Classical Realism

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“The struggle for power is universal in time and space and is an undeniable fact of experience. It cannot be denied that throughout historic time, regardless of social, economic and political conditions, states have met each other in contests for power. Even though anthropologists have shown that certain primitive peoples seem to be free from the desire for power, nobody has yet shown how their state of mind can be re-created on a worldwide scale so as to eliminate the struggle for power from the international scene. … International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power. Whatever the ultimate aims of international politics, power is always the immediate aim.”

– Hans Morgenthau –

Classical realists account that it is from the nature of human that the behaviour of international politics can be outlined (Baylis et al., 2013). In contrary with structural realism that argue the structure is the main factor, classical realism believes that the actor play more important role rather than the structure. This essay will discuss the classical realism approach with the theory of Hobbes, Machiavelli and Morgenthau. Firstly this paper will demonstrate the theory of each philosopher idea of realism and a consciousness of each development. It will then indicate how each perspective applied to the field of international relations. In the end of this essay will be a critique on which theory more relevance to the contemporary international relations.

The idea of classical realism arises for the first time from Thucydides. He argued that the power politics appear as a law of human behaviour (Baylis et al., 2013). The theory has been developed by Machiavelli in 14th century, that elucidate the behaviour of the political leader. Machiavelli argued that any political leader need to always be aware of hazard and in accordance to survive, prevention against them is essential. (Jackson and Sørensen, 2013). According to Machiavelli book “the prince”, any leader has to be “good” and “not good” at the same time, even it has to behave against good faith, charity, humanness, and even against the value of Christian morality (Viroli, 1998). The reason is because if the leader behave too good, it will be easy for them to get removed. This theory has applied in the case of Girolamo Savonarola the leader of Florence in 14th century that according to Machiavelli, was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe (Machiavelli, 1992).

After Machiavelli in 14th century, the theory of realism expanded by Hobbes in 16th century. The theory begins with his conceptions of human nature that human are selfish, ignorance and brutal. According to Hobbes human nature is unalterable as categorically a contentious human being (Burchill et al., 2013). Hobbes believes that human is animal and rational to some extent always seek powers (Rogers, 1994). The definition of human by Hobbes has also applied to a state. Each state, according to Hobbes are also selfish, seek for powers and contentious. Hobbes theory of social contract also could be applied to the concept of anarchy to the extent that each state try to maintain security of each other for the benefit of both states.

However, Hobbes argued that he does not indicate that a social contract among nations could be operated to bring international anarchy to an end (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013). Unlike the social contract that could be built between each individual, the possibility of social contract among nations could be established is feeble as conflict between state does not necessary directly bring conflict between each individual. As people do not face the problems directly, the pressures to replace the international state of nature with international government less likely to happen (Burchill et al., 2013). In the field of international relations, there are lots of argument and controversy on how the United Nations or International Law works. To some extent it does shown the social contract between nation-states to maintain the world in peace. However, it could be seen that the great powers countries have power over the international organisations such as the veto power of five countries in the United Nations. The statement concludes that Hobbes argument that social contract does not ensure the end of anarchy is valid.

According to one of Morgenthau’s six principles, realist approach consists of morality, politics, power, interests, human nature and objective laws (Jorgensen, 2010). Morgenthau (1965) argued that men and women are by nature political animals as they are born to pursue and enjoy power, the human “animus dominandi” inevitably brings men and women into conflict with each other (Jackson and Sorensen, 2013). As each individual will always try to pursue power to get to the highest authority, it could easily establish an aggression. The aggression could start from one individual and expand to a state. For Morgenthau arranging security between people is possible, however, maintaining security between states is impossible (Jackson and Sorensen, 2013). As the leader of Germany during world war two periods, Adolf Hitler – was trying to pursue power by taking control of Europe (Frankel, 1996), it could be argued that Hitler authoritarianism has shown an application in the field of international relations of Morgenthau theory.

Machiavelli, Hobbes and Morgenthau to some extent – have explained on how the international relations in anarchy world work. Machiavelli has elucidated his perceptions on how a leader should behave – this statement does describe a logical explanation. However, there is an uncertain verification of the theory as there are a limited number of examples in a modern world. Meanwhile, Morgenthau explication on human always wants to purse power is correct to some extent – However this statement has ignored the idea of liberalism that human in some point will collaborate to achieve positive aim and power is not the only factor of international relations – the argument itself has been written in one of six principle of realism by Morgenthau. Meantime, Hobbes has clarified the idea of “human nature” and “the social contract” – The idea of “human nature” does applied to the behaviour of each individual as well as to the state. The limitation of Hobbes theory is – he does recognize that “the social contract” theory is not overall applicable as the interaction between state is not as personal as the interaction between human – as each individual does not get affected directly, the desire they have to built the social contract is less likely to happen. However, Hobbes theory does cover practically overall the anarchy world – and how the interaction between international relations behave.

In conclusion, classical realism does explain on how the international relations work in the anarchy world. The actor, which in this case is the state, play the most important roles as the decision will be made by the leader of each state. This concluded that the theory of Hobbes, Machiavelli and Morgenthau has elucidated the relations among state however there are a limitation in each theory. The classical realism approach might not describe the relations among state as a whole – however to some extent it does give an explanation on most cases that has happened in the field of international relations.


Baylis, J; Smith, S; Owens, P. (2014). The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. 6th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p99-112.

Burchill, S; Linklater, A; Devetak, R; Donnelly, J; Nardin, T; Paterson, M; Reus-Smit, C; True, J. (2013). Theories of International Relations. 5th ed. Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p1-112.

Frankel, B. ed. (1996). Roots of Realism. Oxon; New York: Frank Cass and Company, Limited.

Hobbes, T. (1994). Human Nature & De Corpore Politico. Bristol: Thoemmes Press.

Jackson, R; Sorensen, G. (2013). Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jorgensen, K. (2010). International Relations Theory: A New Introduction. Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p78-101.

Karpowicz, W. (2013). Political Realism in International Relations [Online]. Available at <> [Accessed 02 November 2016].

Machiavelli, N. (1992). The Prince. London: David Campbell.

Viroli, M. (1998). Founders Machiavelli. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

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“Political realism is aware of the moral significance of political action. It is also aware of the ineluctable tension between the moral command and the requirements of successful political action. And it is unwilling to gloss over and obliterate that tension and thus to obfuscate both the moral and the political issue by making it appear as though the stark facts of politics were morally more satisfying than they actually are, and the moral law less exacting than it actually is.”

– Hans Morgenthau –

Author: Valentina Laura

A dreamer & a lover.

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