Realism as the Dominant Approach in the World Politics

Table of Contents


Realism was the dominant approach of world politics in the post-war period in the 20th century. It is claimed that realism is the most progressive and the most pragmatic approach, as it presupposes a quick solution of the problems from the position of power. While liberals claim for the democratic peace, realists wish to set up the balance of power, which is the key factor of law and order for them. World leaders of the twentieth century seemed to apply the theory of Realism to international relations to its full extent.

Theory of Realism

Political realism is the theory of political philosophy that is claimed to explain the model used in political relations: both domestic and international. The key concept of realism states that power should be the central factor of political action. Independently in the political arena, politicians are claimed to maximize their power, and act from the position of power. The most powerful rule the world, and that peace is achieved only by the balance of power. Political realism is based on the notion that society in general is ruled by objective laws, which have their roots in the human nature.

The primary aim of leaders of countries is to defend and promote national interest. All the partakers of the political arena are called actors. Consequently, the realistic approach requires rational discipline to be active, and promotes the appearance of Great Britain, the United States of America, and Russia on the world political arena as the leading actors, which dictate the world orders and principles. These leaders have different motives, moral and physical qualities, different preferences and interests, however, if they are the most powerful, the others are obliged to act according to their rules, as political realism is generally aware of the moral significance of the political action (Donnelly, 2000). Thus it is considered to be the most pragmatic and even mean from the ethical point of view. The leaders are obliged to show their power, and reach for the balance of power, as misbalance will inevitably lead to confrontation, then conflict, and war. According to Beer (1996), it is necessary to emphasize that power cannot be the national interest; though, it is a method of achieving it. (Beer, 1996)

Dominant Approach of the 20th Century

To begin with, it is necessary to mention that the link between realism and international relations was especially strong in the twentieth century. Realism as a paradigm of international relations was first mentioned immediately after the end of World War I. It was more the reaction against power politics than the scientific approach. However, in spite of the spread of liberal views and approaches, realism as a practical model started its development. As for the theoretical basis of realism in international relations, it was developing before and after the Second World War. Such scientists as E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau, and Kennan and Henry Kissinger defined themselves as realists, and, basing on the works by Niccolo Machiavelli, defined the principles of political realism on the international arena. “Diplomacy” y Henry Kissinger was the central study of the post-war Anglo-American political study of international relations, as it offered the practical explanation for the theoretical background of political realism. (Donnelly, 2000)

As Paul Kennedy argues, world history is littered with instances of the “rise and decline of great powers” (Genest, 1994). The bipolar system that featured the Cold War period appeared from the ashes of hegemonic war between two mutually antagonistic camps the Axis powers led by Germany and Japan and the Allies led by Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. It should be emphasized that the growing confrontation of the cold war could not presuppose any liberal approach, especially, if there are only two key actors in the world, and the others just represent their own interests. Any conflict turns into a zero-sum war game (when the loss of one party automatically turns into the winning of the opposite party). Thus, in order to win the confrontation, the sides were obliged to increase the power potential (arms races, nuclear tests, space discovering, etc.), take part and win the local conflicts (Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan), and stay not only powerful on the world arena but also provide steady development of the state economical and social spheres. (Baylis, 2005)

Another reason for Realism’s dominancy in the twentieth century was the situation of the western civilization crisis. This crisis took place in the twentieth century’s first half, caused by decay in the political thinking of western countries. This decay was consequently due to liberalism that dominated in the western countries at that particular time. The only way that liberalism could be avoided was through political Realism, which would provide a better way of practicing politics. In this case, political Realism was supposed to impact its objective laws that were rooted in the nature of human beings, in western civilization (Cooper, 1998).

Counter Claims

On the other hand, political realism can be regarded as a compulsory measure. The leaders of the two camps, who were confronting during the Cold War, aimed to avoid the aggression of the opposite side, consequently, they aimed to increase the power potential and demonstrate the power. However, both sides did not wish to resort to the massive strike and turn the world into a nuclear battlefield. Consequently, both sides tried to lessen the confrontation by convening the negotiations, signing treaties, which restricted the nuclear potential of both sides, the treaties which prohibited the use of space as the polygon for military confrontation, and which restricted the nuclear tests. (Beer, 1996) The liberal actions were clearly observed. The brightest example is the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), which presupposed the limitation of nuclear powers of both sides in order to minimize the credibility of nuclear disasters. The periods of relaxation were featured by mutual governmental visits by the Presidents and Heads of State.

What Makes Approach so Compelling

Realism was defined by Machiavelli in the 16th century as the most progressive and the most effective approach for ruling the country. He addressed the Italian governor, and the governors of the future, and claimed that he had observed lots of governors as a diplomat and historian, and formulated the key principles, which a governor should observe in order to keep the throne and make the country develop and blossom. These principles were based on the notion of power and claimed that any governor should show no mercy to the enemies, and be fastidious in showing mercy to his subordinates. Most of the principles may seem disgusting, dishonest, and even mean, however, the world arena and politics, in general, require firm actions, aimed at enforcing the power of the country. (Genest, 1994)


As for the shortcomings, it is necessary to mention that the realistic approach is the most aggressive, and it may cause numerous conflicts and rivalries. Thus, realistic politician Slobodan Milosevic had caused the wide warfare in Yugoslavia because of his political realistic ambitions (national interests). As a Serbian leader, he aimed to join Kosovo to Serbia, which caused the aggression from the Albanian side. (Sell, 2002)

The examples may be numerous. The brightest, however, is the Vietnam campaign, when the USA aimed to cause the domino effect, and ruin the Socialistic camp forever. American politicians failed to do so, moreover, it caused the internal crisis and numerous protests of the American citizens. (Donnelly, 2000)

The critics of realistic approach claim that realism in no way helps to establish the democratic community. While the political approaches are based on power and inevitable achievement of national interest (which confronts the interests of the others), the conflicts are inevitable. Thus, democratic peace is the solution to the world’s law and order, as democracies do not war against each other. (Genest, 1994)

Realistic approach as-is is also not suitable for the antiterrorist struggle, as the aggressive actions against terrorists (especially Islamic terrorists), are fraught with serious consequences. Thus, the realistic approaches should be concealed (antiterrorist operations), while the liberal policy should be held openly: negotiations, promises, and compromises. (Baylis, 2005)


Theory of realism presupposes the actions from the positions of power. The national interest is the highest value of any country, and it should be achieved by the means of power. The twentieth century leaders applied political realism to the international relations sphere, and the Cold War period was entirely featured with realistic approach with few exclusions. It is explained by the fact that if there are only two confronting parties, the conflict turns into zero-sum game, consequently any single loss is not permitted. The liberal approach presupposes compromises and concessions; surely it does not suit. That is why the realism became the dominant paradigm.

There are particular counterclaims of realism, and it is known that liberal actions were present (SALT – Strategic Arms Limitation Talks), mutual governmental visits. Nevertheless, the approach was rather compelling because of numerous factors. Anyway, it appeared to be inefficient in the contemporary wars, such as terrorism and ethnic conflicts. Realism has failed to provide explanations to causes of such kinds of wars which are not addressed by Realistic theory. Therefore, Realism strategies whatever powerful they are should not be applied to any conflict, and when applied, it should be with caution. The balance is required: not the balance of power, but the balance of realistic and liberal approaches.


Baylis, John, Smith, Steve. The Globalization of World Politics. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Beer, Francis A., and Robert Hariman, eds. Post-Realism: The Rhetorical Turn in International Relations. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1996.

Cooper B. L.. Magical Realism in West African fiction: Seeing with a third eye. New York: Routledge. 1998

Donnelly, Jack. Realism and International Relations. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Genest, Marc A. “Realism and the Problem of Peaceful Change.” Perspectives on Political Science 23.2 (1994): 70-78.

Sell, Louis. Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. Duke University Press, 2002

Joshua Goldstein, S., International Relations, 3rd Ed. (Washington, D.C. Longman, 1999), p. 53.

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