International Relations Realism
Jonathan Cristol
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0042


There are many different types of realist theory. “Classical realism” was developed in the 1940s in response to the utopian ideas prevalent during the interwar period and sought to balance moral decision making with the rational pursuit of power. Though many of the realist ideas came from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and E. H. Carr set “realism” in opposition to “utopianism,” it was Hans J. Morgenthau who developed what was then called “political realism” into a fully formed, comprehensive international relations theory. Kenneth Waltz thought that this theory was not sufficiently scientific and began his construction of “structural realism” (also called “neorealism”) with his 1954 work Man, the State, and War (Waltz 2001, cited under Structural Realism) and produced a fully formed theory in his 1979 book Theory of International Politics (Waltz 1979, cited under Structural Realism). Since its publication, “neorealism” has become synonymous with “realism.” These two strains remain the major theories that can still be considered “realist.” Despite their differences on major issues such as the cause of war and the goal of states’ foreign policy, all realist theories share a few basic concepts that allow them to be considered “realist”: (1) the international system is anarchic, (2) states are the primary actors within that system, and (3) states act in their own interest in pursuit of either power (classical and offensive realism) or security (defensive realism). The key concepts found in realist theory are anarchy, the balance of power, and the national interest.

General Overviews

Snyder 2004 provides the most basic overview of the three major branches of international relations (IR) theory—realism, liberalism, and constructivism—and is thus the best choice for a quick overview of realist theory. Elman and Jensen 2014 is a compilation of realist texts and is an outstanding source for an almost comprehensive overview of realist theory in (only) 534 pages. Freyberg-Inan, et al. 2009 presents an overview of recent scholarship on realist theory. Fromkin 1981 gives a logical argument for why states are the most prominent actors in the international system, a key tenet of realist theory. Molloy 2006 and Guilhot 2008 both provide histories of realist theory. Molloy 2006 shows the discursive evolution of “neorealism” into “realism,” and Guilhot 2008 describes how Hans J. Morgenthau and early classical realists attempted to break international relations away from political science in an attempt to form a new discipline.

  • Elman, Colin, and Michael Jensen. The Realism Reader. New York: Routledge, 2014.

    An anthology of major and important works in all forms of realism. It traces the development of realism from E. H. Carr and the early classical realists through modern developments in neoclassical realism. It includes: the major dialogues between realists and their critics; how different realist theories grapple with foreign policy problems; and looks ahead at the future of realism. An essential resource.

  • Freyberg-Inan, Annette, Ewan Harrison, and Patrick James, eds. Rethinking Realism in International Relations: Between Tradition and Innovation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

    A perfectly organized collection of recent theoretical developments in realism. Also features chapters on the application of realism to contemporary foreign policy and on the merits of realist theory. Includes works by Richard Little, Christopher Layne, Colin Elman, and Jennifer Sterling-Folker. Accessible for undergraduates with a basic knowledge of realist theory.

  • Fromkin, David. The Independence of Nations. New York: Praeger, 1981.

    Fromkin argues that states are the most prominent actors in the system and are likely to remain so, because they are independent and no higher authority exists than the state. Like Morgenthau, he argues that international politics is different from domestic politics and that states should not be treated as people. Clearly written, and underused in today’s undergraduate classroom.

  • Guilhot, Nicolas. “The Realist Gambit: Postwar American Political Science and the Birth of IR Theory.” International Political Sociology 2.4 (December 2008): 281–304.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-5687.2008.00052.x

    Explains how Morgenthau, Kenneth Thompson, and other scholars attempted (unsuccessfully) to develop IR into its own discipline in the United States. Too dense and difficult to follow for most undergraduates, but tells an important story in the history of American IR theory.

  • Molloy, Sean. The Hidden History of Realism: A Genealogy of Power Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403982926

    This book tells the story of how the term “realism” came to be used synonymously with “neorealism” instead of “classical realism.” Difficult to find, but cited in most works about realism. Geared to the graduate student or professor. Difficult to follow without a strong background in the subject and the field.

  • Snyder, Jack. “One World, Rival Theories.” Foreign Policy 145 (November–December 2004): 52–62.

    An update on a similarly named 1998 Foreign Policy article by Stephen Walt. Snyder provides his take on the basic principles of realism and compares them to the basic principles of the other major schools of thought in IR theory. Perfect brief overview of both realism and international relations theory in general.

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