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].


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: