Realism is Alive and Well in the 21st Century

6 min readNov 24, 2018

Since the end of the Cold War, Western leaders have tried to reject realist ideology and balance of power politics as organising mechanisms for the post-Cold War world (Wohlforth, 2009, p448). During his 1992 presidential campaign, President Clinton declared that “in a world where freedom, not tyranny is on the march, the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute” (Clinton, 1992). We want to believe that the international community is governed by a higher ideal than the blind quest for the consolidation and maximisation of power. But the war in Syria, and our inability to obtain peace, sadly illustrates that this is not the case.

Like it or not, realism and balance of power politics remain the name of the game in the international community, acting as the driving force behind how states act. We see this in the Syrian conflict, in the actions of states to consolidate power and prioritise strategic interests, and the UN’s relative lack of authority. The continued execution of realist ideology by state and non-state actors alike has prevented any peaceful settlement in the Syrian war. We must accept that while the international system remains governed by realism principles, a peaceful end to the conflict in Syria will remain out of sight.

In a reflection of realism ideology, the focus of all actors in the Syrian conflict is on the maximisation of power. The Middle East was the primary site of the struggle for power between the Western and Eastern blocs during the Cold War. This remains true today, with Syria acting as the site of a proxy war as the US and Russia fight for power consolidation. For Russia, Syria is the only Middle Eastern country in which it can exercise a direct influence. If Assad were to fall, Russia’s power in the region would follow the same course, with all the advantages going to the American rival (United Nations Security Council, 2018, p7). Since neither the US nor Russia are willing to concede their power at the risk of the security promised by realism, it becomes understandable why peace is so hard to negotiate.

But it’s not just the US and Syria who have a power stake in the Syrian war. Arabs, Kurds, moderate Arab rebels, Islamic extremist rebels, and ISIL fighters all have their power somehow tied to Syria and the outcome of the conflict. In any conflict, realism dictates that participating actors will use war to consolidate their power. But few conflicts, if any, reflect the sheer number of actors in Syria fighting for control of the strategic territorial core of the country. As a result, a conflict that initially started as a civil war has escalated to several proxy wars as states try to consolidate power. With so many actors trying to claim power, the likelihood of all actors stepping down to obtain peace is unlikely.

In a further reflection of realism ideology, peace negotiations in Syria have always come second to the strategic interests of state actors. John Mearsheimer wrote that states in an anarchic system are forced to behave as egotists. As a result, they must ignore legal issues concerning rights or obligations (Mearsheimer, 1994, p91). This is no different in the Syrian conflict. Each calculation of every actor is self-interested, and with each decision comes the consideration of how power dynamics will be affected. As a result, humanitarian efforts and peace negotiations have been thrown to the wayside if they intervene with the power consolidation efforts of involved actors. For the Russians, keeping the Assad regime afloat is far more essential to its bottom line than decreasing violence and following the Geneva Conventions (United Nations Security Council, 2018, p5). For Iran and Hezbollah, any serious pause in the fighting is non-negotiable until the Assad regime consolidates at least some control over most of the populated areas in Western Syria. And as for the US, peace intervention continues to come second to the strategic move to disengage from Syria, to let other powers take the blame, and to strengthen its other partners and allies. While there have been repeated attempts to enforce a nationwide ceasefire, it remains unclear if negotiations can create a stable truce acceptable to the strategic interests of all key players. All of this has culminated in ineffective diplomacy that has shown no real sign of producing a lasting ceasefire, much less a viable peace agreement.

All of this is not helped by the un-enforceability of accountability in the international system. When conflict arises, our tendency is to seek out authority higher than the actors involved. However, the realist ideology subscribed to by modern states dictates that we live in an anarchic world, with no overarching authority (Kaufman, 2013, p37). In the case of the conflict in Syria, our natural instinct is to turn to the United Nations for guidance. However, realists like Claude explain that modern institutions like the UN have very little influence on the creation of peace (Claude, 1971, p14). Adherence to Security Council resolutions is unenforceable, and with no way to hold states accountable to a single judicial system, states are largely free to act as they please in the quest for the consolidation of power.

Admittedly, realism paints a grim world picture, depicting a world of harsh competition while holding little promise for a better future (Kaufman, 2013, 41). This notion is apparently uncomfortable to confront, and thus individuals are inclined to argue against it. The argument in rejection of the reality that the world operates through realism is if realism ideology truly governed the world, wouldn’t we see all states in conflict? In fact, international relations is not a constant state of war. However, it remains in a state of continual security competition, with the possibility of war always in the background. As we see in Syria, it is this constant state of competition for power that makes it hard when war does arrive for peace to be achieved.

The purpose of this article should not be misconstrued as a promotion of realism ideology. On the contrary, its goal is to point out that we have been wrong to assume that realism ideology has been left in the past. The conflict in Syria reveals that the international community remains governed by realism. It is this governing ideology however that has made peace so hard to achieve in Syria since states will almost always prfioritize the accumulation of power and security over all else. While this article does not put forth a path to achieving a peaceful resolution, it is important to conclude that, until international actors like the US and Russia move away from realism ideology and towards a more constructivist approach, peace in Syria will likely remain out of reach.


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