Theory, Images, and International Relations: An Introduction
Realism—Major Actors and Assumptions
Realism is based on four key assumptions.
states are the
principal or most important actors.
the key unit of analysis
whether one is dealing with ancient
Greek city-states or modern nation-states. The study of international
relations is the study of relations among these units. Realists who use
the concept of system defined in terms of interrelated parts usually
refer to an international system of states. What of nonstate actors?
International organizations such as the United Nations may aspire to
the status of independent actor, but from the realist perspective, this
aspiration has not in fact been achieved to any significant degree.
Multinational corporations, terrorist groups, and other transnational
and international organizations are frequently acknowledged by
realists, but the position of these nonstate actors is always one of lesser
importance. States are the dominant actors.
Second, the state is viewed as a
For purposes of analysis, realists view the state as being
encapsulated by a metaphorical hard shell. A country faces the outside
world as an integrated unit. A common assumption associated with
realist thought is that political differences within the state are
ultimately resolved authoritatively such that the government of the
state speaks with one voice for the state as a whole. The state is a
unitary actor in that it is usually assumed by realists to
policy at any given time on any particular issue
. To be sure,
exceptions occur from time to time, but to the realists, these are
exceptions that demonstrate the rule and that actually support the
general notion of the state as an integrated, unitary actor.
Even in those exceptional cases in which, for example, a foreign
ministry expresses policies different from policy statements of the
same country's defense ministry, corrective action is taken in an
attempt to bring these alternative views to a common and authoritative
statement of policy. "End running" of state authorities by bureaucratic
and nongovernmental, domestic, and transnational actors is also
possible, but it occurs unchecked by state authorities in only those
issues in which the stakes are low. From the realist perspective, if the
issues are important enough, higher authorities will intervene to
preclude bureaucratic end running or action by nongovernmental
actors that are contrary to centrally directed policy.
Third, given this emphasis on the unitary state-as-
actor, realists usually make the further assumption that
the state is essentially a rational actor
A rational foreign
policy decision-making process would include a statement of
objectives, consideration of all feasible alternatives in terms of existing
capabilities available to the state, the relative likelihood of attaining
these objectives by the various alternatives under consideration, and
the benefits or costs associated with each alternative. Following this