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An Introduction to Realism

Michelle Liou

Posted on November 7, 2020 04:54

8 users

In international relations, there are three major schools of thought: realism, liberalism, and constructivism. Due to my limited knowledge of constructivism, I would only be touching on the philosophies of realism and liberalism in this short series, both of which are still very relevant to today's world.

To summarize realism in one sentence, it is a school of thought that accentuates the competitive and conflictual side of international relations.

The roots of realism are often said to go as far as 431 B.C.E, in Thucydides' writings. Realism became more evident in the 17th century, notably manifesting in philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. In his book, "The Prince," Machiavelli makes the claims: 

1. "War is the sole Art of the Prince"
2. "It is much safer to be feared than to be loved"
3. "The ends justify the means"

Essentially, Machiavelli called for an efficient and capable ruler as opposed to a moral one. Machiavelli's ideas paved the way for Realpolitik, which is diplomacy based not on moral principles but on a set of factors in a given situation (how the other actor is acting). Today, the Realpolitik statesmanship of early modern Europe is formalized theoretically by realism. 

Modern-day international relations scholar John Mearsheimer provides five assumptions and three resulting behaviors under a realist framework.

Five Assumptions

1. States are the key actors in an anarchic system. Other bodies like organizations and individuals have limited power. 
2. All states have some offensive military capabilities, while others have a lot.
3. It is impossible to know the intentions of other states with any degree of certainty.
4. Survival is the principal goal of states.
5.States are rational actors; they act strategically in pursuit of their goal (making your state weak would not be a rational action).

Three Resulting Behaviors

1. States fear each other, although the level of fear varies case by case.
2. States understand it is a self-help world 
3. States attempt to maximize the amount of world power they control 

Generally, realism emphasizes competition and conflict rather than cooperation. In the context of international relations, since states live in a context of anarchy in which there is no international authority, they can only rely on themselves. Using realism, one can "predict" both the actions of major world powers and smaller powers. For example, Mearsheimer argues that war with China is inevitable under realism. Mearsheimer believes that China seeks to survive in an anarchic world by gaining regional dominance in Asia — resembling the United States' hegemony in the western hemisphere. To prevent China from securing regional hegemony and to maintain unipolarity (a world in which there is only one great power that faces no competition), the United States will try to contain China. However, Mearsheimer predicts that this containment strategy will not stop an escalation to a direct conflict. Mearsheimer's hypothesis seems to be coming true, as tensions between the U.S. and China continue to rise day by day.  

To learn more about realism and its role on the international stage, I suggest listening to some of John Mearsheimer's lectures on Youtube. If you prefer an in-depth analysis of international relations through the lens of a realist, I also recommend Mearsheimer's "The Great Delusion" and "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics."

Michelle Liou

Posted on November 7, 2020 04:54

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Source: Phys.org

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