Realism has been the dominant approach in International relations theory for the past two millennia. The terms ‘Realism’ or ‘Political realism’ includes various theories and modes of thought about International Relations. Though realism became a discipline in International relations during and after world war II, It is the product of a long historical and philosophical tradition.

Early Traces of Realism

Realism has its origin in earlier classical writers like:

  1. Sunzik ( or Sun Tzu ) was an ancient Chinese military strategist who wrote the ‘ Art of War. ‘
  2. Kautilya, or Chanakya, was an early Indian statesman and writer of the Arthashastra.
  3. Thucydides was an ancient Greek historian who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War. 
  4. Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote The Prince and 
  5. Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, wrote Leviathan.



The state is the primary/principal actor in war and politics.

Unitary Action of the State

The state is assumed to be a unitary action, i.e., Once a decision is made to go to war, the state speaks and acts with one voice.

A Rational State

Decision-makers acting in the state’s name are assumed to be rational creatures because individuals are essentially rational beings. They make decisions by weighing the strengths and weaknesses of various options against the goal to be achieved.

Security of State

The main issue of the state is security, i.e., its need to protect itself from foreign and domestic enemies. Similarly, Machiavelli wrote that the sole aim of a Prince ( politician ) was to seek power, regardless of religious or ethical considerations.

Hobbes maintained that as individuals in the state of nature have the responsibility and the right to preserve themselves, so does each state in the international system. According to Hobbes, states are in a condition of International anarchy where every state has its weapon, and they point their eyes at another state.

Other Important contributors include Cardinal de Richelieu, who coined the phrase “raison d’état” during the Thirty Years War (1618- 1648), a French term meaning a nation’s goals and ambitions today synonyms with the phrase “national interest” and Otto von Bismarck who coined the term “realpolitik” (the German word for “politics of reality” ) as the Iron Chancellor of Germany from 1871 to 1890.

After World War II, International Relations theorists Hans Morgenthau’s textbook Politics among Nations became a bible on realism for the years following Second World War.

Also Read – Hans Morgenthau Six Principles of Realism

Kennan was one of the architects of the U.S Cold War Policy of containment which was an interpretation of the balance of powers. It achieved containment by balancing U.S Power against Soviet power.

Other critical realists were E.H. Carr, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arnold Wolfers, Charles Beard, and Walter Lippmann.

Assumptions of Realism

Realism is not a single idea; it is a worldview based on several integrated assumptions. There are many schools of realism, but all typically share some basic assumptions.

Anarchy in the International System

It assumes that the International system is Anarchic. There is no authority above the states capable of regulating their interactions. States must develop relations with other states independently rather than being dictated by some higher controlling entity. In other words, no actual authoritative world governments exist.

Sovereign States

Sovereign states are the principal actors in the International system. International institutions, non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations, and other sub-states or trans-state actors are viewed as having little independent influence.

State as a Rational Actor

States are rational unitary actors, each moving towards their national interest. There is a general distrust of long-term cooperation or alliance.

Dynamic National Interest

The ” National Interest” of each state is its security and survival. In pursuit of national security, states strive to amass as many resources as possible.

Power Hierarchy in International System

Relations between States are determined by their Comparative level of powers derived primarily from their military and economic capabilities. Military capabilities must be at least sufficient to deter the attack, and strategic planning should be along the lines of the worst-case scenario.

Further, they believe that states are inherently Aggressive (Offensive Realism) and obsessed with security (Defensive Realism ); and that territorial expansion is only constrained by opposing power(S).

This Aggressive build, however, leads to a Security dilemma where increasing one’s security can bring along greater instability as the opponents build up their armies. Thus, security is a zero-sum game where one can make only relative gains.

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