Realism is one of the leading theories in the study of international relations, originating from thinkers like Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes, and later articulated by 20th-century scholars like E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, and Kenneth Waltz. It argues that international politics is characterized by anarchy and a struggle for power between sovereign nation-states pursuing their national interests. 


History of the Nation-State 

The state: nation-states and national sovereignty 

Realism is based on the belief that global politics is formed on nation-states and their self-interests. Nation-states are the most legitimate and powerful formation in global politics. The realist viewpoint includes the following:

■ The authority of IGOs (Inter-governmental organisations) such as the EU and the UN, should be limited. In this respect, global politics is about accepting the anarchical nature of the world. i.e. Every nation looks after its self-interest. This means states retain the exclusive right to act in whatever way they wish. Although nation-states may decide to work through and with other non-state actors, they do not abandon their sovereign right to advance their own self-interest.  So anarchy means self-interest rather than chaos.

■ This acceptance of the 'real' state of global affairs results in a security dilemma because nations can only rely upon themselves for their protection. States, therefore, live in a self-help system in which they must build up their security apparatus through military power and alliances.

■ States act rationally and usually prioritise defending their own national interest. Usually, this means that a state’s prime motivation is to defend its national security against perceived threats.

■ Global politics is competitive so states are ultimately trying to find ways of increasing their power and influence within the global political order.

■ The natural state of the world order is for states to compete with each other, economically and militarily, making the most of their power. 

Realism, also known as political realism, aims to provide a practical view of global events that is pragmatic and free from idealistic notions and misguided moral judgments. Realists perceive international politics as primarily centered on power and self-interest, often depicted as a model of 'power politics'.  

‘Politics is a struggle for power over men, and whatever its ultimate aim may be, power is its immediate goal and the modes of acquiring, maintaining and demonstrating it determine the technique of political action’. Hans Morgenthau

The theory of power politics is centered on two key assumptions: people are fundamentally selfish and competitive, with egoism defining human nature, and the state-system operates within a framework of international anarchy where no higher authority than the sovereign state exists. Realist theory's central theme can be summarized as egoism plus anarchy resulting in power politics. Some argue that this formulation reveals a fundamental theoretical division within realism, separating it into classical realism, which attributes power politics to egoism, and neorealism or structural realism, which attributes it to anarchy. However, these differing perspectives primarily reflect variations in emphasis rather than distinct rival 'schools', as the core assumptions of realism are shared among most realist theorists, despite disagreements on the most crucial factors.

The key themes within realism:

Trump describes his 'America First' approach to global politics. This is a return to realism as it asserts American self interest above all other concerns particularly international obligations and agreements- Trump went on to criticise NATO, applaud Brexit, cancel the Iran Nuclear Agreement and withdraw from climate change treaties. He also engaged in trade war with China. 

Examples of Realism

States rely on self-help to ensure their security. Realists employ two primary approaches to handle insecurity: the balance of power and deterrence. The balance of power entails forming strategic and adaptable alliances, while deterrence involves using the threat or application of substantial force. Realism asserts that actions like war are essential tools of statecraft in an imperfect world, and leaders should employ them when it serves the national interest. This approach is entirely logical in a world where the state's survival is paramount.

The Cold War. 

With the knowledge that both were equally matched and that a nuclear weapons attack would only result in deadly retaliation, the two states engaged in a nuclear weapons arms race. This concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) successfully ensured that there was no nuclear confrontation between the USA and Soviet Union during this period. Neither did the two rivals fight each other on the battlefield — both instead engaged in proxy wars using other actors to fight each other (for example, the USA arming the Mujihadeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union, without actually deploying troops of its own).

Since the terror attacks of 9/11 in the USA, a more multipolar global order has emerged, with many states and non-state actors, such as al-Qaeda, challenging each other for power. Therefore, power is currently imbalanced in global politics 

The UK’s decision to leave the EU ‘Brexit’ (2016)

Brexit was rejection of shared sovereignty and a return to nation state politics by the UK. Control of trade agreements and immigration were seen to be essential for full British sovereignty.

The US invasion of Iraq in March 2003

■ The USA was prepared to act without international support: military action was launched without clear UNSC approval or wider international agreement and support. The coalition consisted of the USA as the lead player, and military forces from Australia, Poland and the UK.

■ The war’s legality was highly questionable: the UK’s Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War concluded in 2016 that the case for war was ‘unjustified’ and that Saddam’s regime posed ‘no imminent threat’. The UN secretary- general at the time, Kofi Annan, said in 2004 that the invasion did not conform to the laws of the UN’s founding Charter and was, ‘from our point of view, illegal’.

■ The USA and its allies were acting in what they perceived, and argued, was their national interest: the USA saw complying with international law as an obstacle to successfully carrying out action it believed to be in its national interest. Prime Minister Tony Blair said that Iraq represented ‘a current and serious threat to the UK national interest’ because the UK government believed that WMDs were a threat to the middle east region.

However, many realist thinkers opposed the Iraq War. For example, US political scientist John Mearsheimer believed that it was not in the USA’s national interest to invade.

Chinese activity in the South China Sea

The South China Sea is a site of economic rivalry between Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam because it is thought to contain valuable natural resources, including oil and gas. It is also a key shipping route.

In recent years, China has attempted to expand its territorial waters in the region by building islands and increasing naval patrols. At the same time, it has been investing in building up and modernising its naval forces, including developing new and improved aircraft carriers. An arms race and unilateral territorial claim and threats are assertions of national self interest.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine

■ Russia  acted to unilaterally annex the Crimea from the Ukraine. There was no attempt to seek UN approval  or gain justification through international law. Russia vetoed any action by the UN Security Council.

■ Russia saw the Ukraine was becoming closer to the West. Action against Ukraine included restricting gas supplies and sending troops in to eastern Ukraine to support separatists.  The expansion of NATO is seen in Russia as a theat. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, had allied themselves and their territories with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

■ The primary objective was to regain territorial control of Crimea: in particular, Russia wanted to secure the warm-water port of Sevastopol, a key strategic objective of the annexation. This had been a key Russian strategic aim since the 19th Century. 

2022 February- The Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putin did not want Western democracies to absorb Ukraine via NATO or through the EU for several reasons. First, he views it as a matter of national security and defense. Consider China supplying one of the United States’ neighboring countries such as Mexico or Canada, funding and arming them via a multi-country pact chock full of foreign adversaries. This would cause alarm, just as it did during the Bay of Pigs Missile Crisis under the Kennedy administration. Soviets allegedly sending arms to Cuba and lining its beaches with ballistics nearly resulted in World War III. 

Second, Ukraine has Pro-Russian separatist areas, which Putin has already used as a guise to initiate the invasion in an effort to reunite the former Soviet Union territories. Luhansk and Duhansk along Ukraine’s eastern border in the Donbas were the primary areas of focus but the Russian war effort has since expanded itself into cities as far west as Kiev and Kharkiv and as far south as Mariupol. Crimea was a pretext to this calculated aggression from Putin, who is increasingly paranoid about Russia losing its sphere of influence, which will snowball into a national security matter for the Kremlin.

The third and final reason Putin’s opposed to the enlargement ideology behind Western global expansion is the strong nationalism that motivates him to be ambitious in an effort to preserve and maintain the culture, values, and customs of an imperial Russia for years to come. It’s important to note that Kiev was one of the three great cities in the former Russian Empire of the 19th century alongside Moscow and Petersburg. Putin believes in the archaic concept of international law, which is largely ignored but similar in some aspects to the Realist perspective.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia follows John Mearsheimer’s  Offensive Realism theory that states are disposed to competition and conflict, as they are self-interested, power-maximising, and fearful of the other states, as this is the best way to survive in the anarchy of the international system. 

Defensive Realism

According to defensive realism, all states want to protect themselves against threats from other states and, increasingly, non-state actors. States may:

■ decide to invest in their military power, by increasing the number of troops, warships or aircraft that they are able to deploy

■ keep or acquire nuclear weapons (for example Iran, North Korea). Others may want to acquire new technology to gain a strategic advantage, such as missile-firing drones.

However, some states may view this military escalation as a potential threat and may react by increasing their own military capabilities. What was initially meant to be a defensive tactic could inadvertently prompt aggressive responses from other states. It can be challenging for states to trust the motives behind the military buildup of other states. This dynamic is evident in the strained relations between Russia and former Soviet states now part of NATO. These nations have determined that aligning with a US-supported collective security pact is in their best security interests. NATO mandates that countries like Estonia and Latvia boost their defense budgets to ensure all members contribute equally to the collective security alliance, rather than relying solely on the military strength of wealthier NATO countries. A similar security dilemma can be observed in the Middle East's geopolitical landscape. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the dominant powers in the region, representing major sects of Islam (Saudi Arabia being predominantly Sunni, while Iran is predominantly Shia). Both vie for influence in the region and engage in ongoing power struggles.

Balance of power

Realists prioritize safeguarding their security from rival state threats, leading to a significant focus on the distribution of power within the global system. They contemplate whether a single state holds superior power, numerous states and actors vie for dominance, or only two major powers exist, each with comparable strength and no other potential challengers. Some realists view dominating all potential rivals in a unipolar system as the optimal security assurance, exemplified by the USA post the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. Conversely, other realists advocate for a balanced power dynamic in a bipolar world order for enhanced security. In cases where a unipolar system isn't viable due to the existence of another powerful rival state, realists argue that stability is best maintained when powerful states closely match each other's capabilities. This equilibrium is believed to deter aggression, as neither state would risk provoking a similarly potent military adversary.

■ States may try to balance power by trying to match the military and economic resources of their rival. There may be an arms race, with both states trying to acquire similar amounts of weapons or types of technology.

■ Smaller states may try to join alliances with more powerful states or other smaller states. We can contrast this aspect of realism with the security dilemma , where some liberals believe that when states try to match each other in terms of their military power, they can actually risk provoking the other state by appearing to represent more of a threat.

The most obvious example of a balance of power in global politics was between the USA (including its NATO allies) and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. With the knowledge that both were equally matched and that a nuclear weapons attack would only result in deadly retaliation, the two states engaged in a nuclear weapons arms race. This concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) successfully ensured that there was no nuclear confrontation between the USA and Soviet Union during this period. Neither did the two rivals fight each other on the battlefield — both instead engaged in proxy wars using other actors to fight each other (for example, the USA arming the Mujihadeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union, without actually deploying troops of its own).

Since the terror attacks of 9/11 in the USA, a more multipolar global order has emerged, with many states and non-state actors, such as al-Qaeda, challenging each other for power. Therefore, power is currently imbalanced in global politics.

Consequences of international anarchy

In the eyes of realists, international anarchy leads to the following.

■ IGOs such as the EU and the UN will be limited in their impact and effectiveness. This is because states determine the success or failure of these international efforts. States have created IGOs, and IGOs ultimately serve state interests. (When they no longer do this, they collapse — such as the League of Nations — or states leave, as seen in the UK’s decision to leave the EU.)

■ States will also want to prevent IGOs from making decisions that are not in their national interest. This is often most clearly seen in the veto powers that the five UNSC permanent members (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) wield, which frequently prevent coordinated action on matters ranging from the Israel and Palestine conflict to the Syrian civil war .

■ Unlike national law, rules in global politics — known as international law — do not always apply. In an anarchical world system, no international body can force states to sign up to international law. Customary international law, which in theory applies to states regardless of whether or not they have signed and ratified a law, does exist for abuses of humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions for example, are customary international law and apply to all states, but the decision to enforce the law is ultimately the political decision of international bodies, such as the UN, or individual, especially powerful states.

International courts may be ignored, or may not have decisive powers to investigate at all. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has limited powers to hold states to account for the most serious crimes against humanity. But, in reality, states that have not fully agreed to the ICC’s founding Rome Statute are able to escape justice, as there is no authoritative global force to bring states and those responsible for international crimes before the court. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) experiences similar difficulties.

Given that global politics lacks a single commanding authority, Hedley Bull suggested that the world order was built on a society of states. Within this otherwise order-less society, states attempt to create the best and safest order they can. They form IGOs, which sometimes solve problems but other times do not. They attempt to make international laws, which are sometimes observed, other times not.