In an era of globalization and ever-expanding international organizations, is the study of realism in international relations still relevant? According to many scholars, the answer is a resounding yes. In this post, we’ll explore some of the key ideas behind realism and discuss why this approach to political thought remains as relevant as ever.
What is Realism?
Realism is a school of thought in international relations theory that emphasizes the role of power in global politics. Realists believe that nations are primarily concerned with ensuring their own security and preserving their own sovereignty, and they view other countries as potential threats to be managed rather than as partners to be cooperated with. As such, realists tend to advocate for a strong military and a cautious approach to foreign policy.
The Origins of Realism
Realism emerged as a response to the idealistic perspective that dominated international relations theory in the aftermath of World War II. Idealists believed that war was not an inevitable part of global politics and that international organizations could play a role in preventing future conflicts. However, the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 called this optimistic view into question, and scholars began to reassess the importance of power in global politics. From this reassessment grew the realist school of thought.
Key Figures in Realist Thought
Some of the most important figures in realism include Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, and John Mearsheimer. Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, first published in 1948, is considered one of the classic texts of realism. In it, Morgenthau lays out six principles of political realism that continue to shape realist thinking today.
Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, published in 1979, built on Morgenthau’s work by developing a structural approach to realism. Waltz argued that the anarchic structure of the international system—i.e., the absence of a central authority capable of enforcing rules and regulations—is the main source of conflict in world politics.
Mearsheimer’s article “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” published in 2001, applied Waltz’s structural approach to realism to explain why major powers have always been inclined to view each other with suspicion and fear.
Why is Realism Still Relevant Today?
In spite of its critics—and there are many—realism remains one of the most influential approaches to understanding international politics. This is due largely to its continued relevance to contemporary issues and problems. For instance, realist thought can help us make sense of America’s recent withdrawal from multilateral agreements like the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. It can also help us understand why tensions between China and its smaller neighbors continue to escalate despite Beijing’s efforts to project a peaceful image on the global stage.
Whether you agree with it or not, there’s no denying that realism has had a profound impact on our understanding of international politics. As we enter an era characterized by mounting geopolitical tensions and growing economic uncertainty, it’s more important than ever to consider how power shapes global affairs—and that’s something that realist thought can help us do.