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Realist Theories


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Title: Realist Theories

Realist Theories
  • Theoretical framework that has held a central
    position in the study of IR
  • Realisms foundation is the principle of
  • School of thought that explains international
    relations in terms of power. The exercise of
    power by states toward each other is sometimes
    called realpolitik, or just power politics.

  • Realism developed in reaction to a liberal
    tradition that realists called idealism.
  • Idealism emphasizes international law, morality,
    and international organizations, rather than
    power alone, as key influences on international
  • Belief that human nature is basically good.
  • Particularly active between WWI and WWII
  • League of Nations
  • Structure proved helpless to stop German,
    Italian, and Japanese aggression.
  • Since WWII, realists have blamed idealists for
    looking too much at how the world ought to be
    rather than how it really is.

  • In 2002, 33 IR scholars signed a New York Times
    advertisement warning that war with Iraq is not
    in Americas national interest.
  • Neoconservative influence in U.S. foreign policy
    has diminished and realist influence has
  • Result of the problems faced in the war in Iraq.

Realist Tradition
  • Realists tend to treat political power as
    separate from, and predominant over
  • morality,
  • ideology,
  • and other social and economic aspects of life.
  • States pursue their own interests in an
    international system of sovereign states without
    a central authority.
  • Sun Tzu
  • Thucydides
  • Hobbes
  • Morgenthau

Table 2.1
  • Power is a central concept in international
  • It is the central concept for realists.
  • Difficult to measure.

Defining Power
  • Often defined as the ability to get another actor
    to do what it would not otherwise have done (or
    vice versa).
  • If actors get their way a lot, they must be
  • Power is not influence itself, but the ability or
    potential to influence others.
  • Based on specific (tangible and intangible)
    characteristics or possessions of states
  • Sizes, levels of income, and armed forces
  • Capability Easier to measure than influence and
    less circular in logic

Defining Power
  • The single indicator of a states power may be
    its total GDP (gross domestic product)
  • Combines overall size, technological level, and
  • At best, a rough indicator
  • A states tangible capabilities (including
    military forces) represent material power.
  • Power also depends on nonmaterial elements.
  • National will, diplomatic skill, popular support
    for government (legitimacy), and so forth
  • Power can only explain so much. Real-world IR
    depends on many other elements, including
    accidents or luck.
  • Relational concept Relative power is the ratio
    of the power that two states can bring to bear
    against each other.

Estimating Power
  • The logic of power suggests
  • The more powerful state will generally prevail.
  • Estimates of the power of two antagonists should
    help explain the outcome.
  • U.S. and Iraq
  • Implications of the outcome -- GDP does not
    always predict who will win the war

Elements of Power
  • State power is a mix of many ingredients.
  • Natural resources, industrial capacity, moral
    legitimacy, military preparedness, and popular
    support of government
  • Long-term elements of power
  • Total GDP, population, territory, geography, and
    natural resources
  • Less tangible long-term elements of power include
    political culture, patriotism, education of the
    population, and strength of the scientific and
    technological base.
  • Credibility of its commitments (reputation for
    keeping word)
  • Ability of one states culture and values to
    consistently shape the thinking of other states
    (power of ideas)

Elements of Power
  • Capabilities that allow actors to exercise
    influence in the short term
  • Military forces
  • Military-industrial complex
  • Quality of the states bureaucracy
  • Less tangible Support and legitimacy that an
    actor commands in the short term from
    constituents and allies
  • Loyalty of a nations army and politicians to its
  • Trade-offs among possible capabilities always
  • To the extent that one element of power can be
    converted into another, it is fungible. Money is
    the most fungible.
  • Realists tend to see military force as the most
    important element of national power in the short

Elements of Power
  • Morality
  • States have long clothed their actions, however
    aggressive, in rhetoric about their peaceful and
    defensive intentions.
  • Geopolitics
  • States increase their power to the extent that
    they can use geography to enhance their military
  • Location, location, location
  • Two-front problem Germany and Russia
  • Insular Britain and United States
  • In general, power declines as a function of
    distance from a home state.

The International System
  • States interact within a set of long-established
    rules of the game governing what is considered
    a state and how states treat each other.
  • Together these rules shape the international

Anarchy and Sovereignty
  • Realists believe the international system exists
    in a state of anarchy.
  • Term implies the lack of a central government
    that can enforce rules.
  • World government as a solution?
  • Others suggest international organizations and
  • Despite anarchy, the international system is far
    from chaotic.
  • Great majority of state interactions closely
    adhere to norms of behavior

Anarchy and Sovereignty
  • Sovereignty A government has the right, in
    principle, to do whatever it wants in its own
  • Lack of a world police to punish states if they
    break an agreement makes enforcement of
    international agreements difficult.
  • North Korea and its nuclear facilities
  • In practice, most states have a harder and harder
    time warding off interference in their affairs.

Anarchy and Sovereignty
  • Respect for the territorial integrity of all
    states, within recognized borders, is an
    important principle of IR.
  • Impact of information revolution/information
    economies and the territorial state system
  • States and norms of diplomacy
  • Security dilemma
  • A situation in which states actions taken to
    ensure their own security threaten the security
    of other states.
  • Arms race
  • Negative consequence of anarchy in the
    international system

Balance of Power
  • Refers to the general concept of one or more
    states power being used to balance that of
    another state or group of states.
  • Balance of power can refer to
  • Any ratio of power capabilities between states or
    alliances, or
  • It can mean only a relatively equal ratio.
  • Alternatively, it can refer to the process by
    which counterbalancing coalitions have repeatedly
    formed in history to prevent one state from
    conquering an entire region.

Balance of Power
  • Theory of balance of power
  • Counterbalancing occurs regularly and maintains
    stability of the international system.
  • Does not imply peace, but rather a stability
    maintained by means of recurring wars that adjust
    power relations
  • Alliances are key
  • Quicker, cheaper, and more effective than
    building ones own capabilities
  • States do not always balance against the
    strongest actor.
  • bandwagoning versus balancing

Great Powers and Middle Powers
  • The most powerful states in the system exert most
    of the influence on international events and
    therefore get the most attention from IR
  • Handful of states possess the majority of the
    worlds power resources.

Great Powers and Middle Powers
  • Great powers are generally considered the
    half-dozen or so most powerful states.
  • Until the past century, the club was exclusively
  • Defined generally as states that can be defeated
    militarily only by another great power.
  • Generally have the worlds strongest military
    forces and the strongest economies
  • U.S., China, Russia, Japan, Germany, France, and
  • U.S. the worlds only superpower
  • China the worlds largest population, rapid
    economic growth and a large military, with a
    credible nuclear arsenal

Figure 2.1
Figure 2.2
Great Powers and Middle Powers
  • Middle powers
  • Rank somewhat below the great powers
  • Some are large but not highly industrialized
  • Others may be small with specialized capabilities
  • Examples midsized countries such as Canada,
    Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Poland, Ukraine,
    South Korea, and Australia, or larger or
    influential countries in the global South such as
    India, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico,
    Nigeria, South Africa, Israel, Turkey, Iran, and

Power Distribution
  • The concept of the distribution of power among
    states in the international system
  • Can apply to all the states in the world or to
    just one region
  • Neorealism, or structural realism
  • 1990s adaptation of realism
  • Explains patterns of international events in
    terms of the system structure (distribution of
    power) rather than the internal makeup of
    individual states.
  • Neoclassical realists

Power Distribution
  • Polarity refers to the number of independent
    power centers in the system.
  • Multipolar system Has five or six centers of
    power, which are not grouped into alliances.
  • Tripolar system Has three great centers of power
  • Unipolar system Has a single center of power
    around which all others revolve (hegemony)
  • Power transition theory
  • Holds that the largest wars result from
    challenges to the top position in the status
    hierarchy, when a rising power is surpassing or
    threatening to surpass the most powerful state.

Figure 2.3
  • Is the holding by one state of most of the power
    in the international system
  • Can dominate the rules and arrangements by which
    international political and economic relations
    are conducted
  • This type of state is a hegemon.

  • Hegemonic stability theory
  • Holds that hegemony provides some order similar
    to a central government in the international
    system reducing anarchy, deterring aggression
    promoting free trade, and providing a hard
    currency that can be used as a world standard.
  • After WWII U.S. hegemony
  • Hegemons have an inherent interest in the
    promotion of integrated world markets.
  • U.S. ambivalence
  • Internationalist versus isolationist moods
  • Unilateralism versus multilateralism

The Great-Power System, 1500-2000
  • Treaty of Westphalia, 1648
  • Rules of state relations
  • Originated in Europe in the 16th century
  • Key to this system was the ability of one state,
    or a coalition, to balance the power of another
    state so it could not gobble up smaller units and
    create a universal empire.

The Great-Power System, 1500-2000
  • Most powerful states in 16th-century Europe were
    Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, and Spain.
  • Ottoman Empire
  • Hapsburgs
  • Impact of industrialization
  • Napoleonic Wars
  • Congress of Vienna (1815)
  • Concert of Europe
  • UN Security Council
  • WW I
  • WW II and after

  • An alliance is a coalition of states that
    coordinate their actions to accomplish some end
  • Most are formalized in written treaties
  • Concern a common threat and related issues of
    international security
  • Endure across a range of issues and a period of

Purposes of Alliances
  • Augmenting their members power
  • By pooling capabilities, two or more states can
    exert greater leverage in their bargaining with
    other states.
  • For smaller states, alliances can be their most
    important power element.
  • But alliances can change quickly and decisively.
  • Most form in response to a perceived threat.
  • Alliance cohesion
  • The ease with which the members hold together an
  • Tends to be high when national interests converge
    and when cooperation within the alliance becomes
    institutionalized and habitual.
  • Burden sharing
  • Who bears the cost of the alliance

  • NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization
  • One of the most important formal alliances
  • Encompasses Western Europe and North America
  • Founded in 1949 to oppose and deter Soviet power
    in Europe
  • Countered by the Warsaw Pact (1955) disbanded in
  • First use of force by NATO was in Bosnia in 1994
    in support of the UN mission there.
  • European Union formed its own rapid deployment
    force, outside NATO.
  • Biggest issue for NATO is its recent and eastward
    expansion, beyond the East-West Cold War dividing
  • Russian opposition

Figure 2.5
Other Alliances
  • U.S.-Japanese Security Treaty
  • U.S. maintains nearly 50,000 troops in Japan.
  • Japan pays the U.S. several billion dollars
    annually to offset about half the cost of
    maintaining these troops.
  • Created in 1951 against the potential Soviet
    threat to Japan.
  • Asymmetrical in nature
  • U.S. has alliances with other states South
    Korea and Australia
  • De facto allies of the U.S. those with whom we
    collaborate closely Israel
  • CIS Commonwealth of Independent States
  • In 2008, Georgia declared it would withdraw from
    the CIS, effective August 2010, over its conflict
    with Russia

Regional Alignments
  • In the global South, many states joined a
    nonaligned movement during the Cold War.
  • Stood apart from the U.S.-Soviet rivalry
  • Led by India and Yugoslavia
  • Undermined by the membership of Cuba
  • Organization of African Unity
  • NGO that reformed as the African Union (AU)
  • Stronger organization with a continent-wide
    parliament, central bank, and court.

Regional Alignments
  • China loosely aligned with Pakistan in opposition
    to India (which was aligned with the Soviet
  • Relationships with India warmed after the Cold
    War ended.
  • Middle East General anti-Israel alignment of the
    Arab countries for decades
  • Broke down in 1978 as Egypt and Jordan made peace
    with Israel
  • Israel and war with Hezbollah and Hamas
  • Israel and Turkey formed a close military
  • Israel largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid
  • Egypt
  • Iran
  • Bush administration emphasis on spreading

Figure 2.6
Strategy Statecraft
  • The art of managing state affairs and effectively
    maneuvering in a world of power politics among
    sovereign states.
  • Key aspect of strategy What kinds of
    capabilities to develop, given limited resources,
    in order to maximize international influence
  • Example of China

Strategy Statecraft
  • Deterrence
  • Uses a threat to punish another actor if it takes
    a certain negative action.
  • Compellence
  • Refers to the use of force to make another actor
    take some action (rather than refrain from taking
    an action).
  • Escalation
  • A reciprocal process in which two (or more)
    states build up military capabilities in response
    to each other.

  • Most realists assume that those who wield power
    while engaging in statecraft behave as rational
    actors in their efforts to influence others.
  • Two implications for IR
  • Assumption implies that states and other
    international actors can identify their interests
    and put priorities on various interests. The
    unitary actor assumption or the strong leader
    assumption. Leads to the advance of the national
  • But what are the interests of the state?
  • Also, rationality implies that actors are able to
    perform a cost-benefit analysis calculating costs
    incurred by a possible action and the benefits it
    is likely to bring.
  • How does one tally the intangibles?

The Prisoners Dilemma
  • Game theory
  • Branch of mathematics concerned with predicting
    bargaining outcomes.
  • Game is a setting in which two or more players
    choose among alternative moves, once or
  • Each combination of moves (by all players)
    results in a set of payoffs (utility) to each
  • Game theory aims to deduce likely outcomes given
    the players preferences and the possible moves
    open to them.
  • Game theory first used in IR in the 1950s and
  • Focus on U.S./Soviet relations

The Prisoners Dilemma
  • Zero-sum games versus non-zero-sum games
  • Prisoners Dilemma (PD)
  • Captures the kind of collective goods problem
    common to IR
  • All players make choices that in the end make
    them all worse off than under a different set of
  • They could all do better, but as individual
    rational actors they are unable to achieve this
  • Bank robber story
  • IR example the arms race

(No Transcript)
The Prisoners Dilemma
  • Other games
  • Chicken and the Cuban Missile Crisis
  • Kennedy, some argue, won by seeming ready to
    risk nuclear war if Soviet Premier Khrushchev did
    not back down and remove Soviet missiles from
  • There are alternative explanations of the outcome
    as well.