By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe how theories and worldviews can be used to understand international relations.
- Explain the realist worldview, including fundamental concepts and possible limitations or critiques.
- Identify and differentiate among various branches of realist theory.
- Apply principles of game theory to explain a state’s decision-making process.
- Explain the types of polarity in an anarchic system.
- Discuss the role of comparative advantage in a unipolar system.
- Analyze the ways tensions can escalate, destabilizing the system, in a realist worldview.
Several key theories have emerged to explain the different ways states see the world and their place in it and to understand the decisions they make and the courses of action they choose based on those views. The primary theories come from three major groups of worldviews: the realist worldview, liberal and social worldviews, and critical worldviews. This section discusses realism and its variants.
In popular culture, international relations is usually presented through the filter of the basic tenets of realism. Whether it’s Jack Ryan working with the FBI, risking his life to rescue soldiers held by drug cartels, or Jason Bourne running from his past involvement with clandestine operations as a former CIA assassin, representatives of states are shown as engaging in actions focused on self-preservation, no matter the cost.
Jason Bourne Goes to Extremes to Avoid Capture in The Bourne Ultimatum
In this clip from the 2007 film The Bourne Ultimatum, Jason Bourne goes to extreme lengths, breaking laws and property and putting himself in intense physical peril, to avoid being captured or killed.
Realism is distinctly characterized by marked self-interest. According to realism, states embark on policy initiatives with a go-it-alone attitude that aims solely to preserve their own safety and security. In a realist’s mind set, the state is the primary actor of the international system. According to realists, self-interested states do what they can to gain more power to increase their ability to structure the rules of the system to their advantage.
Realism characterizes states as rational actors, meaning that all the actions they take or policies they implement are a function of what they see as the outcome of a situation. Realists see the international system as a zero-sum game grounded in the idea that all facets of the system are finite. In a zero-sum game, a state seeks to take something, whether it be power or a physical resource, away from another state; in essence, if I win, then you lose, and there can only be one winner. When all aspects of a system are finite, one state can control all of a particular resource, preventing another state or states from having that resource. You can apply this idea to your everyday life. Suppose you and your friend are hungry for a snack and there is only one bag of chips that is readily available. If this situation were a zero-sum game, whoever got to the bag of chips first would have all the chips, and the other person would have none.
The balance of power is a classic realist way of seeing the structure of the international system. Realists see the world as populated by states in a race to set the rules of the system to work for their own benefit. Because the system is inherently anarchic, poles, or centers of power, form within the system around the states that have the capacity, in whatever the system deems to be the currency of power, to gather other states to their side. Three different types of polarity emerge in an anarchic system: unipolar, bipolar, and multipolar.
In a unipolar system, one country, the hegemon, sets itself up as the main player who decides the rules of the international system. By virtue of having the strongest economy, largest military, or most stable political and social institutions, the hegemon is able to use its position to extend its power. A hegemon might simply use its military might to extend its power, or it might employ less aggressive means. When a hegemon expands the institutions that benefit it to other countries, it encourages those countries to be like the hegemon. In doing so, the hegemon expands its sphere of influence with the underlying premise that states that are similar in culture, economy, and political structure are less likely to fight one another. While these states share a number of similarities, they have differing abilities to allocate the skills and resources necessary to create certain goods or services. When a hegemon expands its sphere of influence, it expands its access to resources, goods, and services in areas where it lacks a comparative advantage. An imbalance in comparative advantage is what drives a country to trade for a good or service that it needs.
In a bipolar system, two states with equal relative power but different underlying institutional characteristics vie to create opposing spheres of influence. This creates two groups of allied countries that allow the states at the center of the poles to expand their power with the support of other actors in the system, giving those two states similar strength as if each were a hegemon. In a multipolar world, multiple states form many smaller spheres of influence, creating a pared-down version of a unipolar or bipolar system. A multipolar system, where three or more states have equal or relative power, is pared down even further.
While anarchy is inherent in the international system, from the realist’s view, a state is motivated to create an environment, and therefore a balance of power, that protects the state. Rational actors prefer order. Order allows actors to have a greater sense of what is coming next. Essentially, states—especially the bigger, stronger, more powerful ones—see anarchy as an opportunity to create order in a way that favors their interests and fits their long-term goals. The balance of power between states is a way to understand who succeeds in creating a world that benefits them the most.
The relationship between the United States and Russia from World War II to the present is perhaps the most accessible way to see shifts in polarity in the international system. Before World War II, colonial European powers had divided up the world, and the United States and Russia were doing what they could, in smaller ways, to expand their own reach. After World War II, the United States and Russia emerged as the two major powers at opposite ends of the economic ideological spectrum, pitted against each other for supremacy, thus creating a bipolar world. The interaction between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War provides a glimpse of the best and worst of decisions states have made. The Cold War represents a period in world history in which there was a slowly simmering conflict35 on multiple fronts between the Soviet Union and the United States, who had emerged from World War II as the states with the economic strength and political stability to exert their influence and preferences on other states in the international community.
The intense competition between these two major world powers for global supremacy spilled into all parts of society, from the propaganda and policies of the United States focused on weeding out suspected communists in all aspects of society and government to the race to see who could make the greatest advancements in space exploration, which spurred a steep increase in scientific and technological development. In the context of foreign relations, the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States was more tangible and mired in a number of proxy wars, conflicts in which each of the warring parties is supported and funded by two larger parties who have a vested interest in the outcome of the conflict. The Vietnam War,36 in which the democratically elected Vietnamese government fought the insurgent Viet Cong, who had the support of the Soviet Union, and the conflict in Afghanistan, where the United States supported Afghanis as they fought to keep the communist forces of the Soviet Union from taking over their country, are two examples of Cold War–era proxy wars.
The 1990s brought an end to the Cold War, with the United States emerging as the hegemon, but that came with its own challenges. In the era immediately following the Cold War, newly independent former Soviet states looked to the United States for monetary, political, and military support. This is the burden of the hegemon; when you are the victor in a conflict you may be seen as the only stable, strong power, and with that status comes a sense of obligation to help less powerful, less stable states.
The security dilemma is the byproduct of a system in which states are motivated to act in their own interest. As states implement security policies that aim to either expand or solidify their position in the system, other states may perceive those actions as provocations. The state or states implementing those policies face a security dilemma, where those changes in their policies related to their own safety and security, because they appear aggressive to other states, may lead those other states to preemptively respond in the interests of their own security, potentially ratcheting up tensions between two or more states.
This highlights the implications of a system based on a fundamental mistrust of all actors that views any action as a signal. The conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War is a direct long-term example of the consequences of two states existing in the midst of a security dilemma. States that see the actions of another state as an offensive provocation seek to respond in as proportional a manner as possible, but in some cases, as in the hypothetical situation of nuclear war, the response can have consequences that negatively—and in the case of nuclear war, catastrophically—impact the entire international community.
The lack of institutions in the international system that can hold states accountable for their actions or provide consistent, altruistic help to states in need perpetuates the mentality of states that see themselves as lone actors within the international system. In the contemporary international community, realists view states as having a go-it-alone attitude in order to best safeguard their own interests.
A more recent offshoot of the realist school of thought, neorealism (also known as structural realism), speaks to states that take a middle path to international relations.37 Like classical realists, neorealists see the state as the main actor in an anarchic system. Unlike classical realists, they contend that it is the structure of the system rather than the people who lead the state that drives the system forward. States that implement policies that align with neorealist ideas attempt to work through international institutions, such as multinational security pacts like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to get what they want.
Understanding the Global Community—Realism/Neorealism
In this clip, University of Oklahoma professor of international studies Suzette Grillot explains and differentiates realism and neorealism.
Neorealism that advocates for transparency in order to avoid conflict and maintain the status quo is known as defensive realism.38 In the minds of defensive realists, the constant distrust between states, and the resultant policies, create an environment of instability that drives states into conflict with one another. As such, these theorists believe that it is to the benefit of all states to maintain the status quo, that is, to maintain the current balance between the states in the system as it exists at that moment. Defensive realists see conflict as a destabilizing force that upsets the status quo and should be avoided. They encourage states to make transparent policy choices meant to give clear signals to other states that they see themselves as a part of and clearly support the anarchy inherent in the system and that they will not do anything to challenge it.
Offensive realism takes the opposite view. According to offensive realism, overt actions states take in order to grow and project their power lead to interstate conflict.39 These theorists argue that there is an inherent benefit in conflict and in taking self-serving action. States, they say, are intrinsically motivated to seek out power and will do so only by establishing a sense of supremacy over other states, particularly those with characteristics similar to their own. According to offensive realists, states use aggressive actions—whether military, economic, social, or political—to secure their place in the system.