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“The threat of war with Iraq is a contemporary example that supports the perspective that realism that realism and its variants remain viable to international relations.”

Discuss the main tenets of the theory and use four major world events, including at least on contemporary one to support this position.


            Interdependence, free trade, limiting of governmental involvement, the growing influence of individuals and non governmental organisations, are ideas that have come to characterise the world in which we operate today. The revitalisation of these ideals has prompted the popular thought that we now exist in a liberal internationalist global system. While this may be true on some level, a closer look at our world no doubt reveals that liberalism alone cannot account for the happenings in the international system.

            Under the cover of night on March 19th 2003 the United States (US) began its unilateral bombing of Iraq. The United States maintains that Saddam Hussien’s unorthodox and unpredictable nature combined with his alleged possession of weapon of mass destruction pose a threat to international peace, and as such he must be displaced and Iraq disarmed by whatever means necessary. This protector-of-peace liberal explanation for their actions is regarded by some as absolute hogwash. Many of these sceptics provide a more realist oriented account for US action. They reason that the United States’ hawkish approach to Iraqi disarmament has little to do with protecting international peace and much to with that which the US sees is in its best interest—even if it damns everybody else. They contend that in a post September 11th world in which the United States—the worlds only superpower—is viewed as increasingly vulnerable—need  to rally the troops, exhibiting their military might in order to deter any future attacks. Others claim that a production heavy US economy need an unlimited supply of oil to keep is hegemonic domination over the international economy and the best way to ensure an ample supply is to conquer the supplier.

This recent development is only one example which shows liberal internationalism as inadequate in providing a full description of the world as it is today. Though many have pronounced the Realist Analysis dead, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this essay will show that realism is very much alive, well, relevant and viable a theory when trying to understand international relations. In making such an argument, this paper will give a historical synopsis of theory within the discipline of International Relations, present the tenets of classical realism then analyse several major world events which I believe evidences the theory. Next it will look at some of the problems with the theory and how they have spawned other strands to compensate.


International Relations is relatively young and consequently the theories within it are relatively novel as well. During the study’s budding years, in the early 1900s, students were content with only studying political theory, international law and diplomatic history, with particular reference to the events and personas that shaped it, and how these events impacted the event of their day (Dougherty and Pfatzgraff 2001). The carnage of the First World War[1] quickly ended this laisser-fair approach to IR (Kegley and Wittkopf 2001). It became increasingly evident that while a look back was good a look forward was absolutely necessary.

In the Great War’s wake, arose Liberal Internationalism[2], the first attempt at theorising about the international community and the relations within in it. Liberalism’s primary aim is the prevention of strife and war and it lays to the guidelines and atmosphere in which such ills can be avoided. Firstly, it argues that man is inherently good and from this assumes that there is a harmony of interest, therefore global cooperation is not only desirous, but a must if the common interest are to be fulfilled. Secondly, and intrinsically linked to global cooperation, is the concept of collective security where all states have a responsibility in protecting international peace by promising to jointly address any aggression or threats there of. Thus peace is kept because potential aggressors are aware that if her acts belligerently together the others will respond against him.  .  Independent democratic states, in which secret democracy is no more and public opinion is the last line against war, is the ideal political structure for a peacefully world, because war is seen a product of undemocratic practices which rid the people of their freedoms (Evans and Newnham, 1998). Furthermore the fair nature of international law replaces the disastrous practice of self-help and international organisations complement the practices of the state (Kegley and Witkopf  2001). These ideals propelled international relations for little over a decade but then, the international community began witnessing rising hostilities that ended in the outbreak of World War Two (WWII).

During this period E. H Carr (1939) took particular aim at the liberal concept of collective security and highlighted is blunders in failing to prevent WWII. He argued that the Liberalism was a failure because its proponents were too busy positing how the system should be instead of paying attention to how it actually is. While Carr’s work does outline some Realist notions is by no means a whole theory. A more systematic approach to the theory was offered by Hans Morgenthau (1948) in Politics Among Nations, who contrasted the Liberal view that man was innately good by arguing man was inherently evil and power-hungry. Combined both men’s ideas have become the classic picture of the realist theory (Burchill et al 2001).


Realism’s pessimistic outlook reasons that the state is the primary actor in the international arena as it has no ‘external superior, nor internal equal,’ making it the only entity able to make policy and carry out actions with the legitimated authority and means to enforce them within its borders (Brown 1997, p. 68-7). Consequently, realist theorists view the international system as anarchic because there is no overarching supranational body—a parent so to speak—who can order and regulate the state’s actions (Evans and Newnham 1998; Kegley and Wittkopf 2001). The state like man is obsessed with power[3] and will to anything to attain it (Morgenthau 1948). Power is seen a desire because it a viable means through which the state can ensure its primary national interest—that of territorial survival. In such case power tends to manifest itself through military capabilities. It is through these notions of power and national interest state actions and policy cease to be abstract bewildering happenings and become understandable rational procedures (Burchill et al 2001). Unlike their liberal counterparts who claim a natural harmony of interests, realists maintain that national interests may vary from state to state and as a result no overriding natural harmony exists. This deficiency allows for a contentious system where contrasting interests collide, making conflict an absolute inevitability. This is not to say that states cannot live peacefully but it must be noted such things are only possible when the national interest of the relating states are in agreement (Carr 1939). When this is not the case and hostilities run high, self-help becomes the principle under which states evoke their own justice on other states deemed offensive (Kegley and Wittkopf 2001). The practices is doubled edge as in some cases it may quell conflict, while in other it may foster the deteriorated into all out war. Considering the natural and legal that may produce such an outcome realist, not surprisingly view war as an ‘intrinsic’ part of the anarchic system (Evan and Newnham 1998, p.565). Nevertheless, some like Carr do purport a balance of power system of maintaining the peace (as understood in terms of stability), whereby—in a system of relatively equal powers—one state’s aggression is viewed as counterproductive because it will no doubt evoke equally aggressive actions from targeted state. Therefore war—though a rightful means of state policy through self help—is kept to a minimum.            Different from liberals who look to the future for theoretical inspiration, realists look to the past. They subscribe to the Machiavellian idea that international politics is recurrent and repetitious and as a result true change is extremely hard to attain (Burchill et al 2001; Carr 1939). It is this fixed pattern of the international system that allows us to predict world developments.


            Some world events wholly lend themselves to realist interpretation. One such even is World War II. The war saw Germany, Italy and Japan as the Axis aggressor on one side, with the Allied liberators on the other side locked in six-year struggle. A detailed analysis shows the war was caused by many intricately interwoven factors, however I will attempt to simplify the matter. Germany had experience many losses as a result of their defeat in World War I. The country had since cease to be a major power and the conditions of the Peace of Paris combined with the depression sent the country into economic despair. Germany, lead by Hitler undoubtedly one of the century’s—if not histor’s—most evil characters, saw that a return to economic viability was in its best interest. It set out to correct that problem by conquering foreign territory[4]. Therefore it forced Austria into a union, absorbed part of Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland. Allowing with restoring economic prosperity it was a way of restoring the fatherland as a major power. In the anarchy system the Axis powers, lead by Germany, were left unchecked because—inclusive of the League of Nations—there existed no effective overarching body to sanctions the nation for their violent behaviour. Germany were afforded the opportunity to perform these aggressive acts because of the British encouragement to rearm. Britain rational was that a rearmed Germany would balance out Soviet and French power and serve as deterrent on any designs either may have had on conquering Europe. Therefore Britain’s support of German rearmament was clearly an attempt at securing its territorial security. Hence, at the risk of oversimplifying the event is it easy to see how WWII ensued when a power hungry country lead by an evil man was given the means through which to seek that power in a system that had no legitimate authority to stop it (Kegley and Wittkopf 2001).

            Another such event—or series of events—is the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the United States had risen above ideological contrast to curb German aggression. Realism does argue that such cooperation is possible when the interests of the parties are alike and in this case it was to protect themselves and the world from German take-over. Once this was achieved the problems with their ideological differences began to emerge. The two countries had inherited world dominance upon the War’s end and seeing the other’s ideology as the ‘antithesis’ of its own and realising the other had the power to impose its will lead to the deepened suspicions. The Soviet Union in securing its territorial, and political identity saw armament as a way of protecting itself from the evil American intention. Interestingly this rational line of thought was also held by the United States and it too began arming for the believed inevitable encounter. Consequently, both parties were actively involved in the struggle for power, something they viewed as a necessity in achieving their primary national endeavour—security.  Although there were some close calls, example the Cuban Missile Crisis, this bipolar balance of power kept the peace because each new the other had the power to inflict sever damage if attacked (Kegley and Wittkopf 2001, p. 101). Even though the two were member states of the United Nations (UN) it could not legal order either state how to behave. At best it could only suggest and was often left out as a spectator in periods of rising tensions. Once again the Cold War embodied many realist concepts: conflicting national ideologies, maintenance of peace through a balance of power, the struggle for power and the anarchic global system.

            In both these example it must also be pointed out that while other actors, the League of Nations and the United Nations—had roles to play, it was the state that autonomously and ultimately decided its course of action. 


            Though the theory seems to explain much of international events, it critics have no reservations when calling attention to what they deem its flaws. They have accused traditional realism of being deficient in describing and assessing actors in the global structure (Brown 1997). Firstly, in declaring the state the end all and be all it totally disregards the ever increasing role that other actors play in the system. As Non governmental organisations increase in size, numbers and purpose they are relieving the state of its one time monopoly on power and influence (Matthews 1997). This was indicated by environmental Non Governmental Organisations’ demands that the NATFA regulations address the impact of the agreement on the environment (Porter and Welsh-Brown 1996). Secondly, as a state centric theory it is preoccupied with the high politics of international relations, as such it turns a blind eye to the many occasions in which low politics—opinion poll, protests etcetera—have dictated state policy. Thirdly, it concentration on powerful states means it neglects the majority of the international community. This being the case, the voice from the south have often criticised the theory for ignoring it’s reality. Fourthly, they argue that it lacks predictive power. Critics say given the realist account of the Cold War we should either still be locked in the east/west divide, in the midst of the war that broke out from it or in the wars aftermath, it could not account for the peaceful end to the rivalry. It also fall shorts in accounting for international development such as the Western European continued integration during the Cold War hostilities (Evans and Newnham 1998). And finally, One function of theory is to provide methods of improving that which we are theorising about, yet realist prompt to ‘work with’[5] the system to maintain stability is implicitly encouraging the unhealthy systems reproduction. Many argue, and few deny, that the world we live in today is by far and away dissimilar to the world during the Cold War era, yet realism because of the emphasis on reproduction realism cannot explain such this dramatic change in global politics.


            Lead by Kenneth Waltz, Robert Gilpin and Stephen Krasner Neorealism was established as a response to the criticism of the traditional realist approach. Waltz was primarily interested in why states display like foreign policies regardless of their ideological foundations. He went looking for his answers by analysing the structure of the system (Burchill 2001). He states, ‘the idea that international politics can be thought of as a system with precisely defined structure is neorealism’s fundamental departure form the traditional realism.’[6] He sees the international system as an entity to itself, unlike Morgenthau who saw it only as the sum of its parts (the state). Therefore Waltz (1995) sees cause and effect moving from structure to unit instead of the other way around but being careful to notes that to truly understand the international politics a look at both levels is necessary.

            Waltz (1995) posit that people grapple for power not because they are innately evil, but because it is a sure means through which they can get that which the want. In the neorealist thought the state’s primary concern is security. However, not security in the limited territorial sense of traditional realism, but security in the sense of economic welfare, political stability, technological advancement and the list goes on. Therefore in the neorealist thought power mean all the state’s capabilities and it is not an end but a mean through which it can achieve that which it believes it needs to.

            Neorealist view states as like entities but only in the sense that they have autonomy over their actions. It is this autonomy that accounts for the still anarchic nature of the international structure.

            Neorealism’s attempt to re-fortify realist though into current international relations had not gone without its own criticism, some of which are unique to neorealism, others are reminiscent of traditional realism. According to Andrew Linklater, Waltz—in arguing form a structural point of reference-- disregards the impact of the state has on the system. However this criticism is not a fair one as Waltz did make noted to argue that a full appreciation of international politics requires a look at both units and structure. He furthered his thought saying the relationship between the structure and the units can be a reciprocal one as well. Neoliberal critique as voiced by Rosencrance states that neorealism refuses to accept the rise of the commercial state at the expense of the military states demise. No longer is the international system characterised by hostility, strife but by a cooperation that is fostered through the mutual interests and principles. This cooperation now undermines the drive to use forces as states now seeing violence and war as threat to economic order, which in today’s world is far more important than territorial integrity. Neoliberalist also critique Waltz hold on the concept of anarchy as they posit the trading patterns and the measures that they dictate serve to regulate state behaviour (Burchill et all 2001).

            Neoliberals cite the modern manifestation of globalisation as the ultimate point that shows realist thought and ideas on international politics are no longer valid. They are quick to point to the various efforts at regional unification around the world with the prime example being the European Union. However, neorealist have offered their own insight into the phenomena that is globalisation.

Globalisation’s primary characteristic is advantageous interdependence fostered by cooperation. Meaning that countries join together and actively engage in exchanges that in one way or the other produces benefits for all the parties involved. Trade north-south trading for example the south provide the north with the raw material that their manufacturing industries need. The north gets the necessary material for production and the south receives vital income, to help with its developmental endeavours, from the sale of its products. Everybody wins. Well, not according to neorealists, who contend that this relationship is only benefits the North, which can be seen in the one directional way in which world capital flows (Burhcill 2001). The north underpays the south ensuring that it never has enough to truly develop. This is the north’s way of maintaining its power by ensuring the rest of the world’s powerlessness. Secondly, Neoliberals argue that peace is fortified and maintained a conflict leading to disruptions in trading patters will spell disaster for the entire system. On the hand realist claim that peace, in this world of psuedo-interdependence lead by the all powerful hegemon, is even more fragile than before because no one exist that can put a check on its aggressions and so it fearlessly impose it will on others—this is now being evidenced by US war against Iraq. Finally, Neoliberals argue that the increase in regionalism, for example the European Union, is an indication of the states concern with economic prosperity than with military might. Contrastingly, I would take a realist stance and argue that this regional integration under the guise of collective security is simply a ploy to ensure support in case conflict should break out in the currently unstable system. A look shows that the parties who are uniting regionally are those whose individual powers pales in comparison to the hegemon—the United States. Therefore uniting gives them a better chance of defending themselves if conflict should occur.


Realism, though the thought behind the theory has been with us since the ancient philosopher, how we regard the theory today was born unfortunate, out of Man’s inhumanity to his kind. Even after the slaughter, the events during the east/west divide during the cold war fortified realisms command on international relations and established it as the dominant paradigm when attempting to understand our international society. The theory came under heavy criticism from all angles that gladly pointed some of its anomalies. With the Cold War’s end and the move into a cooperative structure the theory was even further questioned. Waltz and others revamped the theory by creating a more structure friendly version called neorealism. Even so neoliberalists still contend that the thought is inadequate in explaining our world today. But neorealist have taken up the challenge and put these new developments within our international community in not as positive a light that the neoliberals would have us view them. In conclusion realism is still very much applicable and has proven itself so by offering a sobering account of the, currently neoliberal over glorified concept of globalisation and alternative explanations for the current conflict in Iraq. Indeed, not only are realism and its strand viable but they are absolutely relevant.



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[1] The First World War is also referred to as the Great War as it was more devastating that all the previous wars combined

[2] Liberal internationalism is also referred to as Liberalism, Idealism and Utopiamism.

[3] Power meaning the ability to compel other actors to behave in contrast to how they normally would

[4] After all its was via through foreign conquest the European world domination of the was created and maintained.

[5] Burchill, Devetak et al. Theories of International Relations  201 (New York: Palgrave, 2001) 85

[6] Waltz, 1995 p, 74 5. Kenneth Waltz , "Realist thought and Neorealist theory” in Controversies in International Relations Theory: Realism and the Neoliberal Challenge. Ed. Charles Kegley (New York: St Martin, 1995), 74