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Who's The Realest: Classical Realism.

November 24, 2017


The core assumption of classical realism is human nature drives state behaviour; thus the role of the state becomes that of subverting the idiosyncrasies of man within the state governing apparatus. John Dahlberg-Acton famously said “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” thus the likes of Hobbes, Waltz, Morgenthau and Machiavelli as reflected in their literary works concluded that man left unto his own devices will embrace the self-preservationist ideologies for the attainment and accumulation of wealth, power and property. The role of the self in determining and shaping the decision-making made in the best interest of ones community provides the platform from which classical realism and the realists themselves, have shaped international political thought for centuries. In this essay I will assess the theoretical principles of classical realism and structural realism, the legitimacy of self preservation as a means to l


aud power, the institutionalisation of the international political sphere as a case study for structural realism and concluding that indeed human nature does drive state behaviour.


Self Preservation.


The defining feature of the classical realist school of thought revolves around the theme of self-preservation. It is from this base human instinct that Hobbesian theory manifests itself as an analytical justification and indeed a theoretical principle for the creation and maintenance of commonwealth created institutions and structures (Hobbes 1651). Self-preservation is the covenant by which man conducts himself within all of his interactions (Burchill et al 2013, p. 62, Diamond 2006, p. 95 & Hobbes 1651). If man were reduced to living in the anarchic state of nature, the social covenants and the resulting institutions from which structural realist theory stems, would have no grounds for discussion. As so eloquently phrased by Sigmund Freud (Freud 1961, p. 117) ‘hunger and love are what moves the world’ and for man living in the state of nature, the hunger represents the fight for survival.


The line between self-preservationist tactics and the exercising of power as a means of self-preservation is a thin and at times fickle notion. Morgenthau’s concepts of pouvoir (domination of the other) and puissance (normative power) reflects the duality necessary for the successful exercising of power and influence within the international sphere (Rosch 2013, p. 351). Waltzian structural realists contest that the international sphere is built on two defining principles, authority and anarchy (Donnelly 2013, p. 37). Authorities in the form of political, economic, religious and social institutions are created on the premise that no one man is greater then the structure he represents. The establishment of normative frameworks for the institutionalisation of an otherwise anarchic international political sphere is a response by men of power to preserve the self, whilst ensuring the structures in which interaction takes place have the necessary covenants to ensure normative interactions are protected (Donnelly 2013, p. 37, Hobbes 1651, Morgenthau 1947, p. 153 & Rosch 2013, p. 351).



Animus Dominandi.


“One has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge” (ed. Marriott 2014, p. 11). Niccolo Machiavelli spoke with the true gusto of a classical realist living in the state of nature, ‘men ought to be well treated or crushed’ a statement echoing mans insatiable thirst for power and dominance. The Latin term Animus Dominandi (the unbridled pursuit of power) encapsulates man in the state of nature (Rosch 2013, p. 351). Machiavellian notions of ruling with an iron fist resonate in international politics today; one need only to mention Syria and the image of the Machiavellian pursuit of power has its modern day champion. Hobbesian notions of self-preservation, Machiavelli’s iron fist and Morgenthau’s Pouvoir have entrenched themselves in a conflict which has lasted the better part of five years (Hobbes 1651, Morgenthau 1947, p. 153 & Rosch 2013, p. 351). An almost cinematic representation of the barbaric nature of man which has resulted in the collapse of state institutions, a citizen revolt, the forcible displacement of 4.9 million Syrians and the murder of 500,000 more (UNHCR 2016). The final nail for a man prepared to sacrifice millions for the retention of power has yet to be driven in the coffin, yet a strangely poetic representation of man in the state of nature.


The thirst for power over the other is not a result of the political structures; the political structures are the result of mans thirst for power. Hobbesian anarchy and the anarchy of the political system is the result of human nature, of mans genetic and psychological predisposition to take advantage of the other for personal gain. Morgenthau (Rosch 2013, p. 356) once said ‘political power is a psychological relation between those who exercise it and those over whom it is exercised.’ Man as an individual is but a cog in the machine that is the sovereign state, the sovereign state is the all-encompassing entity whose needs must be met in order to ensure the survival of the state itself. Entrusting the state mechanism to a single or handful of individuals is an exercise for the scientific analysis of the psychological disposition of man and the responsible maintenance of power. If history has taught humanity anything it is that when faced with external threats, Hobbesian self-preservation outweighs the rule of international law. The core assumption of Waltzian structural realism is that structural realism requires no assumptions of rationality (Donnelly 2013, p. 38 & Mearsheimer 2009, p. 241).


Democracy and Structural Realism

The concept of democracy represents the practical implementation of structural realism in the political sphere. Counter acting the irrationality of man while attempting to negate the overarching psychological dispositions of self-preservation and animus dominandi behaviours (Freud 1961, p. 117, Hobbes 1651 & Rosch 2013, p. 351). The separation of powers created under the United States Constitution provides the normative frameworks for collective decision-making. Democracy in its physical form consists of a two party political system with a multi tiered decision making apparatus consisting of the Congress, the President and the Supreme Court, all bound by the rule of law as contained in the Constitution (McKay 2013). In federalist no. 78 Alexander Hamilton (1787) declares, “No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the constitution, can be valid …  and that men acting by virtue of powers, may do not only what their powers do not authorise, but what they forbid”. This bold move to limit the influence of individuals and groups in the decision making of the state reflects the necessity of order in ensuring the pursuit of power does not over ride the interests of the people.      


The international political sphere by its own nature is an anarchic realm requiring an overarching structure to ensure order and authority (Donnelly 2013, p. 38). As the United States had been created on the premise of balancing the needs of the individual states and the influencers with in them, so to the United Nations was created in the hopes of ensuring a platform for the diplomatic resolution of potentially volatile situations. The Waltzian notion of ‘Balancers’ in this context are not the leaders and their respective states but the platform created for the accountability of those in power (Donnelly 2013, p. 38 & Mearsheimer 2009, p. 242–243). Contrary to Waltzian structural realist theory, the UN does then become the higher authority for the accountability of all its member states.  Though sovereign states are not accountable to the UN on the domestic level, the legal covenants created by the institution and ratified under international law creates a sense of accountability. The UN as a vehicle for the self-preservation and maintenance of order in another wise anarchic geopolitical climate becomes the final stronghold for rationality.


The institutionalization of power and the accountability created under the United Nations and similar organizations allows for the paranoia of self-preservation, under the guise of confidence to be met with a forum for the transparent negotiation of issues affecting the international community. Exercising a sovereigns power allows for the reiteration of a hierarchy of influence within the global system (Mearsheimer 2009, p. 246). Institutionalization has allowed for the deconstruction of the Hobbesian archetype of man as beast in the state of nature, by constructing an authoritative institution for the legitimate excursion of power within a controlled environment (Hobbes 1651, Mearsheimer 2009, p. 245). The forum is not only a platform but also a safeguard for the rationality not evident in man consumed by aspirations of power and domination. The symbolic significance of the UN in the global political sphere stands as a testament to the commitment towards a successful resolution of violent conflict rather than its perpetuation by reverting to a state of anarchic interaction (Hobbes 1651, Donnelly 2013, p. 39). The structure is by no means perfect; it is the sum of all parts of the international political sphere and a representation of the evolution of man. An institution built in the image of man.      




Classical realists are correct in assuming human nature drives state behaviour, any apparatus created or managed by the hand of man for the purposes of protecting, advancing or solidifying his position in the world will always be fraught with the same idiosyncrasies which liken man to beast. Classical realists as observers of human interaction have been privy to the evolution of man in the state of nature. From Hobbes’s interpretation of self-preservation as the focal point for all interactions, Machiavelli’s realpolitik regarding the use of force for the accumulation and fortification of power and influence, Morgenthau’s psychoanalytical approach to the dualistic notions of power and Waltzian structural realism of balance, anarchy and authority. These observations have allowed scholars the opportunity to trace the evolution of human political interaction for centuries. The influence of human nature in the decision making within the state apparatus is never in doubt and thus it is with the establishment of international political institutions such as the United Nations, that man has created his most benevolent ode to peace and stability in the world.


Morgenthau (Rosch 2013, p. 357) once wrote ‘to say that a political action has no moral purpose is absurd because political action can be defined as an attempt to realize moral values through the medium of politics, that is, power’. And thus it is with the thirst for power that I end this essay. For you see regardless of the strides made for the balance of power within the international sphere, the inevitability of war and conflict become more and more apparent. Man in the state of nature is man behaving as man has always behaved, preserving the self whilst accumulating wealth and influence. The condition of man is such that we are cursed to make leaps and bounds in our social and political interactions, however we are shackled to the very machinery built for the preservation of the sovereign state. And as at such times where an external threat maybe perceived, the machine will not think beyond self-preservation. 


 (UN Geneva. Image Credit: Mikael Hassan) 





Burchill, S, Linklater, A, Devetak, R, Donnelly, J, Nardin, T, Paterson, Reus-Smit, C & True, J 2013, Theories of International Relations, 5th edn, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire.


Freud, S 1961, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion. Civilization and its Discontents and Other Works, Hogarth 


Hamilton, A 1787, The Federalist Papers No. 78, The Library of Congress, viewed 21st September 2016, <http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_78.html>.


Hobbes, T 1651, ‘Justice and the Social Contract’, in, G. Lee Bowie, Meredith Michaels & Robert C Soloman (eds), Twenty Questions: An Introduction To Philosophy, Harcourt Brace, Fort Worth, pp. 77-79.


Mearsheimer, John J 2009, ‘Reckless States and Realism’, International Relations, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 241 – 256.

McKay, D 2013, American Politics and Society, Wiley, Sussex.


Morgenthau, Hans J 1947, Scientific Man vs. Power Politics, Latimer House, London


Rosch, F 2013, ‘Pouvoir, puissance, and politics: Hans Morgenthau’s dualistic concept of power?’, British International Studies Association, vol. 40 no. 2, pp. 349 – 365.


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2016, Trends at a Glance, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva.

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