The Different Realist Theories Of International Relations Politics Essay

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International relations theories have long provided us with tools to analyze a state's behavior and determine the best course of action in a given situation from that historical data. However, just as there is no one theory on the beginning of the universe, there is no single comprehensive theory of international relations. One of the longest standing conflicts in U.S. history has been with Russia-both before and even now after the fall of the Soviet Union. This report will attempt to identify distinct areas of concern with the current state of Russia, and analyze these relationships using several lenses of International Relations (IR) Theory.

Realist/Neo-Realist/System Theory Lens:

The tendency in Western international relations scholarship toward normalizing the behaviors, history, and culture of the Soviet Union/Russia in international relations began in the 1940s with the arrival first of "Realist" theory and then "International Systems" theory as modes of interpreting international relations. These approaches claimed that the behavior of states, particularly major powers, in international relations could be largely understood in terms of competitive behavior aimed at maximizing a state's power and/or security. Realism therefore suggested then that Soviet behavior in international relations was non-exceptional and comparable to that of other great powers-particularly due to the nature of international arena. It can be understood then, that traditional realism focuses on the nature of the system as being anarchical, and for nation-states to succeed they must compete against other states. [1] In the seminal narration of Realism, Hans Morgenthau's Politics Among Nations (1960), references to the imperialistic behavior of the Soviet Union are imbedded in a long list of references to the imperialist practices and policies of the U.S., Britain, France, the Arab world, Germany, Japan and other states. [2] For Morgenthau and other realists, the efforts of states to expand their power and increase their influence in international relations was a recurring phenomenon grounded in the realities of human nature. Thus Kennan concluded in 1960, "The general trend in Soviet diplomacy has been in the direction of normalcy toward a preoccupation with internal and defensive interests of the Soviet state." [3] At the height of the Cold War, Kennan offered a conclusion about Soviet behavior which reflected his stance as a realist:

"The relationship we have with the Soviet Union has to be compared...with what we can call the normal level of recalcitrance, of sheer orneriness and unreasonableness which we encounter in the behavior of states anywhere and which I am sure we often manifest in our own. This, again, is largely the product of the long-term factors affecting a nation's life. Russian Governments have always been difficult to do business with, this is nothing new in kind-if anything is new about it, it is only a matter of degree." (Kennan, 393.)

In addition to the classic Realist viewpoint which focuses on the nation-state, there is another theory which focuses the level of attention on the system and the relationships within it. Termed "System Theory," it attempts to explain the next level of interaction when anarchy clearly did not. Applied to international relations, systems theory highlighted a tendency toward symmetry in the behavior of superpowers in a "bipolar" world. Morton Kaplan's influential model of rational security seeking behavior on the part of superpowers in a bipolar world held that each superpower would tend to display a preoccupation with building and dominating blocs, competitive intervention to prevent alliance defections, and intense and costly efforts aimed at military balancing. [4] Given the structure of this type of system, political elites from both superpowers would continue to view the playing field of international relations as a "zero-sum" game where no move could be interpreted as innocent. Neo-Realist theories which emerged in the 1980s with the publication of Kenneth Waltz' Theory of International Politics provided a broader scope for state behavior than traditional Realism. Neo-Realists claimed the behavior of states, particularly the behavior of major powers, could be comprehended as a function of the overall international power structure. [5] The theory laid out a tendency on the part of states, regardless of domestic ideology and particular political culture, to behave internationally in accordance with the logical dictates of preserving or enhancing their position relative to the overall distribution of power. [6] Though Waltz explicitly claimed that Neo-Realism predicts only general patterns and tendencies toward power balancing in international relations, and not the policies of individual states, the implication of Neo-Realism was that the behavior of states, especially major powers, would normally reflect a state's location in the international structure of power. Waltz did stress the socializing influence of particular international structures on the behavior of individual states, claiming, for example, that "As states compete with each other, they will imitate each other and become socialized to the system." [7] If we were to take a snap shot of history and analyze Russia's behavior since the fall of the Soviet Union from a realist perspective, we would find parallels between then and now. Russia's number one priority is to remain a global hegemon on the international stage regardless of cost-utilizing whatever policies, alliances, weapons, or techniques are necessary to that end. We see it in Russia's ties to Syria and Iran and organizations like Hamas which jeopardize U.S. interests in the region-echoing the very "iron curtain" politics of the Cold War era. We also see it in the bully-tactics being exercised toward its neighbors, particularly Georgia, feeding long-standing doubts about its commitment to their sovereignty and independence. We clearly can witness Russia's unashamed tactics in the energy sector-although American energy firms have made significant investments in Russia and all see a need to be there, concerns are mounting as the Russian government arbitrarily employs tax, environmental and other regulations to squeeze foreign energy firms-often in support of Gazprom, the national champion in the energy sector-and delays necessary investment in the exploration and development of its vast reserves.  These actions have raised doubts that Russia is committed to being a team player on issues that have grave implications internationally, and formed questions of what her true intentions may be.

Liberalist/Neo-Liberalist Lens:

The end of the Cold War coincided with, and to a degree, promoted, a shift in Western international relations theory. This shift focused more on the character of the state rather than the flaws in the system, and was termed "Liberal" or "Idealistic" in practice. From the standpoint of the Liberal/Neo-Liberal paradigm, both the democratic and economic character of a state as well as the ideological, institutional, and economic order predominant in the international system are imagined to influence the external behavior of a state. Beginning with Kant, the dominant Liberal construction of international relations reflected three central themes: democratic, representative government acted as a check on the aggressive and imperial impulses of state leaders; an international economy which promoted free trade increased the incentives for and likelihood of international cooperation and peace; and, relations between and among democratic governments were likely to be cooperative and peaceful. [8] Embedded in the dominant liberal construction of international relations was the belief that authoritarian regimes were most likely to pose the greatest danger to international peace and stability. From the perspective of Liberal theory, a totalitarian Soviet Union was expected to continue to be inclined toward aggressive and imperialistic behavior until such time as the regime underwent a democratic transformation. Following a democratic transformation and capitalist marketization, the Soviet Union (Russia) could be expected to assume the behavioral profile expected of democratic states integrated into the international economy. Clearly, Russia has fallen short of the democratization goal, however, it benefits us to utilize the specific attributes of the Liberal/Neo-Liberal paradigm to identify why Russia fell short in this endeavor. Since the 1990s, Russia has been classified as an "unstable/illiberal democracy" and projected into a host of other states characterized with the same concerns. Drawing on data on warfare in the period of 1816-1960, Mansfield and Snyder claim that statistical evidence shows that in the transition phase from authoritarian government toward democratization countries become more war prone not less. [9] More specifically, they concluded that the statistical evidence indicated that "states that make the biggest leap from total autocracy to extensive mass democracy like contemporary Russia, are about twice as likely to fight wars in the decade after democratization as are states that remain autocracies." [10] Mansfield and Snyder identified a number of intuitively plausible linkages between the political circumstances accompanying democratization in Russia and tendencies toward aggressive, chauvinistic policies. Thus, they contended, Democratization typically creates a syndrome of weak central authority, unstable domestic coalitions and high energy mass politics...Both the newly ambitious elites and the embattled old ruling groups often use appeals to nationalism to stay astride their unmanageable political coalitions. [11] In light of Neo-Liberal theory, they noted that the contemporary international setting provided important institutional incentives and support for democratization in Russia which could promote an easier transition from a corrupt autocracy to a product of democratization or something in between. However, it still is too early to tell either way.


As an alternative approach to understanding international relations, Constructivism offers the promise of reintroducing a focus on the particular and unique social, cultural and political practices of states to IR Theory. The analysis of the interplay and development of historically contingent identities, worldviews, and inter-subjective understandings of international relations is central to the Constructivist approach to analyzing world politics. [12] In contrast to Realism and Neo-Realism which assume that states act in terms of an unvarying and universal self-interest understood as enhancing their power and security in the context of an anarchic political setting, constructivism assumes that the "self" or identity of a state is a dependent variable determined by historical, cultural, social and political context. [13] States continue to perform according to the "state actor" identity shared by the politically elite. A state's behavior is viewed as an intention to reproduce its identity as a state actor conditioned by shared norms-if a state identifies itself as a "great power," it will act to reproduce that identity in terms of prevailing norms regarding great power behavior.[] In reproducing a "great power" identity the state affirms existing norms regarding behavior appropriate to major powers. Constructivist international relations theory focuses not only on policy elites' construction of the identity of the state as actor and the construction of national interests, but the construction of national identities by elites, as well as the self-construction of individual political identities. [14] From the viewpoint of Constructivist theory, Russia's state actor identity is not produced in isolation from a larger world. It is constructed and reproduced in interaction with other identities, and in accordance with international norms which define or signify, for example, what constitutes a "nation" what constitutes a "great power" or a "European" or "Western" state, as well as native and historically contingent inter-subjective understandings of Russia which are themselves formed in reaction to a larger world.[] While Realists assume that the anarchic character of the international system is an objective reality which profoundly shapes the behavior of states, constructivists assume that "anarchy is what states make of it." [15] Russia's behavior therefore is a combination of the manifestations of the politically elite's goals and the reactions of other states to those actions. When looking at the larger picture through that lens, the motives of Russia's government and the policies they impart become clearer than if they were simply viewed from the traditional schools of thought.


In analyzing Russia's development since the fall of the Soviet Union and her current interactions within the international community, it becomes obvious that traditional lenses of IR theory fall short of a comprehensive overall picture. Traditional international relations theories both "normalize" Russia and, narrow the theoretical imagination with regard to Russia's behavior in and orientation to the larger world. With regard to the issues currently on the table (political, security based, and ethical) this essay has suggested that the emergent Constructivist theoretical paradigm, together with a blending of the Neo-Realist and System Theory offers a positive broadening of the theoretical imagination and Russia's interrelation with the larger political world. Among the subjects for investigation are: the nature and extent of shared understandings within Russia's political elite regarding Russia's identity as an international actor; the impact of wider understandings of international norms and expectations regarding state behavior on the implementation of Russian foreign and defense policy; the impact of globalization processes on conceptions of Russian national identity and international actor identity within the Russian public and elite; and mass construction of the contemporary international context. While this remains an overall preliminary glimpse at Russia's interrelationship with the larger world, we will continue to see how well our current definitions outline the events in the international arena-and whether they will continue to apply in the future.