Political Realism has been described as the “oldest theory” of international politics, as well as the “dominant” one. Central to the realist tradition is the concept of “security.” Realism sees the insecurity of states as the main problem in international relations. It depicts the international system as a realm where “self-help” is the primary motivation; states must provide security for themselves because no other agency or actor can be counted on to do so. However, realists offer different explanations for why security is scarce, emphasizing a range of underlying mechanisms and causal factors such as man’s innate desire for power; conflicts of interest that arise between states possessing different resource endowments, economic systems, and political orders; and the “ordering principle” of international anarchy. They also propose numerous factors that can intensify or ameliorate the basic security problem, such as polarity, shifts in the overall balance of power, the “offense–defense balance,” and domestic politics. Several alternative approaches to international relations have challenged the basic realist account of the security problem, three of which are democratic peace theory, economic liberalism, and social constructivism. Furthermore, realism outlines various strategies that states can pursue in order to make themselves more secure, such as maximizing power, international alliances, arms racing, socialization and innovation, and institutions and diplomacy. Scholars continue to debate the historical roots, conceptual foundations, and predictive accuracy of realism. New avenues of research cover issues such as civil war, ethnic conflict, mass violence, September 11, and the Iraq War.
Stephen M. Walt
Brett Ashley Leeds and T. Clifton Morgan
Security issues have long been linked to the study of international relations. The crucial issue which scholars and decision makers have sought to understand is how states can avoid being victimized by war while also being prepared for any eventuality of war. Particular attention has been devoted to alliances and armaments as the policy instruments that should have the greatest effect on state war experiences. Scholars have attempted to use balance of power theories to explain the interrelationships between arms, alliances, and international conflict, but the overwhelming lack of empirical support for such theories led the field to look for alternatives. This gave rise to new theorizing that recognized variance in national goals and an enhanced role for domestic politics, which in turn encouraged empirical tests at the nation state or dyadic level of analysis. Drawing from existing theoretical perspectives, more specific formal models and empirical tests were invoked to tackle particular questions about alliances and arms acquisitions. Despite significant advances in individual “islands of theory,” however, integrated explanations of the pursuit and effects of security policies have remained elusive. An important consideration for the future is to develop of theories of security policy that take into account the substitutability and complementarity of varying components. There have been two promising attempts at such integrated theorizing: the first explains the steps to war and the second is based on the assumption that states pursue two composite goods through foreign policy.