Realism, also known as “political realism” or ‘Realpolitik’, continues to remain one of the dominant schools of thought within the domain of international relations. Although its genesis can be traced back to Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC), and to sun Tzu’s classic work on strategy, The Art of War, written at roughly the same time in China, Realism emerged as the dominant international perspective only during the 20th century. More specifically, it emerged in its modern form largely in reaction to idealism, a more normatively driven approach which held that countries were United in an underlying “harmony of interests”-a view shattered by the outbreak of Second World War. Rather than study the world as it might be, Realists maintained that a science of international politics must study the world, as it was-an insistence that resulted in the Realists’ self-acclaimed appellation.
In contrast to the “idealists”, a term retrospectively coined by the Realists for the Inter-war scholars whose major preoccupation was with understanding the cause of war and finding a lasting remedy for its existence, war to the Realists appears as a natural phenomenon given the inherent craving for power in human nature. While idealism emphasizes that international relations should be guided by morality, Realism is grounded in an emphasis on power politics and the pursuit of national interests. But, what do these terms mean? As you go along this Unit, the meanings and implications of such expressions frequently used in the literature on international relations would become clear to you. However, before we get down to explaining these terms we must take note of the fact that from the perspective of the Realist framework, states are recognized as the pre-eminent actors in world politics.
What provides weight to such an assumption is the accompanying notion of sovereignty, which enables states to act as independent and autonomous entities both within and outside the nation-state. The rise of nationalism and the emergence of modern nation-states have further consolidated such a belief system by transforming the different states into cohesive political communities, within which all other loyalties and ties remain subordinate to the nation-states. By logical extension, all non-state actors like multinational corporations and intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations are relegated to a peripheral status within the international system.
Despite the growing recognition of the fact that such non-state entities do significantly influence the outcome of developments in international relations, the Realists are unwilling to budge from their position as far as the pre-eminence of nation-states in the international system is concerned. While conceding that the non-state actors do operate within the political arena, the Realists argue that the states’ supremacy remains unchallenged as they do so only with the consent of national political authorities. Nothing, the Realists argue, is above the state.