Political Realism versus Political Idealism


An Introduction to Political Realism

There are many theories that attempt to explain the relations between states in the international system.  While there is no unified theory of international relations, a few theories have gained a dominant position within the IR field.  The most commonly held theory in IR is the Realism or Political Realism theory. 

Political realism, as both informally and formally espoused by such famous thinkers as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980),  holds that in the anarchic system that is international relations one value above all others explains the actions of states, that value being the pursuit of power.   States in the international arena are consumed with maintaining their power as well as the acquisition of new power.  Normally, for the international relations theorist, the definition of power is simply the ability to get others to do what they would not do otherwise.  Power is expressed in the international arena as influence, both in terms of the ability to influence other states as well as the ability to become immune to the influence of others. 

Because the international arena is seen as anarchy, due to the lack of a central authority that has the ability to exert control on the world’s various states, realists tend to see the international system as a constant competition for power, with some states gaining power while other states find their power being reduced.  According to realists, this constant competition for power is deeply rooted in our selfish human nature.  Since states are controlled by human beings it is natural then to assume that states reflect a deep desire for power. 

When realists study IR, their main focus is on the state.  Realists tend to see other actors in the international arena (non-governmental organizations, the United Nations, treaty organizations, transnational terror groups) as secondary to states and are often simply manipulated by states as they maneuver for power.  To the realist, a great game is at play and states will use whatever tools or means to increase their power or influence.  It would be difficult, in fact, for states to effectively engage in long range alliances or agreements because as power shifts in the international system states need to reflexively adapt to new opportunities for power acquisition.  The constant need for power does not allow for altruistic agreements.

War, in the realist view, is only undertaken in order to increase state power.  Realists are not opposed to war as an instrument of politics but they are wary of any military action that may leave a state in a less advantageous position than before going to war.  Morality, ideological positions, economic ideas, and religions are all secondary to power considerations and realists are highly skeptical of pursuing social and economic values at the expense of state power.  That is why, for example, the preeminent realism theorist Hans Morgenthau opposed American involvement in the Vietnam War.  Morgenthau believed that the United States was pursuing economic and moral values in their Vietnam action and thus were putting American power at risk when there was no real threat coming from the Vietnamese to America or its position of power.

Realism is probably best expressed by Morgenthau’s Six Principles of Political Realism:

1.  All politics is governed by objective principles.  If we act against these principles we risk failure.

2.  State interest is defined as the pursuit of power.

3.  State interest in power is shaped by a variety of forces that change over time.

4.  Moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states without understanding their time and place.

5.  The Political Realist refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe.

6.  The difference, then, between political realism and other schools of thought is real, and it is profound.


An Introduction to Political Idealism

Political Idealism is a theory of international relations deeply rooted in Western liberal traditions with a strong belief in the inherent good that can be found in human nature.  States, being merely the expression of a mass of human beings, can reflect this basically positive human nature in their actions.  Idealists hold that international systems of morality, law, organization, and agreements can and should exist as a buffer against the anarchic nature of the international arena.

 Unlike political realists, idealists see human nature as essentially altruistic and human beings as capable of other interests beyond selfish needs for power.  The idealist seeks to harness this capacity for good and use it toward the project of building an international community that will replace the anarchy that rules the international system.  The most important realization of idealist theory is the United Nations.

Idealist thought is based on a number of theorists, but the most famous idealist thinker may be Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who in 1795 produced his short essay on international relations titled Perpetual Peace.  In the essay, Kant noted three basic principles that lay at the core of idealist theory:

1.  Reciprocity – States can and should develop international organizations that allow for cooperation and understanding between international states.  In order to join such international organizations and agreements, states must often forgo short term interests or goals in order to secure the longer term interest in peace and morality.

2.  Perpetual peace is dependent on the type of governments that exist in states – Kant was a believer in the theory that only certain states go to war with each other.  States that are republican in nature, with a well informed citizenry who actively engages in the democratic process, will rarely, if ever, go to war with other democratic states.  War is almost always found between autocratic states or autocracies at war with democratic states.  This type of belief would later find expression in the Democratic Peace Theory.  The Democratic Peace theory holds that if all states were essentially democratic in composition, then no wars would be found in the world.

3.  Trade between states promotes peace – Kant held that as international states engage in trade they increase levels of cooperation and wealth which in turn leads to peace.  As states increase in trade their wealth grows and as a result their populations find far less reason to become belligerent towards their trading partners.  This, in turn, leads to a spirit of cooperation across the international system and perpetual peace for all states.

Idealists tend to focus not only on the state but other actors in the international system such as non-governmental organizations, international treaty organizations, and organizations, such as the United Nations,  that promote cooperation between states.  Idealists accept that power is a consideration in state actions, but unlike the realist, idealists believe that states can rise above selfish concerns for the benefit of the entire international system.

Idealists believe that war can be reduced, if not eliminated, through the long term work of forging an effective system of reciprocity in the international arena.  Idealists are not pacifists, however, and they understand that there are times when military might must be used against states that refuse to comply with international agreements meant to ensure stability or peace in the international system.  This is why, for example, one of the great idealists President Woodrow Wilson (Pres. 1913-1921) ultimately decided to join the effort in World War I against imperial Germany, whose actions Wilson regarded as antithetical to the preservation of peace in Europe.