Unformatted text preview: Realism and International
Jack Donnelly P U B L I S H E D B Y T H E P R E S S S Y N D I C AT E O F T H E U N I V E R S I T Y O F C A M B R I D G E The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, United Kingdom
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Realism and international relations / Jack Donnelly.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0 521 59229 1 (hb) – ISBN 0 521 59752 8 (pb)
1. International relations. 2. Realism. I. Title.
327.1 01 – dc21
ISBN 0 521 59229 1 hardback
ISBN 0 521 59752 8 paperback Contents Acknowledgments page vii Introduction 1 1 The realist tradition 6 2 Human nature and state motivation 43 3 Anarchy, hierarchy, and order 81 4 System, structure, and balance of power 107 5 Institutions and international society 131 6 Morality and foreign policy 161 Conclusion: The nature and contribution of realism 193 Selected recommended readings
228 v 1 The realist tradition One might imagine that deﬁning an old and well-established theory such
as realism would be a simple task. A look at the representative sample of
recent and prominent deﬁnitions in box 1.1, however, reveals considerable diversity1 – which on further reﬂection should not be surprising.
Even in traditions with authoritative deﬁning texts, such as Marxism
and Christianity, diﬀerent emphases and antagonistic interpretations are
common. We should expect at least as much variety in realism.
Realism2 is not a theory deﬁned by an explicit set of assumptions and
propositions. Rather, as many commentators have noted, it is a general
orientation: “a philosophical disposition” (Gilpin 1986: 304); “a set of
normative emphases which shape theory” (Ferguson and Mansbach
1988: 79); an “attitude of mind” with “a quite distinctive and recognizable ﬂavour” (Garnett 1984: 110); “a loose framework” (Rosenthal 1991:
7); and “a ‘big tent,’ with room for a number of diﬀerent theories” (Elman
1996: 26). Realism is an approach to international relations that has
emerged gradually through the work of a series of analysts who have situated themselves within, and thus delimited, a distinctive but still diverse
style or tradition of analysis.3
11 12 13 6 See Cusack and Stoll (1990: ch. 2) for a review that emphasizes this diversity. More critically, see Goldmann (1988). For further deﬁnitions see John, Wright, and Garnett (1972:
96–97), Maghroori and Ramberg (1982: 14–16), Vasquez (1983: 15–19, 26–30), Olson
and Onuf (1985: 7), Cox (1986: 211–212), Ferguson and Mansbach (1988: 40–47, 102),
Stein (1990: 4–7), Rosenau and Durfee (1995: 11–13), Elman (1996: 19–21), Grieco
(1997: 164–168), Labs (1997: 7), Mastanduno (1997: 50).
We should note at the outset that I am concerned here with political realism, the tradition
of realpolitik or power politics. “Realism,” however, is also a philosophical doctrine,
asserting some kind of correspondence between knowledge claims and an objective
external reality. For a good recent overview of the philosophical debate, see Kulp (1997).
Katz (1998) oﬀers a defense of philosophical realism that canvasses the leading objections. “Realism” is also the name of a literary school or movement that was of considerable prominence in the nineteenth and early twentieth century (as well as in the
mid-twentieth century, in its “socialist” variant). Political realists may or may not be philosophical or literary realists.
On the idea of traditions of international thought, see Nardin and Mapel (1992) and
Dunne (1993). More broadly, compare Gunnell (1979). The realist tradition
Box 1.1. Representative deﬁnitions of realism
(The following passages are direct quotations or very close paraphrases.)
1. The state’s interest provides the spring of action.
2. The necessities of policy arise from the unregulated competition of states.
3. Calculation based on these necessities can discover the policies that will
best serve a state’s interests.
4. Success is the ultimate test of policy, and success is deﬁned as preserving
and strengthening the state. (Waltz 1979: 117)
1. Politics is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.
2. The main signpost that helps political realism to ﬁnd its way through the
landscape of international politics is the concept of interest deﬁned in
terms of power.
3. Power and interest are variable in content.
4. Universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states.
5. Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular
nation with the moral laws that govern the universe.
6. The autonomy of the political sphere. (Morgenthau 1954: 4–10)
1. The international system is anarchic.
2. States inherently possess some oﬀensive military capability, which gives
them the wherewithal to hurt and possibly destroy each other.
3. No state can ever be certain another state will not use its oﬀense military
4. The most basic motive driving states is survival.
5. States are instrumentally rational. (Mearsheimer 1994/95: 9–10)
1. The fundamental unit of social and political aﬀairs is the “conﬂict group.”
2. States are motivated primarily by their national interest.
3. Power relations are a fundamental feature of international aﬀairs. (Gilpin
1. The state-centric assumption: states are the most important actors in world
2. The rationality assumption: world politics can be analyzed as if states were
unitary rational actors seeking to maximize their expected utility.
3. The power assumption: states seek power and they calculate their interests
in terms of power. (Keohane 1986b: 164–165)
1. Realists assume an ineradicable tendency to evil.
2. Realists assume that the important unit of social life is the collectivity and
that in international politics the only really important collective actor is the
state, which recognizes no authority above it.
3. Realists hold power and its pursuit by individuals and states as ubiquitous
and inescapable. 7 8 Realism and international relations
Box 1.1 (cont.)
4. Realists assume that the real issues of international politics can be understood by the rational analysis of competing interests deﬁned in terms of
power. (Smith 1986: 219–221)
4. The centrality of states.
The world is anarchic.
States seek to maximize their security or their power.
The international system is mostly responsible for state conduct on the
5. States adopt instrumentally rational policies in their pursuit of power or
6. The utility of force. (Frankel 1996: xiv–xviii)
1. The international system is anarchic.
2. Nation-states pursue their own national interests deﬁned primarily in
terms of power.
3. Skepticism toward international laws, institutions, and ideals that attempt
to transcend or replace nationalism.
4. Primacy of balance of power politics. (Wayman and Diehl 1994: 5)
5. Humans face one another primarily as members of groups.
International aﬀairs takes place in a state of anarchy.
Power is the fundamental feature of international politics.
The nature of international interactions is essentially conﬂictual.
Humankind cannot transcend conﬂict through the progressive power of
6. Politics are not a function of ethics.
7. Necessity and reason of state trump morality and ethics. (Schweller 1997:
1. History is a sequence of cause and eﬀect, whose course can be understood
by intellectual eﬀort, but not directed by “imagination.”
2. Theory does not create practice, but practice theory.
3. Politics are not a function of ethics, but ethics of politics. (Carr 1946:
1. Groups (states) consider themselves to be ultimate ends.
2. Any measure required for state self-preservation is justiﬁed.
3. Law and morality have a subordinate place in international relations.
(Schwarzenberger 1951: 13) The realist tradition 9 Nonetheless, a set of recurrent concerns and conclusions marks these
varying works as part of a single tradition. The deﬁnitions in box 1.1 share
a family resemblance, even though no single set of elements can be found
in each. Both realists and their critics agree that the realist “intellectual
style is unmistakable” (Garnett 1984: 29; compare Cusack and Stoll
1990: 19; Wayman and Diehl 1994). As an American judge notoriously
said of pornography, we may not be able to deﬁne it, but we know it when
we see it.
This chapter attempts to orient the reader to the realist style, tradition,
or approach in four complementary ways: a brief deﬁnition; a simple,
two-dimensional typology; short summaries of six paradigmatic realist
theories; and an overview of the development of realist thought in the
Realism emphasizes the constraints on politics imposed by human nature
and the absence of international government. Together, they make international relations largely a realm of power and interest.
“Human nature has not changed since the days of classical antiquity”
(Thompson 1985: 17). And that nature, according to realists, is at its core
egoistic, and thus inalterably inclined towards immorality. As Machiavelli
puts it, in politics “it must needs be taken for granted that all men are
wicked and that they will always give vent to the malignity that is in their
minds when opportunity oﬀers” (1970: Book I, ch. 3).
Some realists, such as Reinhold Niebuhr (1944: 19) and Hans
Morgenthau (1946: 202), see Machiavelli’s claim as largely descriptive.
Many, like Machiavelli himself, contend only that there are enough
egoists to make any other assumption unduly risky. All, however, emphasize the egoistic passions and self-interest in (international) politics. “It is
above all important not to make greater demands upon human nature
than its frailty can satisfy” (Treitschke 1916: 590). “It is essential not to
have faith in human nature. Such faith is a recent heresy and a very disastrous one” (Butterﬁeld 1949: 47).
Most realists also recognize that “men are motivated by other desires
than the urge for power and that power is not the only aspect of international relations” (Spykman 1942: 7). Thus Niebuhr couples his harsh
doctrine of original sin with an insistence that “individuals are not consistently egoistic” (1944: 123). He even argues for “an adequate view of
human nature, which does justice to both the heights and depths of
human life” (1934: 113). Likewise, Morgenthau argues that “to do justice
and to receive it is an elemental aspiration of man” (1970: 61). Kenneth 10 Realism and international relations Thompson even contends that “man is at heart a moral being” and
emphasizes “the insatiable quest of man for justice” (Thompson 1966: 4,
75; compare Carr 1946: 145).
Nonetheless, realists characteristically give primary emphasis to egoistic passions and “the tragic presence of evil in all political action”
(Morgenthau 1946: 203). And because these passions are ineradicable,
“conﬂict is inevitable” (Niebuhr 1932: xv). “It is proﬁtless to imagine a
hypothetical world in which men no longer organize themselves in groups
for purposes of conﬂict” (Carr 1946: 231). Whatever their other disagreements, realists are unanimous in holding that human nature contains an
ineradicable core of egoistic passions; that these passions deﬁne the
central problem of politics; and that statesmanship is dominated by the
need to control this side of human nature.
Realists also stress the political necessities that ﬂow from international
anarchy.4 In the absence of international government, “the law of the
jungle still prevails” (Schuman 1941: 9). “The diﬀerence between civilization and barbarism is a revelation of what is essentially the same
human nature when it works under diﬀerent conditions” (Butterﬁeld
1949: 31; compare Schuman 1941: 9; Spykman 1942: 141). Within
states, human nature usually is tamed by hierarchical political authority
and rule. In international relations, anarchy not merely allows but
encourages the worst aspects of human nature to be expressed. “That
same human nature which in happy conditions is frail, seems to me to be
in other conditions capable of becoming hideous” (Butterﬁeld 1949: 44).
The interaction of egoism and anarchy leads to “the overriding role of
power in international relations” (Schwarzenberger 1951: 147) and
requires “the primacy in all political life of power and security” (Gilpin
1986: 305). “The struggle for power is universal in time and space”
(Morgenthau 1948: 17). “The daily presence of force and recurrent reliance on it mark the aﬀairs of nations” (Waltz 1979: 186). “Security” thus
means a somewhat less dangerous and less violent world, rather than a
safe, just, or peaceful one. Statesmanship involves mitigating and managing, not eliminating, conﬂict.
The “negative” side of this “positive” emphasis on power and interest is
skepticism over moral concerns in international relations. Ethical considerations and objectives, realists typically argue, must be subordinated to
14 Throughout I use “anarchy” as it is ordinarily used in the international relations literature; that is, in the literal sense of absence of rule, lack of government. As we shall see in
greater detail in chapter 3, anarchy does not imply chaos, absence of order; it is simply the
absence of “hierarchical” political order based on formal subordination and authority.
Thus Hedley Bull (1977) describes international relations as taking place in an “anarchical society” of states. The realist tradition 11 “reason of state” (raison d’état). Realism “justiﬁes and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always ﬁnd embarrassing” (Niebuhr 1932: xi). “Realism maintains that universal moral
principles cannot be applied to the actions of states” (Morgenthau 1954:
9). “Other criteria, sadder, more limited, more practical must be allowed
to prevail” (Kennan 1954: 49).
As a ﬁrst approximation, we can distinguish subgroupings of realists, thus
deﬁned, along two dimensions: the relative emphasis they give to the core
propositions of egoism and anarchy and the stringency of their commitment to a rigorous and exclusively realist analysis.
Structural realists give predominant emphasis to international anarchy.
For example, John Herz argues that international anarchy assures the
centrality of the struggle for power “even in the absence of aggressivity
or similar factors” (Herz 1976: 10; compare Waltz 1979: 62–63).
Contemporary structural realists are also often called “neorealists,” in an
eﬀort to emphasize their “newness” and the diﬀerences from most earlier
realists arising from their strong structuralism.
Biological realists emphasize a ﬁxed human nature. For example,
Morgenthau argues that “social forces are the product of human nature in
action”; “the social world [is] but a projection of human nature onto the
collective plane”; political problems are “projections of human nature
into society” (1948: 4; 1962a: 7, 312). Such realists “see that conﬂict is in
part situationally explained, but . . . believe that even were it not so, pride,
lust, and the quest for glory would cause the war of all against all to continue indeﬁnitely. Ultimately, conﬂict and war are rooted in human
nature” (Waltz 1991: 35). “The ultimate sources of social conﬂicts and
injustices are to be found in the ignorance and selﬁshness of men”
(Niebuhr 1932: 23).
Although such theorists are often called “classical” realists, this label
tells us nothing about the substance of their orientation. The category
“classical” is a residual: those who are not structural (neo)realists. The
label biological, by contrast, is substantive and positive, pointing to their
emphasis on human nature. And by refusing to deﬁne categories in terms
of the currently dominant structuralist turn, it maintains neutrality
between competing approaches to realism.
It is easy, and dangerous, to overemphasize the diﬀerences between biological and structural realism. Structural realists, as we will see in some
detail in the next chapter, must make motivational assumptions about
states and individuals. For example, Christian saints and Hobbesian 12 Realism and international relations egoists will behave very diﬀerently in an environment of anarchy.
Conversely, most biological realists recognize at least quantitative
diﬀerences in behavior in anarchic and hierarchic structures. For example,
Morgenthau gives considerable attention to the structure-induced patterns of behavior of the balance of power (1954: chs. 11–14, 21).
Nonetheless, the diﬀerence in emphasis does distinguish structural
realism, especially in its contemporary neorealist forms.5 Furthermore,
principally structural theories are likely to make greater allowances for
change and for non-realist “hedges,” because anarchy is more susceptible
to amelioration than human nature. “The essential nature of man may
not be altered, but human behavior in general is sometimes improved, by
the establishment of an order of things which has the eﬀect of reducing
temptation,” and in some instances “a healthy disposition of forces can be
attained for long periods which, so to speak, makes human nature better
than it really is” (Butterﬁeld 1960: 25; 1949: 33).
This reference to “hedges” leads to the second dimension of variation
in realist theories to which I want to draw attention.
Radical realists adopt extreme versions of the three realist premises of
anarchy, egoism, and power politics. The Athenian envoys at Melos in
Thucydides’ History, discussed in the following section, advance such a
view. One rarely, however, encounters a (consistently) radical realist.
Strong realists adopt realist premises in a way that allows only modest
space for politically salient “non-realist” concerns. They also tend to
present realism as a positive theory of (international) politics or statesmanship. Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz are exemplary strong realists.
Hedged realists accept the realist deﬁnition of the “problem” of international politics – anarchy and egoism – but show varying degrees of discomfort with the “solution” of power politics.6 For example, E. H. Carr
argues that “we cannot ultimately ﬁnd a resting place in pure realism”
(1946: 89). Herz similarly notes that “the human cause will be lost if the
liberal ideal is forgotten, even as surely as it is lost if left to the utopian
Political Idealist” (1951: v; compare Niebuhr 1944: 126).
15 16 A more “scientiﬁc” approach (and a related emphasis on explanation rather than prescription) also gives most neorealist writings a very diﬀerent “feel.” This is evident, for
example, if we compare Morgenthau’s discussion of the balance of power (1954: chs.
2–4, 9–12) with Waltz’ (1979: 118–122). Furthermore, neorealist structuralism typically
presents hierarchic domestic politics and anarchic international politics as qualitatively
diﬀerent realms that must be studied with logically incompatible theoretical frameworks
(Waltz 1979: chs. 5, 6). In sharp contrast, many earlier (principally biological) realists –
notably Morgenthau and Niebuhr, not to mention Machiavelli and Thucydides – wrote
about both domestic and international politics.
Michael Doyle (1990) uses the label minimalist” to describe something very much like
this position. He then ﬁlls out his typology with “fundamentalist” and “structural”
realism, to refer to roughly what I call biological and structural realism. The realist tradition 13 Hedged realism gradually merges into views that are fundamentally
something else. At some point, (non-realist) “hedges” become as important as the (realist) “core,” making it misleading to label the resulting
position or argument “realist.” Where that point is, and its implications
for realist approaches to international relations, will be a recurrent theme
in chapters 4–6.
Six realist paradigms
The preceding sections attempted to distill something like an “essence”
of realism. The remainder of this chapter is more faithful to the vision of
realism as a less precisely deﬁned tradition or orientation. This section
provides brief summaries of six paradigmatic models that have helped to
shape that tradition.
The idea of paradigms is especially appropriate for thinking about the
development and transmission of traditions. One learns a tradition not by
memorizing a set of propositions but by studying and applying classic
models. Students are encouraged to think and work “in the style of ” the
classics, which provide “a series of points that serve to structure debate
within the tradition and between it and other approaches” (Cusack and
Stoll 1990: 53). This section summarizes six such paradigms, drawn from
Golden Age Athens, sixteenth-century Florence, seventeenth-century
England, and twentieth-century America. Although others might have
been chosen, together these six present a good indication of the range of
views that are characteristically labeled realist.
We begin with Thomas Hobbes, who perhaps most closely ﬁts the
deﬁnition of realism oﬀered above. We then look at Hans Morgenthau
and Kenneth Waltz, the leading biological and structural realists of the
past half century. Our fourth paradigm is the game theory model of
Prisoners’ Dilemma, which oﬀers a still diﬀerent route to characteristic
realist conclusions. Finally, we look at Thucydides and Machiavelli, who
(along with Hobbes) are generally considered to present the most powerful expressions of realism in the Western tradition of political theory.
Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century English polymath, is said to
have enjoyed telling people that he was born in fear, his mother (allegedly) having given birth prematurely on hearing the news of the invasion
by the Spanish Armada. His mature political views were deeply
inﬂuenced by the violent disruptions of the English Civil War of the
1640s. Chapter 13 of Leviathan, published originally in 1651, presents a 14 Realism and international relations ﬁne example of a strong realism that gives roughly equal weight to egoism
and anarchy. Assuming only that people are naturally equal, that they are
driven by competition, diﬃdence, and glory, and that they interact in the
absence of government, Hobbes draws the famous conclusion that the
natural condition of man is a state of war.
Hobbes begins with natural equality, which he demonstrates in typically “realist” fashion: even “the weakest has strength enough to kill the
strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others”
(par. 1).7 If some were much more powerful than others, social order
might be forcibly imposed. Rough equality of capabilities, however,
makes this anarchic world one of inescapable and universal danger –
given Hobbes’ account of human nature.
“In the nature of man, we ﬁnd three principall causes of quarrell. First,
Competition; Secondly, Diﬃdence; Thirdly, Glory” (par. 6).
Competition “maketh men invade for Gain” (par. 7). Because we are
all equal, each of us expects to have (at least) as much as anyone else (par.
3). In a world of anarchy and scarcity, to acquire anything of use is to
tempt others “to come prepared with forces united, to dispossesse, and
deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or
liberty” (par. 3).
“From equality proceeds diﬃdence” (par. 3), fear, and “from
diﬃdence warre” (par. 4). In the absence of government “there is no way
for any man to secure himselfe, so reasonable, as Anticipation” (par. 4).
The best defense is a good oﬀense; “by force, or wiles, to master the
persons of all men he can” (par. 4).
As if this were not bad enough, men are also vain, driven by a desire for
glory. This leads them to ﬁght over “reputation,” “a word, a smile, a
diﬀerent opinion, and any other signe of undervalue” (par. 7).
Whether for safety, reputation, or gain, men will “endeavour to destroy,
or subdue one another” (par. 3). Although ﬁghting may not be constant,
the threat of force is ever present (par. 8). Any dispute may at any moment
degenerate or erupt into violence. “During the time men live without a
common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which
is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man”
Such a condition, beyond its insecurity and obvious material shortcomings, precludes pursuing “higher” human aspirations. There can be
“no Arts; no Letters; no Society” (par. 9). Furthermore, “the notions of
Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place” (par. 13).
17 All otherwise unidentiﬁed references in this subsection are to chapter 13 of Leviathan, by
paragraph in the C. B. Macpherson edition (Hobbes 1986). The realist tradition 15 Hobbes summarizes these sad circumstances with one of the most
famous passages in the history of Western political thought: “And the life
of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (par. 9).8
Men, of course, are not only competitive, fearful, and vain – even if such
a simpliﬁed model does continue to provide grist for the mills of many feminist comics. Hobbes recognizes “passions that encline men to Peace” (par.
14). He also recognizes that we possess reason, which “suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement” (par.
14). We want something better. We can even ﬁgure out rules of coexistence
and cooperation. But without a government to enforce those rules, we
remain condemned to war. Without the restraints of superior power, men
cannot control their impulses to take from others, to react with excessive
fear, or to demand greater respect than others are willing to give freely.
To imagine a pre-social state of nature is to engage in a thought experiment that strips away social artiﬁce to reveal a ﬁxed, constant core of
human nature. Human nature, for Hobbes, cannot be changed.
Competition, diﬃdence, and glory may be controlled by superior power –
which taps in another way the core motive of fear. But they cannot be
Given our nature, we put our natural freedom to destructive, even selfdestructive, use in the absence of government. The task of politics thus is
to replace anarchic equality with hierarchical political authority, a
“common Power to feare” (par. 11), a superior “power able to over-awe
them all” (par. 5). But international relations remains a domain of
anarchy, a state of war, in which “Kings and Persons of Soveraigne
authority . . . [are] in the state and posture of Gladiators; having their
weapons pointing, and their eyes ﬁxed on one another” (par. 12). Barring
world government, there is no escape from this state of war.
Hans Morgenthau, an American refugee from Nazi Germany, was one of
the leading realists of the 1950s and 1960s and perhaps “the purest as well
as the most self-conscious apostle of realism” of his generation (Parkinson
1977: 163). Most would agree with John Vasquez (1983: 17) that
“Morgenthau’s work was the single most important vehicle for establishing the dominance of the realist paradigm” in the study of international
relations, especially in the United States.
18 In Hobbes’ vision, we are so constituted that the only possible good thing we could say
about such a life, namely, that it is short, in fact is the “worst of all” (par. 9). We cling desperately even to such a miserable life. As Woody Allen put it more humorously, the food
in that restaurant is terrible – and the portions are so small! 16 Realism and international relations A proliﬁc academic and journalistic writer, Morgenthau became best
known to students of international relations for his succinct statement of
the “principles” of realism in the ﬁrst chapter of his book Politics Among
Nations.9 These principles, presented in sharp, vigorous, accessible prose,
summarize a simple yet wide-ranging philosophical, theoretical, and
1. “Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature” (1954: 4).
2. “The main signpost that helps political realism to ﬁnd its way through
the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest deﬁned
in terms of power” (1954: 5).
3. Power and interest are variable in content across space and time
4. “Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied
to the actions of states” (1954: 9).
5. “Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe” (1954: 10).
6. “The diﬀerence, then, between political realism and other schools of
thought is real and it is profound . . . Intellectually, the political realist
maintains the autonomy of the political sphere” (1954: 10).
Morgenthau’s strong biological realism will make him a central ﬁgure
in chapter 2. And in chapter 6 we will have occasion to examine his impassioned warnings against a moralistic foreign policy.
Kenneth Waltz’ 1979 book Theory of International Politics was for a decade
the most inﬂuential theoretical work in the academic study of international relations, the central text of contemporary neorealism. Today it
remains a touchstone for both realists and their critics. Waltz presents an
excellent example of strong structural realism.
“Despite wide variations in the attributes and in the interactions” of
states and other international actors, Waltz is impressed by “the striking
sameness in the quality of international life through the millennia” (1979:
67, 66). These similarities, he argues, arise from a persistent structure of
Political structures are deﬁned and distinguished ﬁrst by their ordering
principle: political actors (“units”) either are or are not arranged in
hierarchical relations of authority and subordination. International rela19 This chapter ﬁrst appeared in the second edition of 1954 and has remained essentially
unchanged in all later editions. The realist tradition 17 tions is a domain of anarchic (non-hierarchic) political structures (1979:
88–99). Order is not imposed by higher authority but arises from the
interactions of formally equal political actors. The diﬀering constraints,
opportunities, and rules of anarchic and hierarchic structures lie at the
heart of the conventional distinction between comparative and international politics.
Political structures are also deﬁned by the diﬀerentiation of functions
among their units. “Hierarchy entails relations of super- and subordination among a system’s parts, and that implies their diﬀerentiation” (1979:
93). A standard civics text example is the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers.
In anarchic orders, however, Waltz argues that each state is a separate,
autonomous, and formally equal political unit that must count ultimately
on its own resources to realize its interests. In anarchic environments,
“each unit’s incentive is to put itself in a position to be able to take care of
itself since no one else can be counted on to do so” (1979: 107). All
important functions thus must be performed by each and every state.
There is little international division of political labor, no sharp
diﬀerentiation of functions among states (1979: 93–97).
The principal diﬀerences between states, Waltz argues, “are of capability, not function. States perform or try to perform tasks, most of which are
common to all of them; the ends they aspire to are similar” (1979: 96).
States diﬀer not so much in what they seek to achieve, but in their capabilities to achieve ends that are largely shared. “National politics consists of
diﬀerentiated units performing speciﬁed functions. International politics
consists of like units duplicating one another’s activities” (1979: 97).
The third deﬁning feature of a political structure is the distribution of
capabilities among its units. If all international orders are anarchic and
there is no signiﬁcant diﬀerentiation of functions among states, international political structures can be distinguished from one another simply
by the distribution of capabilities among actors. Historically, this means
that international political structures are deﬁned by the changing fates of
great powers (1979: 72, 94). More abstractly, international orders vary
according to the number of great powers. Waltz emphasizes the diﬀerence
between bipolar systems, dominated by two superpowers, and multipolar
systems, where there are three or more great powers (1979: chs. 7–8).
“If there is any distinctively political theory of international politics,
balance-of-power theory is it” (1979: 117), because it conceives of states
simply as concentrations of power competing in an anarchic environment. Waltz argues that balance of power politics prevails whenever “two
or more states coexist” in an anarchic order “with no superior agent to
come to the aid of states that may be weakening or to deny to any of them 18 Realism and international relations the use of whatever instruments they think will serve their purposes”
The central conclusion of balance of power theory is that states in
anarchy “balance” rather than “bandwagon”10 (1979: 126). In hierarchic
political orders, Waltz argues, political actors tend to “jump on the bandwagon” of a leading candidate or recent victor, because “losing does not
place their security in jeopardy” (1979: 126). But in anarchy, to jump on
the bandwagon of a rising power is to court becoming prey to that power
not too far down the road. A state must always be concerned with its relative power. The power of others – especially great power – is always a
threat, never a lure. Weak states may have no alternative but to guess right
and hope that early alignment with the victor will ensure their survival
and (at least some) other vital interests. Only foolhardy great powers,
though, would accept such a risk. Rather than bandwagon, Waltz argues,
they will “balance” against the growing power of another state.
Structural pressures to balance explain central yet otherwise puzzling
features of international relations. Consider the American–Soviet alliance
in World War II. A common enemy brought together two countries with
intense internal and historical diﬀerences that had made them the harshest of rivals for the preceding two decades. After the war, though, they
again became almost rabid rivals – but not, in this version of the story,
because of internal or ideological diﬀerences, but because of the distribution of capabilities. Wherever two dominant powers face each other, each
is the only real threat to the security of the other, and they cannot but be
enemies. Each must, whatever its preferences or inclinations, balance its
power against the other.
Waltz’ structural realism does not deny the existence, even the importance, of internal diﬀerences among states. It does, however, attempt to
“abstract from every attribute of states except their capabilities” (1979:
99), in order to highlight the ways in which the distribution of capabilities
in an anarchic order shapes relations. “One may behave as one likes to.
Patterns of behavior nevertheless emerge, and they derive from the structural constraints of the system” (1979: 92). States “are free to do any fool
thing they care to, but they are likely to be rewarded for behavior that is
responsive to structural pressures and punished for behavior that is not”
(1997: 915). Or, as John Mearsheimer puts it, “in the ﬁnal analysis, the
10 The metaphor of bandwagoning is from American electoral politics. When a candidate
begins to look like she will win, there is a strong tendency for neutrals, undecided voters,
and even opponents to side with her, in order to share in her victory. In the language of a
simpler era of campaigning, dominated by parades rather than television, they will “jump
on the bandwagon.” “Bandwagoners” attempt to increase their gains by siding with the
stronger party. The realist tradition 19 system forces states to behave according to the dictates of realism, or risk
destruction” (1995: 91).
The Prisoners’ Dilemma
Contemporary social science has been strongly inﬂuenced by the pursuit
of rigor and formalization, whether through mathematics, statistics, or
formal logic. Game theory, which originated in economics after World
War II, is a formalization that has had considerable popularity in the
study of international relations over the past two decades.11 It seeks to
model the dynamics of strategic interactions in which an actor’s behavior
depends in part on the anticipated behavior of others. One particular
game – Prisoners’ Dilemma – oﬀers a striking realist paradigm.
The game of Prisoners’ Dilemma The simplest game theory models
involve two rational actors, each of whom has available two strategies, one
of which is fundamentally cooperative (“cooperate”) and the other of
which is essentially competitive (“defect”). The four possible outcomes
in such two-by-two games are summarized in ﬁgure 1.1. The payoﬀs to
each player are recorded in the cell representing the intersection of their
chosen strategies, the ﬁrst payoﬀ being that for the player at the left
(“row”), the second for the player at the top (“column”). A particular
game is deﬁned by the relative preferences of each of the players for these
four possible outcomes.
There are two common ways to label these payoﬀs. The most general
uses the labels D (defect) and C (cooperate), and simply records the
paired choices of row ﬁrst and then column. In other words, working
clockwise from the top left in ﬁgure 1.1, CC (both cooperate), CD (row
cooperates, column defects), DD (both defect) and DC (row defects,
column cooperates). Another common set of labels is R, for reward (from
mutual cooperation); T, for temptation (defection in the presence of
cooperation); S, for sucker (losing as a result of cooperating when the
other defects); and P, for penalty (from mutual defection).
These labels derive from one of the most interesting of the seventyeight possible two-by-two games: Prisoners’ Dilemma (PD), named for a
story commonly used to elucidate its logic. Two thieves are apprehended
by the police and taken in, separately, for questioning. Each is oﬀered a
favorable plea bargain in return for a confession and testimony against the
other. But without a confession the authorities can obtain a conviction
only on a lesser charge.
11 See, for example, Snyder and Diesing (1977) and Oye (1986). 20 Realism and international relations
Figure 1.1. A generalized two-by-two game.
CD R, R DC S, T DD T, S P, P R “reward” (CC)
T “temptation” (DC)
S “sucker” (CD)
P “penalty” (DD) The preference ordering of both players in a PD game is T>R>P>S:
temptation (confessing) is preferred to reward (mutual silence), which is
preferred to penalty (mutual confessing), which is preferred to the
sucker’s payoﬀ.12 Giving in to temptation – defecting (confessing) while
one’s partner cooperates (remains silent); that is, accepting the plea
bargain – provides the greatest gains. But above all else the players in this
game want to avoid getting suckered, sitting in prison, for a long time, due
to the treachery of one’s “partner.” If we plug these (ordinal) preferences
– temptation is most highly valued (4) and sucker least valued (1) – into
the general game outlined in ﬁgure 1.1, we obtain ﬁgure 1.2.
The dilemma of these prisoners appears when we ask whether their rational strategy is to defect (confess) or to cooperate (remain silent). If they
cooperate (CC), each gets their second best outcome (the top left cell, with
the “reward” payoﬀs of 3,3). But cooperating risks getting suckered.
Therefore, assuming substantial (but not wild) aversion to risk, each will
choose to defect even though both know that they both could be better oﬀ by cooperating.Mutual defection is the clear solution to the dilemma,the only strategically sensible outcome. But it leaves both players in a suboptimal position.
Instrumental and substantive “rationality” conﬂict. The instrumentally
rational strategy of defection is substantively crazy: it leaves both players
12 Using the more general labels, DC>CC>DD>CD. The realist tradition 21 Figure 1.2. Prisoners’ Dilemma.
DC CC DD CD
Cooperate Player 1
(“row”) CC CD 3, 3 Cooperate DC Defect Defect 1, 4 DD 4, 1 2, 2 worse oﬀ than they could be if they cooperated. Yet the preferences of
these actors in this structure of interaction preclude any other outcome.
The dilemma might be evaded, or made less severe, if the players could
make a mutual cooperation pact and establish some mechanism to
enforce it, increasing the likelihood of cooperation by reducing the risk of
being suckered. Working from the other direction, increasing the payoﬀs
of mutual cooperation (R) or decreasing the costs of mutual defection (P)
would augment the incentives to cooperate even in the absence of
enforcement. This might occur in a well-established criminal partnership, which saw this particular interaction as only part of a stream of
potentially proﬁtable interactions. An even more radical solution would
be to alter the preferences of the players; for example, through a code of
honor among thieves that made giving in to temptation no longer the preferred outcome. But unless the structure of interaction or the preferences
of the actors can be altered, the dilemma is inescapable.
Realism as PD Realism can be seen as a theory that presents
Prisoners’ Dilemma as the central feature of international relations. The
preference ordering T>R>P>S is a good example of realist egoism and
amoralism. International anarchy, it is often argued, precludes enforceable agreements to cooperate. Therefore, international relations are often
marked by insecurity, competition, and conﬂict even where there are strong
incentives to cooperate.
A variant on PD, with special application to international relations, is 22 Realism and international relations what John Herz (1951: 4) ﬁrst called the “security dilemma.” Glenn
Snyder’s recent restatement of the logic is especially clear.
Given the irreducible uncertainty about the intentions of others, security measures taken by one actor are perceived by others as threatening; the others take
steps to protect themselves; these steps are then interpreted by the ﬁrst actor as
conﬁrming its initial hypothesis that the others are dangerous; and so on in a
spiral of illusory fears and “unnecessary” defenses (1997: 17). As Robert Jervis puts it in a classic discussion of the concept, the dilemma
arises because “many of the means by which a state tries to increase its
security decrease the security of others” (1978: 169).
Herbert Butterﬁeld expresses much the same idea in terms of
If you imagine yourself locked in a room with another person with whom you have
often been on the most bitterly hostile terms in the past, and suppose that each of
you has a pistol, you may ﬁnd yourself in a predicament in which both of you
would like to throw the pistols out of the window, yet it defeats the intelligence to
ﬁnd a way of doing it (1949: 89–90). Anarchy can defeat even our best intentions – which realists tend to see as
rare enough to begin with.
A PD formulation of realism does not require assuming either a ﬁxed
human nature or a world populated exclusively by consistently egoistic
amoralists. In the absence of government, the presence of several unscrupulous actors can force even individuals who would prefer to follow the
counsels of reason or their “better” impulses to be “nasty” rather than
“nice.” For example, those who kept their word would fall victim to less
scrupulous neighbors. To return to Hobbes’ language, even those capable
of mastering their desires for gain and glory will, in an environment of
anarchy, be reduced by fear to treating everyone else as a potential enemy
– or they will perish or be subordinated to the will of others.
As Georg Schwarzenberger puts it, “the law of the lowest level operates
in such a society” because even those who would prefer peace and cooperation “cannot avoid contact with the wholesale addicts to the rule of
force.” “However restrained a State may be in the conduct of its foreign
aﬀairs, it must be suspicious of the intentions of other States whose rulers
may be more inclined, and in a better position, to use their power for
expansionist ends.” “Every generation has its potential or actual black
sheep which prevents the others from grazing in peace” (1951: 14, xxi,
Prisoners’ Dilemma also usefully emphasizes the political distance
between desire and achievement. Mutually destructive competition may
not be avoidable even when all parties prefer a cooperative outcome. The realist tradition 23 Without insurance schemes or other mechanisms that allow actors to risk
cooperating, and without a procedure to achieve agreement on how to
divide the beneﬁts of cooperation, we may remain locked in a cycle, even a
descending spiral, of competition.
Thucydides’ Athenian envoys
Realism can be found in ancient as well as modern sources. Probably the
most famous text in the realist tradition is the Melian Dialogue
(V.85–113)13 in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian wars between
Athens and Sparta at the end of the ﬁfth century BC. The arguments
advanced by the Athenian envoys at Melos are so rigorously realist that
they provide one of the few examples of a sustained, consistently radical
Athens, seeking to add the neutral island of Melos to its empire, sends
envoys to encourage the Melians to surrender (V.84), in order to save the
time, expense, and suﬀering of a siege. Presenting themselves as sensible
men of the world, the Athenians forbid the Melians from even talking
about the “specious pretenses” (onomata kala, ﬁne phrases; literally,
beautiful or noble names) of right and wrong (V.89). Instead they restrict
discussion to the safety of Melos (V.87) and “the real sentiments of us
both,” namely, power and interest. “For you know as well as we do that
right, as the world goes, is in question only between equals in power, while
the strong do what they can and the weak suﬀer what they must” (V.89).
The (weaker) Melians protest but have no choice but to carry on within
these terms of reference.
Freedom, the Athenians argue, is the fruit of power (V.97). For Melos
to hold out for independence would be to misjudge the situation, with
tragic consequences, “the contest not being an equal one, with honor as
the prize and shame as the penalty, but a question of self-preservation”
(V.101). “Expediency goes with security, while justice and honor cannot
be followed without danger” (V.107). And this, the Athenians contend, is
simply the way of the world.
Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature
they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the ﬁrst to make this law, or
to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist
for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else,
having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do (V.105.2).
13 All otherwise unidentiﬁed references in this subsection are to Thucydides’ History by
book, chapter, and, where appropriate, section. Translations are from the revised
Crawley translation (Thucydides 1982) except for those identiﬁed as “[Smith],” which
are by C. F. Smith in the Loeb edition (Thucydides 1919–23). 24 Realism and international relations The Melians nonetheless decide to ﬁght for their independence, whatever the odds or the costs (V.112). The Athenian siege succeeds. The
Melian men are killed, their women and children are sold into slavery,
and a colony is sent from Athens to repopulate the city (V.116).
A very similar logic is evident in the very ﬁrst speech given by an
Athenian in Thucydides’ History, just before the outbreak of the war, at
the congress of Sparta’s allies held in Lacedaemon. The Athenian envoys,
trying to justify their empire, argue that “those who may use might have
no need to appeal to right” (I.77.2 [Smith]). Although they claim “fair
title” to the empire (I.73.1, 76.2), they admit that what began as “leadership [hegemonia] over allies who were autonomous and took part in the
deliberations of common assemblies” (I.97.1) has become coercive rule
It was not a very remarkable action, or contrary to the common practice of
mankind, if we accepted an empire that was oﬀered to us, and refused to give it up
under the pressure of three of the strongest motives, fear, honor, and interest. And
it was not we who set the example, for it has always been the law that the weaker
should be subject to the stronger (I.76.2; compare I.75.3). They even accuse their enemies of self-serving hypocrisy. “Besides, we
believed ourselves to be worthy of our position, and so you thought us till
now, when calculations of interest have made you take up the cry of
Like the other paradigms we have considered, Thucydides’ Athenians
appeal to law-like regularities that make international politics a domain of
power and necessity. They are of special interest because they emphasize
the conﬂict between the demands of justice and those of power.
The careful reader will note that I have talked not about Thucydides’
views but rather of the arguments of the Athenian envoys at Melos and
Lacedaemon. Although these and other parts of Thucydides’ History
support a realist reading, there are also substantial hedges. In fact, in
chapter 6 I will suggest that the hedges are more important than the
alleged realist “core.” Nonetheless, the Melian Dialogue is an important
touchstone in the realist tradition.
Among realists of an earlier century, perhaps none stands out more prominently than Niccolò Machiavelli, the great sixteenth-century Florentine
diplomat, historian, theorist, and playwright. Even today, one of the ﬁrst
words likely to come to mind when one mentions realism or political
amoralism is “machiavellianism.”
Machiavelli regularly expresses a low opinion of human nature, which The realist tradition 25 in one poem he characterizes as “insatiable, arrogant, crafty, and shifting, and above all else malignant, iniquitous, violent, and savage” (1965:
736). “One can say this generally of men: that they are ungrateful,
ﬁckle, pretenders and dissemblers, evaders of danger, eager for gain”
(P17).14 “Men never do good unless necessity drives them to it”
(DI.2; compare P23). “All do wrong and to the same extent when
there is nothing to prevent them doing wrong” (DI.58; compare
DI.Preface, 40, 46, DIII.43).
In such a world, power and security must be paramount concerns. “A
prince should have no other object, nor any other thought, nor take anything else as his art but the art of war” (P14). Although well-ordered
states rest on both “good laws and good arms . . . because there cannot be
good laws where there are not good arms, and where there are good arms
there must be good laws, I shall leave out the reasoning on laws”
(P12). Even in religion, Machiavelli observes that “all the armed
prophets conquered and the unarmed were ruined” (P6).
Machiavelli also tends to subordinate all other considerations to political success. “Men judge of actions by the result” (DIII.35). “So let a
prince win and maintain his state: the means will always be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone” (P18; compare P3).
We should also note Machiavelli’s love of the dramatic act of political
violence. Consider Cesare Borgia’s removal of his henchman Remirro de
Orca, who had successfully paciﬁed the Romagna, but at the cost of great
bloodshed and hatred. Borgia had Remirro “placed one morning in the
piazza at Cesena in two pieces, with a piece of wood and a bloody knife
beside him. The ferocity of this spectacle left the people at once satisﬁed
and stupeﬁed” (P7). The ancient Roman love of liberty, Machiavelli
notes with admiration, was closely associated with “sacriﬁcial acts in
which there was much shedding of blood and much ferocity; and in them
great numbers of animals were killed. Such spectacles, because terrible,
caused men to become like them” (DII.2; compare DIII.49[2,3],
The praise of such exemplary violence reﬂects more than personal
psychological peculiarities or the habits of a more violent age. For
Machiavelli, the evil and egoistic passions at the core of human nature
often can be repressed only by force, and at times only by ferocious
cruelty. In Machiavelli’s world, even the good must “know how to enter
into evil, when forced by necessity” (P18).
14 Most citations of Machiavelli are incorporated into the text as follows: P = The Prince, by
chapter and paragraph in the Mansﬁeld translation (Machiavelli 1985); D = The
Discourses [on the First Ten Books of Livy], by book, chapter, and paragraph in Crick’s
revised Walker translation (Machiavelli 1970). ...
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