Understanding Realism and Its Return in the 21st Century

Written by Abhiraj Goswami Third Year, BA (Hons.), Jadavpur University, Kolkata

Source: The University of Queensland, Australia

Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.


Realism in international relations is dependent heavily on the State, insofar that it is the epicenter that gives rise to the multiplicity of competition that the State or States are to be engaged in perennially as no hierarchical order exists internationally, leading to the status quo being characterized as a world of anarchy. Realism, as a theory, is a favorite among policymakers as it pushes the ball in their court on a number of issues, the primary one being, separating the local from the international. By ensuring that no actors other than States have explicit agency, realism limits the areas of conflict and interdependence that States can realistically engage in, thereby leading to a rather narrow and fundamental thesis that aims to characterize the pedagogy of international relations. Drawing inspiration from the writings of Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War viewed through a revisionist lens, Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ and the works of Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz and others during the Cold War period, realism has come to be defined as one of the most important theories [1] that are central to the understanding of international politics (Antunes & Camisão, 2017). There are, however, severe criticisms of realism, most of which have gained traction after the end of the Cold War as a growing consensus in political academia pointed to the fact that this ‘outdated’ theory could not explain the fall of the Soviet Union, the birth of post-Soviet Eastern Europe and globalization (Legro & Moravcsik, 1999). However, irrespective of the criticisms and the exceptions claimed, the State is still an entity crucial to the understanding of international relations, especially as we begin the third decade of the 21st Century with the rise of the global right and a gradual return to nationalism (Heilbrunn, 2017).

What is Realism and Where Does the State lie?

The basics of realist thought consist of four assumptions, leading up to one grand narrative. These four assumptions are: the State is the principal actor in international relations, the State is a unitary actor, decision-makers on behalf of the State are rational actors, and the State-system is constantly in a state of anarchy (Antunes & Camisão, 2017).

On putting these four together, we arrive at the double whammy of a grand narrative that realism upholds: survival.

It is crucial to understand why the objective of survival is being characterized as a double-whammy. Both the State and realism are mutually dependent in a rather symbiotic fashion, as far as navigating through the ever-evolving anarchic void is concerned. The State needs to survive, which is why it behaves in the way it does. This behavior includes the prioritization of security matters as States judge each other on the basis of capability instead of intent, as the anarchic international system will be unable to provide security to all states. This is why States must be ready to use force at any time and defend themselves from the threat or use of force when required. Any deviation from this idea is said to be detrimental to the self-interest of the State (Kocs, 1994). This is central to the idea of realism. Conflict and temporary cooperation are carried out by the State in order to ensure its own survival, as there exists the belief that non-State entities and inter-governmental bodies exercise limited power, as no one would come to the aid of the State at a time of crisis. Thus, any kind of power whether political, cultural, or military can be and should be exuded by the State to ensure the same (Kheyrian, 2019). If the State fails to survive, it becomes one with the anarchic void. Hence, survival is instrumental in understanding realist theory. The other side of the coin here is the fact that the epistemological movement of political realism in international relations can be preserved only if the existing State structure is preserved. Any other entity wielding power over the State has the potential to effectively put an end to realism. Thus, both the theory as well as the State must survive so they can mutually benefit each other, and keep fuelling the project of realism.

The Evolving Role of the State in Realism

To effectively understand the role of the State in realism, it is important to gauge the evolving nature of the State in the 21st Century, wherein the State fulfills a dual objective: to itself and to the international system of which it is a part. A landmark study on the same had been carried out by Michael Mastanduno, David A. Lake, and G. John Ikenberry, where they concluded with the idea that both the domestic and the international are inter-related and both classical, as well as structural realists, fail to identify this nexus. To them, the persuasion of goals in the domestic arena influences the actions in the international arena. They attempt to create an alternative framework wherein the State “respond to international events through domestic actions and attempt to solve domestic problems through international actions” (Mastanduno, Lake, & Ikenberry, 1989). The introduction of State-society relations in the paradigm of realism is a daunting task, but until undertaken, keeps realism bound by the chains of its Cold War predicaments. Thus, this juncture begs the question, how much has the role of the State changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall? The answer to that will not be a simple one as there has been an epistemic shift in the understanding of the balance of power and international cooperation. With the advent of the World Trade Organization the collective action of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the epistemic shift from the traditional approach towards security onto non-traditional security, much had changed in less than a decade, and so would the classical understanding of the State. However, fundamental disagreement with Mastanduno, Lake, and Ikenberry’s framework arises once we step into the second decade of the 21st Century. Surely, they could not have predicted the resurgence of nationalist tendencies globally while theorizing their framework in 1989, although their paper fundamentally albeit retroactively explains the turbulent post-conflict developments of the 1990s.

A return to realism?

It is because of this global right-wing resurgence that we need a thorough understanding of realism, once again. A number of critics exist, the most prominent of whom are Niall Ferguson and Matt Sleat. Fergusson argues against Robert Gilpin’s theory of hegemonic stability (HST) in a review of Patrick Karl O'Brien and Armand Cleese's comparative analysis of British hegemony prior to World War I and the US hegemony during and post-World War II (O'Brien & Clesse, 2002). Fergusson mentions that HST does not expand beyond its intended economic paradigm, thereby not taking into account military and cultural aspects of power, indicating that power is solely a function of the strength of the economy (Ferguson, 2003). What this primarily means is that while an agreement can be reached on this view, it is problematic to take up the basic assumption in the first place, that all three of those powers, or rather tools, are not interrelated. Global American hegemony is a testament to this Statement. This also serves as an example in the argument being made in this article, one that outlines the evergreen importance of the State, this time central to the idea of hegemony. The other criticism, the one that comes from Matt Sleat argues that realism fundamentally goes against the basics of democratic peace theory [2]. However, Sleat takes a slightly different road and says that the basic definitions of ‘war’ and ‘democracy’ ought to be altered so as to achieve a perfect fit, which in itself is a scathing criticism of democratic peace theory (Pugh, 2005). What we must, however, pay grave attention to is Sleat making a case for realism, as an opposition to the “excessive moralism of Rawlsian liberalism” [3]. It is this excessive moralism that has led to the resurgence of nationalist tendencies, which defined realism in the first place, as State-centric expansion was instrumental during the height of the Cold War (Sleat, 2014). Therefore, the role of the State remains constant, even under heavy criticism.

The State lies at the core of international relations, even today, or rather more so at this particular juncture. The global right-wing wave hovering over Europe, North and South America, and recently, in South and South-East Asia is alarming, to say the least (Tharoor, 2019). However, when mapping potential conflicts and areas of temporary cooperation, as theorized by realism, one can derive adequate avenues where power may be utilized to buy peace. With the American decline on the rise and the emergence of China as a global player through their Belt and Road Initiative, one might argue that there could be a shift in the global balance of power (Noguchi, 2011).

However, whether the translation from speculation to reality at all takes place is heavily debatable owing to American cultural strongholds and military might, readily deployable in any part of the world (Peterson, 2018).

Each and every conflict that has taken place ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall can be explained through the idea of realism. In fact, the concept of a nation-State was the reason as to why the Yugoslav tensions were brewing in the first place. There was a growing desire to juxtapose the national boundary with the boundary of the State, in a rather ethnocentric fashion, an aspect of human behavior that classical realism preaches quite loudly (Schlosser, 2014). The same can be said with regard to the US-led invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). The ongoing conflict in Syria and Yemen might be landmark examples of conflicts involving a plethora of non-state entities (Dekel, Boms, & Winter, 2016), but all of them are used as outsourced proxy elements by states who wish to not engage in boots-on-the-ground-deployment (Martini, York, & Young, 2013), which leaves ample scope for the expansion of realist theories. Surely, the idea of non-international armed conflicts lies in a massive grey area but then again, one can argue that the path towards Statehood in order to engage with the rest of the international system, can also be theorized under realism.


The post-Cold War period might have noticed a massive wave of globalization and mutual interdependence but all of that happens to be temporary as a shift of alliances is clearly taking place due to the COVID-19 crisis. Realism has taken the center stage at a time when the critics of realism ought to have been celebrating the arrival of liberalism and a new era of international coordination. At a time when unity and mutual interdependence is heavily sought after, States are divided more than ever. The Chinese ‘mask diplomacy’ in Europe, the American withdrawal from the World Health Organization and the Open Skies Treaty and the creation of a Russian vaccine that has been at the center of almost immediate Western flak as clear examples which show that States perpetually exist in an arena of competition, each trying to continuously further their national interest, irrespective of the cost. The role of the United Nations and it's subsidiary specialized agencies have been absolutely nullified.

Even at the very least, the call for a global ceasefire by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been violated time and time again at the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, in Yemen, in Israel and in the Russia occupied region of Donbas in Eastern Ukraine, thereby displaying the limited powers that such non-State institutions exert in the international arena.

Whether there awaits a new world order at the eclipse of this pandemic is hard to tell, but one thing is for certain, that the role of States shall remain central to the study of international relations, thereby keeping realism alive and well, for a whole new generation of political academia.


[1] This is primarily owing to the fact that through a reading of these works, one can conclude (as Jean Bethke Elshtain has done so) that the characterization of the world order under realism works in a manner similar to that of Hobbes’ characterization of human nature in The Leviathan: chaotic and dotted with perpetual conflict (Elshtain, 1985). In addition, at its core, realism is centered around the idea that it is an extension of human nature, and thus states assume human characteristics like those of competition, tactical coordination, and survival, thereby concluding that the basic unit i.e. a state is not an abstract but a collective entity.

[2] Democratic peace theory conjures that democracies are highly likely to maintain peaceful foreign relations than engage in armed conflict. While the philosophical origins of this theory can be traced to the writings of Immanuel Kant, Thomas Paine, and Alexis de Tocqueville, the modern iterations given by Rudolph Rummel, J. David Singer and most notably Michael W. Doyle helped popularize the concept.

[3] Rawlsian liberalism is a loose amalgamation that stands for the liberal values outlined by American philosopher John Rawls in his works A Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism, and The Law of Peoples. What Sleat is particularly referring to here is the distinction made by Rawls in The Law of Peoples between ‘decent peoples’ and ‘liberal peoples’ and the utopian belief that theocratic authoritarian states would comply with human rights standards in order to maintain the global liberal order.


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