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The Most Confused Term in IR Theory: Getting Orwellian on "Realism"


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six comments


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Oh and before anyone, ANYONE, says, “Um, technically according to such-and-such realism is…” just stop. We are simplifying for a blog post that needs to come in under a 1,000 words. I’ll save the parsing of precise academic debates for my published papers.


It doesn’t help that another IR theory is called “Idealism,” which is as closely related to the dictionary definition as realism is to realistic. At least in this case there’s an alternative name: Constructivism. But suffice to say that IR could perhaps use a refresh with a new vocabulary. Jack Snyder’s “One World, Rival Theories” article offers a good overview.


Thank you for considering our platform worthy of a such a reflection. It made for interesting reading. I will merely point out that the term “international relations realism” appears nowhere on War on the Rocks – not even in one single article. I deliberately put some distance between IR theory and War on the Rocks when I wrote the following a couple weeks after we launched in July 2013:

“War on the Rocks is ecumenically realist toward a goal. It is, again, the study of human relations with a focus on power and strategy. It associates with none of the particular sub-branches named above. And as someone toiling at the intersection of history and sociology, I personally do not accept the structure provided by international relations theory, but that is a discussion for another time” [emphasis mine].

Perhaps that discussion is overdue and I’d be happy to have it. I’ve never found the grand IR theories to be particularly useful nor even meriting the term “theory.” I think it all went down the wrong path beginning with Waltz. I agreed with John Bew (biographer of Castlereagh and a WOTR contributing editor) when said in an interview:

“Much of the practice of international relations theory has retreated into remoteness and abstractness. It has lost both its historical basis and its present-mindedness.”

I can’t speak on behalf of all of our 70 regular contributors, but War on the Rocks as a project is generally much more concerned with what tends to be called classical realism and strategic realism rather than with IR realism. I hope this explains where we are coming from. At the end of the day, I don’t force my interpretation of realism on anyone and work hard to be ecumenical as an editor.


Ryan, I highly recommend changing your “about” page then. I used “international relations realism” to define any group using “politics is power” as its foundational ideology.

From your about page: “*Realism teaches us how to think about the world, rather than what to think about it. It is a broad term that encompasses people of many opinions with a variety of party affiliations but all of whom believe in the centrality of fear, honor, and interest as drivers of inter-state affairs. Politics is power.”

But none of that means the analysis on your site is “more realistic/accurate/factual” than any other. We use “international relations realism” to differentiate “being realistic” from IR theories calling themselves realism. Frankly, I don’t know the difference between “classical realism”, “strategic realism” and “IR realism”, and going down those linguistic rabbit holes is the problem more than anything.


Thanks for your comment. I guess we will have to agree to disagree. The way the first sentence of your post is constructed, you are suggesting that we use a phrase to describe our approach that we simply do not use (“international relations realism”) and never have used in the history of our site.

I think we might be talking past each other. I am totally comfortable with the wording and content of our about page and the way we describe realism there and in our introductory articles from July 2013. I stand by my original comment to your post and appreciate the exchange. You might enjoy a book that should be coming out sometime late next year on the history of Anglo-American Realpolitik by John Bew of King’s College London.


@ Ryan Evans – I discussed it with Michael C, and we may edit the article to reflect your feedback, changing the first paragraph to emphasize “classical realism (international relations)” as wikipedia describes it.

That said, it won’t change the rest of the post, which is what we hope most realists, of any description, take into account.