Mar 3, 2006

Basic International Relations Theory

Realism, Liberalism, Marxism and some others in international relations.


The term realism comes from the German compound word "Realpolitik", from the words "real" (meaning "realistic", "practical", or "actual") and "politik" (meaning "politics"). It focuses on the balance of power among nation-states. Realpolitik is foreign policy based on practical concerns (political expediency) rather than ideals or ethics.

Bismarck coined the term after following Metternich's lead in finding ways to balance the power of European empires. Balancing power meant keeping the peace, and careful realpolitik practioners tried to avoid arms races. However, during the early-20th Century, arms races (and alliances) occurred anyway, culminating in World War I.

Various political science schools of thought rely on an analysis of political actions as realpolitik, most notably the Realist and Marxian schools. In the "realist school" of Anglo-Saxon Political Science of the late 20th century this term is mostly used as a synonym for power politics. The policy of Realpolitik was formally introduced to the Nixon White House by Henry Kissinger. In this context, the policy meant dealing with other powerful nations in a practical manner rather than on the basis of political doctrine or ethics — for instance, Nixon's diplomacy with the People's Republic of China, despite the U.S.'s purported opposition to communism and the previous doctrine of containment. Another example is Kissinger's 'green lighting' of dictator Suharto's invasion of East Timor.

In Germany, the term Realpolitik is more often used to distinguish modest (realistic) politics from overzealeous (unrealistic) politics. That Prussia didn't demand territory from defeated Austria-Hungary provided the impetus for coining this term, as was the sometimes very slow or indirect steps towards German unification under Prussia. Realistic compromises are reached instead of clinging to values like justice or nationalism.

Basic theory

Fundamental principles common to realist theories:

1.The international system is anarchical.

2.Sovereign states are the principal actors in the international system.
1.Dismissal of the independent influence of international organizations, sub-state, or trans-state actors.
2.Focus on the primary importance of nationalism, as opposed to sub-national groupings, or transnational ideological of cultural groupings.

3.States are rational actors, acting in their national interest.
1.Distrust of long-term cooperation or alliance.

4.The overriding goal of each state is its own security and survival.
1.Fundamental nature of the security dilemma.

5.State survival is guaranteed best by power, principally military in character.
1.Focus on relative power (i.e. "zero sum") versus absolute power.

Realism makes several key assumptions. Primarily, it assumes that mankind is not inherently benevolent and kind but self centered and competitive, in contrast to other theories of international relations such as Liberalism. It also fundamentally assumes that the international system is anarchic, in the sense that there is no authority above states capable of regulating their interactions; states must arrive at relations with other states on their own, rather than it being dictated to them by some higher controlling entity (that is, no true authoritative world government exists). It also assumes that sovereign states, rather than international institutions, non-governmental organizations, or multinational corporations, are the primary actors in international affairs. According to realism, each state is a rational actor that always acts towards its own self-interest, and the primary goal of each state is to ensure its own security. Realism holds that in pursuit of that security, states will attempt to amass resources, and that relations between states are determined by their relative level of power. That level of power is in turn determined by the state's capabilities, both military and economic.

Moreover, Realists believe that states are inherently aggressive (offensive realism), and that territorial expansion is only constrained by opposing power(s). This aggressive build-up, however, leads to a security dilemma where increasing one's own security can bring along greater instability as the opponent(s) builds up its own arms. Thus, security is a zero-sum game where only relative gains can be made.

There are two sub-schools of realism: maximal realism and minimal realism:

The theory of maximal realism holds that the world order centers on the hegemon, the most powerful entity in the world, and that smaller entities will align themselves with the hegemon out of political self-interests. Under maximal realism, the position where there are simultaneously two equally powerful co-hegemons (such as was the case during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union) is an inherently unstable one and that situation will inevitably collapse into a more stable state where one nation is more powerful and one is less powerful.

The theory of minimal realism holds that non-hegemonic states will ally against the hegemon in order to prevent their own interests from being subsumed by the hegemon's interests. Under the minimal-realism theory it is possible to have two equally powerful co-hegemons with whom a smaller entity may ally in turn depending on which hegemon better fits with the smaller entity's policies at the moment (playing both sides against the middle).

Thus, maximal realism predicts that the most common state of world politics is a hegemonic order, and minimal realism predicts a carefully maintained balance of power. The difference in application can be seen, for instance, in the post-Cold War period. Many minimal realists predicted that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Europe and Japan would move away from the remaining superpower, the United States. Maximal realists tended to predict that most countries would seek stronger ties with the U.S.

There is also a distinction between structural realism and liberal realism:
The former emphasize the permanent condition of conflict. Thus, to ensure state security, states must be on constant preparation for conflict through economic and military build-up.

The latter holds that while the system is anarchical, through diplomacy, international law and society, order can be promoted. (English School) This gives credence to establish IGOs such as the United Nations.

History of realism

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, is also cited as an intellectual forebearer of realpolitik.

One of the most famous proponents was Niccolò Machiavelli, best known for his Il Principe (The Prince) (pb.1532). Machiavelli held that the sole aim of a prince was to seek power, regardless of religious or ethical considerations.

Machiavelli's ideas were further expanded and implemented by Cardinal Richelieu and his raison d'etat in the Thirty Years War.

Otto von Bismarck coined the term 'balance of power' after following Prince Klemens von Metternich's lead in finding ways to balance the power of European empires. Balancing power meant keeping the peace, and careful realpolitik practitioners tried to avoid arms races. However, during the early 20th century, realpolitik was abandoned for the doctrine of "Weltpolitik" and arms races and alliances increased, culminating in World War I.

Structural or Neo-realism

Neo-Realism resembles Classical Realism on most accounts. However, Neo-Realism predominantly focuses on the international system rather than human nature. While states remain the principal actors, greater attention is given to the forces above and below the states through a Levels of Analysis or Structure-Agency debate - with the international system as a structure acting on the state and individuals below the level of the state acting as agency on the state as a whole

Criticisms of realism

Several critiques were raised against the realist school. One problem is that there are in fact authorities above states capable of regulating inter-state relations. There are organizations like the U.N., WTO, ISO as well as multitudes of multinational organizations and companies. While none of these organization has the powers of a full government, they do have a considerable influence over the actions of states. According to this view, American efforts to receive U.N. support for the invasion of Iraq illustrate the power of the U.N. Had the U.N. no power, as realists would claim, it would have never played any role in the run-up to the war. Further criticism of political realism says that realism has an incorrect concept of a state. States are not actors but rather large organizations. It is impossible, say the critics, to understand international relations without making this distinction. An illustration of this phenomenon can be found in the difficulties involving signing the CAFTA. In particular, the agreement was ratified by United States Senate only after a considerable delay and uncertainty about the outcome.

With increased globalization, some argue that the statist nature of realism has proven wrong, as states cannot be considered as unitary actors in pursuit of rational self-interest. Examples include the reality that many states have an economy smaller than many multinational corporations (MNCs) and some MNCs even employ their own quasi-military forces to protect their own installations and thus are more powerful than the state. Realists maintain that MNCs are legitimized by other states and thus cannot be considered as independent entities. Yet, this places doubt on the state as a unitary actor - as surely interaction between non-state actors (for example, between MNCs) is becoming increasingly commonplace.

Critics also argue that the success of the European Union (EU) shows that states are capable of cooperation and indeed the European Union is an example of a supranational government - above the level of the state. Realists respond that as the divisions within the EU on everything from agreeing on a constitution to agricultural policies, states may just be joining in pursuit of their own rational self-interest. Yet, laws of the European Parliament and court decisions of European Courts are applicable across all EU nations - suggesting that the EU is indeed a supranational government rather than an IGO.


Liberalism holds that state preferences, rather than state capabilities, are the primary determinant of state behavior. Unlike realism where the state is seen as a unitary actor, liberalism allows for plurality in state actions. Thus, preferences will vary from state to state, depending on factors such as culture, economic system or government type. Liberalism also holds that interaction between states is not limited to the political (high politics), but also economic (low politics) whether through commercial firms, organizations or individuals. Thus, instead of an anarchic international system, there are plenty of opportunities for cooperation and broader notions of power, such as cultural capital (for example, the influence of American films leading to the popularity of American culture and creating a market for American exports worldwide). Another assumption is that absolute gains can be made through co-operation and interdependence - thus peace can be achieved.

Many different strands of liberalism have emerged; some include commercial liberalism, liberal institutionalism, idealism, and regime theory. Two forms of liberalism predominate, liberal internationalism and idealism:

The former suggests that with the right factors, the international system provides opportunities for cooperation and interaction. Examples include the successful integration of Europe through the European Union or regional blocs and economic agreements such as ASEAN or NAFTA. Ramifications of this view is that if states cannot cooperate, they ought to be curbed; whether through economic sanctions or military action. For example, before the invasion of Iraq by the United States and United Kingdom in 2003, the governments' claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction could be seen as claims that Iraq is a bad state that needs to be curbed rather than an outright danger to American or European security. Thus, the invasion could be seen as curbing a bad state under liberal internationalism. A variant is Neo-liberal institutionalism (USA) which shifts back to a state-centric approach, but allows for pluralism through identifying and recognizing different actors, processes and structures.

The latter holds a view to promote a more peaceful world order through international organizations or IGOs; for example, through the United Nations (UN).


In the study of international relations (IR), neoliberalism refers to a school of thought which believes that nation-states are, or at least should be, concerned first and foremost with absolute gains (economic, strategic, etc.), rather than relative gains to other nation-states. The notion is often connected with neoliberal economic theory. Neoliberal IR thinkers often employ game theory to explain why states do or do not cooperate.
When initially conceived, Neoliberalism was considered as a response to Neorealism and shares its most important assumptions; that the state is the most important actor in world politics and that the international system is anarchic which shapes the behaviour of states. Essentially where the two theories differ is the determination of what sort of behaviour international anarchy force states to engage in. The debate between the practitioners of both Neoliberalism and Neorealism in the 1980's is considered one of the great debates that have helped defined the discipline.

In terms of the scope of international theory, the debate between Neoliberalism and Neorealism is an inter paradigm one, as both theories are positivist and focus mainly on state as the primary unit of analysis. However, this should not detract from the importance of the debate between these two poles in the dominant paradigm that is Realism, as both Neoliberalism and Neorealism have contributed most literature to the discipline of international relations in the last 20 years.
Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye are considered the founders of this school of thought; their joint book After Hegemony is a classic of the genre. Another major influence is the hegemonic stability theory of Stephen Krasner, Charles Kindelberger, and others.
A prominent strain of neoliberalism, known as neoliberal institutionalism or "regime theory," seeks to explain how NGOs and other international organizations can facilitate interstate cooperation, as well as how they can reinforce the existing balance of power.


Marxist and Neo-Marxist international relations theories are positivist paradigms which reject the realist/liberal view of state conflict or cooperation; instead focusing on the economic and material aspects. It makes the assumption that the economic trumps other concerns; allowing for the elevation of class as the focus of study. Marxists view the international system as an integrated capitalist system in pursuit of capital accumulation. Thus, the period of colonialism brought in sources for raw materials and captive markets for exports, while decolonialization brought new opportunities in the form of dependence.

Marxist theories receive scant attention in the United States where no significant socialist party ever existed. They are more common in parts of Europe and elsewhere.

Dependency theory

Linked in with Marxist theories is dependency theory which argues that developed countries, in their pursuit of power, penetrate developing states through political advisors, missionaries, experts and MNCs to integrate them into the integrated capitalist system in order to appropriate natural resources and foster dependence by developing countries on developed countries.


In his book "What is to be Done?" (1903), Lenin argued that the proletariat can only achieve a successful revolution consciousness through the efforts of a Communist party that assumes the role of "revolutionary vanguard." Lenin further believed that such a party could only achieve its aims through a form of disciplined organization known as "democratic centralism," where Communist Party officials elected democratically, but once they are elected and other decisions are made through voting, all party members must follow the decisions that have been made.
Lenin expanded on Marx's initial theories, taking into account the fact that increasing class polarization and Communist revolution had failed to occur in the developed world. Lenin liked Marx's basic definition of communism and believed it would lead to the spread of Marxism. He attempted to explain this by stating that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, and that developed countries had created a labor aristocracy content with capitalism by exploiting the developing world. He maintained that capitalism could only be overthrown by revolutionary means, but added that due to imperialism such a revolution would have to occur in a lesser-developed country first, (the 'weakest link in the system of imperialism' in his terminology), such as Russia. Lenin also supported the Marxist concept of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" following revolution. Lenin's dictatorship of proletariat was based on predominant representation of industrial workers in government institutions, although the country was mostly agrarian. According to Lenin's ideas, the working class is democratically represented through local workers', soliders' and peasants' councils known as soviets. Because the soviets are elected, they are referred to as soviet democracy.

Knowing that according to Marx's theories, a socialist system would be unable to develop independently in an underdeveloped country such as Russia, Lenin proposed two possible solutions:

1.The revolution in the underdeveloped country sparks off a revolution in a developed capitalist country (for example, Lenin hoped the Russian Revolution would spark a revolution in Germany.) The developed country establishes socialism and helps the underdeveloped country do the same.

2.The revolution happens in a large number of underdeveloped countries at the same time or in quick succession; the underdeveloped countries then join together into a federal state capable of overcoming the opposition of capitalist countries and establishing socialism. This was the original idea behind the foundation of Lenin's Russia later renamed the Soviet Union to demonstrate to the rest of the world the validity of his control.

Either way, according to Marxism, socialism cannot survive in one poor underdeveloped country alone. Thus, Lenin called for world revolution in one form or another. His theoretical successors had to fit to his theory the fact that the world revolution never happened.

Lenin's contributions to Marxist theory are controversial; some have criticized them as revisionist. Some philosophers explain the theories of Marx's ideological successors, such as Lenin, as an attempt to modify the theory because it had made predictions that had never came true. Still, Lenin's theories had a dramatic impact on Communist movements worldwide. It is especially significant, that Lenin was the most successful practitioner of Marxism. The influence of Leninist ideology has waned since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there are still Leninists today who have focused their criticism on globalization, claiming it is a modern-day form of imperialism.


Idealism in international relations usually refers to the school of thought personified in American diplomatic history by Woodrow Wilson, such that it is sometimes referred to as Wilsonianism. Idealism holds that a state should make its internal political philosophy the goal of its foreign policy. For example, an idealist might believe that ending poverty at home should be coupled with tackling poverty abroad. Wilson's idealism was a precursor to liberal international relations theory, which would arise amongst the "institution-builders" after World War II.

Idealism is also marked by the prominent role played by international law and international organizations in its conception of policy formation. One of the most well-known tenets of modern idealist thinking is Democratic Peace Theory, which holds that states with similar modes of democratic governance do not fight one another. Wilson's idealistic thought was embodied in his Fourteen points speech, and in the creation of the ill-fated League of Nations.

Idealism transcends the left-right political spectrum. Idealists can include both human rights campaigners (traditionally, but not always, associated with the left) and American neoconservatism which is usually associated with the right.


Neoconservatism drew from Liberalism its intense focus on the promotion of "universal values", in this case democracy, human rights, free trade, women's rights, and minority protections. However, it differs in that instead of building institutions or negotiating treaties, neoconservatism eschews international institutions and treaties while pursuing assertive or aggressive stances, and is willing to use force or the threat of force, unilaterally if necessary, to push for its goals.

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