Introduction to international relations


International Relations is a wide range of theories which deals with a variety of issues occurring in the politics of the world. The complexity of these issues rises different types of theories, each of which giving out a unique set of explanation. One way to look at these theories is to setup different theoretical perspectives. Three major types of perspectives used by theorists’ are: Realist, liberal pluralist and critical. Each of which share a vision of what the world looks like, shares some sense of what to study in that world and shares certain values about the purpose or goal of theorizing about the global-level politics[1].

The main argument of this paper is based on “Realism”, the most dominant theories of all. Realism emerged at the end of the Second World War in reaction to an existing theory known as “Idealism”. Idealism emphasized on international law, morality and international organization. Idealists focused their studies on understanding the cause of war. But according to realists they ignored the role of power, rational human nature, and strong beliefs of nation-state to pursue self interests.

Realism is a broad intellectual tradition that explains international relations in terms of power and the exercise of that power by states towards each other[2]. This theory is based on few key beliefs such as: Power, State, Anarchy, Alliances and Balances of power. It provides guide lines for state leaders to conduct foreign affairs and to ensure security of the state[3]. Along with that realists’ belief that states are the key actor in international politics and they must pursue power to attain self interests.

Realism provided a theoretical foundation for the Cold war policies of containment. Although realism emerged after the Second World War, but the beliefs they follow hold a strong historical background. Nearly two thousand years ago a Chinese strategist Sun Tzu suggested that moral reasoning was not very useful to the state rulers of the day, faced with armed and dangerous neighbours. He showed rulers how to use power to advance their interest and protect their survival[4].

Realist framework is summarized in three points: States are the most important actors, they act as rational individuals in pursuing power, pursuing power is their national interest and they act in the context of an international system lacking central government[5].


Power is the most important belief of realism, as the basic definition of realism is based on the use of power in international relations. And the key assumption of realism is that states are rational actors pursuing power. There are several definitions of power and it is used in many different contexts. The basic definition of power is the ability or potential to influence others’ behaviour by means of certain tangible and intangible characteristics[6]. Power is usually defined as the ability to impose one’s will on others, or to pursue one’s goals at the expense of others’ interests. Power can be exercised through the threat of force, or through treaties and diplomacy[7].

Power is often defined as Power capabilities and Power resources. A Power capability is the ability of one state to influence another state with use of military forces. The size, composition and preparedness of the military are the determining factor of this type of power. But this type of power is only useful in a short term military confrontation. Power resources on the other hand is the economic strength of a state which includes total GDP, population, territory, geography and natural resources. This type of power is useful in the long term. For example if gold is a power resource and tank is a power capability, then in a short turn tanks are useful but in the long term gold is more beneficial as it can be paid to buy tanks at any time but tanks cannot be converted into gold[8]. The example of Iraq and Kuwait explains this phenomenon, Iraq having strong military power while Kuwait possessing oil as their economic strength.

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Another way of distinguishing power is hard power and soft power. Hard power is defined as the ability to influence others through forcible actions for example military actions. Soft power is the ability to influence others through norms and ideas, for example Canada often has sought to influence other states to support diplomacy and international organization[9].

Realists assume that a state can have power only relative to other states[10]. This means that power is only valuable when it is compared to powers of other states. It is not relevant what a state has in absolute terms, but what a state has in comparison to the other state. What matters most is that whether a state is leading or lagging behind in terms of power.

Sometimes power is used as a means of leverage to accomplish a goal. A powerful state can force a less powerful state on doing something which is desired. Bargaining is a process in which two states communicate in order to achieve an outcome, or a particular interest. States use power as means of leverage in bargaining so as to achieve their desired outcome.

There are several ways of using leverage. One of which is Reciprocity; “a response in kind to the others action”[11]. Arms race is a reciprocal process in which two states build up military capabilities in response to each other. Deterrence is another type of leverage in which one state is threatened to be punished if it takes certain action.

But for realists no bargain is equally fair. Realists believe that every bargain is a Zero-sum game in which one actors’ gain is the other actor’s loss.


One of the main assumptions of realism is that states are the most important actors. This assumption is known as the state-centric assumption[12]. States are defined as individual entities pursuing power to ensure national interest which is survival and national security. States exercise sovereignty which means states have supreme authority to make and enforce laws within their territorial boundaries. Internal sovereignty is the right to full control over all domestic affairs, where as External sovereignty means the idea of no interference in other states matters. This implies that other states should not interfere in one states internal problems or issues. For example the severe laws of South Africa against the black natives are considered an internal issue. Although this notion is hardly followed in the international politics, many states try to influence directly or indirectly on one state’s internal affairs.

Realists define state as a rational unitary actor that thinks and acts coherently while keeping national interests a priority. These assumptions imply that states are able to perform cost-benefit analysis, in which they value each decision on its attainable benefit and the cost it would incur[13].


Realists believe that the rules of international system, which restricts one state from interfering in other state’s matters, create Anarchy in which there’s a lack of central government to enforce rules.

Realists assumes that the international system is anarchic, in the sense that there is no authority above states capable of regulating their interactions; states must arrive at relations with other states on their own, rather than it being dictated to them by some higher controlling entity (that is, no true authoritative world government exists)[14].

Realists claim that in anarchy, states compete with other states for security, markets, influence, and so on. And the nature of that competition is viewed in zero-sum terms.[15] All states interact within a set of well defined and long established rules and norms[16].

In international system there is no higher authority to prevent and counter use of force. Security can therefore only be realized through Self-Help. In a self help system no other state can be relied upon to guarantee ones survival. In an anarchic structure self help is necessarily the principle of action (waltz 1979:111). But in the course of providing for ones own security, the state in question will automatically be fuelling the insecurity of the other states. The term given to this spiral of insecurity is Security Dilemma.[17] In this situation a states’ action taken to assure their own security (such as deploying more military forces) are perceived as threats to the security of other states. But by doing this both states end up spending enormous amount of wealth on security while they remain insecure.[18] This situation aroused during the cold war when US and The Soviet Union produced excess nuclear weapons. Thus in conclusion anarchy provides a firm support to the idea of states acting as rational actors in ensuring survival, and it raises new issues in national security.

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Alliances, Distribution and Balance of Power

According to realists the core ingredient of survival is to seek power. Sometimes this power can be achieved by forming an Alliance. Alliance is a coalition of states that coordinate some actions to accomplish a mutually desired outcome. Most powerful alliance formed is The North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Alliances are sometimes formed in response to a perceived threat from another state or an alliance. Realists believe that in a self-help system the balance of power will emerge even in the state of anarchy. Balance of power is the general concept of one more states’ power being used to balance excess power of another state.[19] States form alliances that check and balance the power against threatening states and prevent any one state from conquering a region. For example the US and European alliance formed during the Second World War to suppress the rising German power and currently the world joining in alliance to fight against a common threat, Terrorism. Although balance of power provides stability but does not always imply peace.

According to realists there is a distribution of power in the international system. This distribution of power is described by Neorealism a modified branch of realism that emphasizes on state behavior of the system’s structure and distribution of power. Neorealists explain these phenomena in terms of polarity. They say that international system is either unipolar (only one dominant power), multi- polar (in which power is distributed among five or six centers), Bi-polar (in which there are two dominant powers e.g. US and Soviet union during the coldwar), and tri-polar (in which there are three dominant powers).[20]

Unipolar system is also known as hegemony, the holding by one state of a preponderance of power in the international system, so that it can single-handedly dominate the rules and arrangements by which international political and economic relations are conducted.[21] As it is evident by current state of international system, which is in one way dominated by the US power. This provides a system which is near to stable and is more or less controlled by a single power.

Critical Analysis

Key realists belief of state as the only actor in international relations is flawed mainly because nowadays many sub-actors such as NGOs, MNOs, social organizations and citizens of the state help shape the international system of politics. They effect the formation of foreign policies and play a major role in the decision making process. The notion of sovereignty greatly ignores the collective global problems such as environmental degradation and human rights abuses. More and more international organizations such as United Nations are playing a major role in forming an international law and order. And many states consistently comply with the norms set by these organizations which reduces the problem of an anarchic international system.


Then another realist belief of relative power is proven to be false because as international trade advances and states become more interdependent, universal gain is preferred to relative gain. Conflicts are not always solved by war instead by working together for mutual gain. Not all bargains have proven to be a zero-sum game.

Realists believe that the problem of security dilemma is unsolvable, where as many other theorists say that it can be solved through development of norms and institutions. For example the Test Ban Treaty formed to stop excessive nuclear explosions.

Realist also believed that war is fought among sovereign states only but the attacks of 9/11 gave a new perspective that wars can also be fought against International organizations such as Al-Qaeda.

Realism and Contemporary world issues

Realists claim that the pattern of international politics is continuous and wars end only for a period in which future wars are being prepared. At the end of the Cold war many critics of realism posed that war is becoming obsolete. But realist argued on this fact and said that war is continuous and the real end of Cold war was the very beginning of a new war, ‘The War on Terror’. The two US-led wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, suggests a serious flaw in the argument that war had become obsolescent. And realists believe that crises are to be expected because the general logic of self help system generates crises.[22] Although international organizations play a major role in providing a stable international system with rules, the war on Iraq proves that power is still the determining factor. Even after a non-approval on the war against Iraq by UN and many other states, US led the war and used intense military actions to achieve a desired outcome justifying there actions on the grounds of anti-terrorism.

Realism will continue to serve as a critical weapon for revealing interplay of national interest beneath the rhetoric of Universalist sentiments. Behind the rhetoric of universal values, the USA has used the war to justify a wide range of policy positions that strengthen its economic and military power while undermining various multilateral agreements on the arms control, the environment, human rights and trade.[23]

These certain issues strongly suggest that realism will continue to be a dominant theory in the coming years. Although there are many changes to the original idea of realism but still the core still remains that states act like individuals in acquiring power. And the national interest of a state will still be survival and security.

  1. Goldstein and Witworth, International Relations (Toronto: Pearson, 2005), p.
  2. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.54
  3. Tim Dunne and Brian Schmidt, “Realism”, in John Baylis and Steve Smith (eds.), The Globalization of World Politics ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005): p. 163
  4. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.54
  5. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.56
  6. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.56
  7. Dictionary definition of Great Power on The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. (accessed March 4, 2006)
  8. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.60
  9. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.56
  10. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.57
  11. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.65
  12. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.56
  13. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.68
  14. Dictionary definition of Great Power on The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. ( accessed on 4 March 2006)
  15. Tim Dunne and Brian Schmidt, op.cit p.172
  16. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.71
  17. Tim Dunne and Brian Schmidt, op.cit p.175
  18. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.74
  19. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.74
  20. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.79
  21. Goldstein and Witworth, op.cit., p.82
  22. Tim Dunne and Brian Schmidt, op.cit p.178
  23. Tim Dunne and Brian Schmidt, op.cit p.179
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