At the end of the Second World War, Idealists lost their charm to Realists. The Idealists believe to find the cause of the war so as to find the remedy, was seen as flawed by Realists. Idealists ignored the role of power in international politics, failed to recognize that nation-states shared a set of common interests, mistaken the degree of human rationality, and overestimated the nature of humankind. With the great debate of the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Realists came out victorious with their ideologies. 

Realism unlike idealism teaches to concentrate on interests, talks about peace through strength, it also recognises that great powers can co-exist even in hostile environments even with antithetical values and beliefs. It is to note that in realism, the use of force or war is a legitimate instrument of statecraft.  

From time immemorial, the iron law of the Realist has been that the strong do what they have the power to do while the weak accept what they have to accept.

For example – 

1.    The situation of Athens and Sparta (Melos)

2.    Nazi Germany and Czechoslovakia (1939)

3.    The Soviet Union and Hungary (1956)

4.    Indonesia and East Timor (1975)

Having had a basic outline of the history and what realism means, let us move to the core elements of realism. 

Also Read: American Civil War – Summary


The three core elements of realism can be summed up in the following figure – 

1.    Statism – this is the term given to the idea of the state as the legitimate representative of the collective will of the people. The legitimacy of the state is something that allows it to exercise authority internally.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely so in the international front considering the anarchic structure of it. 

2.    Survival – politics can be distinguished as international politics and domestic politics. The city-state of the nations is very organised and structured within the boundaries of the state. Hence, domestic politics seems less anarchical and more comfortable unlike international politics, in which, the states have to deal with an anarchic structure. Domestic politics seems to be less violent than international politics. Keeping the environment of international politics in mind, state leaders need to work on the survival of the state. 

3.    Self-help – This deals with the principle of action in an anarchical state. In domestic politics, institutions ensure the welfare of the individuals. Whereas, in international politics, there are less powerful, not trustable institutions like the League of Nations or the UN. Hence, the state should help itself in such situations to ensure its survival and to meet its national interests.   


Realism can be classified into various types wither periodically of thematically.

Let us look at both kinds of classification – 

In periodic classification, realism if of the following types – 

1.    Classical Realism – up to 20th century

2.    Modern Realism – 1939-79

3.    Neo-Realism – 1979 onwards

R.B.J. Walker has given the thematic distinction of realism that is the –

1.    Historical or Classical Realism – Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are few classical Realists. Classical realism has given the reason of state or the timeless principles of classical realism that provides the leaders with maxims on how to conduct their foreign affairs. These maxims tell the leaders what he must do to preserve the health and strength of the state and that state should pursue power and it is the duty of the leader to make rational steps to survive in a hostile environment. 

2.    Structural Realism – Believe in the human nature as the basis of international politics along with the prevailing anarchy in international politics. Kenneth Waltz points that anarchy prevents states from entering cooperative agreements to end the state of war and war here doesn’t mean the large scale destructible war. 

Hans J. Morgenthau has reduced realism to a condition of human nature.

He states, “Politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.” He believes in two important points and they are as follows – 

•        To recognize that objective law exist. 

•        To formulate appropriate policies that are consistent with the basic fact that humans are flawed creatures. 

Let us look at the theory of Hans J. Morgenthau in detail in the next section. 


Morgenthau’s theory on International Relations is based on two assumptions.

They are – 

•        For theoretical purposes, he assumes that international relations are identical to international politics. 

•        The theory of international politics is but a specific instance of the general theory of politics. 

Based on these assumptions, Morgenthau has built his theory. 

 Morgenthau believes that politics, based on the struggle for power, is the same in both international and domestic spheres. It is the environment of the two that brings in the difference. He also suggests that the theory of politics be it international or domestic needs a central concept to work on. In international politics, the central concept is national interest whereas the central concept of domestic politics is power. 

Power in the above doesn’t mean power relations control political action. Power provides a kind of rational outline of politics, a map of the political scene. 

 Morgenthau claims that his theory of international relations is based on his political philosophy, Realism. According to him, his theory has earned the name of realism by virtue of its “concern with human nature as it actually is, and with historic progress as they actually take place.”

He gives six fundamental principles of realism and they are as follows – 

1.    Realism tells that politics is governed by objective laws that stem from human nature. 

2.    Realism finds its main guide in the concept of interest defined in terms of power. 

3.    Realism doesn’t claim an absolute and permanent meaning for its concept of power. 

4.    Realists are not indifferent to morality. They believe that universal moral principles cannot be realised but approximated. 

5.    Realism refuses to accept/identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the nation. 

6.    Realism constitutes a distinctive intellectual approach. While it recognizes that the “political man” is a myth, it holds that in order to understand politics it is necessary to free the study of politics from standards of thought appropriate to other spheres.

The social world is a projection of human nature onto the collective plane. It is the world of opposing interests and of conflict among them; this might lead to evil decisions. Conflict and evil can be traced to the human nature of selfishness and greed for power. Selfishness leads to competition and struggle because “what the one wants for himself, the other already possess or wants too.” On the other hand, selfishness is not completely irrational and not without limits. While, on the other side, greed for power is an all-permeating fact which is of the very essence of human existence. It has no limits and cannot be appeased by concession. 

Morgenthau says, “Politics is a struggle for power over men, and whatever its ultimate goal may be, power is its immediate goal.”

Political power is a psychological relation between those who exercise it and that over whom it is exercised. When this power takes a violent turn in actuality, it is the abduction of political power in favour of the military or pseudo-military power. Power can be a means to other ends. Power is not yet defined but can change with time and environment. 

According to Morgenthau, every political action has three major goals and they are – 

•        To keep the power

•        To increase the power

•        To demonstrate the power. 

And, there are three policies on the international plane – 

•        Status quo

•        Imperialism

•        Prestige 

The policy of status quo tends to keep the power through its political action in order to survive on the international front with a certain status of its own. The policy of imperialism seeks to acquire more power, meaning, it would want to take over smaller states in order to increase their power. The policy of prestige seeks to demonstrate power; it would want to take things in hand in order to show its power. 

As mentioned earlier in the discussion, national interest is the sole guide to foreign policy. National interest can be classified into two – 

•        Logically required and necessary – The survival and security of a nation constitute the irreducible minimum of the necessary element. The necessary element of the national interest can be determined in concrete the situation, for it “encompasses the integrity of the nation’s territory, of its political institutions, and of its culture.” 

•        Variable and determined by circumstances – The variable element of the national interest is much less susceptible to precise determination because “all the cross-currents of personalities, public opinion, sectional interests, partisan politics, and political and moral folkways,” are brought to bear upon its determination.

National interest is not devoid of “moral dignity.” In the international scene, greater the importance is given for a nation’s moral duty to choose the lesser evil while following its national interest than for liberty or economic well-being. 

The reason for the lack of amicable facilities in international politics is due to the decentralised legislature, executive, and judiciary in the international law unlike in the domestic that has centralised institutions of governance. 

Morgenthau provides certain methods through which international peace can be attained. 

Morgenthau’s methods to attain peace are as follows –

  Peace through limitation – Disarmament, Collective  Security, Judicial  settlement and International government Peace through transformation – Schemes of the world state and creating a world community Peace through accommodation – Diplomacy

 Morgenthau concludes that permanent peace can never be achieved on this earth, or it can be achieved only through divine grace which, alone, can bless the world with wise, intuitive, and great statesmen. 


Many have criticised Morgenthau’s theory for various reasons. Critiques believe that Morgenthau is the prisoner of his assumptions. If given a conviction that men seek power, it would have been easier. The assumptions made force the analysis and conclusions to be in line with his advanced judgments. 

According to Kenneth Waltz, there is an uneasy juxtaposition of determination and in-determination in Morgenthau’s theory. It is also at times purely descriptive and at times purely persuasive, intended to convince the leaders of the state that they ought to act in certain ways and not in others. 

According to Hoffmann, there is no distinction made between inherent or instinctive aspects of the power drive and the situational or accidental ones. This treats international relations as a frozen universe of separate essence. Hoffmann also points out that power is a most complex product of other variables which should be allowed to see the light of theory instead of remaining hidden in the shadow of power. 

Synder points out that the relation of the concept of power to those of control and influence remain unclear in Morgenthau’s theory. According to Sprout, it fails to discuss the objectives of national policy. It also fails to examine the effects of a state’s political and social structure on its foreign policy. 

Somewhat similar to the feminist perspectives, Kaplan points out that power can be exercised in families and business, too. Yet, there must be some reason why family affairs are no regarded as political. Coming to the feminist perspectives, Tickner points out that the universal theory of international politics is rooted in assumptions about human nature and morality that, in modern Western culture, are associated with masculinity. Nancy Hartsock points out that rarely have women exercised legitimised power in the public domain. Ruddick says that the mode of “maternal thinking” which can be found in both men and women should be applied for greater good. The generalisation that human nature is selfish and has greed for power is not inclusive. This assumption, at times, seems to be forced upon the masses. 

The need for international government as stated in the methods of peace by Morgenthau can also be critiqued. It is not always easy to accommodate great powers within a single government of centralised institution. Few examples can be stated to understand this – the conflict between Great Britain and Russia in the Holy Alliance, between Great Britain and France in the League of Nations and the United States and Russia in UN.  

Though there are many critiques to the theory of Morgenthau, his theory cannot be left out while studying the international relations and all the more realism. It cannot be said that realism is Morgenthau’s theory but surely his theory has played a greater role in the idea of realism.

Also Read: Theories of International Relations 


Many say that today, international relations outgrew Morgenthau’s theory but the real question is does Morgenthau’s theory already belong to the past? My answer to this question would be a no. Surely, we have passed the realist era and entered the systematic school of thought but according to me the world politics still has tiny traces of realism attached to it. Keeping in mind that Morgenthau’s theory is sensitive to change in the environment and the definition of power, we can still look up to his theory to understand the present. According to me, the environment of the present is that of capitalism, power is the money, war is not through arms and ammunition but through the economy and the battleground is the global market. A nation’s interest is to survive the global economy and retain a status quo in the global market and increase its influence. States fight to survive the power of economically advanced nations like the United States or China. This is the same as the two World Wars, but the only thing that makes it different is that then, lives were lost immediately with a gunshot but now, lives are lost slowly through hunger. The iron law of realist that the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept is still strongly applicable. 


• Ghazi A. R. Algosaibi; The Theory of International Relation: Hans Morgenthau and His Critiques; Wiley Publication

• John Baylis and Steve Smith; The Globalization of the World Politics; Oxford University Press

• J. Ann Tickner; Hans Morgenthau’s Principles of Political Realism: A Feminist Reformulation

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Sunaina is an undergraduate student pursuing Political Science and Economics from the University of Delhi. She finds herself in a never-ending quest!