An Introduction to Realism in International Relations | News | Department of Political Science


In the study of international relations (IR), there are many ideologies that practitioners of this political science study and frequently find themselves back to. Whether the theory is liberalism, Marxism, constructivism or one of the other dominant theories, realism in international relations remains one of the most dominant. What is realism and why does it continue to maintain its dominance in IR studies? What is its history and who are the most famous realists?

What is Realism?

Since World War II, realism has been considered the most dominant school of thought and remains ubiquitous in 21st century politics. The theory of realism lays down five main lines:

  • International politics is anarchic;
  • Sovereign states are the main actors in international politics;
  • States are rational unitary actors acting within the framework of their own national interests;
  • The primary objectives of the state are its own national security and survival;
  • National power and capabilities are a litmus test for relations between states.

In summary, realism says that nation-states (or “states”) are the main characters in the unfolding story of international relations. Other characters exist, especially individuals and corporations, but they have limited power. In times of war, states will speak and act as one with their own national interests in mind.

A Brief History of Realism in International Relations

Like many other aspects of international relations, the theory of realism has its roots in Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War”. While Thucydides is not considered among realists since the theory was not given a name until the 20th century, modern scholars and theorists have drawn comparisons between the thought patterns and behaviors he wrote about in the ancient Greece and those of a more modern context. This lends credence to the idea that realism is, in fact, a timeless theory that is part of our history.


The power of a nation-state is an essential pillar of its relations with other nation-states.

Director of the Notre Dame International Security Center (NDISC), Michael Desch, says: “Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Athenian historian asserted that his story of the war between Athens and Sparta would be an enduring work because it captured the dynamic foundation of international politics: the struggle for power. Thinkers and statesmen keep coming back to Thucydides because they continually discover and rediscover this fundamental idea.

Shortly after Thucydides, but in another part of the world, the Indian writer Chanakya wrote “Arthashastra”, which translates to “The Science of Material Gain” or “Science of Politics”. In it, Chanakya stated that the main objective of a king is to increase the power of his state, expand his empire and destroy his enemy. “One should neither submit shamelessly nor sacrifice oneself in reckless bravery,” he said, “it is better to adopt policies that allow one to survive and live to fight another day.”

Other writers who helped develop the theory of realism include Niccolo Mechiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Hans J. Morgenthau.

Morgenthau’s 6 Principles of Realism

In his book Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Hans J. Morgenthau identified six principles of political realism:

  1. Politics, like society, is governed by objective laws rooted in human nature;
  2. International politics is shaped by the interests of a state, especially in terms of power;
  3. Interest in power is objective and universal, but not fixed – there is room for nuance;
  4. Realism is aware of the moral significance of political action. In other words, if a friendly country is attacked, even if we want to help, it may be unrealistic to believe that we can do so without unacceptable risks;
  5. Realism does not compare the moral aspirations of a particular nation to the moral laws that govern the universe. Thus, if one country invades another on the basis of God’s will, the realists do not identify this as a justifiable cause of war;
  6. Realism is profoundly different from other schools of thought. Realists are aware of the existence and relevance of other fields and the experts within them, but sometimes politics must be separated from economics, morality, and even law:

Morgenthau says that the realist “thinks in terms of interest defined as power, as the economist thinks in terms of interest defined as wealth; the lawyer, the compliance of the action with the rules of law; the moralist, of the conformity of action to moral principles.

What future for realism in international relations?

As noted, realism has been the dominant theory in IR for nearly a century – particularly during the Cold War – but many IR scholars wonder what the future holds for the theory and its role in international security. . In a 2018 “Foreign Policy” article, Harvard international relations professor Stephen Walt said that despite official government claims of actions based on realism, Democrats and Republicans have shown a tendency to see foreign policy through the prism of liberal idealism, framing the political climate as a rigid divide between virtuous allies (usually democracies) and evil adversaries (usually dictatorships).

So, what future for realism? The answer is in the hands of emerging scholars and practitioners of international relations.

Desch says, “Realism has proven so enduring as a theoretical lens for understanding international relations and as a guide to statecraft because it is based on a cold-blooded recognition of the realities of relations international: first, there is no 9-1-global. 1 States can call when in trouble, so they have to take care of themselves. Second, the best way to take care of yourself is to have enough power to do so.

If you or someone you know is interested in being one of these scholars or practitioners, Notre Dame International Security Center would like to speak with you.

Originally posted by Notre Dame International Security Center at on July 21, 2022.

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