Political realism consistently remains one of the main concepts in the theory of international relations. From the time of the first political discussions, the basic concepts and principles of diplomacy began to be defined within the framework of a realistic paradigm. Following this paradigm, various countries decided to build their political strategies based on these principles.
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The conceptual harmony and operationalization of the realism principles and the desire to rely on the objective laws of social development contributed to the spread of the influence of political realism. Kristensen (2018) states that “most of the authors in the field share a relatively unified empirical focus on security and conflict” (p. 252). However, political realism did not ultimately become the undividedly dominant theory in the science of international relations. Prinz and Rossi (2017) claim that “realism as ideology critique in particular seeks to be an instrument for agents’ understanding of their political and social order” (p. 362). Still, it raised many questions to which there were no convincing answers from the elaborate realistic constructs.
Political realism describes a stable “liberal zone of the world” – a group of industrially developed states, the contradictions between which do not lead to military-political confrontation. The European Union would be a perfect example of such zone. Leadership and control in this group of countries is carried out without significant military-political pressure. This creates a suspicion of the ambiguity of the category of “national interest” for political realism. Erman, and Möller (2018) state that “recent proposals suggested by political realists have been a rather pessimistic view of what we may rightfully demand of political authorities in terms of legitimacy” (p. 525). The realism theory mostly defines the national interest in the terms of power; however, the liberal zone refuses to use harsher methods of pressure in its general politics. This contradiction creates a clash between liberal and political principles of rule.
Still, the realism makes it quite obvious that main participants in international relations are sovereign states that have the necessary amount of power to negotiate or suppress. At the same time, states are considered rationally acting subjects, representing a local union of citizens and adhering primarily to the official international course. Within the state’s borders, a constructive criticism of the government’s course is allowed, but a harsh critique of the political decisions is a sign of marginalism. Moreover, a competition of political parties and individual leaders with the government course to improve domestic political positions is not allowed – or even punished.
A good example of this realism principle is Russian internal and international politics. The government in Russia is comprised of fairly similar parties, and the President Putin maintains the tendency of alienation from Western countries. Any political opponents that present a moderately significant challenge to Putin – such as Navalny – are removed from the internal political stage forcefully.
Another point realism makes is that politics are not functions of ethics; state rationality stands higher than ethical norms. Tylliris (2019) states that “realist accounts do not converge towards a single positive alternative to moralism, they are, however, animated by a consistent rejection of moralism” (p. 1580). However, realism specifically implies that only through the efforts of the largest and most powerful participants in international relations can international stability and world order be either preserved or violated.
Political realism’s imperative lies not in justice, but in the survival of the nation. However, Purdon (2017) still claims that “neoclassical realism leaves more room for effective moral action” (p. 264). The United States operate within this principle – the government’s actions might not be justified in some cases such as the Iraq invasion in 2003, but they were directed at the future safety of the American nation. Deudney and Ikenberry (2017) claim that “the Iraq War was straightforwardly the result of the pursuit of American hegemonic primacy which flowed readily from an ancient and prominent body of realist thought” (p. 8). Axiological pluralism is manifested in this approach: the behavior of a state is no worse and no better than the behavior of other participants in international relations.
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Divided from the moral support, the anarchic nature of realism in international relations rises, claiming that each participating country guides its actions primarily by its own interests. Pettit (2017) argues that “a realist normative theory of politics should avoid moralism, deontologism, transcendentalism, utopianism, and vanguardism” (p. 331). As have already been said, national interests are the main category of the theory of political realism and, at the same time, the main motive of the state’s foreign policy.
This leads to the suggestion that international politics is conflicting and potentially confrontational in its nature. Burelli (2019) suggests that “order is deemed necessary because individuals need to cooperate to survive, but groups cannot spontaneously secure collective decisions and are prone to conflicts” (p. 1). Although conflicts are not the only type of international processes, they still take the dominant role in relation to cooperation. This kind of relationship is represented in the ever-present “shadow war” between Russia and the USA. The conflict that have started as the Cold War in the XX century, remains a strong influence over both countries’ international courses.
This anarchic nature of international relations suggests that they are full of dangers and threats for all states. In conditions of information uncertainty about the goals and capabilities of other subjects of relations, the state seeks to unboundedly build up its military-political capabilities. According to Schweller (2018), “in terms of international politics, the third image provides a straightforward prediction for how states can be expected to respond to powerful aggressors” (p. 29). According to this principle, international relations are built as a zero-sum game, in which the gain of one side means a directly proportional loss to the other.
Arms and technologies race never ceases, and the third-world countries, seeking to establish their safety, engage in it in alongside industrial leaders. Maliniak et al. (2018) state that “hegemony limits the voices heard, topics studied, and tools of the craft employed” (p. 483). Of course, this only leads to new conflicts and, consequently, new threats and anarchy. Bell (2017) supports that claim, stating that “the result is a “tragic” world in which war is an ever-present possibility, national security stands at the center of government decision-making, and international co-operation is fragile” (p. 1). Moreover, in such conditions, the effectiveness of international law and institutions becomes questionable, as the states’ only ambition to dominate overtakes any other, as it happens, for example, in Northern Korea.
Concluding it all, it can be said that political realism, despite its many flaws, remains a convincing theory of international relations. Principles of realism work in many countries, supporting their internal and external courses of actions. However, I also believe that realism requires more than simply defending one’s own interests using the power one holds. Political realism is by no means inflexible or unidirectional. It also emphasizes the need to make compromises, to yield, to restrain one’s own and others’ desire for power in favor of maintaining peace and good-neighboring relationships. Ultimately, the realism agrees that the best way to participate in world politics is diplomacy and fair negotiation.
Bell, D. (2017). Political realism and international relations. Philosophy Compass, 12(2).
Burelli, C. (2019). A realistic conception of politics: conflict, order and political realism. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 1–23.
Deudney, D., & Ikenberry, G. J. (2017). Realism, liberalism and the Iraq war. Survival, 59(4), 7–26.
Erman, E., & Möller, N. (2018). Political legitimacy for our world: Where is political realism going? The Journal of Politics, 80(2), 525–538.
Kristensen, P. M. (2018). International relations at the end: A sociological autopsy. International Studies Quarterly, 62, 245–259.
Maliniak, D., Peterson, S., Powers, R., & Tierney, M. J. (2018). Is international relations a global discipline? Hegemony, insularity, and diversity in the field. Security Studies, 27(3), 448–484.
Pettit, P. (2017). Political realism meets civic republicanism. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 20(3), 331–347.
Prinz, J., & Rossi, E. (2017). Political realism as ideology critique. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 20(3), 348–365.
Purdon, M. (2017). Neoclassical realism and international climate change politics: moral imperative and political constraint in international climate finance. Journal of International Relations and Development, 20(2), 263–300.
Schweller, R. (2018). Opposite but compatible nationalisms: A neoclassical realist approach to the future of US–China relations. The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 11(1), 23–48.
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Tillyris, D. (2019). Political realism and dirty hands: Value pluralism, moral conflict and public ethics. Philosophia, 47(5), 1579–1602.