Realism and Causes of Conflict in the International System

Richard Betts expresses concern about the persistent issues confronting international security. Other scholars (both classic and contemporary) have also investigated the relationship between reality and conflict, or the absence thereof. Indeed, realism has been recognized as the dominant school of thinking in the subject of international relations at times. In this light, a discussion of how realism effectively reflects the origins of conflict in the international system is worthwhile.
Before delving into the relationship between reality and conflict, it's necessary delving into the fundamental ideas of realism. To start with, realism holds that states are unitary actors which give supremacy to security as well as military potential the pride of place at the expense of ethics and ideals. In other words, the state is not concerned with ethical principles such as utilitarianism but rather the extent that it can go to acquire more and advanced weapons.

For example, the US scores an impressive number 1 out of all countries in terms of the military might. Whereas this is not easy to quantify due to the secrecy that surround the purchasing of weapons, the country has invested and boasts of a strong man power that is able to carry out a sustained war at any given time including on short notice. Its airpower includes both right wing and rotary wing helicopters. In addition to that, the country has invested in multi-role aircrafts. Another thing that gives the country a competitive advantage in its military capabilities is the availability of natural resources such as oil which plays a critical role in the fuelling of the military weapons.

The purchasing of weapons and the arms race is a good example of how realism contributes to conflict. It should be noted that the constant acquisition of arms is in itself an act of provocation. States, upon seeing the military behavior of others, start having acts of balancing in order to counter them.

For example, China has been running after the US in order to match the military capabilities of the US (Wimmer 25). It should be noted that China too is in a position to gain a military advantage due to its high population, a big boarder, and the availability of natural resources. Again, it should be noted that China has managed to win the hearts and minds of Africa and has a big potential of exploring the natural resources in the continent. The presence of weapons by both China and US can play a factor in increasing the probability of going to conflict either with each other or with other states.

India and Pakistan have had a fair share of the arms race. In 1974, India detonated a weapon which was known as the Smiling Buddha. The government stated that this was a peaceful nuclear provision. Little did other states know that it was actually a covert nuclear research and development operation.

The first country to be concerned and investigate further was of course, Pakistan (both countries are perennial rivals). Prior to 1974, Pakistan had made some developments that were largely low key. However, the 1974 test made Pakistan intensify its research and development of nuclear initiatives. The climax was 1998 when India detonated five tests and Pakistan did six as a tactic of deterrence.

In 1917, Vladimir Putin stated that the artificial intelligence is the future in relationship between countries. Putin argues that the leader in artificial intelligence will be the leader of the world. The US, Russia, and China seems to be starting a new global arms race through artificial intelligence as the basis of developing intelligent machines.

Realism holds that the state is the most critical actor in the world affairs. The treaty of Westphalia of 1648 gave the state powers that superseded any other actor (Waltz 76). In connection to this, non-state actors do not wield the military power that state actors wield. It is therefore not surprising that states do not give much recognition to non-state actors.

Realism also holds that states are naturally and inherently aggressive to other states. This is otherwise known as offensive realism. In other words, the policy of security is not a mere policy but rather an obsession. This makes the states become easily conscious about each other to an extent that a misunderstanding or underestimation can lead to conflict.

Realism holds a parallel comparison to the characteristics that define human behavior. According to the realist school of thought, the realist thinks about ego, is self-centered, and selfish. Realism does not envision a hypothetical world where there is no conflict whatsoever between individuals and their counterparts, and between states. It assumes that evil has colonized the world and the human beings therein. Morgenthau says thus,

“realists characteristically give primary emphasis to egoistic passions and “the tragic presence of evil in all political action”

Much as the states are obsessed with military power, they do not ignore the significance of economic power too. In fact, both economic power and military power go hand in hand. It is the economic power which enables a state to position itself strategically and gain a military advantage through purchasing economic weapons.

For example, Operation Linda Nchi is a Kenyan military operation in Somalia that sought to go to war with Somalia in order to stabilize Kenya as an economic hub in East Africa. Al Shabaab had carried out a number of ambushes on tourists and aid workers in Kenya. These include the kidnapping of two aid workers that were working for Médecins Sans Frontières at the Daadab Refugee Camp.

Lastly, realism is best contrasted with the theories of liberalism and idealism which lay a strong emphasis on cooperation. According to realism, states would rarely engage in cooperation unless they are coerced to the core. Liberalism and realism has been used to explain the theory of international politics.

Case Study on Realism: The Vietnam War and the War in Iraq

Two of the main reasons of the US involvement in both the Iraq and Vietnam wars were the prevention of the country’s enemies to tip the international balance of power as well as maintaining global superiority relative to the potential of the enemies (Bett 54). In this regard, it becomes critical for a country to be conscious about its position in military ranking.

Defensive realism has been best used to discuss the war on Iraq. Realism holds that the international system in a state of anarchy. This means that the global environment does not have a supra-national government as well as hegemony. By implication, each state must protect itself in order to survive, and this protection must come by all means necessary.

Kenneth Waltz introduced the concept of defensive realism stating that states strive to establish the position in the international system through accumulating some power relative to the other states (Waltz 4). Waltz sought to explain the international order in a totally new dimension.

The invasion by the Bush administration in attacking Iraq was the concept of the preemptive strike. In summary, the invasion of Iraq, in the lenses of defensive realism, was based on the following three reasons- the constant theme of a preemptive strike, the anarchical nature of the global politics, and the unpredictable features of the contemporary war fare.

Through the eyes of realism, successive American governments have noticed that the enemies of the country have two main characteristics; the presence of radicalized groups and having weapons of mass destruction. The 9/11 is a case in point in giving this premise credibility. Consequently, the US has to carry out comprehensive self-defense in advance through preventing any possible strike in the first place.

Much as realism views cooperation with disdain, it gives room for alignment in order to achieve a common objective. For example, during the invasion of Iraq, the US made an attempt to sell its war objective to the United Nations as well as other super powers in order to get some legitimacy. On its part, Iraq made an appeal (albeit in a covert manner) to Al-qaeda.

Back to the tenants of realism, human beings are adversarial in nature. Various scholars have pointed out that a number of the members of the Bush cabinet were actually war hawks. Led by Dick Cheney (who had never been on the frontline in a war zone), the Bush administration mislead the international community to believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The American public was easily misled too. This was because of the growing islamophobia in the American soil, the resentment of radical terrorism due to 9/11, and the general hysteria and fear of the weapons of mass destruction. Ultimately and embarrassingly, the purported weapons of mass destruction were never found.

The Bush doctrine had noted that Iraq was becoming an economically weak, corrupt, and fragile state, and this allowed the terrorists to grow in large numbers- and this unsettled the hegemony of the USA after it weighed the possible repercussions. This was made worse by the reports that Saddam Hussein had personally provided financial support and training to potential terrorists who showed the willingness and vigor to pursue such a cause.

Case Study 2: The Realist View on the Vietnam War

An average America would ask himself or herself a question, why a country would as powerful as the United States go into war with a country that is as small as Florida- there is a simple answer to this- power. The US had to make an attempt to claim a better ranking in the international system albeit at a great cost.

The then global affairs were defined by a bipolar state of international politics- the US and USSR. Both countries were fighting one another with the use of proxies. In particular, the US feared that if one state joined communism, then other states would follow suit- this is otherwise known as the domino effect.

Whereas the state can believe in realism, it is not easy to convince the public to support such ideas to the end. Again, whereas the opinion of the government is generally stable, the opinion of the public to stands with its decision to the end is fluid. The public is going to support the government at a certain time, and at the same time attack the government on another time. In fact, the withdrawal of the US troops was partly due to the waning public support which pressed for a withdrawal.

The Future of Realism

A significant part of the discourse in realism has been anchored in abstract science as well as philosophy. Consequently, this has alienated the lay man making it an inaccessible field of study. Classical realism played one main goal at that time- providing legitimacy and guide to a diplomatic path.

Classical realism also tends to be more flexible compared to the modern understanding of realism. For example, Morgenthau holds that states are generally power oriented. At the same time, he acknowledges that the international system should be more pernicious in order to accommodate moral restrain as well as international law.

Again, during the classical times, the Christian establishment had a lot of influence on the politics of the day (Van 12). It therefore came as a surprise when states men such as Niccolo Machiavelli denounced such Christian ethics in favor of what he termed as real politik (translated to pragmatic politics).

One of the most critical functions of research is that scholars should be able to study the past trends in phenomena and formulate premises and hypotheses. In addition to that, they should be in a position to use empirical data in order to make an educated prediction on the future.

Another critical fact is that a number of countries have conflicts which have not been amicably and comprehensively resolved. For example, it is not uncommon to have North and South Sudan having a military standoff or disrespect of the territorial space.

Similarly, the Nile waters continue to be a source of conflict in countries in North Africa as well as Eastern Africa. Egypt- a country built on a desert- has shown all the indications that it could go to war purely based on the Nile water. Countries such as Kenya have cried foul over a colonial treaty that has favored Egypt. In case of such a war, a number of countries are stakeholders and there is all the likelihood that they will be directly affected.

North Korea and South Korea remains technically at war. Over the years, the North has engaged in war rhetoric as well as accumulation of nuclear weapons. On its part, the South has made a successful effort in economic development as well as making an alignment with the USA just in case the North attacks it.


Realism is one of the most profound and oldest in the realm of International Relations. In fact, scholars have stated that it is not just a theory but a worldview too. If the current health of the international system is anything to go by, there is all the likelihood that classical scholars were right after all- realism is going to continue dominating the sphere of international Relations.


Betts, Richard K., ed. Conflict after the Cold War: arguments on causes of war and peace.

Taylor & Francis, 2017.

Özdemir, Ramazan. "Invasion of Iraq: A Reflection of Realism." Turkish Journal of Politics 2.2

(2011): 103-115.

Van, Evera S. Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict. Ithaca: Cornell University Press,

1999. Internet resource.

Waltz, Kenneth N. Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia

University Press, 2001. Internet resource.

Wimmer, Andreas. Facing Ethnic Conflicts: Toward a New Realism. Lanham, MD: Rowman &

Littlefield, 2004. Print.

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