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What does realist foreign policy look like?

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Realism is one of the major school of thought in international relations that has existed since Early modern Europe. Since then, it has developed, changed form, and even surprise itself whilst sticking to its core, helping us to understand states behavior and such. Although it is a highly diverse body which is fairly described by Haslam in “a spectrum of ideas […] rather than a fixed point of focus with the sharp definition”, it has contributed magnitude towards the understanding of fundamental states foreign policies. The purpose of this essay is to highlight the existence of major forms of realist foreign policy and to question, can we really view such policy as being a desolated policy which only belongs in the realist realm? Or does it share a common ground with other theories alike liberalism or idealism? But before we go any further, let us investigate realism and to what does it entail.

Realism is a top-down approach to explaining foreign policy. Realists begin with the anarchic structure of the international system. They argue that the absence of a legitimate monopoly of power in the international system create 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 in order 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.

In addition to being 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. However, it also depicts the strains within realism between ambitions of creating general theories, explaining particular foreign policies, and advising on how to make prudent foreign policy decisions.

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