realism

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Chapter 5
Realism
tim dunne · brian c. schmidt
Introduction: the timeless wisdom of realism86
One realism, or many?89
The essential realism93
Conclusion: realism and the globalization of world politics96

Reader’s Guide
Realism is the dominant theory of International Rela­tions. Why? Because it provides the most powerful explanation for the state of war that is the regular condition of life in the international system. This is the bold claim made by realists in defence of their tradition, a claim that will be critically examined in this chapter. The second section will ask whether there is one realism or a variety of realisms. The argument presented below suggests that despite important differences, particularly between classical and structural realism, it is possible to identify a shared core set of assumptions and ideas. The third section outlines these common elements, which we identify as selfhelp, statism, and survival. In the final section, we return to the question of how far realism is relevant for explaining or understanding the globalization of world politics. Although there are many voices claiming that a new set of forces is challenging the Westphalian state system, realists are generally sceptical of these claims, arguing that the same basic patterns that have shaped international politics in the past remain just as relevant today. Introduction: the timeless wisdom of realism

The story of realism most often begins with a mythical tale of the idealist or utopian writers of the interwar period (1919–39). Writing in the aftermath of the First World War, the ‘idealists’, a term that realist writers have retrospectively imposed on the interwar scholars, focused much of their attention on understanding the cause of war so as to find a remedy for its existence. Yet, according to the realists, the interwar scholars’ approach was flawed in a number of respects. For example, they ignored the role of power, overestimated the degree to which human beings were rational, mistakenly believed that nationstates shared a set of interests, and were overly optimistic that humankind could overcome the scourge of war. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 confirmed, for the realists at least, the inadequacies of the idealists’ approach to studying international politics. A new approach, one based on the timeless insights of realism, replaced the discredited idealist approach.1 Histories of the academic field of International Relations describe a Great Debate that took place in the late 1930s and early 1940s between the interwar idealists and a new generation of realist writers, which included E. H. Carr, Hans J. Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others, who all emphasized the ubiquity of power and the competitive nature of politics among nations. The standard account of the Great Debate is that the realists emerged victorious, and the rest of the International Relations story is, in many respects, a footnote to realism. It is important to note, however, that at its inception, there was a need for realism to define itself against an alleged ‘idealist’ position. From 1939 to the present, leading theorists and policymakers have continued to view the world through realist lenses. Realism taught American leaders to focus on interests rather than on ideology, to seek peace through strength, and to recognize that great powers can coexist even if they have antithetical values and beliefs. The fact that realism offers something of a ‘manual’ for maximizing the interests of the state in a hostile environment explains in part why it remains the dominant tradition in the study of world politics. The theory of realism that prevailed after the Second World War is often claimed to rest on an older, classical tradition of thought. Indeed, many contemporary realist writers often claim to be part of an ancient tradition of thought that includes such illustrious figures as Thucydides (c. 460–406 BC), Niccolò Machiavelli...
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