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How realism, a theory of International Relations, can apply to Foreign Policy

How realism, a theory of International Relations, can apply to Foreign Policy

International relations is an essential issue in the developing world and can be adequately explained using different theories. However, one of the international relations theories relates to realism. Realism in international relations denotes a school of thought that emphasizes competitions and conflict management among different countries that are believed to be maintaining strong ties (Wivel, n.p). Realism is believed to have its roots in the earliest humankind historical writings, especially when explaining the Peloponnesian war. Since its early emergence, most countries have embraced it and used it in most activities (Wivel, n.p). Realism is a critical theory in international relations since it helps in providing a basis for explaining foreign policies in terms of power politics. Most realists tend to disagree on the exact meanings of power and the extent to which this power can affect or influence any given policy. Findings from most studies indicate that power is a strong materialistic component that plays a vital role in influencing a foreign policy’s domestic politics (Wivel, n.p). However, the instituted foreign policies between different countries are likely to vary depending on the emerging challenges emanating from the outside or external environment. Therefore, countries with greater powers often have the opportunity to enjoy their foreign policies in comparison to weaker states or countries (Wivel, n.p). Realism is one aspect that is evident between the U.S. and China relations since the two countries are often in power conflicts, and this has significantly influenced the type of foreign policies adopted by these countries. This essay, therefore, seeks to expound on how realism can apply to foreign policy while drawing inferences from the U.S/China relationship.

Background overview of realism

Realism is among the leading theoretical frameworks that can be used to evaluate and analyze conflicts in the modern international system. One of the central areas of emphasis in realism is the persistent roles that sovereign nation-states play in international relations, although it does not offer a detailed explanation of non-state actors and violent terror organizations in different countries (Zhang, n.p). One of the major assumptions of realism is that the involved states are required to practice self-help in ensuring that other states survive through power (Zhang, n.p). However, realism does not provide a detailed account of how international institutions need to act to promote economic cooperation and reduce the need for different countries to maximize their powers.

Although the value is attached to realism, realism’s central theme of power balance has constantly been undermined in the post-cold war and during the 9/11 eras. However, one aspect that needs to be paid attention to is that despite realism being undermined in different sectors, it remains one of the pertinent international relations theories (Zhang, n.p). Subsequently, realism provides international relations theorists with a detailed framework to analyze violent conflicts and security issues arising in the contemporary international continuum (Zhang, n.p).

The main concepts linked to realism are tasked with interpreting power, the involved states or countries, the countries’ behaviors, and the nature of the international system that is used. Most realists define power in relation to military capabilities and the wishes of these countries to maximize theory power in relation to other countries (Zhang, n.p).

Relationship between realism and Foreign policy

For a long time in history, realism has often been used as a reference point for analyzing, conducting, advising, and critiquing the drafted foreign policies. Using the realist perspective lays a foundation for identifying recurrent realist engagements in foreign policy drafting. One of the main aspects is concerned with an emphasis on self-interest (Sibley, n.p). The second interest relates to the significance of international conditions needed for national foreign policymaking. Realism offers a top-down approach that can be used to gain insights into foreign policy claims. Although different scholars tend to use different theories in analyzing political systems across the international system, it is essential to note that international relations are the jurisdiction of recurrence and repetition (Sibley, n.p). Thus realism holds timeless wisdom, power politics, and international anarchy. The third aspect relates to how realism can be used in understanding, advising, conducting, and criticizing foreign policies across time and space. As a result, when analyzing the contexts between Contemporary China and the United States during the Cold war, realism can be used as an analytical framework for gaining insights into the foreign policies drafted by these countries (Sibley, n.p).  

How realism, a theory of International Relations, can apply to Foreign Policy

U.S/China relationships through the lens of realism

The relationship between China and the U.S. has been filled with numerous misconceptions, myths, prejudices, and half-truths. For instance, during the first half of the 19th century, China was observed to be growing weaker and older while the U.S. States emerged as one of the strong and rich nations (Carver, n.p). However, during the 20th century, China has experienced numerous changes leading to its rising and being among the powerful nations across the world. Due to its rapid growth and development, some economists believe that China’s growth will soon surpass that of the United States: an aspect that has not been received well by different economists (Carver, n.p). Due to China’s growth, it has captured the attention of both political leaders and popular media. As a result, such findings view China as a perceived threat to the U.S. Desire for supremacy in the international system. One of the main significant concerns about US-China relations is that China will continue growing economically and in its ambitions (Carver, n.p). As a result, the central question that lies to the general public and the U.S. foreign policymakers is whether China will challenge the existing status quo in a war-threatening way or will be deterred to the point of peace.

China is always in a constant struggle of overthrowing U.S. supremacy; as a result, one of the main facts about international relations and warfare is that significant military advancements need funding. As a result, the economic changes that China has experienced in the last four decades and the changes that it is still experiencing will determine if it can make significant advancements in its military and hence use it to win the supremacy against the United States (Carver, n.p).

With China’s continued growth and development, different realist theorists, including AFK Organski, view China’s growth as a threat to the U.S. For instance, with China experiencing its massive growth, it has extended its search for nuclear weapons, especially in North Korea (Carver, n.p). However, North Korea has become a difficult nation to negotiate with, an aspect that has attracted U.S. attention. The incorporation of volatile, polarizing leadership and the dangerous weapons that China could access from North Korea is sufficient to make the United States nervous. Thus this has contributed to their continued hostility and strained relationships (Carver, n.p). China’s mainland relationship with Taiwan despite having close ties with the U.S. as well. As a result, with China being involved in a conflict with Taiwan, it means that the U.S. will also be brought along. Subsequently, China’s unwillingness to negotiate with Taiwan indicates China’s disrespect to the U.S. (Carver, n.p).

The theory that can be used to explain U.S. China Relationship

One of the main theories that can be used to explain China-US relations is the power theory and classical realism. Classical realism theory operates on the notion that is rooted in the belief that human nature is generally evil (Sibley, n.p). Morgenthau offers a detailed analysis of this theory by stating that the desire for power is one of the primary characteristics of humanity and is not influenced by a person’s surroundings or environment. As a result, Morgenthau notes that any situation arising in the international relations sphere would only expose the evils that are part of humanity. As a result, using concepts from this theory indicates that China’s growth would only serve as an arena of building self-interest and imperialist predispositions (Tooze, 197). According to Morgenthau’s analysis of the current state of International relations, both the U.S. and China serve as a threat to world security. This is attributed to the fact that supremacy is dangerous since it is directly linked to the immensity of the evils associated with human nature. On the other hand, the power theory notes that different states may secure their survival by preventing other states from gaining sufficient military power to dominate others (Tooze, 197). Thus when China continues expanding its military capabilities, it may become aggressive, which would be a threat to the U.S. and the whole globe. As a result, the United States has instituted several restrictions on China, preventing it from accessing weapons and widening its political base (Tooze, 199). China and the United States need to identify strategies, including drafting foreign policies that can contribute to their peaceful coexistence and maintenance of power.



Realism is among the leading theoretical frameworks that can be used to evaluate and analyze conflicts in the modern international system. One of the central areas of emphasis in realism is the persistent roles that sovereign nation-states play on international. Realism is one of the international relations theories that can be used to analyze U.S-China relationships. China is one of the countries that has grown over the past decades and is striving to achieve supremacy. As a result, the U.S. has instituted different measures policies to prevent China from gaining dominance over states.


Works Cited

Carver, Sean. “Sino-US Great Power Conflict from a Realist Perspective.” (2021).

Sibley, Graham M. “The Rise of China through the Lens of Realism.” (2015).

Tooze, Roger. “Ideology, knowledge, and power in international relations and international political economy.” Strange Power: Shaping the parameters of international relations and international political economy. Routledge, 2018. 197-216.

Wivel, Anders. “Realism in foreign policy analysis.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. 2017.

Zhang, Xiansheng. “A realist interpretation of U.S. relations with China.” (2015).


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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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