Political Realism

Realism is an approach to the study and practice of international politics. It emphasizes the role of the nation-state and makes a broad assumption that all nation-states are motivated by national interests, or, at best, national interests disguised as moral concerns.

At its most fundamental level, the national interest is generic and easy to define: all states seek to preserve their political autonomy and their territorial integrity. Once these two interests have been secured, however, national interests may take different forms. Some states may have an interest in securing more resources or land; other states may wish to expand their own political or economic systems into other areas; some states may merely wish to be left alone.

Generally speaking, however, the national interest must be defined in terms of power. National power has an absolute meaning since it can be defined in terms of military, economic, political, diplomatic, or even cultural resources. But, for a realist, power is primarily a relative term: does a state have the ability to defend itself against the power of another state? Does a state have the ability to coerce another state to change that state's policies?

This emphasis on relative, and not absolute power, derives from the realist conception of the international system which is, for the realist, an anarchical environment. All states have to rely upon their own resources to secure their interests, enforce whatever agreements they may have entered into with other states, or to maintain a desirable domestic and international order. There is no authority over the nation-state, nor, for the realist, should there be.

The implications of this refusal to recognize greater authority are important to recognize. The political realist fears centralized authority, unless that authority is derived from the power of his or her own state. The decentralization of the international system permits greater diversity than would be the case with, say, an empire. Since, however, the natural tendency of states is to increase their power, the preservation of a decentralized system must be purchased with force.

The use of force to preserve the decentralized system is regulated by a system called the balance of power. Such a system works only if the major powers agree, at least tacitly, that they agree that the preservation of state autonomy is an important objective. If the major powers do agree, wars will still occur within the system, but those wars will be constrained by the limited objectives of each major state. If one major power does not agree with the limited objectives, then wars will be much larger and more open-ended.

Recommended Readings on Realism (not required for the course)

Hans J. Morgenthau, "Six Principles of Political Realism," Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Fifth Edition, Revised, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, pp. 4-15

E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years Crisis, Chapter 4, "The Harmony of Interests"

Raymond Aron, Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), pp. 591-600, "From Machtpolitik to Power Politics"

Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book II, Pericles' Funeral Oration

Stephen G. Brooks, "Dueling Realisms (Realism in International Relations)," International Organization, Vol. 51, no. 3 (Summer 1997)

Ronald Steele, Walter Lippman and the American Century (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), Chapter 32, "Realpolitik," pp. 404-417

DAVID E. SANGER, "Sometimes, National Security Says It All," New York Times, 7 May 2000

Natalie Angier, "Why We're So Nice: We're Wired to Cooperate," New York Times, 23 July 2002

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