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written by ANTONY MBITHI on 11-05-2011

All through history, liberal international relations have misread the facts of history and misunderstood the nature of international relations. The believe that such relations could be based on harmony of interest have never fully been able to explain wars and conflicts among nations. That is why international relations are far more about conflict than about cooperation.

In this paper it is proposed that realism is and will continue to be an important international relations theory if world politics continues to be organized in independent states with a small group of powerful states being responsible for shaping the most important events in the international system.

This paper will demonstrate that international relations are conflict based and as are ultimately resolved by war, realism stands out to be the best theory to explain it. An enhanced understanding of this theory, application, and practice of realism – as this paper attempts – can lead to a more peaceful international relations system.

The basic realists assumptions and ideas are: a high regard for values of national security and state survival; a pessimistic view of human nature; a conviction that international relations are necessarily resolved by war; and a skepticism that their can’t be progress in international politics that is comparable to that in domestic political life (R. Jackson and G. Sorenson 2004). This basic ideas and assumptions do analyze and explain the causes of wars and conflicts in the world today.

For a state to get into war or conflict with another, its national security must have been threatened. Realist’s high regard of national security and state survival are the values that drive their doctrine and foreign policy. The state is considered to be essential for the good life of its citizens: without a state to guarantee the means and conditions of security and promote welfare, human life is bound to be, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Thomas Hobbes 1946). Thus the state is therefore seen as a protector of its territory, population and sovereignty.

Realism as an international relations theory will continue to be valid at all times, because the basic facts of world politics never change. As each and every state pursues their own national interests, it means that other states and governments can’t be completely relied upon for protection of others interests. The international agreements got into can’t solve or fully explain conflicts as the agreements are provisional and not conditional for states to observe them. If international agreements come into conflict with their own self-interests, states will have to discard their international obligations for their self interest. Thus there can be no permanent or guaranteed peace between sovereign states. War is necessary as a last resort for solving disputes between states that cannot agree. This was recently experienced when the USA defied the UN and attacked Iraq.

According to Machiavelli, power (the lion) and deception (the fox) are the two essential means for the conduct of foreign policy and the main responsibility of rulers is always to seek advantages and to defend the interests of their states in order to ensure its survival. If a state is weak it will stand as an invitation for others to prey on it (Machiavelli: 1984). The weakness of the government of Southern Sudan has led other states like Northern Sudan and rebel groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army to frequently attack it leading to mass killings like the one experienced in Darfur overstretching its sovereignty. In 2008 the states of Western and Central Equatorial were heavily affected.

Realists point out that if nay body hopes to survive in the world in which they have termed as dangerous, he or she must always be aware of dangers, must anticipate them and must take the necessary precautions against them. The recent NATO summit held from 19th to 20th November 2010, the alliance members decided to build a missile defense for Europe in order to protect its region and populations against ballistic missile attacks. As missiles pose increasing threat to Allied populations, territory and deployed forces. The proliferation didn’t mean that there is an immediate intent for NATO to be attacked but it means that the Alliance has the responsibility to defend its population especially from the growing threat of the proliferation of ballistic missile technology and weapons of mass destruction.

With Iran defying the Security Council resolution ordering it to stop uranium enrichment and the international community wary of a possibility of Tehran building nuclear weapons, Thomas Schelling strategic realism becomes of great importance in explaining this situation. Writing about the deterrence of nuclear weapons, Schelling states: “the efficacy of a nuclear threat may depend on what alternatives are available to the potential enemy, who if he is not to react like a trapped lion, must be left some tolerable recourse. We have come to realize that a threat of all out retaliation eliminates lesser course of action and forces him to choose between extremes and may induce him to strike first” (Schelling Thomas: 1980)

Realists are also concerned with the nature of international relations as Morgenthau puts it, “international politics, like all other politics is a struggle for power and power is always the immediate aim (Morgenthau: 1985). There is no world government but a system of sovereign and armed states. World politics is an international anarchy and thus international relations are a struggle for power and survival. The only way that states will try to redress the international balance of power is through the use of force, for example what is happening between North and South Korea and also between Israel and Palestine. Thus realism as a theory of international relations is sufficient to explain the causes of present wars and conflicts.


1. SchellIing, “The Strategy of Conflict” New Yok1980ing Thomas

2. Morgenthau Hans, “Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace” Penguin1985

3. Robert Jackson and Georg Sorenson, “Introduction to International Relations Theories and Approaches” London 2004

4. Machiavelli N, “The Prince” Oxford University Press 1984

Date Submited: 11-05-2011

European History 2000 To Present Articles