Realism theory in international relations

International relations has a main idea called realism. It gives a look at the global political system that stresses the competitive and fighting part of world events. Realism has several main ideas about how states and the international system work. First, it sees countries as the main players in world events. States are single, area-focused actors who aim for power, freedom and safety. Second, realism thinks of the world system as without order. This means there is no big boss that controls relationships between countries. This makes states depend on their own efforts to support their goals and stay alive. Realism has three main tenets: statism, survival, and self-help. Statism says that the state is the main thing to look at in relations between countries. The idea of survival says that nations want to make sure they’re safe first in a system without rules. Self-help says that since there is no big boss making sure things run smoothly, states need to depend on themselves and their skills in order to stay alive. Big thinkers from the past have shared ideas that show realist thinking. They include Thucydides, Chanakya, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. During the 20th century, big thinkers like E.H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau organized realist thought and its main ideas. Today, realism is still a big idea for understanding world politics. Its focus on power games, what’s best for each country, and the tough competition in the world system still matters today when we study how countries act.

Key thinkers of Realism

Though Realism theory in International relations emerged after the 1930s, the concept of realism has its ancient tradition. We find the concept of realism in the writings of several political thinkers such as:

Thucydides –

The theory of realism finds its roots in Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War”. The main reason for war is fear. Thucydides emphasized power politics and the primary motive force in history as interstate relations based on might rather than right. He argued that justice only applies within the state, not between states because there is no overarching authority to enforce it. States act in their own self-interest and internal morality does not apply to relations between states.

Chanakya or Kautilya –

Mentions in “Arthashastra,” (‘Science of Polity.’) that a king’s main goal is to increase the power of his state, expand his empire, and destroy his enemy. The Arthashastra advocates an offensive realist position, where a king should seek to conquer and expand his territory when the benefits outweigh the costs. Kautilya argued that states must always be vigilant against threats and be prepared to go to war for self-preservation.


War and not peace is a normal condition in world affairs. In The Prince, Machiavelli argued that a ruler should be concerned only with power and be willing to use violence and deceit to achieve their goals. He dismissed morality in favor of political utility and expediency. States operate in a Hobbesian anarchic world where the sovereign’s primary responsibility is the security and survival of the state at any cost.

Thomas Hobbes –

In Leviathan, Hobbes describes the state of nature between individuals as a “war of all against all” and suggests this condition also exists between states. Not possible to establish a world government as states will never give up their sovereignty. It is impossible to establish Leviathan over Leviathan (International government). Further, people will also not agree with the world government because they are concerned about security.

Classical Realists

E.H. Carr and Hans J. Morgenthau are considered the founders of classical realism in international relations theory.

E.H. Carr

E.H. Carr’s 1939 book *The Twenty Years’ Crisis* laid important groundwork for the realist perspective. Carr argued that international politics is fundamentally about power and that any state should aim to increase its national strength while resisting the power of stronger states through strategies like balance of power. His ideas challenged the liberal “utopian” view of IR at the time.

Hans J. Morgenthau

Hans J. Morgenthau’s 1948 book *Politics Among Nations* became a seminal text of realism. In it, Morgenthau outlined six key principles of realism:

  1. Politics is governed by objective laws rooted in human nature.
  2. Interest defined in terms of power is the primary driver of state behavior.
  3. Universal moral principles cannot be applied to state actions.
  4. Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of states with universal moral laws.
  5. The autonomy of politics means diplomacy and war are not subordinate to ethics.
  6. Realism is aware of the moral significance of political action.

Morgenthau emphasized the nation’s eternal struggle for power and rejected the idea that universal ethics or morals could constrain state behavior. His ideas came to define realism in IR theory.

Types of realism

1.Classical realism –

It stresses the importance of power and national interest. key Supporter are Hans J Morgenthau, E.H. Carr.
World Politics is a fight for power – fighting and disagreements are bound to happen. The causes of fighting and war between countries come from human nature that isn’t perfect. This nature is self-focused, greedy, and doesn’t work well with others. states control and rule. Countries put their interest first. They mainly want to get more power and protection.

2. Neorealism

It is a more science-based way to understand politics around the world. It is also called Scientific Realism or Structural Realism. It focuses on how the world system is built – what countries do and their actions are based on the structure of the international system. key Supporter – Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt.

3. Neo-Classical Realism

It is a mix of traditional realist and new realist ideas. it was created by Gideon Rose in a 1998 article for World Politics Review. and Advocates: Gideon Rose, Fareed Zakaria. This states that different things like the state’s actions in global affairs depend on multiple factors, such as how the state behaves in the international system. its believes in sharing of power abilities among countries; thinking parts like seeing and misunderstanding other countries’ plans or threats. and home-based things like state groups, important people, and society members.

4. Realism of Post-Colonial / Third World Realism

People who study the world after colonization think that current ideas about global politics are too focused on Europe. Not knowing about the history of the parts of the world that are not in the West. Their ideas are not good enough for the part of the world that is not Western. The idea of a security dilemma comes from European history – According to Mohammad Ayoob. Poor countries in the third world have more problems because of the ‘safety problem’, which means they face more issues inside their own country than from outside. Key Proponent is Mohammed Ayoob.


  1. It offers a fresh way to see the world system.
  2. States are still the most important thing.
  3. Important theory to understand the global system.
  4. A realistic and usable way of thinking
  5. Useful for finding out why conflicts happen between countries.
  6. Understand how important it is for a country to survive and be safe.
Basic assumptions of realism in international relations

Realism makes several key assumptions about how the international system functions:

  • States are the primary actors in the international system –While other entities like individuals and organizations exist, realism views states as the most powerful and influential actors. States make decisions, pursue interests, and engage in relations with each other.
  • The international system is anarchic – There is no overarching authority or world government that can enforce rules. With no higher power to regulate relations, states must fend for themselves.
  • International politics center on the inherent conflict between states – In the absence of an overarching power, states are in perpetual competition with each other for power and influence. Conflict is viewed as inevitable in international relations.
  • States are sovereign, unitary, rational actors – Realism treats states as coherent, unified entities acting rationally to maximize their interests and power. States have supreme authority within their borders and make calculated moves to pursue national interests. The core realist view is that independent states, seeking to ensure their security and interests, engage in competitive relations on an anarchic global stage. Without a boss, states fight for control and use fighting to move up their spot. These ideas make up the base of realist theory.
Main Elements of Realism

The Main elements of realism are also known as 3S- These are Statism, Survival, Self-Help

1. Statism- Statism refers to the idea that the state is the primary actor in international relations. According to realists, the state is sovereign and seeks to ensure its interests above all else. Realism views states as unitary, rational actors that make decisions to maximize their security and power. The sovereignty of the state is a key distinguishing feature. Realists argue that anarchy in the international system means that states must compete with each other for power and security. Without a world government, states rely on themselves and increase their relative power.

2.Survival- Due to anarchy and lack of a central authority, realists believe the goal of every state is survival. States seek to ensure their security and survival before pursuing other goals. Increased power and influence help states survive in an uncertain world.
For realists like Kenneth Waltz, security is the principal interest of all states. Survival is a precondition for pursuing other objectives. The self-interest and desire for survival shape state behavior.

3.Self-Help- In realism, there is no central authority to protect states from each other. With no world government, states cannot rely on others for their security. This forces states to practice self-help in an anarchic world. States build up military power and make alliances to help ensure their survival. Without a central authority, states must secure themselves through their means. This self-help system pushes states to seek power. The self-help tenet explains why realists see international relations as a constant struggle for power and security among states. Realism argues states are alone in an anarchic world and must rely on growing their power.

Key Features of Realism

Realism is characterized by several key assumptions and perspectives on how states interact:

States Seek Power

  • Realists think that countries are the main players in the world system, fighting for power and control. World politics is seen as a fight for power between states that only care about themselves.
  •  Realists say that the main goal of every country is to get as much power as it can in the world. Countries always try to beat each other in getting military power, resources, land and control.
  •  Power is thought to be the best way to protect a country’s safety and help its national interests. Having and showing power is very important to stay alive in a world without rules.

Anarchy and Self-Help

  • Realists think that the world system is disorderly because there is no big boss over independent countries. This makes states have to depend on themselves to make sure they are safe and can stay alive.
  • In a wild world where people help themselves, states can’t look weak. They are not eager to work together or expose themselves, instead choosing to strengthen their military power.
  • The lack of an overarching authority leads states to be suspicious of one another. Security dilemmas arise as defensive actions by one state are viewed as aggressive by others.

Security Dilemma

  • First coined by John Herz, the security dilemma refers to a situation where actions taken by a state to increase its security cause reactions from other states, making the original state less secure.
  • For example, if a state builds up a large military force for defensive purposes, neighboring states may view this as a threat and respond by similarly expanding their militaries. The result is increased tensions and insecurity on all sides.

Zero-Sum Game

  • Realists see world politics as a zero-sum game, in which one state’s gain is another state’s loss. This leads to a competitive rather than cooperative outlook.
  • For realists, the only meaningful gains are those made at another state’s expense. Relative gains are more important than absolute gains. States are reluctant to pursue mutually beneficial outcomes if others may gain more.
  • – Focus too much on the power aspect
    – Relations with other countries are not only about fighting for power and conflict.
    – Ignores the role of non-government groups
    -Does not accept the idea of global groups that can help in working together.
    -Criticism by Feminists.