IR Theory-Part I(c): Different ‘Realities’

Although the last two articles made may have made you believe that ‘realism’ is a single set of ideas, the reality is that there exist different theories that branch off from this school of IR theory. Yes, realism isn’t a single theory; it’s more like a family name than a first name when likened to humans. While Jack Smith and Jill Smith are two different individuals, they share some common characteristics because they belong to the same family. Similarly, there are lots of different individuals within the realism family. In this article, some of the most vocal ones will be introduced.


  1. Classical Realism

As you can guess from its name, classical realism is the oldest one in the realism family. Realists argue that the theory originated from Thucydides’ classic account of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth-century B.C., so you get the sense of how old this theory is.[1]

Put simply, classical realism argues that states fight each other all the time (or are preparing to fight each other all the time) due to innate human nature. Since the law of politics originates from human nature, and because at the human core is the universal, insatiable lust for power, this greedy characteristic is similarly applied to the state (which is in a way, a collection of many human individuals). This explains why states fight each other all the time; for war is a way of exerting and increasing the ‘power’ of a state. Thus, Hans J. Morgenthau, who is arguably the most famous and influential modern theorist of classical realism stated, “international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.”[2] Due to this aggressive human nature, classical realism aims to explain and advise foreign affair by associating most issues with the politics of war (that is, all foreign affairs during peacetime is regarded only as an effort to prevent or win a war).

Another defining characteristic of classical realism is its differentiation between ‘status-quo’ and ‘revisionist’ powers. The ‘status-quo’ powers, as its name suggests, aims to maintain the ‘status-quo’; these states want the current favorable power structure to stay and resists possible rivals that may threaten the existing power system. These ‘rivals’ would be the revisionist states; these are states that want to change the current power structure so that it is more favorable to them. Revisionist states typically use aggressive and expansionary foreign policy to this end.


  1. Neorealism

While neorealism makes all the same assumptions as classical realism does, it places the primary cause for power struggles not in human/state nature but in the nature of the international system. The theory argues that it is the absence of a world government and the resulting anarchy that causes tension and rivalries; being forced to ensure its own safety, states have nothing to rely on other than their own military force. This leaves them no choice but to either build up their military capacity to be able to defend itself or attack their rival first to get rid of them.


“In short, states are simply obeying the law of the jungle.”

The key concepts that we talked about in the last article, such as the balance of power and security dilemma derive from this neorealist focus on anarchy. States do not go to war with each other because they are naturally greedy, but because they are forced to in their attempt to secure their survival. In short, states are simply obeying the law of the jungle. It is the lack of trust that compels states to make an error of judgement out of fear, not out of ambition for world dominion. Hence why neorealism also does not make a distinction between ‘status-quo’ and ‘revisionist’ power, because the characteristics and aims of a state do not matter in the issue of survival; regardless of their position in the world order and the existing power structure, all states will choose what they deem best for their survival.


  1. Liberal Realism

Amongst the ever-pessimistic picture of an international system where war and tension are inevitably constant, liberal realism presents a slightly more positive view of the world. While it makes all the regular realist assumptions that international system is anarchic and that power struggles form the core of a state’s foreign policy. However, liberal realists argue that states can develop a certain set of ‘rules’ by sharing a set of common interests, which Hendley Bull thought was “fear of unrestricted violence.”[3]

It is this common factor that allows states to escape from their ever-present anxiety about being attacked; when a group of states agrees upon a common goal they can form an international society with norms that each member state follows to be a part of. While similarly to neorealist theories states are still governed by anarchy and driven by fear in their foreign policy, liberal realists argue that it is possible for them to achieve peace by founding and maintaining this international society because “it pays to make the system work.”[4]

Although there are other realist theories that I haven’t covered (such as neoclassical realism), just by looking at these three theories you can know how even within a single school of thought numerous different voices exist. Realism has been the dominant school of thought in IR theory discipline for a long time, and it (although it is debatable) continues to be. Next, you can at last cheer up a bit because we’re exploring a more optimisitic school of thought- Liberalism.


*Photo credit: Максим Лунгу, uploaded on 15 June 2016, provided via Unsplash. Available at


[1] Comparing and Contrasting Classical Realism and Neorealism (ARASH HEYDARIAN PASHAKHANLOU)

[2]Hans J. Morgenthau Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (1948)

[3] Bull, Hedley (1977). The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. London: Macmillan.

[4] Adam Watson, The Evolution of International Society, 1992, p. 14.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s