Human beings can be broadly categorised into two schools. For one school, the chief concern is how the world works. For the adherents of the other school, the chief concern is how the world should work. The latter school is certainly the broader camp, comprised of everyone from socialists to liberals to (possibly) conservatives. This school is Idealism. The former is much narrower, but no less a richer school for it. This school is Realism.

Whereas the Idealists, whatever their ideological colours, are chiefly concerned with the normative, the Realists are chiefly concerned with the descriptive. This distinction cannot be overstated. The American Revolution of 1765. The French Revolution of 1789. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. All were attempts by the Idealists to change the world, presupposing that fundamental change is possible. To the Realists, such undertakings were exercises in futility precisely because fundamental change is impossible. ‘Revolution’, after all, refers to a full rotation from point A back to point A.

Definitions in the social sciences vary widely and definitions of Realism are no exception. The definitions below, though varying in detail, all touch on the essence of Realism. To quote the historian E.H. Carr:

‘Realism tends to emphasize the irresistible strength of existing forces and the inevitable character of existing tendencies, and to insist that the highest wisdom lies in accepting, and adapting oneself to these forces and these tendencies.’

Similarly, the philosopher Roger Scruton writes:

‘Realism is the disposition to see things as they are, rather than as they ought to be, and to recognise that the principal aim of all agents in the political sphere is power and self-aggrandisement.’

Writing in that canon of Realist thought, The Prince, the Italian theorist Niccolo Machiavelli summarised the Realist disposition thus:

‘I have thought it proper to represent things as they are in a real truth, rather than as they are imagined.’

International Relations

It is in the discipline of International Relations that Realism takes on the form of ideology, that is, a system of ideas that forms the basis of a theory or policy. In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, the American political scientist John J. Mearsheimer outlines the four core assumptions of Realism. First, states are the key actors in international politics. Second, the behaviour of states is determined by their external environment, which is anarchic. Third, states are driven by a desire for power. Fourth, the opportunities for cooperation between states is limited.

The utility or otherwise of Realism in explaining international politics is a contentious issue. ‘This realist picture of the world,’ writes Samuel P. Huntington, ‘is a highly useful starting point for analysing international affairs and explains much state behaviour.’ At the same time, Huntington identifies ‘severe limitations’, the chief one for him being that Realism does not lead one to a civilizational thesis of international politics, as advanced by Huntington.

There are at least two key criticisms of Realism beyond Huntington and his ‘Clash of Civilization’ thesis. First, and most simply, Idealists criticise Realism on the grounds that it isn’t nice. This is a genuine criticism and it is easily the Idealists’ weakest. The response of the Realist is simple: our concern is not how the world could work but how it does work; whether the explanation is desirable or undesirable is beside the point. After all, ‘truth is impervious to our preferences,’ to paraphrase Hans J. Morgenthau. ‘Realists agree that creating a peaceful world would be desirable,’ writes Mearsheimer, ‘but they see no easy way to escape the harsh world of security competition and war.’

Second, it is argued by the Idealists that Realism is internally contradictory. This is the more serious criticism. Indeed, Realists describe how the world works but they then make policy recommendations based on their assessment. Whereas the former is a descriptive act, the latter is clearly normative. But whereas the Idealists’ policy recommendations are premised on the idea of a better world, that of the Realists is based on how the world actually works.

The Realist would say that theirs is the policy recommendation that leads the statesman to sail with the wind and not against it. For to sail against the wind would be to wreck the ship of state, and no sane statesman desires that.

Lessons of History 

History is littered with the examples of statesmen who sailed against the wind. In the 1930s, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain pursued a policy of appeasement vis a vis Hitler and the Third Reich. We all know how that ended. Chamberlain, of course, was well-intentioned. But so are all statesmen. All statesmen by definition intend that which they believe is beneficial to their state. But good intentions do not entail good results. Therein lies yet another dividing line – no, a chasm – between the Realists and the Idealists.

The Jacobins were well-intentioned in their desire to establish order and to preserve the ideals of the Revolution they had brought about. Their actions culminated in the Reign of Terror. The Bolsheviks were well-intentioned in their desire to create what they saw as a fairer and more equitable society. Their actions resulted in a lost century for an entire people. For Francis Fukuyama, the end of the Cold War marked the ‘end of history’ in that only perpetual peace and prosperity could follow from the collapse of communism. Subsequent world events proved him sorely mistaken, despite his good intentions.

By their nature, Idealists embark on grand designs in search of utopia despite that very term meaning ‘no place’. The Arab Spring is a salient case example. Idealists celebrated the outbreak of protests and demonstrations across the Arab world in 2010, interpreting it as the final overthrow of despotism and the establishment of democracy in the region. To quote then-President Barack Obama, a self-described ‘optimist’:

‘We face a historic opportunity.  We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator.  There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity.  Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise.  But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.’ [emphasis added]

But the dictators have not gone. They are still there. ‘Self-determination and opportunity’ ultimately brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt. Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen barely function as states at all. The prospects in the Middle East for universal franchise, female emancipation and civil liberty seem scarcely better now than they did seven years ago. But all of this would come as no surprise to a Realist.


In an increasingly uncertain world with a rising China, a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons and an Iran on the path to acquire them, Western statesmen need to subscribe to Realism more than ever before. No doubt the Realist assessment of the world is less palatable than the Idealist one, but it is no less true for it.

Realist theory is as relevant today with regard to American-Chinese relations as it was in antiquity with Athens and Sparta. After all, that which sparked the Peloponnesian War  was the rise of Athens and the fear that this caused in Sparta, to paraphrase Thucydides. Little surprise, then, that contemporary scholars are concerned about America and China becoming embroiled in a ‘Thucydides trap’. For the West to pursue a policy of Idealism would be for it to place aspirations above realities.

None of this is to say that Realists are infallible or that the scientific validity of Realism is akin to that of the Natural Sciences. Human affairs are messy. They always have been and always will be. But what Realism offers is the opportunity to make at least some sense of that mess and to pursue policies that do not end in disaster. For the statesman, what matters is not good intentions but good conclusions.

With the record of history behind them, the Realists are confident to say that it is those who wish to make the world a better place who are potentially the most dangerous of men.


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