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Is realism still relevant today?

Updated on February 29, 2012

First, we must understand that IR is a universal descriptor used to describe a multifaceted and multidisciplinary subject area. And second, we must acknowledge that in international relations, there are contesting theories which seek to simplify and explain the contemporary world of international affairs. The discipline of IR has since been dominated by “Realism” since the dawn of Thucydides, Hobbes and Machiavelli, who placed a strong emphasis on the pessimism of the nature of man, the strength of the state and power. And in order to comprehend why this is, we must first concentrate primarily on the different facets of the realist school of thought and examine its appeal and principle contributions to our understanding of the contemporary world of IR in order to gauge its relevance today.

Realism and realist such as Carr, Morgenthau, Waltz and Kennan have been widely credited for their portrayal of the world i.e. the world as it is rather than as it should be, thus realist focus more on the realities of the system rather instead of relying on an utopian political rhetoric. The theory has been widely used and recognised in IR as it provides us with the more realistic explanation of contemporary IR; it places emphasis on rationality and offers us with an unsentimental pessimistic view of the world. Realism however would drive the agenda- practice must create theory rather than theory creating practice as the failed League of Nations with its spurious belief in that harmony of interests had allowed it to . H.E. Carr’s rhetoric that practice creates theory rather than theory creating practice has had a major impact on the study of IR and state demeanour, it is like saying we didn’t need to learn about evolution in order to evolve. From the end of the Second World War until 1970 90 per cent of data-based studies of international politics were based on realist theoretical assumptions . From this, it is apparent that most states used realist interpretation of the world as realism offered a more practical explanation of the world through its practice creates theory rhetoric.

Is Uncle Sam getting too OLD???
Is Uncle Sam getting too OLD??? | Source

Despite the implications of its name, “Realism”, it is, however, not a monolithic ideology that describes and dominates the field of international relations. Critics have, on occasion, scrutinised and penalised realism for its blatant neglect on the roles of external and internal actors that are having major effect on the international system. As Jack Snyder pointed out that, ‘It is harder for the normally state-centric realist to explain why the world’s only superpower announced a war against Al-Qaeda, a non-state terrorist organization’. Non-state actors have, recently, become increasingly more important and influential in the international system; this may be due to the change of the international system or the lack of sovereignty when dealing with IOs (International Organisations). These external actors are constantly affecting and influencing the behaviour of sovereign states and the international system on matters of both domestic and international affairs such as the stance n climate change; this may be due to the anarchical system realist believe exist, where there is no central-global government presiding over the international system ergo those with more power will go unchallenged. The strong dogmatic emphasis placed by realism on states being the primary actors in international relations is currently and will continue to be undermined by powerful international organizations such as N.A.T.O, who from August 2009 are currently involved in counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, something sovereign states would normally do, or better yet, N.A.T.O who, recently established a “no-fly zone” in Libya 2011. One of the tenets of realism i.e. states are the key actors in IR, does not allow it to comprehend and deal with the notion of why non-state actors are becoming more important and influential in the international stage. Thus this failure of realism to evolve alongside the pragmatic world of IR will make the theory irrelevant due to its inability to combat new threats that are not related to the state, a key example being climate change. The theory fails to explain why sovereign state will willing give up its power to an NGO on grounds of environmental dangers, in the new world of politics, Realism remains nothing more than a relic of the warring states read in history books.

It is a strongly held belief by all realist that states have a monopoly over the use of organization force (I.e. military interventions, war, militia.) but yet an increase in terrorism and insurgency in the world sees a shift from states being the only ones able to use organised force to non-state actors thus from this, it can be deduced that states are no longer the primary actors in IR. This then questions both the effectiveness of realism to properly explain why non-states actors are starting to take centre stage in international relations, and why state functions are being shifted to non-state actors, and if the nature of the international system is changing i.e. is there order, or a declining hierarchy, or just an anarchical system? The inability of realism to study other factors that affect international relations aside from its own core assumptions, will effectively lead to its redundancy as the most widely used theory in IR that gives us an understanding of contemporary international affairs.

Furthermore, famous pluralist Robert Keohane, in his book “After Hegemony”, also offers us his critique of realism on the basis that it has contradictory tendencies that seem to encourage more cooperation rather than coerciveness. Keohane goes on to say that “I’ll propose to show on the basis of their own assumptions that the characteristic pessimism of realism does not necessarily follow. I seek to demonstrate that realist assumption about world politics are consistent with the formation of institutionalized arrangements….which promote cooperation.” Keohane explains that the realist tenet of ‘self-help’ is becoming more and more irrelevant as rational states are making choices to join trading blocs and joint military defence, for example, looking at the European Union -which is very trade oriented- as a prime example, its increase in numbers of member states tells us that the autonomous ‘self-help’ notion imposed by realism is being overshadow by an interdependency of sovereign nation-states and this is as Keohane would suggest that states are acknowledging the benefits of cooperation rather than competition. Complex interdependency theory refers to situations characterised by reciprocal effects among countries or among actors in different countries , respectively, complex interdependence is based on specific characteristics that critique the implicit and explicit assumptions of traditional international politics; (i.e., the superiority of the state and a hierarchy of issues with military force and power the most important leverages in international relations, which traditionally defines political realism in political science) . With new and emerging theories that are aware of the current and pragmatic system of IR, it seems that realism fails to adopt and change in accordance to the system instead of refurbishing the old and calling it new i.e. neo-realism.

In the new political world, is realism service us best as a relic, a foundation of how people used to conducted international relations. Due to its non-pragmatism and its ineffectiveness, realism is unable to explain the contemporary international system i.e. the increased influence of non-state actors and the demise in state-to-state conflict and the increase of state to state dependency. That is not confuse it with incoherence but rather realism is not a magic bullet that can provide us with unblemished answers to contemporary international affairs. Realism is a useful in constructing an understanding of contemporary international affairs as it is simple, rational and practical, in essence, it is warning us to be safe than sorry with its rhetoric that practice makes theory rather than theory creating practice, however a theory that’s unable to combat change and external actors is not fit to be viewed a a tool to help us explain contemporary international relations.


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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      The latest election would prove your point that those who make the numbers and believe that the World thinks like them have no clue of the truth in order to further their agenda.

    • Enock Vera profile imageAUTHOR

      Enock Vera 

      3 years ago from Leicester, United Kingdom


    • profile image

      chrisdad kojo Arthur 

      3 years ago

      this is great ....wonderfully penned

    • Jonas Rodrigo profile image

      Jonas Rodrigo 

      3 years ago

      I think realism still stands as a theory despite war being over and the world in a state of peace. For one thing, it got the analysis of the international system right: it is an anarchic system. International laws, although they exist and are mostly observed, are still non-binding; they do not have a true hold on states.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      very interesting info

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      very interestin

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      very interesting

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Enock Vera: I found this very heavy going. In condensing some doctrine or philosophy like this into a hub article, it becomes a thicket of words through which most uninitiated minds would baulk.

      A mouthful needs biting off and digesting with the spice of additional resources.

      And I'm going to leave it there with an up vote.



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