Realism as Living Near Drift
"Realism" and "idealism" both have complex and perhaps multiple
meanings in international relations theory. Below, I identify certain
features of each, both to sharpen their differences and to show their
Richard W. Chadwick
"Realism" connotes an acceptance of certain features of historical
international relations, for instance, the presence of incompatible goals,
the use of coercive means in struggles to attain incompatible goals, and
the belief that in such struggle, violent conflict is always a possibility
and is often likely. But an acceptance of these features of
international politics does not imply acceptance of one's position in the
international arena. What is accepted is that the international system
as a whole is unlikely--i.e., possibly but rarely--to be significantly
altered by the policies and actions of any one actor. However, what is
also accepted is that one's actions can change one's relative
position in the international system. For instance:
Turning to examples of power bases for acquiring such capabilities:
- One may not be able to end the threat and use of violent means to
survive and attain some level of security, but one can build one's own
defenses and at least temporarily join others for this purpose.
Thus it is the hope and aspiration of a "realist" to be able to
change one's relative position in the international system, in such a way
as to attain some goals, or come much closer to them, than would otherwise
be the case, by the judicious use of one's resources (power) to that end.
- One may not be able to affect world population growth significantly,
but one can significantly affect one's own nation's population growth, and
- One may not be able to affect world political stability
significantly, but one can have a significant effect on one's own
political stability through some international policy.
What are the characteristics of a realist's goals?
- They are judged to be fairly close to the "drift state," that is,
they do not imply a radical change in position from where one would be if
one did not implement a given policy. Thus they do not require excessive
or difficult adjustments either in one's own thinking or one's own actions.
- Others do not see the realist's policies as aimed at radical changes
which they would find offensive, requiring a significant responses, e.g.,
a substantial change in their own priorities, resource allocations, etc.
Major change may indeed be sought, but it's not in a direction they find
- They are judged by the realist to be attainable.
- They are judged to be worth the cost of the effort anticipated to
be needed for their attainment.
- They are judged to be supported by one's political constituencies
or reference groups or other relevant actors; that is, their pursuit
isn't likely to so erode their own political support or to so strengthen
their opponents, as to create a substantial threat to others goals also
of high priority.
Thus in the GDA model, the realist's characteristics would seem
usually to imply that
For further discussion and reference:
- (G-D) < (G-A) in absolute terms,
- the (G-D) gap is small relative to an idealists, but large relative
to a fatalist.
Notes on a talk about realism
The GDA Model