Is there a “timeless wisdom” to realism?

Essay, 2007
6 Pages


Is there a “timeless wisdom” to realism?

I argue that there is no ´timeless wisdom´ to realism, because in my opinion wisdom has nothing to do with realism. If realism is a timeless theory, then it should be viewed differently from the concept of wisdom. Both will be discussed in the following essay. Before we can fully answer the question if there is a ´timeless wisdom´ to realism, we should focus on the meaning of wisdom. The term wisdom has a varity of different meanings and implications in depending on your particular point of view. If you search the online lexicon encarta, you find for instance explanations of “Western philosophic theories on wisdom”, “wisdom in Chinese philosopic tradition”, mythological definitions of wisdom and there exist other understandings of wisdom. (encarta. 13.11.07) Probably the political scientists have another meaning of wisdom in their mind than the psychologists.

For this essay the definition of wisdom will be the one used in the encarta dictionary. It declares wisdom as “the ability to make sensible decisions and judgments based on personal knowledge and experience.” (encarta dictionary. 13.11.07) When we use this definition, which is of course mainly used to describe the behavior of human beings rather than a political theory, it is very doubtful to describe someone who sees power politics and e.g. the use of war merely as a political instument, as a sensible being. From a realist viewpoint states are “self-help agents” which only see their own interests and carry it through in an anarchic world order. (Doyle et al., 1997, p. 165) In regard to Machiavelli and Hobbes, humans are born bad. Carr and Morgenthau assume that the mankind learned by sociological factors to be self-maximizers. (Brown, 2007) Realist politics is power politics. Morgenthau claims that “power may comprise anything that establishes and maintains the control of man over man. Thus power covers all social relationships which serve that end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.” (Morgenthau, 1948, p. 11) Does this sound sensible? The focus on realism is rather power politics, conflict and war in which the values of cooperation, peace and progress are focused in the theories of liberalism. (Jackson et al, 2003 ) Of course, if we want to be 100 per cent correct, we also have to define the meaning of sensible decisions making, which is used in the definiton of wisedom. This would be the right way to work scientificly.

But in the definition of wisdom it is also claimed that the ability to make ´sensible´ decisions and judgments is based on knowledge and experience. So you can support the critics who argue with a lack in sensibility in that the classical realism was “developed in reaction to both the practical and the intellectual failures of the inter-war period, and the experiences of the Second World War and the Cold War.” (Buzan, 1996, p. 48) “Theorists such as Hans Morgenthau were well read in history and wanted to warn their countrymen against reverting to the idealism and isolationism that they believed helped to bring on World War II.” (Nye, 2004, p. 15) Therefore regarding the experience of two cruel World Wars and a dangerous Cold War, perhaps it might be necessary and advisable to judge state behavior in the way a realist does. But if it could be called ‘sensible’, it can only be valued in a context of war. So far, the heyday of realists’ thought was from the 1940 upwards.

If there is a wisdom in realism, as the question might imply, another question should be raised. Is this wisdom timeless, or not? To find out, firstly we have to go to the root of realism and then look at its significance in contemporary thought, before we can make assumptions about its significance in the future. Realism can be traced back to the Peloponnesian war and realist thinking is at least as old as 400BC. Realists say that even the Peloponnesian war was to establish a balance of power, the core assumption in realist theory, between Athens and Sparta. (Brown, 2007)

“A realist revival under the label neo-realism started in the late 1970s...” (Buzan, 1996, p. 49) And even after the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, realism “remains the cornerstone of much theoretical debate within the discipline” of International Relations. (Buzan, 1996, p. 50) From my point of view in the logic of power politics even the current atomic conflict between the West and Iran might be more understandable in a realist point of view. If Iran should gain nuclear weapons, this could be a mayor threat to the West regarding the balance of power1. A nuclear Iran is seen by many Western states as a security threat, and may at least affect their survivial. One option to minimise their vulnerabilities and dominate the upcomming Middle East hegemony is ´the state of war´. This option is now discussed in the world press and maybe in some governmental offices, too. A pre-emptive military strike should prevent Iran´s president’s announcement to extinguish the Israeli regime from coming true and to re-establish the balance of power. This shows that even current considerations in world politics fit in the realists model of thought.

But on the other hand, there are voices of scientists who assume that the proliferation of nuclear weapons should rather be welcomed than feared. These people are called neo-realists! “Waltz has argued that the controlled spread of nuclear weapons to other societies could have .. stabilizing effects…” (Linklater, 1995, p. 246) In Waltzs’ opinion the expected outcome of a nuclear war would deter every statesman from starting a nuclear war. No political goal would justify the presumable magnitude of destruction, which a nation would suffer. Nye calls it the crystal-ball effect. (Nye, 2004) This might be true, provided that the state thinks and acts rationally. But this is exactly what realists presume. This raises another question. Is the rhetoric of Mr. Ahmadinejad a rational one and to be taken seriously? Or would he really extinguish the Israeli regime, as he has called it, and risk the next global war? If the Iranian president acts rationally, he would not go to war with Israel and its mighty allies. If his current behaviour is actually rational then he does it in order to ‘rally his nation around the flag’. Perhaps Mr. Ahmadinejad is provoking Mr.G.W. Bush to assault Iran, because in the case of war a clear concept of an enemy could help the Iranian leadership to get support from the public. Even the model of the Iranian government, the ´big´ revolutionary leader Ayatollah Chomeini, who also was not indisputed in Iran after his revolution 1979, claimed that the war with Iraq (1980-1988) helped him to become more popular in his own nation. In a realists´sense “war can be rational if both sides have positive expected utilities for fighting-the expected utility of war (expected benefits minus costs) is greater than the expected utility of remaining at peace.” (Viotti, 1999, p. 56) And how huge can the costs be for Iran, if it gets blitzed by Israel or the USA? And when its opponents think that it´s in their national interest to relieve Iran of its nuclear program, this probably requires the use of force. And that is precisely what realists stand for. That this can be seen as a wise decision from a strategic point of view, seems questionable to me. But it shows that realist thought is still present in today´s politics.

Moreover, in a neo-realists’ view, why should the religious state Iran be assaulted for its suspicious nuclear program, when the world would become more stable, if it develops nuclear weapons? What would be wiser? To assault Iran on grounds of the balance of power, or allowing it to develop nuclear weapons to make the world more stable? For myself I can’t answer this question, for me it seems to be a loose-loose situation. If the next war developes on grounds of this atomic conflict between the West and Iran, then a particular realists’ proposition is probably rather true than wise. Mankind seems not to learn and “´the texture of international politics remains highly constant, patterns recur, and events repeat themselves endlessly”. (Doyle, 1997, p. 179) This might be an argument for the timelessness of realist thoughts, but not for wisdom. So we can see realism as a timeless theory. When realists believe that history recurs, they are maybe responsible for propagating the insecurity that they want to contest, because “by sanctifying in theory states, conflict and power politics, realists help to create self-fulfilling prophecies.” (Buzan, 1996, p. 54) I would question whether this is wise.

Another critique which might be able to weaken the supposed assumption of a ´wise´ realist theory also deals with balance of power. In present conflicts, like the Balkan conflict, global balance of power considerations have played a minor role. This European conflict that even involved the world community, was about identity and ethnicity. (Nyle, 2004) The same can be said about Chechnya, Kurdistan, Sri Lanka and others. So these conflicts can´t be explained by realist theories.

In conclusion, it has become clear that realism can be seen as a timeless theory. Many assumtions fit even in the current political agenda. So I agree with the assumtion of a timeless theory. But to connect realism with the term wisdom seems for me quite inappropriate, provided that we measure it by the following definition of wisdom: “Wisdom is the ability to make sensible decisions and judgments based on personal knowledge and experience.” (Encarta dictionary, 13.11.07) In contrast to sensibility, realist theories are based, among other things, on the thoughts of Hoppes, who claimes that power dictates everything in states. As far as one can see, realist politics is based on power politics. The balance of power is the main concern of realists and the use of war is merely seen as a political instument. But this doesn´t agree with a commen understanding of sensibitlity. Nevertheless, the rise of realism theories fits together with another point in the given definition of wisdom. Here, the executed judgments and decisions are based on knowledge and experience. And therefore in realism, realist thoughts were depeloped on grounds of the experiences of the Second World War and the Cold War.

But even this argument carry no weight when considering the thoughts of Post-modernists.2 They attribute little importance to history and argue that its traces have only a impact on the present time. “They reject history as a witness to continuity, as a narrative of uninterrupted progress, as testimony to improvement in the human condition, as the search for origins, or as evidence of direct causal understanding.” (Rosenau, 1990, p. 90) But Post-modernists even deconstruct the ´category´ of power and the meaning of power relations.

But because they refuse to ´reconstuct a text´ you could follow Nietzsche when he says “deconstruction deconstructs itself”. (Rosenau, 1990, p. 87)

Now the reader has to decide if he is convinced by the arguments above, or not. But if you see it like a Post-modernist it is not very important what the author intends to say. Important is how the reader interprets the text. ´The author is dead´, long live the reader!


Brown.G.W. (2007) What is Realism? POL223 Lecture Notes. [Online] SVVT2JKj31f2ynxhG5GQ9l2w2gmhfkG5YP2yTXdQWz68cKxyP!623799027!vygotsky.she!80!-1!749802506!!80!-1 (accessed 13. November 2007)

Buzan, B (1996) ´The timeless wisdom of realism ?´, In Smith, S., Booth, K.,& Zalewski, M., (eds) International Theory: Positivism and Beyond, (Campridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), ch.2, 47-65

Doyle, M.W., Ikenberry, G.J. (1997) New Thinking in International Relations Theory. Oxford

Encarta. Wisdom (philosophy). [Online-edition] (accessed 13. November 2007)

Encarta dictionary.Wisdom. [Online-edition] (accessed 13. November 2007)

Jackson, R., Sorensen, G. (2003) ´Why Study IR?´, in Jackson, R,. & Sorensen, G., Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press, 2003), ch.1, 1-31

Linklater, A. (1995) ‘Neo-realism in Theory and Practice’, in Booth, K., & Smith, S., (eds) International Relations Theory Today, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), ch.11, 241-262

Morgenthau, H.J. (1948) Politics among nations. The struggle for power and peace. 6 edition. New York

Nye Jr., J.S. (2004) Power In The Global Information Age. From Realism To Globalisation. London. Routledge

Rosenau, P. (1990) ´Once Again Into the Fray: International Relations Confronts the Humanities´, In Millennium. Journal of International Relations, Vol.19(1), 1990, 83-110. London


1 It should be noted that the major concern of the U.S. is the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons to terrorist organisations. But since the U.S. has blacklisted the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on the list of terrorists, this scenario becomes more probable.

2 Of course the concept of sensibility would be more deconstructed by Post-modernists, too. 4

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Is there a “timeless wisdom” to realism?
University of Sheffield  (Department of Politics)
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Markus Minning (Author), 2007, Is there a “timeless wisdom” to realism?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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