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The Realism vs Idealism Discourse

The Realism vs Idealism Discourse 


Among other characteristics, it is in the nature of science to develop and operate within the framework of theory. Scholars in the sphere of international relations, in keeping with this nature have come up with different theories in their effort to explain the interactions between actors in the international system, to predict their behaviour and prescribe remedial measures. The theories of Realism and Idealism have been of remarkable importance in international relations.

Both realists and idealists present different pictures of international relations, one real and another ideal. However, the international relations has over the years reflected both paradigms. 

Theories of Realism and Idealism

Concept of Theory

Theory is a model which attempts to structure and explain the political interactions. Spanier argues that theory is meant to develop a device to comprehend and explain the international system thereby paving the way for imposing order and meaning on the complexities of international relations (Oladunde J.C.B. Ojo, D.K. Orwa, C.M.B. Utete, 1985, p. 7). 


Idealism is fundamentally peace oriented. Today’s peace research could be said to be more in ideal politics. This is partly because of the move away from the claim that conflictual human behavior is inert. Idealism gets a fertile ground on the fact that in political science the purpose is not irrelevant to the investigation and separate from it but it is itself one of the facts. Purpose and analysis become part and parcel of the single process as Carr argues. He further holds that political science is the science not only of what is but of what ought to be (Carr, 2001, pp. 4-5). This is a very typical capture by Carr of the theory of idealism. Idealism is propelled towards an envisioned model to which the system should conform just as we see in the many regional blocs in the world today for instance the AU.

According to idealism “purpose precedes and conditions thought” analysis and study comes in handy when wish or purpose is shewn to be incapable by itself to achieve the desired end” (Carr, 2001, p. 5). Political sciences can never wholly emancipate themselves from utopianism and the political scientist is apt to linger for a longer initial period in the utopian stage of development (Carr, 2001, p. 9). This shows how important the theory of Idealism is. In fact, we realize that it is extremely hard and even impossible to run the system without having in mind the ideal image of what you want the system to be. The visions made by different actors for instance the U.N.

 Idealism has also been termed the “win-win approach.”  It is a theory that has the moral touch as well, for instance, Kant’s categorical imperative that one should “act in the maxim which can at the same time be made a universal law” is a good example of the moral dimension of the idealistic approach. This kind of a maxim removes hypothesis because it is categorical and demanding. It serves better Kant’s envisioned theory of ends whereby none should be used as means but everybody should be treated as an end (Brown, 1992, p. 13). This makes the Idealistic theory to focus on the envisioned peaceful co-existence in the international system. The efforts made by the international human rights organization such Amnesty International are exemplar. 


Realism places its emphasis on the acceptance of facts and on the analysis of their causes and consequences. This is a theory which so much dwells on power struggle. The anarchical state of the international system preoccupies this theory. Realists argue that the world system is anarchic, It is a system of “winner takes it all,” none is safe and every political actor is a potential enemy.

This theory is based on the deterministic human behaviour, a school of thought that believes in inertness of the aggressive nature of man. For the realists therefore, what is necessary is the Hobbesian kind of envisioned Leviathan to control the situation. The Realists further, argue that there is need for the accumulation of power in order to ensure world peace. The justification is that when an actor becomes militarily powerful it will deter others from attacking it and if all are perceived to be powerful then no one attacks the other because of this kind of fear. This kind of thought can be clearly seen in what happened in arms race especially during the cold war whereby U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. competed in acquisition of arms in order to scare each other from attacks. Even in the contemporary time acquisition of arms is the order of the day, only recently did Kenya acquire a naval war ship to boost its armament.

The realist theory paints the world as an actual battle ground whereby laws, morality and liberal principles have no place. International peace for them can only be assured by balance of power. What matters is the successful defence of oneself against the aggressor. This is something that can be concretized in today’s uni-polar world system with U.S.A. as the sole superpower. We realize that the interests of this superpower are always being perpetuated despite the protest of minor powers. The Iraq incursion and the Libya case demonstrate clearly how powerful and manipulatory U.S.A.  is in the contemporary world.

Kenneth Waltz however, criticized the uni-polar system. For him, world peace can only be ensured by a bi-polar system. According to him, “in anarchical realms like units coact” (Waltz, 1979, p. 104). His argument could be tenable because history has shown that during the cold war there were fewer conflicts in the world than after. However, in 1962, the U.S.S.R. placed the nuclear weapons in Cuba facing the U.S.A. posing a practical danger of annihilation of the World during the heights of the cold war. The question is therefore whether we could still agree with Waltz that the bi-polar system is better than the uni-polar system.

Realism seems to take the upper hand because of the variables at the systemic level of analysis, anarchy being the key one. In the world characterized by anarchy it almost becomes impossible for any world leader to avoid being realistic, for instance Bill Clinton who is idealistic was actually very vocal in criticizing China for violations of human rights but after ascending to the presidency, he actually had to embrace realistic policies for the sake of the US economic interest in China (Rourke, 1997, p. 21). The need for survival which is at the heart of any given state cannot grant any lee way for any given state to escape the bands of Realism, no wonder we are seeing several states involved in the Somalia conflict each with its own interests.

Both Theories are reflected in Contemporary International Relations

After having looked at these two theories something is vivid and this is the fact that contemporary international relations actually reflect both paradigms. These two theories are more complimentary than contradictory. It is always wise to avoid the extremes. Both Realism and Idealism should not be taken in their respective extremes whereby the complete realist unconditionally accepting the causal sequence of events will deprive himself of the possibility of changing reality and on the other hand, the complete idealist, by rejecting the causal sequence, will deprive himself of the possibility of understanding either the reality which he is seeking to change or the process by which it can be changed. In this case the characteristic vice of the utopian will be naivety and that of the realist will be sterility (Brown, 1992, pp. 11-12).  Healthy thought should strive to establish a balance between what is ideal and what is real, between free will and determinism. In world politics especially in the field of international relations these two theories have been of great importance because they have ensured a milestone on  the quest for understanding how the world system operates and what could be done to understand the conflicts and prescribe solutions to ensure world peace and stability.

Mature thought combines purpose with observation and analysis. Through the theories of Realism and Idealism these two factors are warranted thus giving political science the richness that it possesses (Brown, 1992, p. 10). “The two methods of approach - the inclination to ignore what was and what is in contemplation of what should be and the inclination to deduce what should be from what was and what is – determine opposite attitudes towards every political problem” (Brown, 1992, p. 11) and this is clearly seen in different actors and their behaviour in the international system.

Both theories are therefore not only important but also necessary in the international relations. The operation of the system has actually demonstrated both paradigms in the history and development of world politics. The idealist fixing his eyes in the future thinks in terms of creativity and the realist rooted in the past, thinks in terms of causality (Brown, 1992, p. 11).


No theory can possibly cover everything comprehensively; however, if a theory ignores a key variable or issue that theory will fail to capture the true complexity of international relations. Determining which feature should be emphasized is controversial because certain questions are more interesting to some than to others (Kegley, Wittkopf, 2006, p. 43). For instance gender was not captured by main stream theories of Realism and Idealism but as we may realize this is a very powerful variable today. The interplay between both theories is necessary and of great importance in the international relations sphere because none of them can claim monopoly.


Brown, C. (1992). International relations theory (new normative approach). New York: New        Columbia University Press.
Carr, E.H. (2001). The twenty years’ crisis 1919-1939. An introduction to the study of      international relations. Perennial, Harper Collins Publishers.
Kegley, C.W.Jr., Wittkopf, E.R. (2006). World trends and transformation (tenth    edition).           London: Thomson, Wadsworth.
Rourke, J.T. (1997). International politics on the world stage (6th edition). University of    Connecticut: Dushkin/McGraw.Hill.
Ojo, O.J.C.B., Orwa, D.K., Utete, C.M.B. (1985). African International relations. Lagos:              Longman.

Waltz, K.N. (9179). Theory of international politics. New York: McGraw-Hill. 
The Realism vs Idealism Discourse The Realism vs Idealism Discourse Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on December 24, 2015 Rating: 5

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