Established as a formal discipline during World War Two, the theory of realism emphasises the competitive and conflicting natures between hegemonic powers in the sphere of international relations, with the core assumption that world politics is another battleground for nations to compete on. A contrasting theory would be ‘liberalism’. Earliest examples of realism being presented with regard to conflict or foreign policy was in “The History of the Peloponnesian War” (431–404 BCE) by Thucydides, who had a first hand account of the war.
While there are various branches of realism (neo, classical, neoclassical, liberal, left or constructivism), this article will discuss the core principles of realism in its most simple form:
- Nation State or ‘State’ is the principal actor in international relations.
- Other bodies such as Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) and specific individuals are relevant, their theoretical power and influence is limited but act on behalf of the state.
- In a nationalist context, the state acts with a singular voice as a unitary actor — individual actors are hierarchically below but speak on state’s behalf.
- All decision-making is pursuant of national interests in a global context within the global ‘society of states’.
- All states reside in the context of anarchy: the idea that there is no singular global leader, therefore states can only rely on themselves.
The theory of realism can explain the Cold War, if the Cold War itself is considered to be the end of an era of political and international relations theory — the closing of a chapter if you will — as the wave of new-found cooperation between post-war allies, with the sole intention of pursuing mutually beneficial economic development (embodied by the European Union), allowed for ‘realism’ to be considered old thinking. This is because realism does not account for individuals and non-state actors overpowering the state itself — within its boundaries of calculation. Such an ‘anomaly’ was witnessed across the Soviet Union’s side of the “iron curtain”, by the successful wave of independence movements within communist puppet & buffer states, between 1889–1991.
However, throughout much of the Cold War, the state-centric nature of realism was accurate in depicting the rivalry of the United States and the Soviet Union, as hegemonic states, evident through:
- Frequent overthrowing and replacement of communist led governments in favour of capitalist-driven dictators and governments — i.e. Central American Crises (1960-’96).
- Soviet backed communist leaders in the aforementioned puppet-states in Eastern Europe and Asia — i.e. German Democratic Republic (1949-’90), Bulgaria (1946–’90) & Poland (1947–’89).
- Consistent US & Soviet involvement in various proxy-wars & conflicts globally — i.e. Afghan Civil War (1989-’92), Korean War (1950–’53) & Vietnam War (1955-’75).
Furthermore, an example of ‘all actions by the state are pursuant of national interests in an international context’, would be the McCarthyism era (late 1940s to mid-1950s). Senator Joe McCarthy’s ‘witch hunt’ for communists or communist sympathisers in government and public spheres, claiming he held lists of names of State Department employees that were communist spies for the USSR — that were ever changing and almost-definitely fabricated.
Historical revisionists often theorise, that his true intention was to cause mass public-hysteria in order to create anti-communist sentiment in the everyday life of the American populace, as a means of boosting American efforts in fighting the USSR, during the initial stages of the Cold War.
This did indeed lay the foundation for anti-communist and anti-socialist sentiment on a national scale, that remained omnipresent in US international relations throughout the Cold War, and arguably still exists in modern US politics, as highlighted by the opposition of Senator Bernie Sanders (a democratic socialist) during his 2020 election campaign, US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from 2018 to date and the new wave of nationalist sentiment centered around Donald Trump’s Presidency, since 2016.
Since the end of the Cold War, organisations, corporations and individual actors have become major transnational players, now holding significant influence over modern politics, economics and therefore foreign policy. As a result, realism has no foothold in post-Cold War international relations theory, but is an accurate representation of its era.