The classical realist theory of international relations has long dominated both academic institutions and the American government. Even at the birth of the nation, early political thinkers, such as Alexander Hamilton, promoted a realist view of international relations and sought to influence the actions of the government based on this perspective. While the classical realist school of international relations is not entirely homogeneous in nature, there are certain premises that all classical realists share.
The primary principle underlying classical realism is a concern with issues of war and peace. Specifically, classical realists ask, what are the causes of war and what are the conditions of peace? The members of the classical realist school mainly attribute war and conflict to what is termed the security dilemma. In the absence of any prevailing global authority, each nation is required to address its own security needs. However, each nation’s quest for security—through military buildups, alliances, or territorial defenses—necessarily unsettles other nations. These nations react to feelings of insecurity by engaging in their own aggressive actions, which leads other nations to react similarly, perpetuating the cycle.
It is important to note that for realists, unlike idealists or liberal internationalists, international conflict is a necessary consequence of the structural anarchy that nations find themselves in. Whereas other schools may see international conflict as the result of evil dictators, historical chance, flawed socio political systems, or ignorance of world affairs, classical realists see war as the logical result of a system that by its nature lacks a true central authority.
Hand in hand with this view of conflict as an inevitable condition of the global power structure is the realists’ view of the nation as a unitary actor. Because classical realists see international relations as a continuing struggle for dominance, the nation can not be viewed as a collection of individuals with disparate wants, goals, and ideologies. The realist view requires the formulation of a national interest, which in its simplest terms refers to the nation’s ability to survive, maintain its security, and achieve some level of power relative to its competitors.
Realism is not without its critics, many of whom challenge the premise that war is the natural condition of international relations or that there can be a truly national interest. However, the realist school of international relations continues to shape foreign policy because of the successes it has had in describing real world interactions between nations.