Realism and International Relations

Realism and International Relations

Realism and International Relations

Realism and International Relations


Realism and International Relations offers students a critical yet sympathetic review of political realism, the theory that for the past half-century has dominated international studies. Examining realist thinkers from Thucydides, through Machiavelli to Kenneth Waltz, Donnelly challenges standard realist claims and argues that realism is an insightful yet one-sided theory. Containing chapter-by-chapter guides to further reading and discussion questions for students, this book offers an accessible and lively survey of the dominant theory in International Relations.


Anarchy, the absence of hierarchical relations of authority and rule, largely defines the discipline of international studies. Students of comparative politics study hierarchical political orders, societies that operate under established systems of law and government. Students of international relations study the anarchic interactions of polities that recognize no higher political authority. This stylized picture, like any good caricature, highlights essential features of its subject. I will argue, however, that realist accounts of the meaning and implications of anarchy are of severely limited applicability and value.

Anarchy, chaos, and order

The term “anarchy” comes to us from the Greek, meaning, literally, absence of government or rule (arche). Arche is the term Thucydides uses to refer to the Athenian “empire”; rule of one city over another, in contrast to both the formal equality of alliances and the hegemonic leadership of the first among equals. It is most familiar to us today in common (Greek-derived) definitions of regime types such as monarchy (rule of one) and oligarchy (rule of the few).

In popular discourse, “anarchy” often suggests chaos or violent disorder. But the absence of hierarchical order need not lead to a Hobbesian war of all against all. Individuals and social groups often order and organize themselves in the absence of government. Most realists thus admit the obvious fact that international relations reveals significant elements of order.

Order in international society, however, is established “horizontally” rather than “vertically;” through the interaction of formally equal states rather than being imposed “from above. ” For example, sovereign states regularly contract with one another (agree to treaties), reciprocally accepting obligations and giving up elements of their “primordial” liberty (sovereignty). Alliances, peace treaties, diplomatic immunity, territorial seas, customs unions, and the United Nations Security Council are but a 81 . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.