to their selfish needs, such as the need for power, influence, recognition, independence, and security. In other words, the policy and actions of every state are dictated by their most important needs, and the main determinant of the efficiency of a state’s policy is its increasing power on the international level. According to political realism, the international system is anarchic, dangerous, and uncertain, where none of the states know the true intentions of their neighbors (Slaughter 1). This way, the main motivator of interstate relations is survival.

History of Political Realism

The theory of political realism has been present and actively discussed. It is present in the works of ancient Greek writers and philosophers such as the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. Besides, during that era of Enlightenment, a number of the most well-known philosophers such as Rousseau, Hobbes, and Spinoza took an interest in this theory. Moreover, in the second half of the 19th century, the theory of political realism was approached from the Darwinist perspective. Based on that perspective, the competition of the political powers creates the conditions of natural selection where only the strongest cultures and states survive (Political Realism par. 2).

Furthermore, the political bias driving the states to pursue particular political paths and points of view also has been changing through the centuries. For instance, the nationalism that is one of the common political doctrines these days has only become widely spread after the French revolution of 1789 – 1799, and before that, the states were ruled based on the views of their ruling and royal dynasties (Political Realism par. 2). Besides, another important bias was the policy of imperialism that motivated their international expansion and colonization of the smaller and weaker states.

The Problem of Moral Principles

Discussing the part moral judgment plays in international relations, Donnelly emphasizes that according to the realist perspective, the general principles of morals are inapplicable to the actions and motifs of the states in the international political arena (7). In other words, the assumption of the realist theory is that the human nature that lies at the basis of the actions of the states and their policies, is initially self-centered, unkind, and non-benevolent (Strohmer par. 15).

Besides, according to political realism, competitive human nature is the force that facilitates the wars and makes them a permanent happening, which cannot be stopped even by the most rational and wise judgment. As a result, the states, their leaders, and armies have to be always ready to answer to another country’s military aggression. Moreover, the power is the only key to winning a war, which basically sums up the theory of political realism as based on the “might is right” principle. At the same time, this does not mean that the theorists of political realism cannot she considered supporters of war and violence. On the contrary, they study the realist approach searching for ways to stop the wars or at least reduce their intensity (Strohmer par. 15).

Implications of the Theory

The realist perspective on the international relations implies that the global political arena is a world of anarchy since it does not have a sole dominant power that would dictate a specific set of rules and regulations (Political Realism par. 4). This point of view agrees with the approach of Hobbes who stated that the absence of common power enforcing a fixed code of rules there could be no injustice because every individual (or state) becomes a lone fighter against all other individuals (or states) (Political Realism par. 4). This implication is based on the comparison of global relations with domestic law, which assumes that the absence of one leading power creates anarchy and disorder.

Another implication of political realism is that the environment of international relations is unstable and has no balance since pursuing self-interest. A state violates the freedom and sovereignty of other states (Political Realism par. 5). Moreover, this process is basically everlasting because the countries are all the time competing for common resources such as oil, gas, water, and gold, among others.

In addition, there is an assumption that realism denies the possibility of cooperation between the agents of the international system. Yet, this is false. The political realism allows the chance of cooperation but emphasizes that alliances between states are difficult to achieve and maintain since each state would act on their self-centered interests. Thus, many realist theorists expected NATO so fall apart after the end of the Cold War (Realism & US – Iran Relations par. 12).

One of the good examples of a realist approach followed by a political leader is the speech of Bill Clinton in 1997 where explaining NATO’s expansion viewed as a way to isolate Russia he stated that “the great power territorial politics of the 20th century will dominate the 21st century” (Mearsheimer 24). The relations between the USA and Iran can be studied from the perspective of realism as well. One just needs to ask the question of whether or not Iran is a practical danger to the security of the USA. Is this threat (if any) significant enough to explain the USA’s intense opposition? (Realism & US – Iran Relations par. 15).


To sum up, realism in political relations is a theory that views states as the main decision-makers in the international arena. It is based on the idea that global political relations are unstable, uncertain, and anarchic, which results from the state of the human self-centered and competitive nature.

Works Cited

Donnelly, Jack. Realism and International Relations. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Mearsheimer, John J. “Realism, the Real World, and the Academy.” Realism and Institutionalism in International Studies. Eds. Michael Brecher and Frank P. Harvey. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002. 23-33. Print.

. IEP. n. d. Web.

. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2010. Web.

Realism & US – Iran Relations. WordPress. n. d. Web.

Slaughter, Anne-Marie. International Law And International Relations. Leiden, the Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 2000. Print.

Strohmer, Charles. . 2010. Web.

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