“The an archaic theory. Yet, with the conflict

“The strong do what the what they have the power to do, and the
weak accept what they have to accept”1. Nothing
but Realism resonates from Thucydides’ honoured phrase. It is a phrase that has
transcended time and can be applied to all facets of life without losing meaning.
Realism is an international relations theory that has dominated the
international scene. It is the most discussed theory that can adequately interpret
and explain behaviours and current affairs in politics. Realism consistently
appears to be an unbroken theory in the political spectrum however, it has
failed to explain and predict noticeable changes in the present day. It is
known that realism stems on pessimism thus, it was not able to predict the
continued sustenance of international systems like NATO, prosperous
international organisations such as the IMF, WHO and the UN as well as the
all-important significant end of the Cold War. Therefore, does realism still
hold power in the 21st Century when dramatic changes have occurred in
the political structure? It irrefutable to say that realism was not paramount
in the war ages however, it can be argued that the international system is now changing
for the better; towards peace and harmony rendering realism as an archaic
theory. Yet, with the conflict between the United States and North Korea,
realism could very much come back into play. Nevertheless, the overarching
question is has realism got the big things right enough?

Realism is an umbrella concept of many derivatives such as
classical realism, the two features of neorealism (offensive and defensive) as
well as structural realism. Firstly, Morgenthau’s classical realism depicts a
tragic outlook of the world. This theory sees states as rational actors that
are power hungry even if they believe themselves to be moral in the doings. In
a world where there is no overall governance to subdue states in their actions,
states act in their own self-interest2. The 3
S’s of realism summarise state behaviour. Firstly, there is Statism which is
the belief that the state should be able to control the economic or social policy
of the nation. The 2nd S is Survival. This is the highest priority
for states as states strive to be relevant in the international system. The
only way to survive in anarchic international system is to maximize absolute
power. The last S is self-help. In a world where survival is crucial, states
only endeavour to do what they deem as essential to making sure the state
survives. As they say, God helps those that help themselves.

In Neo-realism, the two branches are offensive and defensive
realism. Both derivatives of neo-realism comply with the argument of classical
realism that because of no overall governance, the international system is
anarchic. However, even though there is anarchy in the international system, it
does not directly depict chaos. It is only an ordering principle with no
central authority3. The perception
of power in offensive realism is extreme to say the least. It proclaims that
even when states achieve military advantage other states, the hunger for power
is not satiated. The pursuit of power only ceases when hegemony is achieved.
The argument is not that domination is good in itself, but attaining
overwhelming power is the best way to achieve state survival4. Offensive
realists do understand that sometimes conquest does not pay. Imperial Germany,
Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany’s ( 1933 – 1945 ) expansionist behaviour can be
used as examples of how actors strived but ultimately failed to achieve
regional hegemony. Essentially, great powers have a zero-sum mentality when
dealing with each other with security as their main objective5. It
is an understood fact that defensive realists believe that great powers usually
behave in ways that contradict themselves. Even though realism depicts states
as rational actors, in their strive for hegemony, Imperial Germany, Imperial
Japan and Nazi Germany were behaving irrationally, pre-empting their obliteration
in the horrendous conflicts they initiated. Ultimately, states that seek to
maximize their power do not enhance their advantage for survival but rather
undermine it6.

By looking at Nazi Germany and their pursuit for regional hegemony
during the war ages, it is probable to contend that the rebuild of power for
Nazi Germany stemmed from humiliation and not from the pure pursuit of power.
Germany voluntarily giving up the war through the Treaty of Versailles gave
incentive to ignite the most extreme and dangerous form of nationalism as
Germany was publicly humiliated. It would have been more accepted to lose the
war on the field of battle. Nevertheless, their pride was injured which freely
opened the floodgates to the psyche of Hitler, namely his fascists ideals. In
this respect, it is more suitable to attribute defensive realism to the rise of
power of Post-war Germany as we can assume that the rebuild of power was for
the state’s own protection so that Germany would not be taken advantage of.
However, greediness for powers amounts to destruction.

To be frank, defensive realism suggests that states seek only
security in the anarchic international system as the main threat to their
well-being comes from other states7. It
scales geostrategic power to deter invasion. Also, states will deny the pursuit
of hegemony. Defensive realism suggests that states only go into war for their
own safety and build military and/or nuclear capabilities for security. As
previously mentioned before, states that are entirely motivated to attain
hegemony undermine their own survival as they become targets for other great
powers in which alliances will be formed as states will seek to balance power.
As much as realism does not advocate cooperation, it does not mean that
alliances are not possible. It can be seen a “marriage of convenience”8. An
example of these convenient alliances is when the United States, China and the
Soviet Union fought against Germany during World War 2. However, during the
Cold War, the United States, West Germany and China opposite the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, defensive realists argue that even when conquest is possible, it
is a risk as the costs outweigh the benefits. Due to nationalism, it is mostly
impossible for the conqueror to appease to the conquered as citizens of the
taken state would not like to be ruled by a foreign invader. Nationalism is prevalent
and invites self-determination, sparking uprisings and revolutions against
foreign ruling. In sum, for sophisticated power maximization, states must
figure out when to raise and when to fold9
otherwise they risk elimination. If all states had the ability to recognise
this logic, seeing as they are rational actors, the competition for security
should not be intense and there would be no wars between great powers.

In terms of structural realism, human nature is not considered
when explaining why states strive for power. It is very much the structure of
the international system itself that motivates states to pursue power. In a
world where there is no higher authority, states are never certain about each
other’s intentions10 so
there is no guarantee that one state will not attack another. Thus, it makes
perfect sense for states to maximize their power in event of having to protect themselves
in case of an attack. Ultimately, states are trapped in an “iron cage”11
where peace and harmony is futile if they hope to survive. As Waltz states “in
anarchy, there is no automatic harmony”12. Also,
cultural differences in structural realism are also not a factor because the
international system creates the same motivations for all great powers
regardless of whether the state is autocratic or democratic.

The lack of world governance gives means to states to pursue their
own interests. Alex Bellamy accurately highlights the features of current
affairs, denoting that the “display of the
overwhelming might by the world’s most powerful state, the persistence of the
use of violence for political ends… and the seeming inability of internationally
agreed norms and rules…constrain powerful actors”13.
Even though there is no world governance, there is international law. Even if
great powers do act in accordance to international law, it can be assumed it is
because they partook in creating the law thus, constantly benefiting from it hence,
encouraging them to stand by it. Participation only occurs when it is
productive for the state. For example, the United States refused to sign the
Ottawa treaty to remove landmines as it affected U.S security interests but
favoured the Chinese Trade Agreement as it would reduce China’s trade surplus
as well as allowing the U.S to gain access into Chinese markets14.
Uncertainty surround states’ intentions are inherent in an anarchical structure
to which John Herz labels as the “security dilemma”15.
In this sense, it is not states using physical force to increase its own
security by decreasing another but abusing the enforcement of international law
to change state behaviour and influence policies. Another example of this is
the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) negotiating the terms and conditions
of this agreement for numerous states yet weighing in the favour of great
powers, such as the U.K, U.S, China, Russia and more. However, structures do
not determine outcomes.

Thus, is realism applicable in the current age?
According to Buzan, “realism reinvents itself and establishes and indispensable
Realists would argue that institutions, states, nations and even people cease
to exist – this is the natural course of events. Inevitably, the only thing
that is unchangeable is human nature which is inherently selfish, wicked and complex.
If we reduce human nature to our basic instincts, it spurs humans to survive
thus, there will certainly be competition to ensure the optimum level of
survival. From just translating the analysis of basic human instincts into the international
system, it is credible to contend that anarchy would prevail. Yes, there may be
corporation but it would be limited as well as no higher authority as people
and/or states are not submissive.

It is fair to say that Realism can explain
behaviours. However, it has been mistaken in explaining corporation. The
successful corporations and organisations of the EU, UN, ASEAN and NATO are
unexplainable using Realism as the main theory. For a theory that is solid to
most, Realism has cracks. It could be argued that cooperation is an expression
of humanity – for this was not pre-empted by Realism. In a world where economic
systems have become integrated and the influx of globalisation, leaders of great
powers are becoming more compassionate rather that reducing to conflict. Realism
is based upon a spectator’s construction of knowledge. We are in a “threatening
anarchical world marked by an endemic struggle for power and survival by
asserting control over others to maintain order and security. Realism dictates
states to discipline and control each other for the common good however,
realism reduces complex issues and ignores the needs of human beings”17. Realism
ignores the needs of human being rendering it unable to explain corporation so
can we truly say that is has got the big things right? Arguably, in the modern
ages, liberalism is the key theory as it supports growing regional corporation.
According to liberalism, anarchy can be moulded. In the 21st
Century, liberalism paints a much more progressive picture that realism which
is likely to become the dominant theory as war is not ideal anymore.
Nevertheless, “realism should not be discarded since its insights are
fundamental to understanding world politics”18.
Subverting Realism would cast doubt upon the entire canon of 21st
century realist thought19.

In reference to answering the overall question of whether realism
has got the big things right, it certainly has in most aspects. It analyses
human nature, basic world order and supplies reasons as to why nations have
gone to war and why it will always be a possibility. Yes, it does not explain cooperation
however, the fundamentals of Realism are still very much applicable to 21st
century thought. Humanity has developed to a level where leaders of great
nations possess ulterior motives to their humanitarian operations and promise
global happiness. Due to check and balances, war is not the outcome of conflict.
The outcome of conflict is now the refusal of trade deals and free roam which
is more imperative in the 21st century. Regardless of whether we are
moving into a less conflictual age, the world remains a dangerous place even if
the level of threat varies over time. States will always be preoccupied with
survival rendering realism as perpetually pertinent. As Hobbes states, “the
life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”20: the
only way to survive is to be selfish.

Thucydides, The Melian Dialogue, 1954

Buzan, Timeless Wisdom of Realism,

Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power
Politics, 2001

Mearsheimer, Structural Realism, 2006

Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power
Politics, 2001


Elman, Jensen, Realism, 2013

Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations,

Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power
Politics, 2001

Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power
Politics, 2001


Waltz, Man, The State & War, 1954

Bellamy, International Society & its
Critics, 2005

BBC, US and China sign trade agreement,

Herz, Idealist Internationalism and the
Security Dilemma, 1950

Buzan, Timeless wisdom of realism?,

Bain, William, Deconfusing Morgenthau,

Dunne, McDonald, The Politics of liberal
internationalism, 2013

Bain, William, Deconfusing Morgenthau,

Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651