Global Politics- Political Theory (Liberalism vs Realism)


Realism and an anarchical world order

Realism is governed principally by the belief that nation-states are the most legitimate and powerful actors in global politics. The realist viewpoint includes the following:

  • The authority of IGOs, such as the EU and the UN, should be limited. In this respect, global politics is an anarchical society, since nation-states retain the exclusive right to act in whatever way they wish.

  • Although nation-states may decide to work through and with other non-state actors, they do not abandon their sovereign right to advance their own self-interest. (Anarchy in this context, should be understood in its literal sense as the 'absence of authority or government' rather than necessarily a state of chaos and disorder.)

  • Since nation-states exist in a state of global anarchy, this creates a security dilemma, because they can only rely upon themselves for their lea own protection. States, therefore, live in a self-help system in which they must build up their own security apparatus through military power and alliances.

  • States act rationally and usually prioritise defending their own national interest. Usually, this means that a state's prime motivation is to defend its national security against perceived threats.

  • All states are ultimately trying to find ways of increasing their power and influence within the global political order.

  • The natural state of the world order is for states to compete with each other making the most of their power. Therefore, states are often in conflict with each other.

Important realist thinkers

The titles of the following texts from key realist thinkers all question some of the assumptions of liberalism, for example the inevitable competition for power that exists between states and the idea of an anarchical society where there is no higher authority in global politics above nation-state level.

Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (1979)

Waltz was a defensive realist thinker. Bipolarity, where two major powers are competing for power, is more stable than multipolarity, where many rival powers are competing with each other (see page 260). Two major powers can negotiate their way to stability more easily than many powers. The international system is in a state of anarchy, with no central authority above nation-state level.

Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society (1977)

Bull identified the idea of an anarchical society within which a society of states operates in spite of this anarchy. A society of states is formed when states realise that they have common interests and values and will benefit from working together. When this happens, states begin to interact and impact on each others decisions, so 'they behave- at least in some measure-as parts of a whole.

Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations (1948)

Morgenthau is a classical realist thinker. Political man is a naturally selfish creature and will always try to dominate and have power over others. Moral considerations in global politics are less important than the national interest.

John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001)

Mearsheimer is an offensive realist thinker. He explained that conflict and competition for


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