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date: 22 August 2017

Realism in Foreign Policy Analysis

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Realists explain foreign policy in terms of power politics. They disagree on the exact meaning of power and on how and to what extent politics is likely to influence policy, but they all find that power has a strong materialist component and that the influence of domestic politics on foreign policy is likely to vary with security challenges stemming from the external environment. The relative size of a state’s material resources is likely to influence its ability to set the agenda and to influence specific decisions and outcomes in international affairs, and the nature of the strategic environment, most importantly to what extent the security and survival of the state is under immediate threat, is likely to influence the relative weight of domestic influences on foreign policy. In sum, great powers enjoy a bigger external action space in their foreign policies than weaker states, and secure states enjoy a bigger external action space in their foreign policies than insecure states.

Realism is a top-down approach to explaining foreign policy. Realists begin from the anarchic structure of the international system. They argue that the absence of a legitimate monopoly of power in the international system creates a strong incentive for states to focus on survival as their primary goal and self-help as the most important means to achieving this goal. However, “survival” and “self-help” may take many forms. These forms are shaped by mechanisms of socialization and competition in the international system, and systemic incentives are filtered through the perceptions of foreign policy decision makers and domestic institutions, enabling and restraining the ability of decision makers to respond to external incentives. Neoclassical realists combine these factors to explain specific foreign policies. Offensive realists and defensive realists focus on the effects of structure on foreign policy, but with contrasting assumptions about the typical behavior of states: defensive realists expect states to pursue balancing policies, whereas offensive realists argue that only by creating an imbalance of power in its own favor will a state be able to maximize its security. More fine-grained theories, such as balance of threat theory, soft balancing, hegemonic stability theory, and omni-balancing theory allow realists to make foreign policy predictions for different types of states in the industrialized and developing world.

In addition to providing an analytical approach for explaining foreign policy, realists often serve as foreign policy advisors or act in the function of public intellectuals, problematizing and criticizing foreign policy. This illustrates the potential for realism as an analytical, problem-solving, and critical approach to foreign policy analysis, but it also shows the strains within realism between ambitions of creating general theories, explaining particular foreign policies, and advising on how to make prudent foreign policy decisions.