Realism in international politics

How does international politics work? Why do things happen the way they do and what factors influence decision-making? How can we explain developments on the international stage? Different movements have their own answers to these questions, and so does the movement of realism. More about realism’s view of international politics follows in this article.

Solutions to political conflicts

On the stage of international politics, three different types of solutions can be distinguished when there is a risk of political conflict:

  • Solution through dominance: When one or more states clearly have a dominant position, that state or group can function as a kind of world government.
  • Solution through reciprocity: Reciprocity is based on the principle of give and take, rewards, agreements and reciprocity. The advantage here is that all interests are represented. The disadvantage is that reciprocity can lead to lengthy negotiations. There is also a chance of a downward spiral (for example in the Cold War, with the arms race).
  • Solution through identity: An example of this is the formation of the European Union, which functions as a unit. Within this group, everyone is committed to each other in pursuit of the common interest. The disadvantage here is that the world outside the group can sometimes be forgotten or disadvantaged.


How, according to realism, does power explain the functioning of the international system?

Realism is based on the core principle of dominance. Central concepts here are anarchy and state sovereignty. Everyone pursues their own interests. However, the question is whether this is good for international security (see also the Cold War, for example). Realism assumes that as long as there is a balance of power in the world there will be peace and stability. In a balance of power there may be:

  • Unipolarity: One state is the dominant, powerful one. This is seen as a stable equilibrium because this state can function as a kind of world government.
  • Bipolarity: Two states are clearly dominant. This is also still quite stable because the two states will always ensure that the balance between the two is maintained (again, the Cold War is a good example).
  • Tripolarity: Three states are clearly in a dominant position. This is already a lot less stable because one has to try to take 2 other states into account and agreements can possibly be made between two states to the detriment of the third state.
  • Multipolarity: This is a situation where many states are apparently equally powerful, and this is therefore a very unstable situation.

Realism assumes that this polarity, the international distribution of power, has the greatest influence on international security. What is stable here is hegemony, unipolarity, where one state is clearly dominant. This was the case, for example, in the 16th century with Spain, in the 17th century with the Netherlands, and you could say that in the 20th century it was the US that was clearly in a dominant position compared to the rest of the world.

The advantage of Hegemony is that there is often order, a high degree of stability and also predictability. People know what to expect, and with multipolarity there is more chaos and unpredictability. This stability is generally guaranteed until this dominant state goes too far. In this case there is overstretch, the dominant state oversteps its bounds and strikes out. Then it is up to the international community to intervene and a new polarity will emerge.

A threat to the international balance can be the formation of alliances. Consider, for example, NATO or the UN, or the former Warsaw Pact. These alliances can quickly form, shift and dissolve. For example, who doesn’t know the board game Risk, where players, as superpowers on the world stage, continuously enter into alliances and break these alliances when it suits them. For example, during World War II, Stalin initially made an alliance with Hitler, only to break it later and work with the Allies against Nazi Germany.

How is power exercised according to realism?

The way in which power is exercised according to realism is based on the two core concepts of State Leadership and Strategy.

State leadership is basically the art of managing the affairs of state and effectively promoting national interests in the context of international power politics.
The strategy used is of enormous importance. The strategy has the following aspects:

  • Rational use of power capabilities: This involves asking the question: ‘How far can I go?’. What decisions can I afford myself and when does overstretch occur?
  • Appraisal of will and willingness to sacrifice: This is based on the principle of reciprocity, give and take. Simply put: ‘I do this for you, then you do that for me’.
  • Influencing cooperation or cooperation through economic incentives, deterrence or enforcement: If a state is in a dominant position, it can, for example, enforce decisions on other states through a trade boycott. In more extreme cases, there may even be a threat of invasion/use of military resources (for example to force a country to stop producing nuclear weapons).
  • Rationality: The state is seen as a unitary actor. The national interest can be promoted in this way using a kind of cost-benefit analysis.

This is actually in a nutshell what the current of realism entails in the field of international politics.

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