The study of IR began as a Theoretical Discipline. And there are many theories exist in the study of IR, such as Liberalism, Constructivism, Institutionalism, Marxism, Structuralism, etc.
However Political Idealism and Political Realism are the two most prominent classical approach theories of the IR.
In other words, Political Idealism (Idealist Approach) and Political Realism (Realist Approach) have been two competing schools of thoughts, each of which wants recognition as the sound approach to the study of international relations.
And each of these two approaches supports a particular view of the totality of international relations and believes that it can be adopted as the means for understanding and explaining all aspects of IR.
Let’s briefly discuss what these two approaches basically mean before going in to compare and contrast them.
If we first consider the Idealism approach, political idealism in international relations represents a set of ideas which together oppose war and support the reform of international community through dependence upon moral values and the development of international institutions and international law. They hope to minimize conflict and maximize cooperation among nations.
While realists are just as interested as idealists in conflict management, realists have less belief in the effectiveness of international law and international organization and about the extent of international cooperation that is possible.
Realists view international relations almost exclusively as a “struggle for power” among competing nation-states. They believe the ultimate goal of all countries is security, in a hostile and anarchic environment. Therefore they justify the attempts of a nation to use national power for securing the goals of its national interest.
Now let’s consider the origins of these two approaches, idealism was more dominant in the interwar period (1919-1935), while realism encompasses a variety of approaches and claims a long theoretical tradition
The roots of the Realists traditions since 424BC
20th-century Classical Realism (was more dominant in the post-1945 arena)
Structural or Neo-Realism
If we compare the focus of these two approaches next:
Political Idealists focus their attention on legal-formal aspects of international relations, such as international law and international organizations. They also focus on moral concerns such as human rights.
Political Realists focus on the elements of national power and the nature of national interests more than international law and organization. From the Second World War they learned, the way to prevent future wars was a “balance of power”. The States capable of deterring would-be aggressors or on a “concert of powers” willing to police the world.
And the key features of these two approaches consists of:
The idealist believes: Human nature is essentially good and capable of good deeds in international relations. Bad human behavior is the product of bad environment and bad institutions. By reforming the environment, bad human behavior can be eliminated.
In contrast, Realists think that humanity is by nature sinful and wicked. Lust for power and dominance has been a major, all important and all-pervasive fact of human nature. And human instinct for power cannot be eliminated.
Another significant difference between Idealism and Realism is;
Idealists consider war represents the worst feature of relations. By reforming international relations, war can be and should be completely avoided. Global efforts are needed to end the war, violence, cruel and oppressive governing rules from international relations. The international community should work for avoiding such global practices, features, and instruments which lead to war.
While the Realists thinks the international system is anarchic and war is inevitable. It’s because Nations always seek power, demonstrate the power and use the power. And each nation always seeks to secure the goals of national interest defined in term of power. Therefore the struggle for power is the incontrovertible and eternal reality of international relations. Self-preservation is the law that governs the behavior of all the states at all times.
Another comparison is with regard to preserving peace:
The idealist believes International institutions are committed to preserving international peace. International law and order should be developed for securing peace, prosperity, and development.
And realists think peace can be preserved only by the management of power through devices such as Balance of Power, Collective Security, World Government, Diplomacy, and Alliances.
Finally, if we consider the policy comparison of these two approaches:
Idealist’s policies are all concerns about human welfare and advancement of civilization. And Realist policies are determined by power calculations in pursuit of national security.
Countries satisfied with their situation tend to pursue the status quo
Countries that are dissatisfied tend to expand their power
Alliances are made and broken based on the requirements of real politics
While the main supporters of Political Idealism have been:
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Hugo Grotius (1583-1648)
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1773)
Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) and others.
They strongly oppose the realist view of international politics as a struggle for power. And advocate the use of education, science and reason for securing reforms in relations and for eliminating war and other evils from international relations.
Political Realism stands associated with the names of:
The roots of the realists’ tradition
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
The 20th-century classical approach
E.H. Carr (1892-1982)
Hans J. Morgenthau (1904-1980)
Kenneth Waltz (1924-2013) and several others.
Realist Approach follows a power view of international relations. And Realists rejects the Idealist Approach as a Utopian approach.
Summing up its clear both Political Idealism and Political Realism are two opposed and competing approaches and each offers a particular view of international relations.