Realism (international relations)

international relations theory

Realism is the predominant school of thought in international relations theory, theoretically formalising the realpolitik statesmanship of early modern Europe. Although a highly diverse body of thought, it can be thought of as unified by the belief that world politics is, in the final analysis, always and necessarily a field of conflict among actors pursuing power. Crudely, realists are of three kinds in what they take the source of ineliminable conflict to be. Classical realists believe that it follows from human nature, neorealists focus upon the structure of the anarchic state system, and neoclassical realists believe that it is a result of a combination of the two and certain domestic variables. Realists also disagree about what kind of action states ought to take to navigate world politics, dividing between (although most realists fall outside the two groups) defensive realism and offensive realism. Realists have also claimed that a realist tradition of thought is evident within the history of political thought all the way back to antiquity, including Thucydides, Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli.

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  • In the vagueness and vastness of this ambition, open-ended with a vengeance, realism dissolves itself into a potentially all-purpose justification of any of the adventures conducted in the name of liberalism.
    • Perry Anderson, American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers (2014), Ch. 11 : Realist Ideals
  • So here’s the puzzle: Realist advice has performed better than its main rivals over the past two-and-a-half decades, yet realists are largely absent from prominent mainstream publications.
    • Stephen Walt, "What Would a Realist World Have Looked Like?", Foreign Policy (January 8, 2016)

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