Thursday, May 21, 2009

Power Politics in Foreign Policy

By Carmen Grant

Realism is the conservative theory of international relations that has maintained its place throughout the development of modern political science. Its premise is that all states are rational actors and their main goal is to attain power to survive. In this tumultuous world, the basic assumptions of realism are clearer than ever and can easily show how a liberal agenda will never be completely effective.

There are five basic assumptions that explain the realist theory.


The world is anarchic, meaning that there is no global government. Citizens within a nation depend on government for protection from outside threats from other nations or rogue actors, like terrorists. Because there is no global governance, it is important for a nation to have as much power as it can to ensure that the citizens are protected.

Maintaining Sovereignty

Nations want to rule themselves to pursue their own domestic destinies. If a nation is constantly battling the imposition of another, it can't focus on its own domestic affairs. In relation, If a person is constantly worrying about being fired (power struggle) then they act differently in regards to raising their children, perhaps by skimping, sending them to bad schools, or making them work to help out. However, if a person doesn't have to worry about money (security) then they can send their kids where they want, have money to buy them what they need, and make decisions for the household that they want to make. By having government provide security, a person is able to fulfill their own destiny.

The Military is the Greatest Resource of Power

The most common way for a nation to get protection and have domestic freedom is to have a strong military. Any type of military is essential for protection, whether it is strictly defensive like Mexico's, or both defensive and offensive like the United States' military. The stronger the military, the less chance of an attack.

This unfortunately leads to paranoia in the world. Many questions arise such as why "Nation A" needs so many nuclear weapons if they are only trying to protect themselves. In theory a nation only needs as many weapons as its closest enemy. When it starts building more their true intentions are questioned and their defensive acts may be construed as secretly offensive.


A nation's intentions need to be disclosed so that other nations can act accordingly. If a state is transparent, or open about all of its actions such as arms building or joining an alliance, then its enemy will know what it is up to, and can act accordingly. However, even when a nation's leader gives an official statement about promoting a given policy, skepticism still ensues. For example, not too many people believe that the Iranian government is using nuclear technology for domestic energy even though this was the government’s official declaration.

In a card game, if you tell everyone else what cards you have, then you lose leverage to win the game, or power to bluff your way through it. In addition, you could be lying about what cards you have, therefore accepting that your opponents could be lying about their cards too. Negative behavior is hard to control internationally because there is no way to punish it.

Survival in the Global Arena

Everything circles back to the original idea of survival. Considering all of the above, a nation's goal is to survive and figure out what it needs to do in order to stay one step ahead of everyone else. Realists believe that there is no room for ethics in the international arena, and that everything that can be done will be done to gain and sustain power and protect the well being of the citizens it protects.


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