Political Realism Theory: Definition & Principles

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  • 0:03 Realism & Power
  • 1:45 Assumptions
  • 2:40 Balance of Power
  • 3:20 Neorealism &…
  • 4:57 Strengths & Weaknesses…
  • 6:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Actions of states on the world stage can affect billions of people, which is why understanding international relations is so important. In this lesson, you'll learn about one theory that attempts to explain international relations - political realism.

Realism - Definition

International relations is the study of interactions between state and non-state actors in the world. Political realism is one of the major theories attempting to explain the relations among states. Political realism seeks to explain international relations between states in terms of power.


In the context of international relations, power is basically the capability to make another state do something it would not otherwise do or to stop it from doing something it wants to do. A quick example will illustrate the concept.

Let's say you are the leader of a small country surrounded by some unfriendly states that like your beachfront property. Fortunately, you have an alliance with a neighbor that is stronger than all the bullies and prevents them from invading your country. Of course, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Your ally expects you to open your domestic markets to its imports free of any tariffs or other trade barriers. Now, you normally would not do this, but your citizens enjoy their beachfront and agree to keep your ally happy in exchange for making sure the bullies don't take the beach.

What makes a state powerful? Remember that power is about the capability of influencing another. In the world of states, this capability is based on both tangible and intangible characteristics of the state. Tangible characteristics include such things as a state's size, geography, natural resources, economy, military, technological development and population. Intangible characteristics include things like national will, popular support of the government and ideology. While military power is not the only avenue to power on the world stage, realists tend to think it's the most important.


You can think of realists as the cynics of international relations. Realists make the following assumptions about the world:

  • Humans by nature are selfish. We don't do things to be nice; we do things because it serves some sort of selfish need - even if that is to make us feel good about ourselves.
  • The international system is one of anarchy. It's a dog-eat-dog world where might makes right.
  • The most important actors in the world are states and conflict is the natural state of relations among states.
  • States act in rational ways for the purpose of serving their self-interest.
  • The only check to a state's power is another state or group of states. In the anarchy of international relations, anything goes unless someone is powerful enough to stop you.
  • Morality in the international system is to be treated skeptically and can be counterproductive to successful political action. The overriding goal is survival by any means, and the ends justify the means.

The Balance of Power

Just like not everyone can be a star athlete, not all countries have the natural capacity to become powerful enough to go it alone in international relations. And just like some schoolyards, there are sometimes bullies in the international arena that like to throw their weight around. What can a weak state do? According to realists, the answer lies with the principle of balance of power, which is the general idea of the power of one or more states balancing the power of one or more other states to create a state of equilibrium. In our example, the bullied state should team up with other states to counteract the power of the bully.

Neorealism & Distribution of Power

Like many theories, realism has evolved over time. Neorealism, also called structural realism, focuses on the structure and distribution of power in the international system rather than on the power characteristics of individual states. A key concept in neorealism is that of polarity, which describes the power structure in the international system. You can think of a pole as a state that is a power center that attracts others into its sphere of influence, much like the pole of a magnet attracts metal filings or a sun's gravity attracts planets into an orbit around it.

Let's take a quick look at the ways the international system may be structured according to structural realism. A multipolar system is one in which there are several different centers of power and each state in the system pretty much acts independently of each other. Europe in the 19th century is an example.

A bipolar system is one in which there are two states serving as power centers of relatively equal strength. Other states in the system gravitate to one of two power centers in alliance and are dominated by it. The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States is an example of a bipolar system where the world was pretty much divided between those in alliance with the USSR and those in alliance with the United States.

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