International Relations Theories: Realism & Green Politics

Classical and Structural Realism

Realism is a theory that explains international relations (IR) in terms of power and points at the conflictual and competitive nature of those relations. It emerged as a response to liberalism and has a more pessimistic view on human nature and the motives of international politics. In general, realists claim that states are the most influential and essential players in world politics, while IR is overwhelmed by conflicts that ultimately can be settled with the help of war. Classical and structural theories are two schools of realism that were presented at different times. Despite having some critical differences, those theories share many similarities.

These branches of realism, which are represented by Machiavelli, Thucydides, Morgenthau, Hobbes, and Clausewitz, agree on the concept that the international system is a state of anarchy without any regulation. Hence, the balance of power should be maintained by independent states, which strive to survive as the most important actors in the world’s arena. It means that both theories characterize international affairs as a hostile environment where self-interested states struggle for power and dominance. Realists of all strands share a pessimistic view on the world that is power politics lead to reoccurring rivalries, wars, and conflicts. The national interests usually shape states’ behavior as they are egoistic and rational IR players, who rely on power to achieve their objectives. Moreover, realists accept the idea that power distribution principally determines IR and its outcomes. Both theories claim that states can create political spaces free from foreign threats by enhancing and utilizing their power.

However, there are key differences between classical and structural realism. Classical realists argue that imperfect human nature is the main cause of particular state behavior, while structural realists undervalue human conditions and focus on the anarchic international system. This kind of system plays an essential role in shaping relations between main actors rather than the individual’s nature. For instance, Morgenthau presented the notion of political realism, which insists that human nature establishes objective laws that guide the struggle for power among states. On the contrary, Waltz dismisses the idea of human nature’s influence and claims that the international system has a particular structure that makes states behave in a special way to survive. Classical realism states that the power itself is the main goal embedded in human nature, while structural realism justifies the definition of power as the tool that helps to achieve a state’s security and survival.

Green Theory

The theory of green politics emerged in the 20th century when people recognized that self-interested actors are able to overuse shared natural resources and that a more integrated approach is needed. This theory emphasizes that the global climate issue represents security, ecological, and wellbeing threats to all IR actors all over the world, therefore, it requires a joint theoretical and practical answer. Environmental issues cannot be resolved technically; thus, they should be addressed with the help of changed values and lifestyles both of states and nations. To implement this, external institutions and international cooperation are needed to limit some rights of individuals that usually contravene the traditional IR theories.

Green theorists see the solution in the political associations that are based on ecological relationships. In general, green theory contrasts the human need in nature with the interests of nature itself. It means that it is an eco-centric theory, based not on human-centric ideas, unlike the majority of traditional IR theories. Nature should be valued more than people to set some limitations on traditional liberties in order to eliminate its adverse influence on the environment. Eco-centrism also highlights that international and domestic politics should be combined to deal with environmental issues that exist within ecosystems, not within particular state boundaries. In such cases, the theory suggests that national self-interests have to be neglected to address the transboundary issues collectively.

All these assumptions shed light on the differences between green politics and other theories. For instance, green theory challenges liberal economic and political principles by reference to a “green theory of value,” which argues that the material development of an individual state might be intentionally decreased to preserve nature. However, environmentalism usually seeks to establish practical solutions within existing ideas and structures of world politics with the help of critical thought. Some less critical views of the green theory are similar to liberalism, which sees international cooperation as a beneficial activity for all participants. More aggressive environmental theorists attack the capitalist world system for insufficient distribution of benefits to people.

The green theory is focused on long-term ecological values instead of traditional short-term human interests. Traditional theories state that environmental issues can be addressed individually by investment in technology development. On the contrary, green theory realizes that there is no individual solution; hence, the alteration in human behavior and values is needed. Such issues as climate change do not tolerate boundaries and affect all countries and even future humanity. Therefore, the solution requires a collective IR approach that is based on rather ethical than practical attitude to human relations.

Defensive and Offensive Realism

Neo-classical realism is not a homogeneous branch of theory as there are serious internal debates on how much power is enough for a state. Defensive and offensive realism are two leading positions that try to answer this critical security question. Waltz, who is the representative of defensive theory, claims that states should not strive for unlimited power, because usually, it leads to retaliatory growth of power in other states and possible escalation of conflicts. Offense-defense balance shows that the seizure of other states is not beneficial since it is too difficult and costly to maintain captured territory due to national resistance and the need to restore infrastructure.

On the contrary, Mearsheimer, who is an offensive realist, claims that states are more aggressive, seek hegemony, and that the smart aggressor will, therefore, be able to maneuver and destroy the coalition members individually. Offensive realists argue that the more powerful a state is, the less desire other countries have to attack it. Moreover, in terms of offensive-defensive balance, the aggressor may not capture the country directly, but seize and divide it into small pieces or establish other indirect forms of control to avoid popular discontent.

Theory in IR

In general, a theory is a system of ideas that is designed to explain particular phenomena and define associations between its elements in a meaningful and intelligent way. Hypotheses and assumptions of theories usually play the role of simplifying tools that help to understand complicated issues. International affairs is a multi-faceted and entangled political process based on different views and perceptions concerning human nature and the role of the international arena. Therefore, no one theory could fully and reliably explain all aspects of international politics. Various IR theories such as realism, liberalism, constructivism, and green theory allow people to understand and make sense of particular behavior through different lenses. These theoretical perspectives can be comparable to maps that show reality in their own simplified way. All IR theories are relevant and should be utilized simultaneously to define nature and explain the behavior of particular players and events in international politics. They also help to analyze the effects of power on IR actors’ ability to maintain their internal issues.

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DemoEssays. (2022) 'International Relations Theories: Realism & Green Politics'. 21 February.


DemoEssays. 2022. "International Relations Theories: Realism & Green Politics." February 21, 2022.

1. DemoEssays. "International Relations Theories: Realism & Green Politics." February 21, 2022.


DemoEssays. "International Relations Theories: Realism & Green Politics." February 21, 2022.