Political Realism in International Relations

1. The Roots of the Realist Tradition

1.1 Thucydides and the Importance of Power

Like other classical political theorists, Thucydides (c. 460–c.
400 B.C.E.) saw politics as involving moral questions. Most
importantly, he asks whether relations among states to which power is
crucial can also be guided by the norms of justice. His History of
the Peloponnesian War
is in fact neither a work of political
philosophy nor a sustained theory of international relations. Much of
this work, which presents a partial account of the armed conflict
between Athens and Sparta that took place from 431 to 404 B.C.E.,
consists of paired speeches by personages who argue opposing sides of
an issue. Nevertheless, if the History is described as the
only acknowledged classical text in international relations, and if it
inspires theorists from Hobbes to contemporary international relations
scholars, this is because it is more than a chronicle of events, and a
theoretical position can be extrapolated from it. Realism is expressed
in the very first speech of the Athenians recorded in the
History—a speech given at the debate that took place in
Sparta just before the war. Moreover, a realist perspective is implied
in the way Thucydides explains the cause of the Peloponnesian War, and
also in the famous “Melian Dialogue,” in the statements
made by the Athenian envoys.

1.1.1 General Features of Realism in International Relations

International relations realists emphasize the constraints imposed on
politics by the nature of human beings, whom they consider egoistic,
and by the absence of international government. Together these factors
contribute to a conflict-based paradigm of international relations, in
which the key actors are states, in which power and security become
the main issues, and in which there is little place for ethical norms.
The set of premises concerning state actors, egoism, anarchy, power,
security, and ethics that define the realist tradition are all present
in Thucydides.

(1) Human nature is a starting point for classical political realism.
Realists view human beings as inherently egoistic and self-interested
to the extent that self-interest overcomes moral principles. At the
debate in Sparta, described in Book I of Thucydides’
History, the Athenians affirm the priority of self-interest
over morality. They say that considerations of right and wrong have
“never turned people aside from the opportunities of
aggrandizement offered by superior strength” (chap. 1 par.

(2) Realists, and especially today’s neorealists, consider the
absence of government, literally anarchy, to be the primary
determinant of international political outcomes. The lack of a common
rule-making and enforcing authority means, they argue, that the
international arena is essentially a self-help system. Each state is
responsible for its own survival and is free to define its own
interests and to pursue power. Anarchy thus leads to a situation in
which power has the overriding role in shaping interstate relations.
In the words of the Athenian envoys at Melos, without any common
authority that can enforce order, “the independent states
survive [only] when they are powerful” (5.97).

(3) Insofar as realists envision the world of states as anarchic, they
likewise view security as a central issue. To attain security, states
try to increase their power and engage in power-balancing for the
purpose of deterring potential aggressors. Wars are fought to prevent
competing nations from becoming militarily stronger. Thucydides, while
distinguishing between the immediate and underlying causes of the
Peloponnesian War, does not see its real cause in any of the
particular events that immediately preceded its outbreak. He instead
locates the cause of the war in the changing distribution of power
between the two blocs of Greek city-states: the Delian League, under
the leadership of Athens, and the Peloponnesian League, under the
leadership of Sparta. According to him, the growth of Athenian power
made the Spartans afraid for their security, and thus propelled them
into war (1.23). Referring to this situation, Graham Allison has
popularized the expression “Thucydides trap” to describe
the danger which occurs when a rising power rivals an established one

(4) Realists are generally skeptical about the relevance of ethics to
international politics. This can lead them to claim that there is no
place for morality in the prescriptive sense in international
relations, or that there is a tension between demands of morality and
requirements of successful political action, or that states have their
own morality that is different from customary morality, or that
morality, if employed at all, is merely used instrumentally to justify
states’ conduct. A clear case of the rejection of ethical norms
in relations among states can be found in the “Melian
Dialogue” (5.85–113). This dialogue relates to the events
of 416 B.C.E., when Athens invaded the island of Melos. The Athenian
envoys presented the Melians with a choice, destruction or surrender,
and from the outset asked them not to appeal to justice, but to think
only about their survival. In the envoys’ words, “We both
know that the decisions about justice are made in human discussions
only when both sides are under equal compulsion, but when one side is
stronger, it gets as much as it can, and the weak must accept
that” (5.89). To be “under equal compulsion” means
to be under the force of law, and thus to be subjected to a common
lawgiving authority (Korab-Karpowicz 2006, 234). Since such an
authority above states does not exist, the Athenians argue that in
this lawless condition of international anarchy, the only right is the
right of the stronger to dominate the weaker. They explicitly equate
right with might, and exclude considerations of justice from foreign

1.1.2 The “Melian Dialogue”—The First Realist-Idealist Debate

We can thus find strong support for a realist perspective in the
statements of the Athenians. The question remains, however, to what
extent their realism coincides with Thucydides’ own viewpoint.
Although substantial passages of the “Melian Dialogue,” as
well as other parts of the History support a realistic
reading, Thucydides’ position cannot be deduced from such
selected fragments, but rather must be assessed on the basis of the
wider context of his book. In fact, even the “Melian
Dialogue” itself provides us with a number of contending

Political realism is usually contrasted by IR scholars with idealism
or liberalism, a theoretical perspective that emphasizes international
norms, interdependence among states, and international cooperation.
The “Melian Dialogue,” which is one of the most frequently
commented-upon parts of Thucydides’ History, presents
the classic debate between the idealist and realist views: Can
international politics be based on a moral order derived from the
principles of justice, or will it forever remain the arena of
conflicting national interests and power?

For the Melians, who employ idealistic arguments, the choice is
between war and subjection (5.86). They are courageous and love their
country. They do not wish to lose their freedom, and in spite of the
fact that they are militarily weaker than the Athenians, they are
prepared to defend themselves (5.100; 5.112). They base their
arguments on an appeal to justice, which they associate with fairness,
and regard the Athenians as unjust (5.90; 5.104). They are pious,
believing that gods will support their just cause and compensate for
their weakness, and trust in alliances, thinking that their allies,
the Spartans, who are also related to them, will help them (5.104;
5.112). Hence, one can identify in the speech of the Melians elements
of the idealistic or liberal world view: the belief that nations have
the right to exercise political independence, that they have mutual
obligations to one another and will carry out such obligations, and
that a war of aggression is unjust. What the Melians nevertheless lack
are resources and foresight. In their decision to defend themselves,
they are guided more by their hopes than by the evidence at hand or by
prudent calculations.

The Athenian argument is based on key realist concepts such as
security and power, and is informed not by what the world should be,
but by what it is. The Athenians disregard any moral talk and urge the
Melians to look at the facts—that is, to recognize their
military inferiority, to consider the potential consequences of their
decision, and to think about their own survival (5.87; 5.101). There
appears to be a powerful realist logic behind the Athenian arguments.
Their position, based on security concerns and self-interest,
seemingly involves reliance on rationality, intelligence, and
foresight. However, upon close examination, their logic proves to be
seriously flawed. Melos, a relatively weak state, does not pose any
real security threat to them. The eventual destruction of Melos does
not change the course of the Peloponnesian War, which Athens will lose
a few years later.

In the History, Thucydides shows that power, if it is
unrestrained by moderation and a sense of justice, brings about the
uncontrolled desire for more power. There are no logical limits to the
size of an empire. Drunk with the prospect of glory and gain, after
conquering Melos, the Athenians engage in a war against Sicily. They
pay no attention to the Melian argument that considerations of justice
are useful to all in the longer run (5.90). And, as the Athenians
overestimate their strength and in the end lose the war, their
self-interested logic proves to be very shortsighted indeed.

It is utopian to ignore the reality of power in international
relations, but it is equally blind to rely on power alone. Thucydides
appears to support neither the naive idealism of the Melians nor the
cynicism of their Athenian opponents. He teaches us to be on guard
“against naïve-dreaming on international politics,”
on the one hand, and “against the other pernicious extreme:
unrestrained cynicism,” on the other (Donnelly 2000, 193). If he
can be regarded as a political realist, his realism nonetheless
prefigures neither realpolitik, in which prescriptive ethics
is rejected, nor today’s scientific neorealism, in which moral
questions are largely ignored. Thucydides’ realism, neither
immoral nor amoral, can rather be compared to that of Hans Morgenthau,
Raymond Aron, and other twentieth-century classical realists, who,
although sensible to the demands of national interest, would not deny
that political actors on the international scene are subject to moral

1.2 Machiavelli’s Critique of the Moral Tradition

Idealism in international relations, like realism, can lay claim to a
long tradition. Unsatisfied with the world as they have found it,
idealists have always tried to answer the question of “what
ought to be” in politics. Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero were all
political idealists who believed that there were some universal moral
values on which political life could be based. Building on the work of
his predecessors, Cicero developed the idea of a natural moral law
that was applicable to both domestic and international politics. His
ideas concerning righteousness in war were carried further in the
writings of the Christian thinkers St. Augustine and St. Thomas
Aquinas. In the late fifteenth century, when Niccolò
Machiavelli was born, the idea that politics, including the relations
among states, should be virtuous, and that the methods of warfare
should remain subordinated to ethical standards, still predominated in
political literature.

Machiavelli (1469–1527) challenged this well-established moral
tradition, thus positioning himself as a political innovator. The
novelty of his approach lies in his critique of classical Western
political thought as unrealistic, aiming too high, and in his
separation of politics from ethics. He thereby lays the foundations
for modern politics focussed on self-interest. In chapter XV of
The Prince, Machiavelli announces that in departing from the
teachings of earlier thinkers, he seeks “the effectual truth of
the matter rather than the imagined one.” The “effectual
truth” is for him the only truth worth seeking. It represents
the sum of the practical conditions that he believes are required to
make both the individual and the country prosperous and strong.
Machiavelli replaces the ancient virtue (a moral quality of
the individual, such as justice or self-restraint) with
virtù, ability or vigor. As a prophet of
virtù, he promises to lead both nations and
individuals to earthly glory and power.

Machiavellianism is a radical type of political realism that
is applied to both domestic and international affairs. It is sometimes
called realpolitik, and is a doctrine which denies the
relevance of ethics in politics, and claims that all means (moral and
immoral) are justified to achieve certain political ends. Although
Machiavelli never uses the phrase ragione di stato or its
French equivalent, raison d’état, what
ultimately counts for him is precisely that: whatever is good for the
state, rather than ethical scruples or norms

Machiavelli justified immoral actions in politics, but never refused
to admit that they are evil. He operated within the single framework
of traditional morality. It became a specific task of his
nineteenth-century followers to develop the doctrine of a double
ethics: one public and one private, to push Machiavellian realism to
even further extremes, and to apply it to international relations. By
asserting that “the state has no higher duty than of maintaining
itself,” Hegel gave an ethical sanction to the state’s
promotion of its own interest and advantage against other states
(Meinecke 357). Thus he overturned the traditional beliefs about
morality. The good of the state was perversely interpreted by him as
the highest moral value, with the extension of national power regarded
as a nation’s right and duty. Then, referring to Machiavelli,
Heinrich von Treitschke declared that the state was power, precisely
in order to assert itself as against other equally independent powers,
and that the supreme moral duty of the state was to foster this power.
He considered international agreements to be binding only insofar as
it was expedient for the state. The idea of an autonomous ethics of
state behavior and the concept of realpolitik were thus
introduced. Traditional, customary ethics was denied and power
politics was associated with a “higher” type of morality.
These concepts, along with the belief in the superiority of Germanic
culture, served as weapons with which German statesmen, from the
eighteenth century to the end of the Second World War, justified their
policies of conquest and extermination.

Machiavelli is often praised for his prudential advice to leaders
(which has caused him to be regarded as a founding master of modern
political strategy) and for his defense of the republican form of
government. There are certainly many aspects of his thought that merit
such praise. Nevertheless, it is also possible to see him as the
thinker who bears foremost responsibility for the de-moralization of
Europe. The argument of the Athenian envoys presented in
Thucydides’ “Melian Dialogue,” that of Thrasymachus
in Plato’s Republic, or that of Carneades, to whom
Cicero refers—all of these challenge the ancient and Christian
views of the unity of politics and ethics. However, before
Machiavelli, this amoral or immoral mode of thinking had never
prevailed in the mainstream of Western political thought. It was the
force and timeliness of his justification of resorting to evil as a
legitimate means of achieving political ends that persuaded so many of
the thinkers and political practitioners who followed him. The effects
of Machiavellian ideas, such as the notion that the employment of all
possible means was permissible in war, would be seen on the
battlefields of modern Europe, as mass citizen armies fought against
each other to the bitter end without regard for the rules of justice.
The tension between expediency and morality lost its validity in the
sphere of politics. The concept of a double ethics that created a
further damage to traditional morality, was invented. The doctrine of
raison d’état ultimately led to the politics of
Lebensraum, two world wars, and the Holocaust.

Perhaps the greatest problem with realism in international relations
is that it has a tendency to slip into its extreme version, which
accepts any policy that can benefit the state at the expense of other
states, no matter how morally problematic the policy is. Even if they
do not explicitly raise ethical questions, in the works of Waltz and
of many other of today’s neorealists, a double ethics, public
and private, is presupposed, and words such realpolitik no
longer have the negative connotations that they had for classical
realists, such as Hans Morgenthau.

1.3 Hobbes’s Anarchic State of Nature

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1683) was part of an intellectual movement
whose goal was to free the emerging modern science from the
constraints of the classical and scholastic heritage. According to
classical political philosophy, on which the idealist perspective is
based, human beings can control their desires through reason and can
work for the benefit of others, even at the expense of their own
benefit. They are thus both rational and moral agents, capable of
distinguishing between right and wrong, and of making moral choices.
They are also naturally social. With great skill Hobbes attacks these
views. His human beings, extremely individualistic rather than moral
or social, are subject to “a perpetual and restless desire of
power after power, that ceases only in death”
(Leviathan XI 2). They therefore inevitably struggle for
power. In setting out such ideas, Hobbes contributes to some of the
basic conceptions fundamental to the realist tradition in
international relations, and especially to neorealism. These include
the characterization of human nature as egoistic, the concept of
international anarchy, and the view that politics, rooted in the
struggle for power, can be rationalized and studied

One of the most widely known Hobbesian concepts is that of the
anarchic state of nature, seen as entailing a state of war—and
“such a war as is of every man against every man” (XII 8).
He derives his notion of the state of war from his views of both human
nature and the condition in which individuals exist. Since in the
state of nature there is no government and everyone enjoys equal
status, every individual has a right to everything; that is, there are
no constraints on an individual’s behavior. Anyone may at any
time use force, and all must constantly be ready to counter such force
with force. Hence, driven by acquisitiveness, having no moral
restraints, and motivated to compete for scarce goods, individuals are
apt to “invade” one another for gain. Being suspicious of
one another and driven by fear, they are also likely to engage in
preemptive actions and invade one another to ensure their own safety.
Finally, individuals are also driven by pride and a desire for glory.
Whether for gain, safety, or reputation, power-seeking individuals
will thus “endeavor to destroy or subdue one another”
(XIII 3). In such uncertain conditions where everyone is a potential
aggressor, making war on others is a more advantageous strategy than
peaceable behavior, and one needs to learn that domination over others
is necessary for one’s own continued survival.

Hobbes is primarily concerned with the relationship between
individuals and the state, and his comments about relations among
states are scarce. Nevertheless, what he says about the lives of
individuals in the state of nature can also be interpreted as a
description of how states exist in relation to one another. Once
states are established, the individual drive for power becomes the
basis for the states’ behavior, which often manifests itself in
their efforts to dominate other states and peoples. States, “for
their own security,” writes Hobbes, “enlarge their
dominions upon all pretences of danger and fear of invasion or
assistance that may be given to invaders, [and] endeavour as much as
they can, to subdue and weaken their neighbors” (XIX 4).
Accordingly, the quest and struggle for power lies at the core of the
Hobbesian vision of relations among states. The same would later be
true of the model of international relations developed by Hans
Morgenthau, who was deeply influenced by Hobbes and adopted the same
view of human nature. Similarly, the neorealist Kenneth Waltz would
follow Hobbes’ lead regarding international anarchy (the fact
that sovereign states are not subject to any higher common sovereign)
as the essential element of international relations.

By subjecting themselves to a sovereign, individuals escape the war of
all against all which Hobbes associates with the state of nature;
however, this war continues to dominate relations among states. This
does not mean that states are always fighting, but rather that they
have a disposition to fight (XIII 8). With each state deciding for
itself whether or not to use force, war may break out at any time. The
achievement of domestic security through the creation of a state is
then paralleled by a condition of inter-state insecurity. One can
argue that if Hobbes were fully consistent, he would agree with the
notion that, to escape this condition, states should also enter into a
contract and submit themselves to a world sovereign. Although the idea
of a world state would find support among some of today’s
realists, this is not a position taken by Hobbes himself. He does not
propose that a social contract among nations be implemented to bring
international anarchy to an end. This is because the condition of
insecurity in which states are placed does not necessarily lead to
insecurity for their citizens. As long as an armed conflict or other
type of hostility between states does not actually break out,
individuals within a state can feel relatively secure.

The denial of the existence of universal moral principles and norms in
the relations among states brings Hobbes close to the Machiavellians
and the followers of the doctrine of raison
. His theory of international relations, which
assumes that independent states, like independent individuals, are
enemies by nature, asocial and selfish, and that there is no moral
limitation on their behavior, is a great challenge to the idealist
political vision based on human sociability and to the concept of the
international jurisprudence that is built on this vision. However,
what separates Hobbes from Machiavelli and associates him more with
classical realism is his insistence on the defensive character of
foreign policy. His political theory does not put forward the
invitation to do whatever may be advantageous for the state. His
approach to international relations is prudential and pacific:
sovereign states, like individuals, should be disposed towards peace
which is commended by reason.

What Waltz and other neorealist readers of Hobbes’s works
sometimes overlook is that he does not perceive international anarchy
as an environment without any rules. By suggesting that certain
dictates of reason apply even in the state of nature, he affirms that
more peaceful and cooperative international relations are possible.
Neither does he deny the existence of international law. Sovereign
states can sign treaties with one another to provide a legal basis for
their relations. At the same time, however, Hobbes seems aware that
international rules will often prove ineffective in restraining the
struggle for power. States will interpret them to their own advantage,
and so international law will be obeyed or ignored according to the
interests of the states affected. Hence, international relations will
always tend to be a precarious affair. This grim view of global
politics lies at the core of Hobbes’s realism.

2. Twentieth Century Classical Realism

Twentieth-century realism was born in response to the idealist
perspective that dominated international relations scholarship in the
aftermath of the First World War. The idealists of the 1920s and 1930s
(also called liberal internationalists or utopians) had the goal of
building peace in order to prevent another world conflict. They saw
the solution to inter-state problems as being the creation of a
respected system of international law, backed by international
organizations. This interwar idealism resulted in the founding of the
League of Nations in 1920 and in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928
outlawing war and providing for the peaceful settlements of disputes.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, scholars such as Norman Angell, Alfred
Zimmern, and Raymond B. Fosdick, and other prominent idealists of the
era, gave their intellectual support to the League of Nations. Instead
of focusing on what some might see as the inevitability of conflict
between states and peoples, they chose to emphasize the common
interests that could unite humanity, and attempted to appeal to
rationality and morality. For them, war did not originate in an
egoistic human nature, but rather in imperfect social conditions and
political arrangements, which could be improved. Yet their ideas were
already being criticized in the early 1930s by Reinhold Niebuhr and
within a few years by E. H. Carr. The League of Nations, which the
United States never joined, and from which Japan and Germany withdrew,
could not prevent the outbreak of the Second World War. This fact,
perhaps more than any theoretical argument, contributed to the
development of the realist theory. Although the United Nations,
founded in 1945, can still be regarded as a product of idealist
political thinking, the discipline of international relations was
profoundly influenced in the initial years of the post-war period by
the works of “classical” realists such as John H. Herz,
Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Raymond Aron. Then, during the
1950s and 1960s, classical realism came under challenge of scholars
who tried to introduce a more scientific approach to the study of
international politics. During the 1980s it gave way to another trend
in international relations theory—neorealism.

Since it is impossible within the scope of this article to introduce
all of the thinkers who contributed to the development of
twentieth-century classical realism, E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau,
as perhaps the most influential among them, have been selected for
discussion here.

2.1 E. H. Carr’s Challenge to Utopian Idealism

In his main work on international relations, The Twenty
Years’ Crisis
, first published in July 1939, Edward Hallett
Carr (1892–1982) attacks the idealist position, which he
describes as “utopianism.” He characterizes this position
as encompassing faith in reason, confidence in progress, a sense of
moral rectitude, and a belief in an underlying harmony of interests.
According to the idealists, war is an aberration in the course of
normal life and the way to prevent it is to educate people for peace,
and to build systems of collective security such as the League of
Nations or today’s United Nations. Carr challenges idealism by
questioning its claim to moral universalism and its idea of the
harmony of interests. He declares that “morality can only be
relative, not universal” (19), and states that the doctrine of
the harmony of interests is invoked by privileged groups “to
justify and maintain their dominant position” (75).

Carr uses the concept of the relativity of thought, which he traces to
Marx and other modern theorists, to show that standards by which
policies are judged are the products of circumstances and interests.
His central idea is that the interests of a given party always
determine what this party regards as moral principles, and hence,
these principles are not universal. Carr observes that politicians,
for example, often use the language of justice to cloak the particular
interests of their own countries, or to create negative images of
other people to justify acts of aggression. The existence of such
instances of morally discrediting a potential enemy or morally
justifying one’s own position shows, he argues, that moral ideas
are derived from actual policies. Policies are not, as the idealists
would have it, based on some universal norms, independent of interests
of the parties involved.

If specific ethical standards are de facto founded on interests,
Carr’s argument goes, there are also interests underlying what
are regarded as absolute principles or universal moral values. While
the idealists tend to regard such values, such as peace or justice, as
universal and claim that upholding them is in the interest of all,
Carr argues against this view. According to him, there are neither
universal values nor universal interests. He claims that those who
refer to universal interests are in fact acting in their own interests
(71). They think that what is best for them is best for everyone, and
identify their own interests with the universal interest of the world
at large.

The idealist concept of the harmony of interests is based on
the notion that human beings can rationally recognize that they have
some interests in common, and that cooperation is therefore possible.
Carr contrasts this idea with the reality of conflict of
. According to him, the world is torn apart by the
particular interests of different individuals and groups. In such a
conflictual environment, order is based on power, not on morality.
Further, morality itself is the product of power (61). Like Hobbes,
Carr regards morality as constructed by the particular legal system
that is enforced by a coercive power. International ethical norms are
imposed on other countries by dominant nations or groups of nations
that present themselves as the international community as a whole.
They are invented to perpetuate those nations’ dominance.

Values that idealists view as good for all, such as peace, social
justice, prosperity, and international order, are regarded by Carr as
mere status quo notions. The powers that are satisfied with
the status quo regard the arrangement in place as just and therefore
preach peace. They try to rally everyone around their idea of what is
good. “Just as the ruling class in a community prays for
domestic peace, which guarantees its own security and predominance,
… so international peace becomes a special vested interest of
predominant powers” (76). On the other hand, the unsatisfied
powers consider the same arrangement as unjust, and so prepare for
war. Hence, the way to obtain peace, if it cannot be simply enforced,
is to satisfy the unsatisfied powers. “Those who profit most by
[international] order can in the longer run only hope to maintain it
by making sufficient concessions to make it tolerable to those who
profit by it least” (152). The logical conclusion to be drawn by
the reader of Carr’s book is the policy of appeasement.

Carr was a sophisticated thinker. He recognized himself that the logic
of “pure realism can offer nothing but a naked struggle for
power which makes any kind of international society impossible”
(87). Although he demolishes what he calls “the current
utopia” of idealism, he at the same time attempts to build
“a new utopia,” a realist world order (ibid.).
Thus, he acknowledges that human beings need certain fundamental
principles or beliefs that are shared across different cultures, and
contradicts his own earlier argument by which he tries to deny
universality to any norms or values. To make further objections to his
position, the fact, as he claims, that the language of universal
values can be misused in politics for the benefit of one party or
another, and that such values can only be imperfectly implemented in
political institutions, does not mean that such values do not exist.
There is a deep yearning in many human beings, both privileged and
unprivileged, for peace, order, prosperity, and justice. The
legitimacy of idealism consists in the constant attempt to reflect
upon and uphold these values. Idealists fail if in their attempt they
do not pay enough attention to the reality of power. On the other
hand, in the world of “pure realism,” in which all values
are made relative to interests, life turns into nothing more than a
power game and is unbearable.

The Twenty Years’ Crisis touches on a number of
universal ideas, but it also reflects the spirit of its time. While we
can fault the interwar idealists for their inability to construct
international institutions strong enough to prevent the outbreak of
the Second World War, this book indicates that interwar realists were
likewise unprepared to meet the challenge. Carr frequently refers to
Germany under Nazi rule as if it were a country like any other. He
says that should Germany cease to be an unsatisfied power and
“become supreme in Europe,” it would adopt a language of
international solidarity similar to that of other Western powers (79).
The inability of Carr and other realists to recognize the perilous
nature of Nazism, and their belief that Germany could be satisfied by
territorial concessions, helped to foster a political environment in
which the latter was to grow in power, annex Czechoslovakia at will,
and be militarily opposed in September 1939 by Poland alone.

A theory of international relations is not just an intellectual
enterprise; it has practical consequences. It influences our thinking
and political practice. On the practical side, the realists of the
1930s, to whom Carr gave intellectual support, were people opposed to
the system of collective security embodied in the League of Nations.
Working within the foreign policy establishments of the day, they
contributed to its weakness. Once they had weakened the League, they
pursued a policy of appeasement and accommodation with Germany as an
alternative to collective security (Ashworth 46). After the annexation
of Czechoslovakia, when the failure of the anti-League realist
conservatives gathered around Neville Chamberlain and of this policy
became clear, they tried to rebuild the very security system they had
earlier demolished. Those who supported collective security were
labeled idealists.

2.2 Hans Morgenthau’s Realist Principles

Hans J. Morgenthau (1904–1980) developed realism into a
comprehensive international relations theory. Influenced by the
Protestant theologian and political writer Reinhold Niebuhr, as well
as by Hobbes, he places selfishness and power-lust at the center of
his picture of human existence. The insatiable human lust for power,
timeless and universal, which he identifies with animus
, the desire to dominate, is for him the main cause of
conflict. As he asserts in his main work, Politics among Nations:
The Struggle for Power and Peace
, first published in 1948,
“international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for
power” (25).

Morgenthau systematizes realism in international relations on the
basis of six principles that he includes in the second edition of
Politics among Nations. As a traditionalist, he opposes the
so-called scientists (the scholars who, especially in the 1950s, tried
to reduce the discipline of international relations to a branch of
behavioral science). Nevertheless, in the first principle he states
that realism is based on objective laws that have their roots in
unchanging human nature (4). He wants to develop realism into both a
theory of international politics and a political art, a useful tool of
foreign policy.

The keystone of Morgenthau’s realist theory is the concept
of power
or “of interest defined in terms of power,”
which informs his second principle: the assumption that political
leaders “think and act in terms of interest defined as
power” (5). This concept defines the autonomy of politics, and
allows for the analysis of foreign policy regardless of the different
motives, preferences, and intellectual and moral qualities of
individual politicians. Furthermore, it is the foundation of a
rational picture of politics.

Although, as Morgenthau explains in the third principle, interest
defined as power is a universally valid category, and indeed an
essential element of politics, various things can be associated with
interest or power at different times and in different circumstances.
Its content and the manner of its use are determined by the political
and cultural environment.

In the fourth principle, Morgenthau considers the relationship between
realism and ethics. He says that while realists are aware of the moral
significance of political action, they are also aware of the tension
between morality and the requirements of successful political action.
“Universal moral principles,” he asserts, “cannot be
applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal
formulation, but …they must be filtered through the concrete
circumstances of time and place” (9). These principles must be
accompanied by prudence for as he cautions “there can be no
political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of
the political consequences of seemingly moral action”

Prudence, the ability to judge the rightness of a given action from
among possible alternatives on the basis of its likely political
consequences, and not conviction of one’s own moral or
ideological superiority, should guide political decisions. This is
stressed in the fifth principle, where Morgenthau again emphasizes the
idea that all state actors, including our own, must be looked at
solely as political entities pursuing their respective interests
defined in terms of power. By taking this point of view
vis-à-vis its counterparts and thus avoiding ideological
confrontation, a state would then be able to pursue policies that
respected the interests of other states, while protecting and
promoting its own.

Insofar as power, or interest defined as power, is the concept that
defines politics, politics is an autonomous sphere, as Morgenthau says
in his sixth principle of realism. It cannot be subordinated to
ethics. However, ethics does still play a role in politics. “A
man who was nothing but ‘political man’ would be a beast,
for he would be completely lacking in moral restraints. A man who was
nothing but ‘moral man’ would be a fool, for he would be
completely lacking in prudence” (12). Political art requires
that these two dimensions of human life, power and morality, be taken
into consideration.

While Morgenthau’s six principles of realism contain repetitions
and inconsistencies, we can nonetheless obtain from them the following
picture: Power or interest is the central concept that makes politics
into an autonomous discipline. Rational state actors pursue their
national interests. Therefore, a rational theory of international
politics can be constructed. Such a theory is not concerned with the
morality, religious beliefs, motives or ideological preferences of
individual political leaders. It also indicates that in order to avoid
conflicts, states should avoid moral crusades or ideological
confrontations, and look for compromise based solely on satisfaction
of their mutual interests.

Although he defines politics as an autonomous sphere, Morgenthau does
not separate ethics from politics. The act of protecting one’s
country has for him a deep moral significance. Ultimately directed
toward the objective of national survival, it involves prudence that
is related to choosing the best course of action. The effective
protection of citizens’ lives from harm in case of an
international armed conflict is not merely a forceful physical action;
it also has prudential and moral dimensions.

Morgenthau regards realism as a way of thinking about international
relations and a useful tool for devising policies. However, some of
the basic conceptions of his theory, and especially the idea of
conflict as stemming from human nature, as well as the concept of
power itself, have provoked criticism.

International politics, like all politics, is for Morgenthau a
struggle for power because of the basic human lust for power. But
regarding every individual as being engaged in a perpetual quest for
power—the view that he shares with Hobbes—is a
questionable premise. Human nature cannot be revealed by observation
and experiment. It cannot be proved by any empirical research, but
only disclosed by philosophy, imposed on us as a matter of belief, and
inculcated by education.

Morgenthau himself reinforces the belief in the human drive for power
by introducing a normative aspect of his theory, which is rationality.
A rational foreign policy is considered “to be a good foreign
policy” (7). But he defines rationality as a process of
calculating the costs and benefits of all alternative policies in
order to determine their relative utility, i.e. their ability to
maximize power. Statesmen “think and act in terms of interest
defined as power” (5). Only intellectual weakness of policy
makers can result in foreign policies that deviate from a rational
course aimed at minimizing risks and maximizing benefits. Hence,
rather than presenting an actual portrait of human affairs, Morgenthau
emphasizes the pursuit of power and the rationality of this pursuit,
and sets it up as a norm.

As Raymond Aron and other scholars have noticed, power, the
fundamental concept of Morgenthau’s realism, is ambiguous. It
can be either a means or an end in politics. But if power is only a
means for gaining something else, it does not define the nature of
international politics in the way Morgenthau claims. It does not allow
us to understand the actions of states independently from the motives
and ideological preferences of their political leaders. It cannot
serve as the basis for defining politics as an autonomous sphere.
Morgenthau’s principles of realism are thus open to doubt.
“Is this true,” Aron asks, “that states, whatever
their regime, pursue the same kind of foreign policy” (597) and
that the foreign policies of Napoleon or Stalin are essentially
identical to those of Hitler, Louis XVI or Nicholas II, amounting to
no more than the struggle for power? “If one answers yes, then
the proposition is incontestable, but not very instructive”
(598). Accordingly, it is useless to define actions of states by
exclusive reference to power, security or national interest.
International politics cannot be studied independently of the wider
historical and cultural context.

Carr and Morgenthau concentrate primarily on international relations.
However, their political realism can also be applied to domestic
politics. To be a classical realist is in general to perceive politics
as a conflict of interests and a struggle for power, and to seek peace
by recognizing common interests and trying to satisfy them, rather
than by moralizing. Bernard Williams and Raymond Geuss, influential
representatives of the new political realism, a movement in
contemporary political theory, criticize what they describe as
“political moralism” and stress the autonomy of politics
against ethics. However, political theory realism and international
relations realism seem like two separate research programs. As noted
by several scholars (William Scheuerman, Alison McQueen, Terry Nardin.
Duncan Bell), those who contribute to realism in political theory give
little attention to those who work on realism in international

3. Neorealism

In spite of its ambiguities and weaknesses, Morgenthau’s
Politics among Nations became a standard textbook and
influenced thinking about international politics for a generation or
so. At the same time, there was an attempt to develop a more
methodologically rigorous approach to theorizing about international
affairs. In the 1950s and 1960s a large influx of scientists from
different fields entered the discipline of International Relations and
attempted to replace the “wisdom literature” of classical
realists with scientific concepts and reasoning (Brown 35). This in
turn provoked a counterattack by Morgenthau and scholars associated
with the so-called English School, especially Hedley Bull, who
defended a traditional approach (Bull 1966).

As a result, the discipline of international relations has been
divided into two main strands: traditional or non-positivist and
scientific or positivist (neo-positivist). At a later stage the third
strand: post-positivism has been added. The traditionalists raise
normative questions and engage with history, philosophy and law. The
scientists or positivists stress a descriptive and explanatory form of
inquiry, rather than a normative one. They have established a strong
presence in the field. Already by the mid-1960s, the majority of
American students in international relations were trained in
quantitative research, game theory, and other new research techniques
of the social sciences. This, along with the changing international
environment, had a significant effect on the discipline.

Notwithstanding their methodological differences, realists’
assumption is that the state is the key actor in international
politics, and that competitive and conflictual relations among states
are the core of actual international relations. However, with the
receding of the Cold War during the 1970s, one could witness the
growing importance of other actors: international and non-governmental
organizations, as well as of multinational corporations. This
development led to a revival of idealist thinking, which became known
as neoliberalism or pluralism. While accepting some basic assumptions
of realism, the leading pluralists, Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye,
have proposed the concept of complex interdependence to
describe this more sophisticated picture of global politics. They
would argue that states could effectively cooperate with each other
for mutual benefit and there can be progress in international
relations, and that the future does not need to look like the

3.1 Kenneth Waltz’s International System

The realist retort came most prominently from Kenneth N. Waltz, who
reformulated realism in international relations in a new and
distinctive way. In his book Theory of International
, first published in 1979, he responded to the liberal
challenge and attempted to cure the defects of the classical realism
of Hans Morgenthau with his more scientific approach, which has become
known as structural realism or neorealism. Whereas Morgenthau rooted
his theory in the struggle for power, which he related to human
nature, Waltz made an effort to avoid any philosophical discussion of
human nature, and set out instead to build a theory of international
politics using microeconomics as a model. In his works, he argues that
states in the international system are like firms in a domestic
economy and have the same fundamental interest: to survive.
“Internationally, the environment of states’ actions, or
the structure of their system, is set by the fact that some states
prefer survival over other ends obtainable in the short run and act
with relative efficiency to achieve that end” (93).

Waltz maintains that by paying attention to the individual state, and
to ideological, moral and economic issues, both traditional liberals
and classical realists make the same mistake. They fail to develop a
serious account of the international system—one that can be
abstracted from the wider socio-political domain. Waltz acknowledges
that such an abstraction distorts reality and omits many of the
factors that were important for classical realism. It does not allow
for the analysis of the development of specific foreign policies.
However, it also has utility. Notably, it assists in understanding the
primary determinants of international politics. To be sure,
Waltz’s neorealist theory cannot be applied to domestic
politics. It cannot serve to develop policies of states concerning
their international or domestic affairs. His theory helps only to
explain why states behave in similar ways despite their different
forms of government and diverse political ideologies, and why, despite
their growing interdependence, the overall picture of international
relations is unlikely to change.

According to Waltz, the uniform behavior of states over centuries can
be explained by the constraints on their behavior that are imposed by
the structure of the international system. A system’s structure
is defined first by the principle by which it is organized, then by
the differentiation of its units, and finally by the distribution of
capabilities (power) across units. Anarchy, or the absence of central
authority, is for Waltz the ordering principle of the international
system. The units of the international system are states. Waltz
recognizes the existence of non-state actors, but dismisses them as
relatively unimportant. Since all states want to survive, and anarchy
presupposes a self-help system in which each state has to take care of
itself, there is no division of labor or functional differentiation
among them. While functionally similar, they are nonetheless
distinguished by their relative capabilities (the power each of them
represents) to perform the same function.

Consequently, Waltz sees power and state behavior in a different way
from the classical realists. For Morgenthau power was both a means and
an end, and rational state behavior was understood as simply the
course of action that would accumulate the most power. In contrast,
neorealists assume that the fundamental interest of each state is
security and would therefore concentrate on the distribution of power.
What also sets neorealism apart from classical realism is
methodological rigor and scientific self-conception (Guzinni 1998,
127–128). Waltz insists on empirical testability of knowledge
and on falsificationism as a methodological ideal, which, as he
himself admits, can have only a limited application in international

The distribution of capabilities among states can vary; however,
anarchy, the ordering principle of international relations, remains
unchanged. This has a lasting effect on the behavior of states that
become socialized into the logic of self-help. Trying to refute
neoliberal ideas concerning the effects of interdependence, Waltz
identifies two reasons why the anarchic international system limits
cooperation: insecurity and unequal gains. In the context of anarchy,
each state is uncertain about the intentions of others and is afraid
that the possible gains resulting from cooperation may favor other
states more than itself, and thus lead it to dependence on others.
“States do not willingly place themselves in situations of
increased dependence. In a self-help system, considerations of
security subordinate economic gain to political interest.”
(Waltz 1979, 107).

Because of its theoretical elegance and methodological rigor,
neorealism has become very influential within the discipline of
international relations. In the eyes of many scholars,
Morgenthau’s realism has come to be seen as
anachronistic—“an interesting and important episode in the
history of thinking about the subject, no doubt, but one scarcely to
be seen as a serious contribution of the rigorously scientific
theory” (Williams 2007, 1). However, while initially gaining
more acceptance than classical realism, neorealism has also provoked
strong critiques on a number of fronts.

3.2 Objections to Neorealism

In 1979 Waltz wrote that in the nuclear age the international bipolar
system, based on two superpowers—the United States and the
Soviet Union—was not only stable but likely to persist
(176–7). With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent
disintegration of the USSR this prediction was proven wrong. The
bipolar world turned out to have been more precarious than most
realist analysts had supposed. Its end opened new possibilities and
challenges related to globalization. This has led many critics to
argue that neorealism, like classical realism, cannot adequately
account for changes in world politics.

The new debate between international (neo)realists and (neo)liberals
is no longer concerned with the questions of morality and human
nature, but with the extent to which state behavior is influenced by
the anarchic structure of the international system rather than by
institutions, learning and other factors that are conductive to
cooperation. In his 1989 book International Institutions and State
, Robert Keohane accepts Waltz’s emphasis on
system-level theory and his general assumption that states are
self-interested actors that rationally pursue their goals. However, by
employing game theory he shows that states can widen the perception of
their self-interest through economic cooperation and involvement in
international institutions. Patterns of interdependence can thus
affect world politics. Keohane calls for systemic theories that would
be able to deal better with factors affecting state interaction, and
with change.

Critical theorists, such as Robert W. Cox, also focus on the alleged
inability of neorealism to deal with change. In their view,
neorealists take a particular, historically determined state-based
structure of international relations and assume it to be universally
valid. In contrast, critical theorists believe that by analyzing the
interplay of ideas, material factors, and social forces, one can
understand how this structure has come about, and how it may
eventually change (Cox 1986). They contend that neorealism ignores
both the historical process during which identities and interests are
formed, and the diverse methodological possibilities. It legitimates
the existing status quo of strategic relations among states and
considers the scientific method as the only way of obtaining
knowledge. It represents an exclusionary practice, an interest in
domination and control.

While realists are concerned with relations among states and national
security, the focus for critical theorists is human security and
social emancipation. They focus on social, economic and environmental
security for the individual and the group. Despite their differences,
critical theory, postmodernism and feminism all take issue with the
notion of state sovereignty and envision new political communities
that would be less exclusionary vis-à-vis marginal and
disenfranchised groups. Critical theory argues against state-based
exclusion and denies that the interests of a country’s citizens
take precedence over those of outsiders. It insists that politicians
should give as much weight to the interests of foreigners as they give
to those of their compatriots and envisions political structures
beyond the “fortress” nation-state. Postmodernism
questions the state’s claim to be a legitimate focus of human
loyalties and its right to impose social and political boundaries. It
supports cultural diversity and stresses the interests of minorities.
Feminism argues that the realist theory exhibits a masculine bias and
advocates the inclusion of woman and alternative values into public

Since critical theories and other alternative theoretical perspectives
question the existing status quo, make knowledge dependent on power,
and emphasize identity formation and social change, they are not
traditional or non-positivist. They are sometimes called
“reflectivist” or “post-positivist” (Weaver
165) and represent a radical departure from the neorealist and
neoliberal “rationalist” or “positivist”
international relation theories. For critical security theorists,
security is not an objective phenomenon. It is essentially social,
socially constructed and serves a political agenda. It legitimizes and
imposes a political program on society that serves the dominant group.
According to the critical securitization theory, the securitizing
actor, who could be a politician or the governing party,
“encodes a subject or a group as an existential threat to the
reference object” (Ari 147). The object could be a state or a
non-state group. Such a discursive practice defines threat and

Constructivists, such as Alexander Wendt, try to build a bridge
between these two approaches, positivist and post-positivist, by on
the one hand, taking the present state system and anarchy seriously,
and on the other hand, by focusing on the formation of identities and
interests. Countering neorealist ideas, Wendt argues that self-help
does not follow logically or casually from the principle of anarchy.
It is socially constructed. Wendt’s idea that states’
identities and interests are socially constructed has earned his
position the label “constructivism”. Consequently, in his
view,“self-help and power politics are institutions, and not
essential features of anarchy. Anarchy is what states make of
it” (Wendt 1987 395). There is no single logic of anarchy but
rather several, depending on the roles with which states identify
themselves and each other. Power and interests are constituted by
ideas and norms. Wendt claims that neorealism cannot account for
change in world politics, but his norm-based constructivism can.

A similar conclusion, although derived in a traditional way, comes
from the non-positivist theorists of the English school (International
Society approach) who emphasize both systemic and normative
constraints on the behavior of states. Referring to the classical view
of the human being as an individual that is basically social and
rational, capable of cooperating and learning from past experiences,
these theorists emphasize that states, like individuals, have
legitimate interests that others can recognize and respect, and that
they can recognize the general advantages of observing a principle of
reciprocity in their mutual relations (Jackson and Sørensen
167). Therefore, states can bind themselves to other states by
treaties and develop some common values with other states. Hence, the
structure of the international system is not unchangeable as the
neorealists claim. It is not a permanent Hobbesian anarchy, permeated
by the danger of war. An anarchic international system based on pure
power relations among actors can evolve into a more cooperative and
peaceful international society, in which state behavior is shaped by
commonly shared values and norms. A practical expression of
international society are international organizations that uphold the
rule of law in international relations, especially the UN.

4. Conclusion: The Cautionary and Changing Character of Realism

An unintended and unfortunate consequence of the debate about
neorealism is that neorealism and a large part of its critique (with
the notable exception of the English School) has been expressed in
abstract scientific and philosophical terms. This has made the theory
of international politics almost inaccessible to a layperson and has
divided the discipline of international relations into incompatible
parts. Whereas classical realism was a theory aimed at supporting
diplomatic practice and providing a guide to be followed by those
seeking to understand and deal with potential threats, today’s
theories, concerned with various grand pictures and projects, are
ill-suited to perform this task. This is perhaps the main reason why
there has been a renewed interest in classical realism, and
particularly in the ideas of Morgenthau. Rather than being seen as an
obsolete form of pre-scientific realist thought, superseded by
neorealist theory, his thinking is now considered to be more complex
and of greater contemporary relevance than was earlier recognized
(Williams 2007, 1–9). It fits uneasily in the orthodox picture
of realism he is usually associated with.

In recent years, scholars have questioned prevailing narratives about
clear theoretical traditions in the discipline of international
relations. Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes and other thinkers have
become subject to re-examination as a means of challenging prevailing
uses of their legacies in the discipline and exploring other lineages
and orientations. Morgenthau has undergone a similar process of
reinterpretation. A number of scholars (Hartmut Behr, Muriel Cozette,
Amelia Heath, Sean Molloy) have endorsed the importance of his thought
as a source of change for the standard interpretation of realism.
Murielle Cozette stresses Morgenthau’s critical dimension of
realism expressed in his commitment to “speak truth to
power” and to “unmask power’s claims to truth and
morality,” and in his tendency to assert different claims at
different times (Cozette 10–12). She writes: “The
protection of human life and freedom are given central importance by
Morgenthau, and constitute a ‘transcendent standard of
ethics’ which should always animate scientific enquiries”
(19). This shows the flexibility of his classical realism and reveals
his normative assumptions based on the promotion of universal moral
values. While Morgenthau assumes that states are power-oriented
actors, he at the same time acknowledges that international politics
would be more pernicious than it actually is were it not for moral
restraints and the work of international law(Behr and Heath 333).

Another avenue for the development of a realist theory of
international relations is offered by Robert Gilpin’s seminal
work War and Change in World Politics. If this work were to
gain greater prominence in IR scholarship, instead of engaging in
fruitless theoretical debates, we would be better prepared today
“for rapid power shifts and geopolitical change
”(Wohlforth, 2011 505). We would be able to explain the causes
of great wars and long periods of peace, and the creation and waning
of international orders. Still another avenue is provided by the
application of the new scientific discoveries to social sciences. The
evidence for this is, for example, the recent work of Alexander Wendt,
Quantum Mind and Social Science. A new realist approach to
international politics could be based on the organic and holistic
world view emerging from quantum theory, the idea of human evolution,
and the growing awareness of the role of human beings in the
evolutionary process (Korab-Karpowicz 2017).

Realism is thus more than a static, amoral theory, and cannot be
accommodated solely within a positivist interpretation of
international relations. It is a practical and evolving theory that
depends on the actual historical and political conditions, and is
ultimately judged by its ethical standards and by its relevance in
making prudent political decisions (Morgenthau 1962). In place of the
twentieth-century Cold War ideological rivalry, the main competition
in the twenty-first-century is between the ideologies justifying the
expansion of the US-dominated unipolar world and those supporting the
reestablishment of a multipolar one (Müllerson 2017).
Consequently, the growing tensions among superpowers have contributed
to the revival of the idealist-realist debate and have caused a
resurgence of interest in realism. John Mearsheimer is an important
thinker in this respect, known for his pessimistic concept of
offensive realism, which assumes that powerful states, such as the
United States, would aim at the maximization of power and domination
over others (Mearsheimer 2001). His late work, The Liberal
(Mearsheimer 2019), in which he presents realist
arguments against a liberal position, can already be considered a
classic of the theory of international relations.

As the current revival of interest proves, realism is a theory for
difficult times, when security becomes a real issue. This happens when
countries face the danger of an armed conflict. In such situations,
realism performs a useful cautionary role. It warns us against
progressivism, moralism, legalism and other orientations that lose
touch with the reality of self-interest and power. It is a necessary
corrective to an overoptimistic liberal belief in international
cooperation and change resulting from interdependence, as well as to a
critical theory claim that our insecurity is merely a result of

Nevertheless, when it becomes a dogmatic enterprise, by focusing on
conflict alone, realism fails to perform its proper function as a
theory of international relations. By remaining stuck in a
state-centric and excessively simplified “paradigm” such
as neorealism and by denying the possibility of any progress in
interstate relations, it turns into an ideology. Its emphasis on power
politics and national interest can be misused to justify aggression.
It has therefore to be supplanted by theories that take better account
of the dramatically changing picture of global politics. To its merely
negative, cautionary function, positive norms must be added. These
norms extend from the rationality and prudence stressed by classical
realists; through the vision of multilateralism, international law,
and an international society emphasized by liberals and members of the
English School; to the cosmopolitanism and global solidarity advocated
by many of today’s writers.

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W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz