Realism can be defined according to various disciplines but In International Relations, political realism is a tradition of analysis that stresses the imperatives states face to pursue a power politics of the national interest. Political realism or realpolitik is the one of the oldest and most frequently used theories in international relations when dealing with different views or even vastly, Foreign policy.

In defining the concept of Realism, we take into notice the differences ascribed by different scholars as we take some of their definitions into note. Realists emphasize the constraints on politics imposed by human selfishness (‘egoism’) and the absence of international government (‘anarchy’), which require ‘the primacy in all political life of power and security’ (Gilpin 1986: 305). Rationality and state-centrism are frequently identified as core realist premises (e.g. Keohane 1986: 164–5). Realists, although recognizing that human desires range widely and are remarkably variable, emphasize ‘the limitations which the sordid and selfish aspects of human nature place on the conduct of diplomacy’ (Thompson 1985: 20). As Machiavelli puts it, in politics we must act as if ‘all men are wicked and that they will always give vent to the malignity that is in their minds when opportunity offers’ (1970: Book I, Chapter 3). A few theorists (e.g. Niebuhr 1932; Tellis 1995/6: 89–94) adopt realism as a general theory of politics. Most, however, treat realism as a theory of international politics. This shifts our attention from human nature to political structure. ‘The difference between civilization and barbarism is a revelation of what is essentially the same human nature when it works under different conditions’ (Butterfield 1949: 31). ‘Strong’ realists stress the predominance of power, self-interest and conflict but allow modest space for politically salient ‘non-realist’ forces and concerns. Carr, Morgenthau and Waltz, the leading realists of their generations, all lie in this range of the continuum. As Carr puts it, ‘we cannot ultimately find a resting place in pure realism’. This depicts the vast and complicated nature of the realist theory but yet also depicts the importance of the same theory in securing goals rather than moral appreciation.


In explaining the arguments on realism, we look at scholars and their impact on the field of this concept. For instance, we look at Hobbes and Classical realism. Chapter 13 of Thomas Hobbes leviathan imagines politics in a pre-social state of nature. Hobbes declares that in the state of nature, Men are equal, they interact in anarchy and are driven by competition, diffidence and glory. The conjunction of these conditions leads to a war of all against all. Men are equal in the elemental sense that ‘the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others from this equality of ability arises equality of hope in the attaining of our ends’. I’m as good as you are and thus ought to have (at least) as much as you. But scarcity prevents each from having as much as he desires – which makes men enemies. This according to Hobbes is one of the main factors that rule the state of nature. Hobbes acknowledges that such a savage state does not apply to the entire world rather he identifies a logic of interaction, an ideal type model of pressures and tendencies. Hobbes like most other realists is skeptical of the human nature but most analysts will agree with his emphasis on competition, diffidence and glory to represent a penetrating picture that deserves consideration. It can be noted that Hobbesian theory can be regarded as the theory of power politics as it mainly ascribes to a situation of superiority between ideal states whereby the need to gather to ensure the survival of one is put foremost before other ideas or goals. Each of Hobbes’ assumptions would seem to be applicable to important parts of international relations. The question is the extent to which other factors and forces push in different directions. How much of international relations, in what circumstances, is governed by the Hobbesian conjunction of anarchy, egoism and equality?

Also, there is the advent of neo-realism which was strongly inspired by Kenneth Waltz which premised with his discovery of structural realism. Structural realism attempts to ‘abstract from every attribute of states except their capabilities’ (Waltz 1979: 99) in order to highlight the impact of anarchy and the distribution of capabilities. ‘International structure emerges from the interaction of states and then constrains them from taking certain actions while propelling them toward others’ (1991: 29). Waltz through structuralism defines realism in terms of hierarchy and anarchy as he suggests that hierarchy and anarchy are the two principal political ordering principles. Units either stand in relationships of authority and subordination (hierarchy) or they do not (anarchy). He creates this separation with the fact that hierarchy involves subordination and differentiated units performing specified functions.

The Mayflower Compact (1620)

He puts into consideration the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers. Anarchic orders, however, have little functional differentiation. Every unit must ‘put itself in a position to be able to take care of itself since no one else can be counted on to do so’(1979: 107). He also posits that if all international orders are anarchic, and if this implies minimal functional differentiation, then international political structures differ only in their distributions of capabilities. They are defined by the changing fates of great powers. More abstractly, international orders vary according to the number of great powers. However, he posits the attribute of balance and suggest that in structural realism, anarchy states balance rather than hierarchy which involves bandwagon whereas the states look to gain rather than lose as hereby leaves weak states at a point of tragedy. He posits the position of power as being the pushing factor to consider in upholding the well-being of a state. He suggests that weak states have little choice but to guess right and hope that early alignment with the victor will bring favorable treatment. Only foolish great powers would accept such a risk. Instead, they will balance, both internally, by reallocating resources to national security, and externally, primarily through alliances and other formal and informal agreements. Also, he brings to mind the issue of polarity in dealing with power whereas in the case of the cold war where there was a system of bi polarity which was shared between the United States and the Soviet Union which led to various controversies and proxy wars. This example suggests a very important interpretative point. Realism is a theoretical account of how the world operates. It can be used as easily for peaceful purposes and as for war.

Another major argument on realism is the pursue of morality when dealing with foreign policy. Realists suggest that morality has no role to play in the attaining of foreign policy goals as they suggest that ‘States in anarchy cannot afford to be moral. The possibility of moral behavior rests upon the existence of an effective government that can deter and punish illegal actions’ (Art and Waltz 1983: 6). Realists, with good cause, also emphasize that a state especially a powerful state, bent on violating a moral norm usually can get away with it  and that when it can’t, it usually is because the power of others states has been mobilized on behalf of the moral norm. Nonetheless, states do sometimes comply with moral norms both for their own sake and out of consideration of the costs of non-compliance. As a matter of fact, states regularly conclude that in some instances they can afford to be moral, despite international anarchy. For example, humanitarian interventions in Kosovo, East Timor and Darfur, however tardy and limited, simply cannot be understood without the independent normative force of the anti-genocide norm and humanitarian principles. Foreign policy can be suggested to be driven by ethical motives in a number of states but all political goals can only be achieved with a cost and this is what drives anti moral behaviors when dealing with foreign policy affairs. Controversy arises over when, where and how frequently violating moral norms is truly necessary. Realists suggest that anarchy and egoism so severely constrain the space for the pursuit of moral concerns that it is only a small exaggeration to say that states in anarchy cannot afford to be moral. This, however, is a contingent empirical claim about which reasonable people may reasonably disagree. And even if we accept it, it provides no grounds for categorically excluding morality from foreign policy. Even if the primary obligation of the statesman is to the national interest, that is not her exclusive obligation. States not only are free to, but in fact often do, include certain moral objectives in their definition of the national interest.

In conclusion, the main argument of realist theory is that states (or nations) are always engaged in a struggle for power. One of the earliest books to espouse Realist theory is Machiavelli’s The Prince, which was written for the de Medici family as a guide to uniting Italy. A later, more comprehensive book that helped build the foundation of Realist theory was “Politics Among Nations”, by Hans J. Morgenthau.

Realist theory advocates the use of power to fulfill the interest of a nation. “National power” is composed of geography, economy and natural resources, population, military strength and preparedness, national character and moral, and the competency of the national government.

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Cite this article as: William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team), "The Main Arguments for Realism," in SchoolWorkHelper, 2019,
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