Realism and RealPolitik in International Relations Theory

Realism is a school of thought in international relations that believes that the behaviour of a state in international politics is governed by human nature which is inherently flawed. Classical Realists believe that as human nature is flawed, greedy and insecure, therefore people compete for scarce resources and consequently attack one another. The conflict, therefore, in international politics occurs as a natural outcome of their behaviour [3].


Neorealism or Structural realism is an ideological departure from the discourses on classical realism. Neorealism, perhaps, is the most influential contemporary international relations theory. It has, since late 70s, dominated the international relations theory and occupied the interests of a broad group of political scientists particularly of United States. Neorealists believe that structure, capability, the distribution of power, polarity and national interest are the fundamental tenets that govern the behaviour of state in international politics [1].

The ‘structure’ of international system is intrinsically ‘anarchic’ with the absence of a world government and a single overarching global order [2]. Thus, the international system of politics is structured by ‘anarchy’ and causes every state to be responsible for its own stability and security. This implicates that each state, in order to attain security, is likely to perpetually achieve more and more capabilities for its survival.

Balance of Power

The balance of power theory is a fundamental tenet of both classical and neorealist theory. To attain security against a potential aggressor or a hegemon and ensure their survival, the states maintain or increase their power in a self-help world thereby striking a balance of power. According to Kenneth Waltz, the founder of neorealism

Balance-of-power politics prevail wherever two, and only two requirements are met: that the order be anarchic and that it be populated by units wishing to survive.

Waltz, Kenneth N. (1979), Theory of International Politics, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, pp. 118, 121

Clash of Civilizations and Classical Realism

The theory of clash of civilizations was first presented by the famous political scientist Samuel P. Huntington during a lecture at American Enterprise Institute in 1992. Later, in 1993, his detailed hypothesis appeared in the Foreign Affairs magazine published by Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Huntington argued in his article that although the nation states will maintain their significance on the international stage but the future conflicts will occur along the cultural fault lines. Thus, this theory can be seen in continuity with classical realism. He stated this explicitly in his article published in Foreign Affairs magazine

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future. [4]

Samuel P.Huntington

In his celebrated book, The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order, Huntington classified the world into nine major civilizations [5]

Major World Civilizations Classifications as depicted by Samuel P.Huntington
imported from enwiki

Huntington further asserted in contextual relationship to these major cultural fault lines that the United States should adopt it as it’s conscious policy to spread it’s cultural values and pursue this goal by all means necessary

In this emerging era of cultural conflict the United States must forge alliances with similar cultures and spread its values wherever possible. With alien civilizations the West must be accommodating if possible, but confrontational if necessary. In the final analysis, however, all civilizations will have to learn to tolerate each other. [6]

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, 1993, pp. 22–49.

Huntington served as the White House Coordinator of Security Planning for the National Security Council during the presidency of Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). He also served as an advisor to the apartheid regime in South Africa during 1980’s. The apartheid regime used his ideas to reform the apartheid rather than completely eliminating it. [7]

The reform process, he told his South African audience, often requires “duplicity, deceit, faulty assumptions and purposeful blindness.” He thus gave his imprimatur to his hosts’ project of “reforming” apartheid rather than eliminating it.

Joseph Lelyveld, Move Your Shadow (New York, 1985), 68-9; Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido, “South Africa Since 1976: an historical perspective,” in Shaun Johnson, ed., South Africa: No Turning Back (London, 1988), 28-9


Henry Kissinger is a famous American political scientist and a diplomat. He served as the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor for United States under the presidential administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He is a strong proponent and practitioner of RealPolitik. RealPolitik can be described as the conscious employment of the theories of political realism in international politics and diplomacy.

As a practitioner of RealPolitik, Kissinger initiated and orchestrated the opening of relations with China after nearly two decades of hostility. In his book World Order, published in 2014, he expressed distinctive anti-Huntington views. He explains that although cultural aspects do frame societies’ worldviews, but culture in itself is not impenetrable and mysterious as it seems

During my first visit to Beijing, undertaken in 1971 to reestablish contact with China after two decades of hostility, I mentioned that to the American delegation, China was a “land of mystery.”. Premier Zhou Enlai responded, “You will find it not mysterious. When you have become familiar with it, it will not seem so mysterious as before.” There were 900 million Chinese, he observed, and it seemed perfectly normal to them.

Kissinger, H. (2014). World order.

Kissinger does not see clash of civilizations as inevitable, but rather recognizes the need to engage with different cultures in order to shape a common world order [8]

In our time, the quest for world order will require relating the perceptions of societies whose realities and largely been self-contained. The mystery to be overcome is one all peoples share-how divergent historical experiences and values can be shaped into a common order

Kissinger, H. (2014). World order.

United States, China and the International Political Order

The United States has been the dominant world power since the second world war. Its economic monopoly, advanced technology and strong military presence in almost all major regions of the world, has enabled itself to dominate the global political affairs. Its overarching influence over major financial and monetary institutions provided a leverage to hegemonize the international political system. The world has since long witnessed a US centered international political order. The term ‘unipolar superpower’ became synonymous with the United States over the period of time.

But the discourses on international politics took a significant turn with the rise of the sleeping dragon: China. In 2013, China launched it’s flagship foreign policy initiative the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also commonly known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR). It is a development strategy adopted by the Chinese government that involves infrastructure development and investments in 152 countries and international organizations across Europe, Asia, Middle East, Latin America and Africa.

The Chinese government calls the OBOR initiative “a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future” [9]. But some critics see it as a push for Chinese ascendency in global politics [10]. These investments in international financial and monetary organizations along with the infrastructural development projects will provide China the necessary leverage to dominate and ultimately hegemonize the global politics. Only time will reveal the real stretch and scale of dominance.


  1. Mearsheimer, John J. (2014). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York, NY: Norton. p. 3.
  2. Waltz, Kenneth N. Theory of International Politics. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co, 1979. Print.
  3. Morgenthau, H. J. (1948). Politics among nations: The struggle for power and peace. New York: A.A. Knopf.
  5. Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
  6. Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, 1993, pp. 22–49. JSTOR,
  7. Joseph Lelyveld, Move Your Shadow (New York, 1985), 68-9; Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido, “South Africa Since 1976: an historical perspective,” in Shaun Johnson, ed., South Africa: No Turning Back (London, 1988), 28-9
  8. Kissinger, H. (2014). World order.
  9. Xinhua News Agency (28 Mar 2015). “China unveils action plan on Belt and Road Initiative”. The State Council of the People’s Republic of China. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  10. “Getting lost in ‘One Belt, One Road'”. Hong Kong Economic Journal. 2016-04-12

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