20 Dec 2022


Realism in the 21st Century: International Relations

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International relations (IR) is the realist extension of human behavior and nature. The anarchic nature of humans is displayed at the state and interstate levels. Realism is one of the theoretical perspectives in the field of IR that seeks to expose the dominating influence of self-centered leadership through uncivil characters in the form of state protection and sustenance. The increasing inter-state militarization and stockpiling of war weapons is the very foundational pillars upon which realism explains IR and argue its point (Jervis, 1999). The paradigm is one of the oldest theoretical thought in international politics. The international political system is a state of competition for power by individuals who will want to use that power to control and entrench dominance that is economic, political, and military. Realism does not attempt to address all issues in trans-border politics, but its belief in anarchy allow critical thinkers to see some of the salient point it addresses. Thus, because of the states in their competition, display anarchic tendencies, the concept of realism will continue to be relevant in explaining and giving citizens the correct perspective on activities at the international arena. Other paradigms explain some aspects of IR, but because of the potentials for anarchy, and power competition, realism holds the key to understanding the directions of IR.

Realism holds some fundamental assumptions. These assumptions form the basis of the power and anarchy debate. Realists have the assertion that the international community is by design anarchic (Jervis, 1999). The instruments of power are within the state, and they can rule and create laws that govern citizens' interactions. This assertion explains the principle of state sovereignty. The type of relationships that exist outside the nation-states is different from that which exist within the states. Thus, national power differs from external power. Also, they have the perspective that states are the main players at the international scene. Regional, national and non-state actors are on the fringes of the international system. This is why international agencies, organizations will not have the military, economic, and political power that nations have depending on the analytical lens.

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Furthermore, power is at the core of IR. Nations interact with other to seek economic, military, and political power. Survival and deterrent are components of human existence. This approach to life is manifest in the way nations relate to each other. Alliances are the results of this power struggle (Jervis, 1999). The nations that see that they are ill-equip in one area may want to form an ally, a relationship with another nation that is much stronger. This need for power is viewed differently by realists because it is argued that the motives are different for different states. Thus, realists agree that all nations prioritize power in their needs. This prioritization is seen in almost all national budgets. The defense ministries in nations spend a greater part of their budgets on military and security.

Realism in the 21st Century 

Realism continues to explain the dominant discourse on IR. A thoughtful look on the alliances reveals the desire by nations to strengthen their power by building and fortifying relationships. The state actors are unwilling to reduce their military and security. Nations with advanced military power are still building and improving, while those that were not, are in the process of building their military power. Across the world, the power game is visible at conferences and the media. These tensions do not demonstrate any possibility of a reduction in power acquisitions and threats to peace in many parts of the world. The international community and institutions are creations of treaties and rules that operate without the sovereignty of the nations. These operations of international institutions outside national sovereignty underscore the ability of states to acquire weapons that are tools for anarchy and power.

The representations of these international organizations have evolved and had new dimensions in the 21 st century. They have metamorphosed into powerful institutions that attempt to demonstrate and control states that are less powerful. For example, the United Nations is increasingly regulating in subtle and overt forms the political conditions in most nations. The international criminal court and other international legal entities are influencing the legal component of some nations. A critical look at their activities and policy-related programs indicate an understanding and strategy that seem to imply that there is something regulatory outside and above the sovereignty of countries. The World Bank, through bonds, grants, and loans to nations has become a powerful institution that regulates national and international banking affairs as well as the political activities of nations.

States also have membership in these international organizations. In their membership, some decisions do not have binding power on nations. The organizations can initiate but not force nations to obey the resolutions. It is in such instances that foreign policies and international diplomacy become the tool in the hands of the organizations. The nations are still the main actors in IR. The nonbinding resolutions and decisions are gaps for anarchy and power display. Thus, invasions such as those of Iraq are evidence of what realism is explaining. Another display of realism anarchy is the weak nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Many nations that signed the treaty are now building nuclear weapons under new agreements. Now, it takes the most powerful states to pressure any nation that is building nuclear capabilities to renege on its program. This perspective goes to show that power is being sought and it is the states that are attempting to prevent anarchy.

The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), is another area where realism will continue to be relevant because of the threat of such weapons will have on humans. North Korea and Iran are on a path of developing their nuclear power. It is all about the power positions that these nations want to attain. The realism of anarchy is in the ability of what they are developing to wipe out a population for the sake of power. Thus, anarchy has not gone away because the probable use of weapons of mass destruction persists (Velez-Green, 2017). Threats and conflicts will continue to be part of human existence and nations will forge foreign policies that reinforce their interest based on power. Alliances will still exist, and the influence of geopolitics and geo-economics will attempt to strengthen effective arms control without much success. The proliferation of these weapons has a potential of getting into individual within nations who will take and cause anarchy. Other nations will have the excuse and opportunity to develop their nuclear capabilities if checks and changes are not initiated away from MAD (Charap, & Troitskiy, 2011).


Realism does not speak or explain everything in the international politics and diplomacy. IR is filled with issues of power and anarchy. The game of power has not ceased, and its continued presence makes the possibility of anarchy real. The area of international power competition is taking a new dimension through the superficial regulation of nations by international organizations. The sovereignty of nations gives them the control of resources that they can utilize in their quest for power. States will continue to develop their nuclear and military capabilities in the face of external and internal threats. This approach towards obtaining power is the point that realism seeks to explain and inform. It will be more pronounced as new or emerging power block appear to withstand the powerful nations in the new world.


Charap, S., & Troitskiy, M. (2011). Beyond mutually assured destruction. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/news/2011/07/06/10043/beyond-mutually-assured-destruction/ 

Jervis, R. (1999). Realism, Neoliberalism, and Cooperation: Understanding the debate.

International Security. 24 (1), pp. 42-63.

Velez-Green, A. (2017). We need mutually assured destruction. Retrieved from http://www.nationalreview.com/article/447193/mutually-assured-destruction-obsolescent-and-could-be-very-bad

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