The Cold War and After: History, Theory, and the Logic of International Politics

By Marc Trachtenberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
The Question of Realism: An Historian's View

DIFFERENT COUNTRIES WANT different things; sometimes those desires conflict; how then do those conflicts get worked out? The basic insight that lies at the heart of the realist approach to international politics is that the way those conflicts run their course is heavily conditioned by power realities. In a world where war cannot be ruled out if conflicts are not settled peacefully rational states are bound to be concerned with the structure of power in the sense not just of the distribution of military capabilities both actual and potential, but also of the whole web of relationships that would affect what would happen if war actually broke out. But rational states not only adjust their policies to such power realities. If the structure of power is of such fundamental importance, it stands to reason that states might well try to alter it to their advantage. That striving for power political advantage in turn might well come to dominate the system. The fact that states live in an anarchic system—that is, a system not governed by supranational authority—can therefore have a profound impact on state behavior, and some of the most central problems of international relations theory thus have to do with the importance of such “systemic” or “structural” effects in international political life.

It is commonly assumed that this concern for power, and especially this striving for power political advantage, puts states at odds with each other—that the struggle for power is a major source of conflict in and of itself. Such arguments are quite familiar. Opponents of realism have always assumed that power politics leads to conflict. Woodrow Wilson's whole approach to international politics was rooted in assumptions of that sort, and even today such attitudes are by no means dead. One leading contemporary theorist, Alexander Wendt, thus takes it for granted that a world in which states behave in accordance with the dictates of Realpolitik is a violence-prone, kill-or-be-killed, Hobbesian world.1 It is perhaps more surprising to find realists themselves ar-

This is a slightly altered version of an article which originally appeared in Security Studies in the fall of 2003. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Taylor and Francis Ltd. Copyright © Security Studies, Taylor and Francis, Oxford, England. Reprinted by permission.

1 Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge, England, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 262–66. Hobbes’s original argument,

-3-

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