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Impact of Realism on International Relations

Realism, in many ways, has been a dominant theory for interpreting international relations since the end of World War II. The major premise of realism states that nation-states form the international system. They are the primary players in the international political arena. Realism looks at the international system to consist of nation-states that are competing, each minding its self-interest as foremost. Each nation or state pursues its political or military security as a matter of priority than the attainment of other possible goals such as environmental protection, commitment to human rights standards, and international economic justice. In realism, states are said to exist in anarchy. This anarchic situation prevailing in the international system makes relations among states to be vulnerable to conflict. This depicts itself in the manner states behave in maximizing power and security.

The obligation of providing national or state security lies with individual countries since there is no international organization that is capable of enforcing the order. Many nation-states are constantly aiming to improve their relative power positions in order to achieve their security needs. This obliges them to enhance their military capabilities and on some occasions the employment of military force. The condition of international anarchy is seen as a structural constraint that limits rational policy options of nations to an extent that they are expected to behave in similar ways when faced with similar circumstances (Paul, 29).

After World War II, political realism emerged as a concept most influential to explain and understand world events and international relations. This arose as a result of basic political and economic developments. This situation had been closely linked to the cold war (Paul, 29). The lessons learnt by nations after the Second World War additionally underscored the reasoning behind political realism. The framework of political realism worked as a primary concept for the security policies of nation-states during the cold war period. It was a dominant theoretical framework for international relations throughout the period of the cold war. The idea of power balance was employed to explain the situation where nations allied themselves to deter the hegemony of one nation over all others. In a realist understanding of international relations, the US-USSR conflict emerged after World War II as a natural consequence of the post-war balance of power (Paul, 30). The wartime understanding among these powerful nations was replaced by mutual suspicion. For instance, the United States administration stepped up the nuclear monopoly strategies, continued testing and searching for military bases accompanied by unrestricted anti-communist rhetoric and communist witch hunt. Consequently, the Soviets also responded in kind to its own security concerns, and of its allied regimes especially in Eastern Europe, for instance, through the Berlin Blockade, and the nuclear breakthroughs. When the United States and its allies formed the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, the USSR and its allies responded in kind by signing a Warsaw Pact in late 1955. The cold war was internationalized with massive arms aid by either side to allied states spread over the entire globe. Realists described this scenario as ‘military containment’ (Mearsheimer, 38).

The bipolar system recognized the United States and the Soviets Union as superpowers. These two nations were large, had weapons of mass destruction, were economically sufficient, and competed in an ideological cold war in which alliance commitments remained fixed. The collapse of the bipolar system in 1989 signalled the re-emergence of the multi-polar system. The bipolar system collapsed due to the disintegration of the Soviets Union. This disintegration left the United States as the sole superpower (Mearsheimer, 227). This led to a specific analysis of the security environment after the post-cold war. The collapse of the bipolar system led to the absence of power balance that could hold any emerging interstate rivalries that could result in instability and widespread conflicts. Following that development, the United States and its allies formed the international system backed with military forces to act against states that threaten to start a war. This arrangement brought about a new balance of power to replace the inability of the Soviets to function as a Great Power. For instance, John Mearsheimer suggests that Germany’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and the American commitment to Europe and the continuation of the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a condition necessary for coping with emerging conflicts such as interstate rivalries, ethnic conflicts in Europe, and maintaining regional stability (Mearsheimer, 38).

Many realist proponents of multi-polarity believe that military or security competition among great powers will remain the distinguishing feature of international politics. They further say that the relationship between great powers and the international system will always be characterized by conflict and instability rather than harmony and stability (Mearsheimer, 214). This is essentially true regionally and globally. There was a prediction of nuclear proliferation not only to less powerful states but also to Japan and Germany who wish to avoid being blackmailed by the nuclear great powers (Mearsheimer, 229). Japan and Germany were expected to abandon their cold war status as ‘trading states’ and become independent great powers. The Russian republic and China either singly or in the coalition were expected to balance the United States. The alliance systems of the cold war were predicted to collapse or fade. Security alignment will become more unpredictable, the familiar realist premise that today’s ally may be tomorrow’s foe (Brown, 14).

The correlation of force is the only deterrent acting in states in an anarchic system. However, it is significant to note that most states are restrained by more than just the balance of power. International norms and practices play an important role as well. Many countries in the world are no longer bound to the classic security dilemmas as a result. The reduction in defence budgets in many countries indicates that fear of any kind of military threats from other states against their territories is minimal. Consequently, with the exception of the United States and Israel, the majority of industrialized nations have abandoned national defence policies that are meaningful. The conflict with Iraq is a good illustration of the impact of realism in international relations (Freedman, 29). The Iraqi leadership was labelled to be dangerous because time and again it had displayed itself in a manner generally not agreed by the international community. It behaved as though it was not bound by international law. For instance, it invaded other states at will; it willfully attacked non-combatants and used chemical and biological weapons; violated and disrespected the United Nations and other treaties it had signed, and other violations. That regime was only restrained by the limits of its own power and the external forces arrayed against it. Iraq was a typical anarchical state. Practically, Iraq was conducting itself in a manner quite different from the way other states conducted their affairs. Perhaps the way other states behaved in a manner different from the way the Iraqi regime conducted itself shows the international system is not anarchic as assumed by realists (Freedman, 29).

The first Gulf War in 1990/91 was generally justified as a necessary action to enforce international law and deter anarchy that could affect the international system especially if a state is allowed to get away with invading and annexing another country. On this occasion, realists assumed correctly that the United States intervened to safeguard its interest of preventing Iraq from dominating the Middle East affairs. Nevertheless, the defense of the international law was equally significant (Freedman, 29). Arguably, the Gulf War would not have happened without Iraqi regime openly violating the fundamentals of the international law. The second Gulf War in 2003 again showed the decisive role played by the international laws. The entire diplomatic process by the United States and its allies were meant to obtain the United Nations Security Council approval to take military action against Iraq. The regimes alleged acquisition of weapons of mass destruction WMD), and the regimes aggressive nature were reasons advanced to the Security Council. To further ensure that it conforms to international norms, the US expended considerable amount of resources to ensure that its allies acted within the international law. This was especially during the attacks against the Taliban and Iraq. However, the Bush administrations rejection of the ICC and the treatment of Al-Qaeda suspects in Guantanamo Bay raised concern about US commitment to the Geneva Convention. The Bush administration conducted its foreign policy on the premise of realism. It acknowledged anarchic states by labeling them as ‘rogue states’ or ‘axis of evil’. These states were believed to sponsor terrorism, possessed weapons of mass destruction, and harbored despotic regimes. The overthrow of the Taliban and Baath regimes increased pressure on states such as Libya, Iran, Syria, and North Korea to change their behavior. In other words realism presents a picture of anarchy of the international system.

In conclusion, this paper has discussed the impact of realism theory on international relations giving examples events that occurred since World War II.


Brown, M, 1995, The Perils of Anarchy, Contemporary Realism and international Security, MIT Press, London.

Freedman, L, 1993, The Gulf Conflict 1990-91, London, Farber and Farber.

Mearsheimer, J, 1990, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, W, W, New York.

Paul, T, 1999, International Order and Future of World Politics, Cambridge University Press, London.