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International Relations Persuasive

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Originating from the German word ‘Realpolitik’ , realism is often used as a term which fits a more realistic and unpretentious political theory, as opposed to an unrealistic ideological theory. It is this theory which has been one of the leading and most prominent ways of thinking in terms of international relations in modern times, with its stark view of nation states and people appealing greatly to the Western leading political institutions, as recently it has become another phrase for ‘power politics’. Instead of referring to itself as an ideology, realists see it as more of a straight forward rational theory, a way of thinking reasonably in the situation, rather than seeing the world as a far fetched and ideological utopia.

Political realism is seen as a way of explaining political philosophy models, and to prescribe political relations. It makes many assumptions, the key one being that power is indeed (or ought to be) the first point in political action, be it in an international or domestic sphere. Domestically, this theory declares that the politicians must look to take full advantage of their power. However when in the international arena the nation states should be the primary agents that advance and seek to make the most of the power available to them. It can be seen therefore that nations and politicians ought to pursue power or their own interests in theory, but in reality the ruling nation state of affairs-that nations and politicians only selfishly pursue power.

In the late 20th century, realism was seen as a way of managing all of the world’s powerful nations peacefully and co-operating for the advantage of those concerned. The international interaction was based less on political principles and more upon the balance of power between the worlds leading nations, as introduced to Western politics by Henry Kissinger, to the Nixon Government. ‘We must remember the only time in the history of the world that we have had any extended periods of peace is when there has been a balance of power.’ Examples of this can be seen in the way Kissinger gave the go ahead to the invasion of East Timor by the tyrant Suharto, or Nixon’s mediation with one of its ideological enemies, the People’s Republic of China.

Realism is based upon a series of fundamental assumptions, which when looked at, can explain why indeed realism has been so successful within the sphere of international relations. Its first and key assumption is a pessimistic view of human nature. This sees humans as primarily concerned with their own interests, looking to further themselves in a selfish demeanour, as Morgenthau put it, a ‘will to power’. This means human beings everywhere are to behave in the same way, regardless of nationality, looking to be one step ahead of opposition so as not to be taken advantage of.

Hobbes also shares this view, ‘Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice if there be no Power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art, for caution against all other men.’ Therefore, as a result of this on a worldwide scale, the international arena is a constant battle for survival to ensure the constant advantage for ones nation, thus world politics unfurls into an international anarchy, in which the state becomes the pre-eminent actor. This leaves the states foreign policies to best protect the interests and advance the status of the state against all others in the international hierarchy of power.

If it is the sovereign state which wields all of the power on the global stage, then it is an assumption that any other organisation is of little or no importance in the effect it has on international relations as a whole. The prominence of international figures, independent international organisations and NGO’s are all dismissed by the realist thinker, as it is the states which hold the power, the amount depending on the standing of the state in question.

This leads to the fact that if realists believe the above to be true, they envisage the global stage as one which houses many powers that distrust each other in a constant and inevitable competition. If each state is the rational actor, looking to act in its own interest, it leaves a distrust of long term co-operation or alliances. This is echoed by Thucydides, who saw conflict as inevitable between ancient Greek cities; states have the need to adjust themselves according to the unequal power in order to flourish.

Another assumption is one which Machiavelli spoke of in his political text “The Prince”, as he offered a realism in which the overriding aim was for the state to seek power and protect its own survival. This came above any ethical, moral or religious considerations that there may be, ‘as long as it is possible, he should not stray from the good, but he should know how to enter into evil when necessity commands.’ This led however to the security dilemma, as offensive realism can mean that the territorial expansion and power sought after by Machiavelli and other realists is only restrained by other powers in the world.

In effect the way of guaranteeing security for the nation state can lead to an escalating race against another state, thus inevitably leaving the both states in a more unstable position than they started in. The most obvious example of this is the Cold War between the USA and USSR, in which both engaged in a massive arms race to maintain their security and also to deter the other state from trying to expand its territory. In what is known as the zero-sum game, both sides in the end were worse off, the US lost billions towards nuclear development of weapons, and the USSR collapsed due to the huge strain it put on itself to guarantee its security.

This was an example of maximal realism, in which there are two inherently powerful nation states which are aligned against each other. Instead of all nations being equally powerful, the smaller nation’s side with one of the powerful nations and thus a stand-off is formed, one which is very unstable, and often leads to one side collapsing, therefore leaving one as the all powerful hegemony, and the other in a less powerful position.

Minimal realism however, sees the smaller less powerful nations form to ally themselves against the large powerful nation in order that there interests are not completely steam rolled. An example of this can be seen in Venezuela where President Chavez has called for smaller nations to unite against America:

‘In Iran, he spoke of the need for a multi-polar world, in opposition to one dominated by the United States.

And on his return to Caracas last week, he urged an international gathering of intellectuals and artists to “help humanity go on the offensive against the empire”.’

This is an example of multipolar realism, where President Chavez has perhaps put his own national security and will, above that of religion and moral ethics. To a certain extent it could even be argued that this is the situation in Europe. The European nations have aligned themselves with neighbours to form the European Union, which enables them to compete with the US, but this could also be argued to be bipolar as it has formed one large powerful Union, even if it is fragmented into smaller, less powerful nation states.

This is a world which Waltz and Mearsheimer believe to be less safe and stable than a bipolar one, such as the one experienced in the Cold War. This is a scientific theory of international relations, one which is favoured by neo-realists, which see the most important and powerful states as the ones making the key decisions, and therefore view it as better to have a bipolar system in effect, as in this system peace and security is better served than in a fractured multipolar system.

If international relations is to be seen as the ‘diplomatic-strategic relations of states’ or the ‘cross border transactions’ I find it unfair to claim that realism is essentially only a selfish and pessimistic theory on how international relations are to be conducted. Realism is a rational and realistic take upon human nature and its impact on the nation state, which is acting on its best interests. This can be partly to blame for its success, it is not an ideology claiming to supply a utopia, it is a stark and realistic vision of what is going on in the global sphere, and whilst not necessarily moral, it provides an observed analysis on how the international arena can and does function. It is foolish to expect a states leader to give as much consideration to other states than as it does to itself, realism explains this, in that it is simply a self serving doctrine that does not condone complete lack of morality, just advocates the Machiavellian view that ‘the ends justify the means.’


(All websites last accessed on the 5th December 2005)

Brown, Chris – Understanding International Relations

Third Edition, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2005

Bruce, Iain – US wrestles with Venezuela policy


BBC News, 7 Dec 04, Caracas.

Hobbes, Thomas – Leviathan, Part I, Ch.13 ‘Of Man’,1651.

(Provided by Oxford University Press)

Jackson. Robert & Sorensen. Georg – Introduction to International Relations,

Second Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.

Mosely, Alexander – Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Political Realism http://www.iep.utm.edu/p/polreal.htm,


Nardin, Terry & Mapel, David R. – Traditions of International Ethics

Cambridge Studies in International Relations, First Edition, Cambridge, 1996.

Sutch, Peter – Ethics, Justice and International Relations

Routledge Press, London & New York, 2001.

Wikipedia – Realism in International Relations


3 December 2005

Wootton, David – Niccolo Machiavelli


3 Dec 2005

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