IR Theory- Part I(a): Being ‘Realistic’

International Relations (IR) theory is not something you come by every day. In most countries, IR is not offered as a secondary school subject and so often are considered a somewhat less approachable; after all, those who use this area of study in real life are not easy to come by, other than perhaps in the news. However, in an increasingly globalizing society where interactions between states are almost perpetual, it would be absurd to know what kind of international ‘system’ we live by.

Theory of IR often “seeks both to explain past state behavior and to predict future state behavior.”[1] Of course, you must understand that IR is comparatively a new branch of academic research and therefore is a highly controversial subject; even the definition above is likely to be contested by many scholars. Nonetheless, to put simply, Theory of IR strives to provide the basic framework that the states operate in. It can be understood as the ‘rule of the game,’ by which all countries would abide by. This is why Theory of IR is often so controversial- these rules can’t necessarily be applied to every single situation or a country.


“Theory of IR strives to provide the basic framework that the states operate in. It can be understood as the ‘rule of the game,’ by which all countries would abide by.”

In this trilogy series of introductory articles, I will (with my very limited knowledge) try to explain in simplest manner the three main branches of IR Theory: Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism.

As you can guess from the title, Part I of the trilogy is about Realism. Many people mistakenly assume that Realism is a single ‘theory,’ but it is not. Rather, it is an ‘approach’; it has a collection of conditions that the theories adopting Realist approach assumes. More specifically, this post will briefly outline the main assumptions that Realists make.

The most basic assumption that is often the most contested one is the one that states that states (nations) are most important units in International Relations. Although it may seem obvious that this is true considering the name itself (inter”national” relations), such assumption overlooks non-state actors, such as the United Nations or WHO that are increasingly becoming the important players in today’s International Relations.

The second assumption that Realism makes is that the only goal of the states is survival. Of course, this statement would mean a whole range of things depending on how “survival” is defined; nonetheless, the Realists view the world as a system governed by anarchy, meaning that there is no true central world government ruling over all states. Based upon this worldview, Realists assume that consequently all states ultimately aims to achieve and maintain power.

The final assumption that the Realists make is that a state cannot depend on other states; it emphasizes the inevitable self-reliance of the states, meaning that no state can rely on other states to guarantee its survival.

I’m sure that as you are reading this, you’ll be able to think of many examples and arguments that prove these assumptions wrong. However, bear in mind that this is only the assumptions of a single school of thought and that there are many sub-theories that try to make up for such flaws. In the next post, I’ll outline the key concepts and ideas that arise from these assumptions and brief introductions of different theories that use the Realist approach. That might help explain why Realism is still the dominant school of thought in International Relations.





[1] Cristol, J. (2011). International Relations Theory. Oxford Bibliographies Online Datasets. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Jul. 2016].

*Photo Credit: Taken by Maarten van den Heuvel. Provided by Unsplash. Uploaded on 11 March, 2016. Available at:


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