Political Realism and its Use in the Study of International Relations

Anthony Hope, Shawn Grimsley
  • Author
    Anthony Hope

    Anthony completed his M.A. in International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He is primarily interested in how the various functions of a state help or hinder both state and human security from the international and state-level. He previously taught the following subjects as a TA: International Political Economy, US Foreign Power, and US Politics.

  • Instructor
    Shawn Grimsley

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

Learn about political realism and realism in international relations. Find out what structural realism is and explore the theory of international politics. Updated: 10/01/2021

Table of Contents


Political Realism

Map of the World.

Map of the World.

Political realism is a significant theory in the field of international relations that seeks to explain state behavior under a set of specific and rigid assumptions. At its core, political realism is guided by three S's: statism, survival, and self-help.

Statism asserts that states are the only entity on the international stage that matter and that they are unitary (acting alone) and rational (acting in its best interests) actors. Survival identifies the state's primary goal is to survive in an international system characterized by anarchy. The final S, self-help, conveys the assumption that states cannot trust others in their pursuit of survival and must secure their security.

Political realism is further delineated into sub-theoretical frameworks, including:

  • Classical realism
  • Liberal realism
  • Neorealism
  • Neoclassical realism

While each sub-framework has its own nuance within the broader political realist theory, all forms of political realism fundamentally believe world politics is a field of conflict among states pursuing power.

The formal discipline and academic study of international relations using political realism were formed during and shortly after the Second World War. However, the primary assumptions underpinning this theory can be glimpsed in much earlier writings.

Structural Realism

Structural realism, also referred to as neorealism in the academic community, is a major branch of political realism derived from classical realism. While the latter incorporates analysis of human behavior within state decision-making, structural realism focuses predominantly on the anarchic structure of the international system. In other words, structural realists see global conflict as inevitable because there is no supranational body that could prevent or mediate conflict between individual states. Therefore, structural realists assume that states must always be preparing for conflict because war could break out at any time.

Structural realists believe that understanding the international system is guided by the three S's of political realism. However, they do incorporate analysis of inter-relationships between distinct state entities, particularly regarding power relationships. A key concept in structural realism is polarity, the balance of power within the international system. Today, international theorists often describe the world as unipolar, with the United States acting as the sole superpower endowed with the ability to dominate international relations via their economic, political, and military supremacy.

However, polarity changes; during the Cold War, the international arena was described as bipolar, with the U.S. and Soviet Union competing for power and influence. The various degrees of polarity include:

  • Multipolar: Multiple states act as power centers and balance each other out.
  • Bipolarity: Two states act as power centers amidst various middle-power states
  • Unipolarity: Only one state is dominant in international relations (acting as a global hegemon), with the rest being mid- and low-power states.

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Realism in International Relations

Bust of Thucydides, a classical realist.

Bust of Thucydides

Realism is one of three major theoretical frameworks in international relations and is adhered to by many prominent academics. Realist theory is often seen as a classical framework and is incorporated into analyses of state relations from the Westphalian system beginning in 1648 and continuing to today. Seeing the world through a realist lens has contributed to many notable foreign policy positions throughout history.

During the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union competed for global hegemony to influence the world according to capitalist and communist principles, respectively. U.S. diplomat George Kennan recommended a policy of containment to mitigate potential security threats from the Soviet Union. Kennan was influenced by political realism, and he understood that each ideology propagated by the U.S. and Soviet Union could not coexist peacefully for long. According to the doctrine of containment, the spread of communism should be contained to where it was advocated and spread no further. Kennan and his contemporaries worried that communism could spread like a stack of dominos: once it reached one corner of the world, it was only a matter of time before it spread to neighboring regions.

Political realism has heavily influenced both the offensive and defensive strategies of nation-states. Classical realists incorporate individual-level biases into their analysis, viewing humans as inherently self-interested. Classical realists would argue that conflict is inevitable because fear of others benefiting first and contributing to a zero-sum outcome motivates pre-emptive action discourages cooperation.

Neoclassical realists hold that the actions of states can be explained as a function of the characteristics of the international system; this includes power distribution and polarity. It also includes cognitive variables at the level of the state and their decision-makers that incorporate perceptions and misperceptions of the capabilities and intents of other states.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main ideas of realism?

The main tenets of realism can be summed up by the three S's:

  • Statism - states are the sole meaningful actor in international relations and are unitary and rational
  • Survival - the primary goal of a state is to survive
  • Self-help - due to the anarchical nature of the international system, states can only rely on themselves in the pursuit of their goals

What is the realism theory in international relations?

Realism is one of the main theoretical frameworks that seeks to explain state behaviour. It is a theory that places states at the centre of analysis and is concerned with states, power and state interrelations.

What are the types of realism in international relations?

Political realism is further delineated into sub-theoretical frameworks, including:

  • Classical realism
  • Liberal realism
  • Neorealism
  • Neoclassical realism

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