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The Theory of Realism. RealPolitik or Power Politics. The tenets of realism go back several centuries and appear to many over time as eternal truths. We see much commonality in both ancient and modern thinking about international relations.

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the theory of realism

The Theory of Realism

RealPolitik or Power Politics

slide2

The tenets of realism go back several centuries and appear to many over time as eternal truths.

  • We see much commonality in both ancient and modern thinking about international relations.
  • Modern diplomacy is still often based on Realist theory.
slide3

Realist thinkers include:

Sun Tzu (Ancient China)

Thucydides (Ancient Greece)

Machiavelli (Medieval Italy)

Thomas Hobbes (civil war torn England)

Mao Tse Tung (Communist China)

Hans J. Morgenthau (USA 1950s)

They have all come to similar conclusions about the characteristics of the international system that can be grouped together as the theory of realism.

slide4

Realism is a theory based on power politics

Main Assumptions:

States are most important actors

Unitary-Rational Decision-making

International system is anarchic and conflict-prone: often zero-sum situations

All States must pursue power to survive

States balance against threats

Morality has no place in international politics

International politics more important than domestic politics.

Value Relative over Absolute Gains

slide5

Why do Realists claim that states must pursue power or that morality has no place in world politics?

  • The world is anarchic and it is a self-help system. To survive states must pursue power.
  • Also, if there is no higher authority, then there is no international law that states must abide by.
slide6

Why is international politics seen as more important than domestic politics by Realists?

  • If you do not take care of international politics, there may no longer be any domestic politics. This is a point made by Machiavelli.
  • Domestic politics is only important to the extent that it strengthens or weakens a state.
  • Also, since states are essentially the same, domestic regime type and institutions do not matter much for world politics.
slide7

Anarchy makes conflict in the system inevitable. Realists understand the implications of the security dilemma but see them as unavoidable. Anarchy forces states to compete against each other in a self-help system.

To survive, states must try to increase their power by:

Internal development

Conquest

Alliances (balancing)

slide8

Power:

  • A central concept in international relations.
  • Level of power affects state strategies and outcomes of various contests (military conflicts, economic conflicts, and other negotiations.
slide9

Power is both built on tangible and intangible attributes.

  • Power leads to influence. Power helps a country win international contests.
  • Concept used often by diplomats and other analysts to compare countries.
  • Power is relative, not absolute. We can only say that the United States is powerful compared to others, for example.
attributes of power
Attributes of Power
  • Military capabilities (troops, technology)
  • Size of economy (GDP),
  • Sophistication of economy and technology
  • Population,
  • Geography (few borders, mountains, location)
  • Internal cohesion (stability)
  • Patriotism
  • Natural resources (oil, minerals, food)
  • Reputation
  • Education, information
  • Alliances (sometimes unpredictable).
slide11

Some of these attributes are tangible, such as military capabilities and natural resources, while others are intangible such as patriotism and reputation.

  • Thus, sometimes it is difficult ranking states by power.
  • For example, why did USA lose the Vietnam war??
slide12

What makes some countries superpowers?

  • Superpowers are very strong countries that can project their power around the world.
  • By power projection we mean the ability to deploy troops around the world as well as deliver a full-scale nuclear attack.
slide13

Such capabilities require a sophisticated economy and society. Presently, only the United States can be classified as a superpower.

  • The Soviet Union was a superpower until the collapse of its economy and communism (1990), which greatly eroded Russia’s ability to field a large army and navy.
rationality and decision making
Rationality and Decision-making
  • Assumption that actors are rational
  • Actors must know what is in their best interest
  • Actors know how to maximize utility
  • Choose ranked options that maximize utility
  • In IR, states are often assumed to be unitary rational actors
rationality and realism
Rationality and Realism
  • To Realists, Rationality means to value short-term over long-term calculations due to insecurity.
  • Value Relative gains over Absolute gains.
    • Absolute gains = both sides in a relationship gain something.
    • Relative gains = both sides gain something but one actor gains more.
the balance of power

The Balance of power

To deter aggression by others, states balance against each other so no one country becomes too strong.

slide18

Realists typically focus on the balance of power, which may be regional or sometimes used to discuss a dyad of two countries.

The Concert of Europe that emerged after the Napoleonic Wars is a good example.

Problem: The balance of power seems bound to fail in the long-run and could be said to only delay war. Some Realists would disagree.

However, the concept is rather difficult to define and this part of the theory difficult to test.

slide19

Realists believe that power imbalances lead to war since powerful states, unchecked, will try to acquire more power.

  • Balancing by forming alliances with other states is the quickest way to check the power of potentially aggressive states.
neo realism
Neo-Realism

Why reform Realism?

slide21

Neo-Realism (Waltz) borrows many of the traditional assumptions of Realism. Differences:

  • System structure dictates the environment of international interactions.
  • System structure is determined by polarity – number of major powers.
  • States are mostly defensive in nature.
  • Bipolar systems are more stable than multi-polar systems – balancing more effective and predictable.
what do you think about realism
What do you think about Realism?
  • Relevant or Accurate?
  • Logical?
  • Assumptions useful, such as unitary-rational actors?
  • Role of domestic politics?
  • Morality?
  • Does Anarchy really make conflict inevitable?
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