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Realism Neorealism Notes

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* Cross-reference - PO219 Theory & World; Constructivism; Theorizing the Post-Cold War Era; Critical Geopolitics; Environmental Politics &
Green Theory // PO201 Hobbes: Conflict in the State of Nature


1. With reference to empirical examples, critically discuss the contribution of Neorealism to theorizing contemporary issues in IR. [2015]
To what extent does Neorealism constitute a departure from Classical Realism? [2013]

2. Is the UN Security Council a manifestation of great power politics?
Does realism adequately explain states' weak commitment to climate change?

3. Have realist theories of IR become less relevant in the post-Cold War world? [2016]
Explain the ongoing popularity of Realism as a theory of IR.

Realism is the predominant school of thought in international relations theory. As a problem-solving theory*, realism claims to offer an account of international politics that is timeless, 'realistic' and devoid of wishful dimensions; an 'empirical (concerned with observing the world 'as it is') rather than a normative paradigm (how the world 'ought to be')' [Morgenthau].
Realists claim a long intellectual pedigree harking back to Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes; one which rests on the apparent durability of power politics as a perennial feature of human affairs.
 Thucydides: The History of the Peloponnesian War
In an oft-quoted passage, his explanation for the war's underlying cause - 'the growth of Athenian power and the fear this provoked in Sparta' - provides a foundation for integral Realist themes, such as the Security Dilemma, perpetual fear, and the incompatibility of morality in anarchical international relations between self-interested agents. This is further reinforced by the 'Melian dialogue' in which the Melians are forced to accept that 'the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must'.

Machiavelli: The Prince'
The centrality of violence and pragmatism in Machiavellian thought is fundamentally rooted in his cynical view of the human condition as self-centered, fickle and ignorant. In his infamous treatise 'The Prince', Machiavelli argued that expedient leadership (deceit, treachery, coercion, etc.) - rather than moral rectitude - was crucial to harnessing the weaker traits of humanity for the greater collective good: 'a prudent ruler cannot and must not honor his word'.

Hobbes: Leviathan*
Hobbes postulates that in the absence of government (state of nature), there would be a 'war of all against all' in which there is 'continual fear... and the life of man: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.'


1. Egoism (preoccupations with narrow self-interest) is a ubiquitous aspect of human nature.

2. International politics is composed of sovereign nation-states; the referent unit of analysis. As states are comprised of,
and led by people who are inherently conflictual/selfish, this implies that state behaviour must also exhibit similar characteristics.
The supreme national interest of all states is survival/self-preservation (not economic prosperity) and this plays a crucial role in framing world affairs. International anarchy does not permit friendship, trust or cooperation;
realists do not believe it is prudent for states to entrust their survival on another actor/international institution,
as illustrated by the unfortunate fate of Ethiopian under the League of Nations (Abyssinia Crisis) and Kuwait under the United Nations (Iraq-Kuwait War). Each state actor alone is responsible for ensuring their own wellbeing/security.

3. Perpetual fear
According to Lebow, 'fear is absolutely central to the realist paradigm' (See: Introduction). Fear is defined as the spontaneous reaction to a perceived threat, and it is the most fundamental psychological/evolutionary trait for ensuring survival. Not surprisingly, fear has occupied a dominant place in the discipline of International Relations since its conception.
Self-preservation can be pursued through offensive aggression or defensive restraint. Restraint is the preferred option; indeed, it would be inappropriate to call such an actor fearful in the first place should they favor otherwise.

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