To what extent is realist theory an adequate tool to help us understand international relations in the unipolar post-Cold War world?

Essay, 2006

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents


Realism as a theory

From classical realism to neo-realism

Realism and its Critics

An empirical example: Iraq War 2003




There was going to be a “new partnership of nations” emphasized president Bush of the United States on the 11th of September 1990, and declared the “new world order”. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the 40 year long Cold War period of a bipolar world divided into the States with its Western allies and the Soviets with its Eastern allies ended. Only one global superpower, the United States, was left. Michael E. Brown (2003: 2) argues the leading powers did not form a new partnership of nations. He regards the international system still as anarchic, referring to international responses to war, slaughter and starvation in Bosnia and Somalia and in Rwanda 1994. Waltz responds that only “changes of the system” would be able to modify the international political system, but not “changes in the system” (Waltz 2000: 5). It has been argued that the terrorism attacks in the U.S. of 9/11 2001 have changed the way how the global system works. High Bush administration officials described them as worldview changing and world changing. (Crawford, 2004: 685 – 703). What it did was changing the – public – perception of international security. At NBC’s “Meet the Press” on September 14, 2003, Dick Cheney explained that “9/11 changed everything. It changed the way we think about threats to the United States. It changed about our recognition of our vulnerabilities. It changed in terms of the kind of national security strategy we need to pursue.” There had never been an attack against the United States on U.S. territorial and performed by a non-state actor before. But international terrorism was already known and national security plans aiming at this problem had been worked out under Clinton. The focus within national and international security might have changed towards international terrorism, but the way the international system worked before 9/11, as well as it is working after, is still anarchic and belonging to the post-Cold War era.

International Relations theorists have been analysing as well as formulizing the foreign policy of states of this new unipolar constellation within the international system. One dominating theory is realism, the ‘power politics’ school of thought. Its main assumptions are that nation-states are the only important actor in the international system, that states are pursuing power as a means of achieving security and that the international system is anarchic (Carr, Morgenthau, Waltz, Mearsheimer).

International Relations are characterized by the structure of the international system. In the post Cold-War world it is determined by a single global superpower, which is the United States, and an ever faster globalization, enhancing technical and military capabilities and thereby the abilities of states to generate power.

In this essay to what degree realism is an adequate theory to help us understand the international relations in the unipolar post-Cold War world will be explored. First, the complex realism theory is being described. Special attention is being drawn to the relevance of realism, and especially neo-realism as a more developed form to understand the dynamics and forces driving the post-Cold War unipolar world. In the third part criticism of neo-realism will be addressed. the neo-institutionalist theory, as the most popular alternative among scholars, emphasizes the increasing power of international institutions in a globalizing world. In the last part a neo realist approach is applied to the case of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and highlights the causes and consequences of the US unilateral action. The extent to which the relative power of the US declined as a result of its strategy of a coalition of the willing is pointed out. Finally, in conclusion, it is argued that the realist theory has been able to evolve and adapt to the changes that occurred in the World since the End of the Cold War. The neo-realist theory, by taking into account the implications of globalization and economical matters, appears to be the most suitable to understand the evolution of International Politics.

Realism as a theory

We want to explore to what extend realism is an appropriate IR theory to understand the Post-Cold War world. First of all, we need to know what an IR theory is, what it is in context with realism and during the post-Cold War period and why we need to apply a theory.

A theory is a simple instrument used to understand complexities of a certain subject in the real world. International Relations is an interdisciplinary area of study, dealing with the foreign policy of states within the international system. It draws upon such diverse fields as political science, economics, history, law, philosophy, area studies, sociology, cultural studies and other social sciences and involves a diverse range of issues, from globalization and its impacts on state sovereignty to the environmental movement, nuclear proliferation, nationalism, foreign aid, economic development, terrorism and human rights (). This is a broad, complex and integrated branch of political science in which different IR theories emphasize on different areas. Realism has always paid primary attention to international security, meaning power politics. Furthermore, we have to define the period during which realism will be explored. There are two post-Cold War era characteristics, on the one hand, the structural characteristic of the realm of international politics which is defined by its organizing principle: anarchy. On the other hand, we have a change in the distribution of the capabilities among the states, with only one superpower: the United States. The globalization with its complexities of security, just to mention nuclear weapons, and its growing economic interdependence and ever faster technological developments is the circumstance in which realism in the post-cold will be explored.

Realism has been most influential in explaining world politics and developed a variety of theoretical approaches over the time. The values of realism in international relations are focussed on security, precisely power politics, conflict and war (Jackson and Sørensen 2003: ). Realism holds that in pursuit of that security, states will attempt to amass resources, and that relations between states are determined by their relative levels of power. That level of power is in turn determined by the state's military and economic capabilities. In order to gain security in a hostile environment, a state has to maximize its national interests by the means of power (Keohane:1989: 36). The main assumptions of realism are that the sovereign state is the principal actor in international politics, the so-called state-centralism; and that “international politics takes place in an arena that has no overarching central authority above the individual collection of sovereign states”, referred to as the condition of anarchy (Dunne and Schmidt: 2005:163). The latter suggests that there is no restriction to the way states act on an international level, whilst within the state egoism is substantially restrained by hierarchical rule. Realists accordingly differentiate between states domestic politics and their international politics. Because the survival of the state can never be guaranteed on the international level, together, Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau provided a set of principles, called ‘raison d´état’, or reason of state, to leaders to conduct their national interests in international relations to ensure the security of the state. Associated with raison d´état is the role of morals and ethics in world politics and to what degree they play a role, if any. Realists are sceptical about the existence of universal moral principles and therefore warn the states to follow any moral rules which lead to sacrificing national interests. There is a dual moral standard to be observed in regards to affairs within and outside the states. Whilst internally, behaviour such as cheating, lying or killing, would be totally unacceptable to the individual, externally the state is justified to behave just like this. The argument of advocates of raison d’état is that sometimes a state needs to be cruel in order to preserve the domestic ethical political community it encloses (Dunne and Schmidt: 2005:163). As in a situation of threat, to ensure their security, realists argue states need to increase their own power capabilities. In case “that the survival of a single or a number of weaker states is threatened by a hegemonic or coalition of stronger states, they should join forces, establish a formal alliance, and seek to preserve their own independence by checking the power of the opposing side” (Dunne and Schmidt: 2005:164). This balance of power mechanism seeks to ensure that there is no single or coalition of states dominating the others. A famous example for the balance of power mechanism is the competition built up during the Cold War between the East, represented as the formal alliance system Warsaw Pact and the West, in form of the NATO.

As mentioned earlier, there are numerous variations of realism. During my study, I got the impression that it is hard to differentiate the different versions and to keep an overview of derivations and developments within realism and its variants. There are fluid belongings with realism and realist theorists themselves develop “their theory” over the time. To get an overview of the various types of realism, they are often being divided into historical periods. The problem with such differentiation is that divergences within each historical phase are being neglected. (Dunne and Schmidt: 2005:167) In this case, I will differentiate political realism into classical realism and structural realism or Neo-realism, which again divergences into defensive realism and offensive realism. The following paragraph will be a summary of these main realism classifications.


Excerpt out of 15 pages


To what extent is realist theory an adequate tool to help us understand international relations in the unipolar post-Cold War world?
University of Bath  (Modern Languages and European Studies)
International Relations and International Security
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
411 KB
International, Relations, International, Security
Quote paper
Diplom-Kauffrau, MA Contemporary European Studies Vanessa Buth (Author), 2006, To what extent is realist theory an adequate tool to help us understand international relations in the unipolar post-Cold War world?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: To what extent is realist theory an adequate tool to help us understand international relations in the unipolar post-Cold War world?

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free