‘Realism’ as a Theory of International Politics

-  rhetorical victory: realism v. idealism?


Is Realism a …

-        … philosophical approach to international history, e.g., Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian  

-        … normative theory, or a guide to statecraft, e.g., Machiavelli’s The Prince

-        … empirical theory of international relations, which seeks to explain and predict behavior, e.g., Waltz’s Theory of International Politics


Questions Explored

-        Why is conflict more common in some periods than others?

-        What are the causes of wars?

-        Why do states fail to cooperate when both would gain?

-        Are some states more aggressive than others for internal reasons, or in reaction to external conditions?

-        When do states form alliances rather than arm internally?

-        How dose the distribution of power affect IR?

-        do some power distributions make the international system more war-prone?

Categorizing Realists


Classical Realists (or pre-classical)

-        writings are considered the basis of modern realism

-        focus on fear, honor, and prestige

-        Theorists: Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes


Modern Realists (or classical)

-        relied on psychology to motivate state action: e.g., ‘will to power’

-        Focus on states’ interests & military power

-        Theorists: R. Niebuhr, E. Carr, H. Morgenthau

-        Practitioners: G. Kennan, H. Kissenger


Neorealists (structural realists)

-        Rejected psychological motives in primary theorizing

-        Theorizing based on analogies to micro-economics:  states as firms in markets

-        Seek to explain patterns of conflict and cooperation over time

-        Not a theory of foreign policy, but international relations

-        Focus on distribution of power

-        Theorists: Waltz, Gilpin, Mearsheimer


“Neo-Classical” Realists

-        explaining foreign policy, not international relations

-        return to focus on state’s motives

-        Theorists: Schweller, Walt, Snyder, Taliaferro 


Common Realist Assumptions


International order is anarchic (self-help)

-        no legitimate authority exists above sovereign territorial states

-        not simply the absence of government (de-centralized enforcement is possible) but absence of agreement on who or what should rule


States are the primary actors in international politics (statism)

-        other actors (individuals, firms, organizations, social networks) are secondary

-        populated territory gives states special coercive capabilities over other actors

-        groupness” exception (Gilpin, Walt, Williams)


Primacy of power and security in political life

-        derive behaviors and conduct from this assumption

-        other values jeopardized without security or ability to resist power of others


Uncertainty is pervasive

-        knowledge about other states is limited

-        what are their intentions?

-        what are their capabilities?


Leading Hypotheses


States pursue power

-        need coercive power to defend against other states

-        debate over whether it is an end itself or a means to other ends (e.g., security, prestige)


Balancing prevails over bandwagoning

-        states will arm or ally against stronger states to ‘balance’ their power

-        states that ally or align themselves with the stronger state will ‘fall by the wayside’

-        one exception: ‘bandwagoning for profit’ (Schweller)


States pursue relative gains over absolute gains

-        gain are assessed comparatively: not how much do you have but how much more do you have compared to others

-        absolute gains may be sacrificed to achieve relative gains


Conflict prevails over cooperation

-        states do not maximize material welfare, so opportunities for gains via cooperation may be forgone

-        cooperation is a puzzle to be explained


Competing Causal Mechanisms


Predatory States

expansionist states threaten or attack others; predatory states generate fear for security/survival

-        how are predatory states identified?


Security Dilemma (SD):

efforts by one state to provide security for itself inadvertently decrease the security of others

-        how to avoid exacerbating the SD?


Power Dynamics

Changes in the distribution and other features of power alter patterns of conflict and cooperation

-        how is power measured?