A Criticism Of Realism Theory Of International Politics Politics Essay

International relations (IR) theories try to provide a conceptual framework for the analysis of international relationship. These theories can be categorized into ‘positivist’ theories and ‘post-positivist’ theories. Positivist theories analysis is mainly focused at state level analysis while the post-positivist focuses expanded meaning of security, ranging from class, gender, to post colonial security (Burchill et al 1996).

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Realism is one of the positivist’s theories and this theory has been a dominant theory since the conception of international relations discipline. The theory claims to base it arguments upon the ancient tradition of thought such as Thucydides. Realism emerged after the outbreak of World War II where realist saw deficiencies of idealistic thinking. Various stand of modern day realist thinking exist but the main strategies of the theory have been defined as statism, self help and survival. In statism, realist see nation state as the main player in international politics. In survival, they see the international system as one being ruled by anarchy thus there exists no central authority, hence international politics is a battle for power between self-interested states. Realists believe in self help and that no other nation can be trusted to guarantee the survival of the state (Liska 1998).

In their analysis for international relations, realist makes several assumptions. They assume that nation-states are unitary, act in a geographical boundary in an international system ruled by anarchy with no authority to regulate relationships between states. They believe n true authoritative world government is in existence. Secondly, they assume that sovereign state rather than international institution are the key actors in international affairs. This means that a state acts as rational autonomy in search of its own self-interest with the main focus being to ensure its security and thus its sovereignty and survival. Realism also believes that as the state pursue their self-interests, they will try to amass resources, and that interactions between states are determined by their levels (relative) of power. State level of power is influenced by its military and economic capabilities. We have offensive realists who believe that states are inwardly aggressive and that enlargement of territorial boundaries is prevented by opposing powers. On the other hand, we have defensive realists who believe in state obsession of security and state existence continuation. The defensive realist can lead to security quagmire where by state Endeavour to increase its security will automatically bring instability as the opponents continue to increase its own arms making security a zero-sum game (Allan 1995).

Realism Verse Other Theories

Although realists does not comprise of a homogeneous school, most of them share five key components about international relations. They view as the central focus the causes of war and the conditions of peace. They also consider the framework of international system as a vital if not always adequate explanation for many aspects of international interactions. Classical realists believe that lack of central authority to resolve dispute is the important feature of the current system, and that it gives rise to the ‘security quagmire’. States seeking o attain their security (self-help interest) leaves its current and potential enemies insecure and this can provide a powerful motivation for arms races and other forms of hostile relations. As result, the question of relative capabilities becomes crucial factor (Krasner 1978).

The other component that unites realists is their focus on geographical positions as the central player in the international relations. Before the treaties of Westphalia, primary entities were city states or empire. Realists also believe that state action is rational and that this notion is guided by the logic of the ‘national interest’ defined by survival, security, power, and relative capabilities. Although state interest may differ according to specific conditions, motive similarity among nations allows the analyst to rebuild the logic of decision makers in their pursuit for state interests. Lastly, the realists believe that state is a unitary actor. State actions are believed to be a response to external forces rather than domestic forces. The external forces are defined by the nature of the international system. This means that a state can be taken as an autonomous player pursuing goals linked with power and the overall interest of the society (Hans 1973).

Realism has been the dominating theory of international relations during and in the past several decades. This is so because it seemed to provide an important framework for understanding the collapse of the post-World War I in the series of aggression from the Far East and Europe, World War II, and the Cold War. However, this theory has received a serious critical scrutiny. The critics of the theory acknowledges the basic components of realism but find that in at least four significant respects this theory lacked adequate precision and rigor (Elman 1996).

Realism has been established on pessimistic theory of human nature, either a Christianity version or secular one. Egoism and self-interest actions are not limited to few wrongs or misdirected leaders but are basic to homo politicus thus are primary to realism. Because human nature is constant, it is inadequate explanation for the full dimension of international relations. For example, if human nature provides an explanation of war and conflict, what would explain peace and cooperation? To avoid this conflict, modern realists have shifted their focus from human nature to the framework of international system for states actions explanation (Krasner 1978).

In addition, critics have cited lack of precision and contradictions in the use of concepts such as ‘power’, ‘national interest’, and ‘balance of power’ by realists. Possible contradictions are also evident between central descriptive and prescriptive components of realism. On one side, states and their leaders act in terms of interests with a definition of power. But on the other hand, citizens are encouraged to practice prudence and self-control as well as to acknowledge the legitimate interests of other states. Power plays a key role in realism but the correlation between power balance and political output is not compelling, calling for an enrichment of other variables in the analysis of international system. Lack of such precision has led to modern realists to find appropriate models, analogies, metaphors, and insights. Their choice is often economics where they have taken a number of instruments and premises such as rational choice, expected utility, theories of firms and marketing, and bargaining theory among others (Snidal 1985).

Focus on the issue of war and peace in realism is by no means misguided, and this is according to proponents of global society, interdependence, and institutionalism theories. These proponents view welfare, modernization, the environment as the important premises of motivation and action. It is significant to point that the potentials for cooperation in action emerge from self-interest, but not on utopian characteristics of altruism to nation leaders. Establishing institution to decrease uncertainty, reduce cost of information, and fear of perfidy, reduction of fears and antagonisms based on misinformation through better international education and communication and the positive cumulative possibilities of such activities are just a few of ways that nations may in togetherness benefit and thus mitigate if not eradicate the harshest components of self-help international system (Slaughter 1995 & Nincic1992).

Knowledge and technology expansion, together with globalization of information passage has increased major expectations. The resulting expectation has overtaken resources and the sovereign capabilities to cope with them in an effective manner. Consequently, this has led to interdependence and institution building of even the most powerful nations to deal, or to do so at agreeable levels of cost and risk, with concerns ranging from trade and terrorism, from resettlement to environmental dangers, and health issues. Maintaining the gap on the critical concerns of increasing the players whose action can have important effect beyond state territory, the total sum impacts of their action can have significant results for the international system. Though nations continue to be the key actor, they have reduced capabilities to determine their destinies. The cumulative actions of many nations can have a significant impact that goes beyond political boundaries. This include know non-state organization such as the petroleum exporting organization and even bad ones such as the Al-Qaeda organization. On the other hand, the total-sum of impacts by less capable actors may also have significant impact of international importance. For example, the action of thousand individuals, mutual funds, and banks among others to sell their securities led to the collapse on the Wall Street and these had effect on the entire global financial system (Waltz 1979 & Bagby 1998).

This inability of getting national solution as proposed by realism has led to creation of new players that goes beyond the national territory; for example the international organizations, non-governmental organization, and multinational corporations among others. Thus, not only does exclusive attention on the war/peace concerns fail to get the complexities of modern international system but it also does not allow the analyst to see the institutions, processes, and rules that self-interested nations may deploy to eradicate or reduce components of anarchy. According to the proponents of interdependence and institutionalism theory, components of realism that is anarchy, self-interest, and rationality can be used as the staring point of analysis of international system, but they are not adequate for clear understanding of such systems. The proponents of interdependence and institutionalism believe that international actions and output come from a multiplicity of motives and not merely on the imperatives power balance in the system. They also highlight the fact that vital international processes come from not only the actions of the nations but also from the combined behavior of the actors. The theories enable the analyst to cope with broader issues and to think on a richer menu of wants, processes, and outcome than would be obtained from realism. They are more focused on the probabilities that politics of trade, currency, immigration, and environment may differ from those linked with security matters (Bagby 1998).

Unlike realism, which perceives nations as unitary players and focus on state capabilities, democratic peace theory (liberalism) believes in state preference and permits plurality in state action. Preferences thus differ from one state to another and this is determined by factors such as culture, economic systems, and governance type. They also believe that relations between states is not limited to security (high politics) but also economy and culture (low politics). Instead of anarchy, there are more opportunities for states cooperation and broader view of power like cultural capital. Democratic peace theory claims that liberal democracies have never been in war with one another and their conflict among them are few. This seem to conflict with realism and has become one of the hottest dispute in political science (Nincic1992). It has been claimed that democracies carry diplomacy in general unlike non-democracies. This is refuted by realists often giving structural reasons for peace as opposed to nation’s government. An example of this criticism is on America’s action towards left-leaning democracies during Cold War in Latin America. One believes is that economic interdependence makes conflict between trading nation unlikely. But realists believe that economic interdependence accelerate rather than reduce the likelihood of war (Keohane et al 1977).


A point of criticism among theorist put together focuses on the significance and future prospects of the nation. Nation act as the starting point for analysis and the focus here is on how self-interested players may pursue benefits and decrease risks and uncertainties by several means, including building of institutions. Though the probability of war among powerful state cannot be ignored and proliferation may put nuclear weapons into the arms of leaders with little stake of status quo maintenance, state interests and understanding of national security have been defined in ways that goes beyond power balance that lie at the center of realism (Slaughter 1995). The growing agenda of state interests together with the trend towards greater democracy around the globe argue that we are entering a period where relative potency of systems and domestic factors in shaping and constraining international relation is moving towards the latter. With the absence of an appropriate model of all season and reason to explain human behavior we must ask one more question: “a model for what purpose”? (Bagby 1998).