Classical Realism and International Relations

Essay, 2015

16 Pages













The author of this text is not a native speaker of English. Please excuse any grammatical or other mistakes that might appear in this paper.


For years, scholars have been using different theories to analyze the way nations interact in the international systems. In trying to do so, they have been using the various levels of analysis. The purpose of this paper therefore is to discuss the Classical realism theory and apply it under the three recognized levels of analysis.

The first section of the paper will define the key terms, the emergence and the four central assumptions of realism will also be discussed before focusing on Classical realism, to lay a smooth foundation for understanding this theory. The third section of the paper will discuss Classical realism, supporting it with examples. The fourth section will therefore focus on the three levels of analysis, and under each level the theory will be applied with relevant examples. Lastly, a conclusion will be drawn summing up all the main arguments of the paper.



A paradigm is defined as the fundamental assumptions scholars make about the world they are studying and such providing answers to questions to be looked at (Vasquez,

1998, p. 23). According to Huitt, paradigm may be thought of as pattern or model of how something is structured, the parts and their interrelationships and how the parts function thus behaviour within a specific context or time dimension (Huitt, 2011, p. 1).In short a paradigm can be treated or defined as a theory.


International relations is defined as an area of study or knowledge concerned with relations between different countries and those relations are understood primarily in diplomatic, military and strategic terms (Ainley & Brown, 2005, p. 3). Another scholar states that international relations tries to explain the interactions of states in the global interstate system, and it also attempts to explain the interactions of others whose behaviour originates within one country and is targeted toward members of other countries (Burchil, et al., 1996, p. 6). Put in simple terms, International Relations can be defined as the way states relate and interact in an international arena.


According to Waltz, levels of analysis means different categories of factors that cause war, namely the characteristics or attributes of individual human beings, states and the international system (Waltz, 1959, p. 238).These levels offers a useful basis for the integration of domestic as well as international or environmental explanatory factors (Ray, 2001, p. 355).


Due to the crises of the 1930s, ‘Idealism’ gave a way to ‘Realism’ and the foundation of this theory was first laid by writers such as E.H. Carr and later appeared in the works of other writers such as Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, Thucydides, Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli (Jackson & Sorensen, 2007, p. 305).

It became dominant after Second World War and it had powerful explanation of international relations and conflict. Also realism brought about clear criticisms of the League of Nations. In the 1980s, classical realism gave way to another trend in international relations theory— neorealism (Halliday, 1994, p. 10).

Therefore, Realism is a broad paradigm, which composes of two variants, the Classical realism and the structural also known as the Neo-Realism. The two have the same fundamental values as they are cut from the same cloth and they focus on things as they are, not as they ought to be (Hobson, 2000, p. 17).


Realism is centered on four assumptions (Jack, 2008, p. 150).It focuses more on the state and views the state as the principal political actor in International relations. Even though it realizes the state as the main actor, it also recognizes the role played by other non-states actors such as multilateral organizations (Nayef, 2007, p. 20). Realists put more emphasis on states because their relations have more impact in the international system (Nayef, 2007, p. 67).

Realists view states as unitary actors interested in protecting their own interests. Thus, it argues that states are more interested in achieving their national interests with one voice and in whatever they do, they are guided by these interests. For example, when formulating foreign policies, nations are guided by their interests, guided by those things that they want to achieve as a nation (Nayef, 2007, p. 20).

Realists also assumes that states are rational actors moving toward their national interests, that they are always consistent, they have their priorities arranged in a specific way and in that they can calculate the costs and the benefits in order to maximize their benefit (Nayef, 2007, p. 20).Lastly, they argue that the international system is anarchic in that there is no central government to guide the behavior of states in the world system (Jervis, 1978, p. 167).


Classical realism puts more emphasis on the role of human nature in International Politics (Korab-Karpowicz, 2006, p. 233). It argues that power lies in human nature, as the laws that govern politics are made by men and also emphasizes that International Politics is a struggle for power which emanates from human nature (Morgenthau 1948; 25).The theory states that people are greedy, insecure and aggressive and they also competes for scarce resources, so this makes them to attack one another for gain. The lust to possess power and selfishness of individuals are considered to be the causes or bases of conflicts that emanates amongst the individuals (Brown, 2009, p. 260). In addition to that, Hobbes identified three principal causes of conflicts which are fundamental to human nature; competition, diffidence and glory (Hobbes, 1651, pp. Part I, chs.13, xiv).

Due to the desire to maximise their gains, human beings are likely to act irrationally as they are naïve, gullible and can be easily manipulated. People want to achieve their own interests and in so doing, they are prone to irrational behaviour as they become simple minded and likely to be controlled and used (Shimko, 1992, p. 249).

Classical realism is a state level theory that argues that all states seek power, which is driven by desire to achieve national interests. Power is the key concept for realists and they argue that to survive, states must increase their power by internal development such as in the economic system, technological, diplomatic and military means (Nayef, 2007, p. 21). The theory argues that states seek to increase their power and decrease the power of their enemies and everything they do is in the name of power accumulation (Jervis, 1994, p. 856). States in this theory see others with power as enemies, because power when is not in your hands is threatening. The Peloponnesian war is viewed as having been caused by the growth in Athens’ power, which increased fear in the Lacedaemonians and made them to attack the Athenians (Brown, 2009, p. 267).

Sparta had to attack the Athenians first because they had become more powerful and therefore there was a shift in the balance of power, exposing Sparta to danger. This came as a threat to Sparta and they resorted to attacking the Athenians first, as a way of defending themselves. Increase of power of one state can therefore pose a threat to another state and result to war, as the increase in power of the Athens threatened the Lacedaemonians and compelled them to go to war (Forde, 1992, p. 374).

There can be peace, but for it to last long it should be based upon balance of power lubricated by fluid alliance systems (Williams, 2004, p. 650). The theory states that in order for the system to be stable, there should nations with equal powers at the top and others at the bottom of the system. An example of a system which was well balanced was that of the United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) after World War II, whereby the two were the superpowers and also equal in power, they had the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at the bottom of the system which comprised of states which were not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc (Smith, 1979, p. 349).

Realists argue that the international system is anarchic in that there is no central government to guide the behavior of states in the world system (Jervis, 1978, p. 167). It states that conflict is inevitable as states are eager to maximize their interests and also strengthen their security system. In order to achieve self-defense, states build and ramp up their own military to protect themselves hence leading to other states doing the same leading to arms race which leads to ‘security dilemma’ thus a spiral of insecurity, ending up causing war (Nayef, 2007, p. 20).

For example, E. H. Carr says that "the most serious wars are fought in order to make one's own country militarily stronger or, more often, to prevent another from becoming militarily stronger'' (Carr, 1964, p. 111). Such also was the case with Sparta and the Athenians. Sparta had to attack Athens because it had grown stronger (Forde, 1992, p. 374).Another example of security dilemma which led to war is that of Europeans at the beginning of the World War I in which they were compelled to go to war because they were insecure over the alliances of their neighbours even though they were not desiring the war (Broadberry & Harrison, 2005, p. 3).

An example of an arms race is that of Germany when it challenged Britain in twentieth century. German wanted to become the super power and this led to high competition on accumulation of military instruments between the two. It ended when Germany could not keep up with the competition due to domestic difficulties in raising taxes therefore leading to difficulties in purchasing the weapons (Rider, Findley, & Diehl, 2011, p. 86).

Classical realists also argued that the basic structure of International politics is one of anarchy because each of the independent sovereign states consider themselves to be their own highest authority and do not recognize a higher power above them (Forde, 1992, p. 498). International relations is about survival rather than pursuit of ‘good life’ (Nayef, 2007, p. 22). Nations are trying to maximize their own interests and therefore they do careless about others as there are no overarching rules and procedures binding them to do so. As nations gains power, they strive for more power which end up causing war (Korab-Karpowicz, 2006, p. 234).

An example which shows that when nations gains power they seek more, is that of German when it occupied the land Czechoslovakia which then became part of the German empire (Webb, 2008, p. 59). German was not be satisfied, it went on and attacked Britain, France and Russia simultaneously and got defeated (Churchill, 1941, p. 820).

This simply shows that if power is not controlled by a system of justice, it brings about the uncontrolled desire for more power, as it was the case with the Athens; they were already powerful and all they wanted was glory and gain. They had power, but they wanted to gain more than they had so they ended up going to war and conquering the Melians (Korab- Karpowicz, 2013, p. 45).

Another example is that, the powerful Athens had to attack the weak island of Melos, not because of security reasons, but to advance their interests. The Athenian representatives gave the Melians a choice, destruction or surrender, and asked them not to appeal to justice, but to think only about their survival. The Athenians told the Melians that they both know that the decisions about justice are made in human discussions only when both sides are under the force of law and be subjected to a common law giving authority, but when one side is stronger, it gets as much as it can, and the weak must accept that” (Korab-Karpowicz, 2006, p. 234). Since such an authority above states does not exist, the Athenians argued that in a lawless condition of international anarchy, the only right is the right of the stronger to dominate the weaker. They clearly equate right with power, and exclude considerations of justice from foreign affairs (Barkun, 1980, p. 414).

Due to selfish concerns, power, fear and immoral motives amongst human nature and human affairs, there is no such thing as 'Justice’ in the International system, rather the more powerful will always take advantage of the weaker, and will give the name of law and justice to whatever they lay down in their own interests, in order to exploit them .Foreign policies therefore, are formulated based on what nations can gain, thus on how far they can achieve their interest (Leiter, 2001, p. 253).


The levels of analysis are divided into three categories, being the individual, state and international level. These levels are very crucial in the international system as they help one to understand how force in political power affects another. They are used to help understand complex problems in world politics and power is considered to be the concept that collects all the analysis together (Gilpin, 2001, p. Chapter 1).

In this paper, we will be discussing the levels of analysis in Waltzian fashion. In his book of Man, the State and War, Waltz (1959, p. 160) differentiates the categories of factors that causes war being the attributes of individual human beings, states and the international system.


This level of analysis argues that the international system is made of individuals and the way nations interact with one another is derived from individual behaviour. It also states that human beings are by nature violent beings and therefore states can be violent because they are made by the individual. Human perceptions influence their political behaviour which impacts on the state behaviour. That is, the behaviour of state is guided by behaviour of the leader leading that particular country (Ray, 2001, p. 356)

It views the individual leaders as the cause of events taking place within a particular country. The level also looks at the cognitive theories that explain foreign policy by focusing on how leaders view the world. It is believed that the way individual leaders view the world shapes their political choices either at both the domestic and the international level (Waltz, 1959, p. 79).


It states that human beings are chaotic in nature, driven by the pursuit of power; they are greedy, selfish and full of conflicts and all these causes’ conflicts amongst them (Nayef, 2007, p. 68). Realists also argues that beings seek to possess power because they are insecure and also they are competing for scarce resources and in trying to achieve their self-interests conflicts are likely to arise, because in most cases they break rules. Ego and fear can also leads to conflicts as ego can lead to desire to dominate others and to be realised as an individual of worth whilst fear may make the individuals to be aggressive and as a strategy for self-defence and all these may cause conflicts or even attacks among individuals(Nayef, 2007, p. 68).

States are principal unit of analysis for realists. States are greedy, insecure and very aggressive because they possess the traits of collective people making it up (Hobbes, 1651, pp. Part I, chs. xiii, xiv). They argue that states cannot be separated from human beings because the man in a state is the one who makes decisions that determines how the state should be (Korab-

Karpowicz, 2006, p. 240). Also, chaotic nations exist today because of the chaotic individuals. It argues that human beings are by nature violent; therefore states are violent because they are made up by the violent individuals. It also states that the perceptions of those particular leaders can change the nation (Barkun, 1980, p. 415) .

Chaotic states and human beings will always make policies that are chaotic in nature, violent policies that will make them to have competitive advantage over others. They make policies that exploit others in the international system (Brown, 2009, p. 259).


Francisco Franco of Spain, was a militant and his behaviour led to Spanish Civil War, white terror and even turned the state into a totalitarian state. Due to the fact that he was a dictator, the state also adopted his features (Wilcox, 1938, p. 237).Also, it can be argued that it is George Bush’s perceptions or aggressive behaviour which lead the nation to war against Afghanistan and Iraq (Woodward, 2002).

Also, the cause of World War I (WWI) is considered to have been caused by the lust for power by some individual leaders. For example, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s behaviour is considered to be one of the causes of WWI. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany is the one who urged Austria to declare war on Serbia. (Llewellyn & Thompson, 2015). Lastly, Zimbabwe’s current situation can be blamed on Robert Mugabe’s policies as he banished the white farmers from his land, leading to the collapse of the economy (Brownell II, 2004, p. 398)


This level focuses on how the internal attributes impacts the way the state interact with other states. It examines the foreign policy behaviour of states in terms of features (Waltz, 1959, p. 83).


The absence of an overarching government makes states to be insecure and they seek to preserve their political autonomy and territorial integrity (Lindemann, 2014, p. 34). In trying to do that, they strive to accumulate more power; more specially the military power. Accumulation of power by one state may lead to a spiral of insecurity to other states hence leading to security dilemma which may eventually lead to war (Nayef, 2007, p. 20).

All states are unique and have a set of defining political, cultural, economic, social, or religious characteristics that influence its foreign policy. The stronger the attributes a nation can have, can lead to a state to be more aggressive to other states and dominate them (Crisp & Kelly, 1999, p. 535).

For example, it is argued that the main cause of wars and conflicts is rooted in the need for capitalist states to continue opening up new markets in order to perpetuate their economic system at home. Also some of the conflicts among nations are caused by classes of foreign policy. For example; the cold war was a product of the clash of the US foreign policy character and the Russian foreign policy character (Gilpin, 2001, p. 213).

Also, states are driven by the desire for power, as it is the driving force to the national interest and also controlled by the desire to dominate other states (Nayef, 2007, p. 100). Power is a concept primarily thought of in terms of material resources necessary to induce harm or coerce other states (Morgenthau, 1965, p. 9).States do all they can to weaken their neighbours and enlarge their territories. As states try to pursue their national interest to ensure their survival in a self-help system, conflicts may arise and war may follow (Carr, 1964, p. 189).


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Classical Realism and International Relations
University of Botswana
International Relations
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classical realism, international relations, realism
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Ednah M Peter (Author), 2015, Classical Realism and International Relations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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