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  • Writer's pictureBrain Booster Articles


Author: Khushi Kumari, IV year of B.A.,LL.B.(Hons.) from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Indore

Co-author: Mrinal Birla, III year of B.A.,LL.B.(Hons.) from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Indore


Kautilya, the most popular minister to Chandragupta Maurya gave the theory of ‘Matsya Nyaya’ which also means ‘Law of Fish’. It is the fundamental law of nature that small fish become prey to big fish or the strong devour the weak - this is the ultimate reality. Therefore, Kautilya can be considered as a Realist – the one who talks about the reality. Kautilya’s approach was reality oriented as according to his words; power plays an important role in life. We can define realism as an approach to the study of international politics that explains and interprets world politics in terms of power. In simple words, realism is reality as it is. Realists sees the world as it really is and not with the specs of what it should have been or what one wishes it to be. The theory of realism is associated with some scholars like Kautilya, Machiavelli and Hobbes. Both Kautilya and Machiavelli had the perspective that – if you are a hegemonic power, you can rule the world. Realists consider power politics, national interest and security as a central idea of any nation or state.

The theory of ‘Idealism’ emerged earlier than the theory of ‘realism’. When ‘The Great War’ happened during 1914-1918, Idealists believed that this kind of war will never take place again in the future, they had utmost faith in humanity. But the idealists also believed that - if we talk about international relations, we have to remember power politics and at the end of the day we cannot rely upon humanism or humanity as humans are driven by power and the world is not as idealist as we think it is. In 1945, when World War II took place, Idealists were proved wrong and that era was the emergence of Idealist people and it stayed as it is till dismantle of the USA.

Idealists believed in foreign policy and hence Gandhiji can be considered as an Idealist. US hegemony is an example of realism. This is reality that a bigger and a powerful nation will dominate smaller and comparatively less powerful state. USA, which is a powerful nation dominates other nations of the world, whether it is culturally, economically, psychologically or using military power, we all can see the influence of USA in all the nations of the world. The principal actors in the international arena are the states who are acting is pure self interest as stated by realists. Diplomacy, economic power and military force are the tools used by the states to attain the goal of foreign policy in the ongoing struggle for power in the world politics. Neorealism, which is a re-invented form of realism still argues that even while cooperating with each other, states try to maximize their power and preserve their autonomy.


The theory of realism makes the study international relations by explaining and interpreting world politics terms of power. This theory insists to examine world politics as it really is and not as it ought to be or one imagines or wants it to be, it simply means that we should see the things as they really are not in a way, we want it to be. The reality of the world is that all the states or nation acts for the self interest within an environment of international anarchy. Relation of a state with the other state is decided on the merit of level of economic, military and other powers. International organizations remain at the boundary of international relations of state and cannot arrive at its centre as they neither can change the behavior of states nor can it change the dynamics of global power politics, it can only be functional or useful for world cooperation in some specific areas.

Realists believe that human nature can be both good and evil and so we cannot totally rely upon humanity, and therefore they focus on the topics of power, national interest and security as these are the factors nations are most concerned about and build resources for. Realists do not believe in the ‘standard’ behavior which states are supposed to be in, as for them ‘standard’ behavior is not practical.

Kautilya, a realist of ancient period has reflected realism in his theories as he advices king to use power for interests and self-protection. In his Arthshastra, the oldest and the longest treaties on the principles of statecraft and good governance, he argues that moral reasoning is not very useful to state rulers faced with anarchy and intrigue. Machiavelli, another realist of medieval period belonging to Italy, advice the prince to deal with things in a more practical way rather than in a theoretical way to be in power and put more focus on the strategies of war.

The will to dominate others and the drive for power are fundamental aspects of humans, which explains some essential features of international politics such as competition, war and fear. According to Idealism – international laws, morality and international organizations are the key features which influences events taking place at international level and does not focuses on power which is the key feature of any international event as per realists. The Idealist school of thought is a total opposer of Realism as they believe that human nature is basically good and the principles of international relation must flow from principles of good morality. The Idealist school of thought was active in the interwar period. After the end of Second World War, the realists covered the aspects of the war as it is rather than what it should have been. Thereafter, realists dominated the idealists.

Three fundamental propositions of state-centricism: -

  • States are the independent body using force at both intra-and interstate matters. They act for their national interests.

  • Power is an important factor for any state. They compete with one another for security, markets, influence and survival.

  • States always try to preserve their power and independence for maintaining balance of power. International organizations, multinational corporations and other supernational bodies plays role at the periphery of the states, and not affecting the core policies of the states.

Interstate system is characterized by competition and conflict. The international system is always surrounded with a threat of war where the state having more power has the advantage over other. Appropriate application of power decides the success or failure in foreign policy. After the Second War, thinkers stated that idealists were being overly positive about the ‘reform and change’ in world politics.

Offensive and Defensive realism

The defensive strategy used by the nations for their security where there is no intention to attack another state/nation and are working just for self defense is called defensive realism. For example – making of nuclear weapons by USA and USSR for their own defense is being realistic for defensive strategy. Whereas playing the real power politics to offend other states/nations is called offensive realism. For example – attack on Iraq by USA is an offensive strategy by USA.


With change in time and circumstances, we have moved from World War to Globalization, and during this time realism got re-invented and converted into neorealism. The phase from 1990s marks the emergence of neorealism. Both realism and neorealism have the same modus-operendi i.e., big states or the powerful states will dominate the smaller and less powerful state, with different packaging as we have moved to capturing market. Neorealists acknowledge the fact that in the post-globalized era, the states have only changed its forms and has become more complex. Kenneth Waltz was the foremost thinker in the neorealist school of thinking, who believes in the ‘democratic peace theory’ and rejects the idea that interdependence and international institutions will lead to establishment of a more peaceful and stable world. There are no permanent friends or enemies in the global system of states. Waltz believes that intervention of a state for its national interest in another state does more harm than good. Zero interdependence is the way to prevent war and conflicts between states/nations. Waltz argues that the main difference between national and international politics that decisively shapes the behavior of states is the absence of a higher authority in the international system, which leads to a severe ‘security dilemma’ because security build-up of one state leads to insecurity of others.

Neorealists believe that this is only a passing phase of world history and problems of anarchy, economic rivalry, security dilemmas, institutional decay and balancing alliances will all come back. This school of thought discovers peace and order in the theory of balance of power or hegemony, anticipating rising conflict and rivalries among the industrialized nations and expecting all states to conform to the standard presumptions of realist theory.

Criticism of Realism

1. It is anti-democratic and elitist –

It is said that chaos is the ladder of success. America being world’s oldest democracy destroys and ruins other nations in name of democracy. This way using its power, America rules the World which is a reality. Hence, Realism is an anti-democratic phenomenon.

2. It is totally based on profit –

Realism makes profit-based Institutions. This whole theory is based on profit, whether it is cultural, economic or structural profit. Therefore, it can be said that the school of realism aims at making profit.

3. It tries to simplify international relation –

Realism does over simplification of international relations. It says that the states/nations which has power can stay and which doesn’t hold power cannot. This is simplification from the eyes of dominating power.

4. Nothing changes neither human nature nor national interest –

Realism proposes that nothing changes, neither human nature nor national interest which is not true. Change can happen, it is possible. Realism doesn’t believe in change but if it was true then the nation like India which was an under-developed nation would not have changed to a developing nation.


The assumptions that realism makes on international relations are something which cannot be verified; hence it cannot be proved accurate. Everything in realism is related to power and it does not give the attention to importance of foreign policy and dominance of the security issues that it deserves. Sovereignty, national interest, security, autonomy of foreign policy, great power dominance are some foundational concerns of realists which carries a side of conflict with them which is responsible for preventing cooperative modes of state behavior.

According to realism, all the states are dependent on one another and will remain in their position at any cost. Major disagreements about the ends of ‘development’ were also looked at with great suspicion in the realist camp. The topic of national interest is subject to various interpretations, which can be a problematic concept. There is no one who can accurately define national interest. If we interpret realism, we can come to a conclusion that realist doesn’t believe in change – for them, nothing changes and foreign policy is way to gain power and security. Realism or neorealism doesn’t have any explanation or answer for events and issues of world politics, such as – terrorism, environmental policies, etc.


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