Is Realism realistic?

Order Description

Essay Questions

1. Is Realism realistic?

2. What is political power? Discuss with reference to key Realist texts.

3. Is Realism morally defensible?

4. Hobbes, Machiavelli and Thucydides serve as the key intellectual legitimations for Realism. Is the Realist reading of these three thinkers justified?

5. Give a Realist account of the Cold War, including its beginning and end.

6. What does Neorealism gain over Realism by its more ‘scientific’ approach?

7. What is ‘structural’ in Waltz’s theory of structural Realism?

8. What are the similarities and differences between Realism and Neorealism?

9. Are neorealist and neoliberal theories mutually exclusive? Why?

Required Readings

Carr, Edward H., The Twenty Years Crisis (London: Macmillan, 1981) Chapter 5.

Morgenthau, Hans J., Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 4th edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967) Chapter 1.

Waltz, Kenneth, ‘Reductionist and Systemic Theories’, in Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley 1979) chapter 4 [reprinted in Robert O. Keohane (ed.), Neorealism and its Critics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), chapter 3].

Waltz, Kenneth, ‘Why Iran Should Get the Bomb’, Foreign Affairs, 2012, 91(4): 2-5.


Realism, at least in the Anglo-American world, represents the oldest and most dominant paradigm in IR theory. Its intellectual lineage is often traced back via the German idea of Realpolitik to the writings of Hobbes, Machiavelli and even Thucydides. Through the ‘domestic analogy’ with human behaviour in the state of nature as a state of war of all against all, realism views international relations as an arena of survival amongst naturally competitive and power-maximising states to which only short-term alliances and the balance of power can bring temporal respite. While many of realism’s core assumptions and propositions have been repeatedly (and often convincingly) criticized, its continuing dominance is reflected in the fact that most other IR theories define and situate themselves in opposition to the realist paradigm. In the 1970s, Kenneth Waltz developed Neorealism, also known as ‘structural Realism’, in an attempt to render traditional Realism more ‘scientific’. He formulated a theory of international politics in which state behaviour was deduced from the anarchic structure of the international system (and not human nature). Furthermore, it was claimed that since systemic anarchy is a historical constant (since no world-encompassing empire had ever existed in recorded history), the theory had a transhistorical and ‘timeless’ explanatory validity. While Neorealism reconnected self-reflexively with the then current theoretical developments in social sciences (structuralism) and while it excelled in conceptual rigour, parsimony and logic, it came under attack from a wide variety of approaches and theories during the 80’s and 90’s most important of which are covered in the second half of the module.