IR Theory- Part I(b): Realistic Worldview


In the last article, we looked at the very basic assumptions that a realist IR scholar would make. This time, we’re going to go a little further to find out how the actual painting looks within the realist frame(work).

Based on the three main assumptions (Quick recap- 1. States are most important units 2. The only goal of a state is survival because the world is anarchic 3. A state should be self-reliant), a few key concepts have emerged within this school of thought. I’ll introduce some of the most famous ones, but keep in mind that there are so many concepts that this article won’t be able to cover.

  1. State of War

In a realist world where no one central government exists (is in a state of anarchy), it is impossible for states to trust each other; after all, Sun Tzu says that to win a war, you should “appear where you are not expected.”[1] The anxiety and suspicion that “they” could be secretly plotting against “us” always instigated the leader to prepare for war even in times of peace.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who is essentially the founder of the Realist school of thought, linked this absence of trust within the international community with what he called the ‘state of war’ in his work Leviathan. In his work, he eloquently sums up this idea in a slightly more sophisticated language:

During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man. [2]

Hobbes argued that it is the natural ‘state of men’ that we live in constant fear of someone else harming us, and this fear encourages nations to be suspicious and wary of each other, even if they are having a tea party after signing a free trade agreement.


Suspicion and fear always give rise to insecurity and vulnerability

  1. Security Dilemma

Now, this one core ‘nature of men’ that makes us suspicious of each other leads to most ironical situations. Suspicion and fear always give rise to insecurity and vulnerability; hence why states would start building up their military, economic or technological strength just in case someone might start a war. The only problem is, often such a build-ups are hard to keep as a secret. The other states are bound to notice this change- and what would be the most rational choice for them? To build up such capabilities themselves.

It is from this simple (almost stupid) problem that the security dilemma occurs; although neither states wish to go to war with each other, while in the process of preparing for a potential war due to their insecurity they actually provoke the other state militarily. Which is kind of understandable- let’s be honest, if our neighbor one day buys a canon and sets it up in their front yard pointing towards our house, we’d feel threatened too.


  1. Balance of Power

Now, based on these two concepts we can easily formulate one question- how in the world did we manage to not wipe each other out yet? Fortunately, there’s such a thing called the balance of power.

The basic idea is that humans are very good at calculating risks. If the chance that you’ll win is 50:50, you’re less likely to go for an “ALL-IN,” and going to a war is almost like betting all your money plus your life. So states would only go to war if they believe that they will win by a certain percentage, and what balance of power does is it makes the outcome of war harder to predict.

Take, for example, if you have 7 tanks and 100 soldiers while your neighbor has 2 tanks and 20 soldiers, you’d be rational to assume that you’re more likely to be victorious if you were to go to war with her. However, what if your neighbor is an ally with another guy who has 4 tanks and 70 soldiers? You’re still superior to the two together, but now the chances of your victory have decreased significantly. Will you still take the risk?

This way, states with similar capabilities rarely go to war with each other, because they’re scared that they might lose.


Please note that the concepts introduced in this article are not facts; they are merely theories from a single school of thought in one discipline. However, it is surely interesting to see some real-life examples where this theory can be used to explain. If you can think of one, please leave in the comments below!

In the next article, we’ll try to be more ‘sophisticated’ and explore different theories within the realist school of thought; be prepared for some interesting contradictions!

*Photo Credit: Photo by Dmitry Ratushny, uploaded on 13 February, 2016 / provided by Unsplash, available at:


[2]Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan. 1st ed. [ebook] London: Green Dragon in St. Pauls Chuch-yard, p.77. Available at: [Accessed 5 Aug. 2016].


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