Rwandan Genocide and Political Realism in International Relations

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Realism is a very powerful theory that is utilized by scholars to describe the behavior of states in the international. Scholars holding this theory believe that the unit of analysis is the state implying that they neglect other actors such as bureaucracies, societal variables that is, geography and ethnicity, and the roles of various offices. In other words, the theory holds that only actors in the international system affect the behavior of states.

For instance, variables such as polarity, international law, and anarchy have profound consequences on the state. From the realist perspective, the international system dictates to the state what should be done. The international system is anarchical implying that it lacks the central authority. Therefore, changes in the international system dictate foreign policies within the state. Realists would observe that each state is concerned about its national interests.

States are concerned about national interests but not collective responsibility, as would be argued by idealists. It is not surprising that a state would form a military alliance only to strengthen its presence and power in the international system. States rarely cooperate in the international system simply because of mistrust and suspicion among states. The sovereignty of any particular state is fundamental and is usually maintained through all available means. Realists rule out ethics and public opinion since they interfere with policy formulation in global politics.

The global system exists according to the Hobbesian state of nature where life is short-lived, anarchic, and brutal. States play what is popularly referred to as a zero-sum game whereby one state loses while the other gains. This was what happened during the Rwandan genocide. In the international system, international organizations only exist as long as the superpower exists. In other words, the actions of international organizations such as the UN are influenced by powerful states.

There is no global authority, as was the case with the Leviathan, which was supposed to oversee the affairs and general welfare of states. The powerful states could not gain anything in Rwanda that is why did not intervene in time to save lives. National interests could include ideology, economic gains, socio-cultural influence, diplomatic achievements, and military domination. The US, which was a superpower at the time, could not achieve the above materials hence intervening was a waste of resources. In the Middle East, for instance, the US has been quick to intervene because of national interests, which are economic and military, are achieved.

Scholarly Views

According to Samantha Power, the US president visited Rwanda to apologize for behaves of his state for not intervening to save gives1. Through this, he showed that the US had done nothing to avert the war mainly because nothing could be achieved from the deal. The US facilitated a meeting that saw the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers. This proves that international organizations are controlled by powerful states, as stated by the realists.

Despite having a powerful technology, the US could not utilize to prevent hate speech from reaching the public. Power views that the UN peacekeeping boss, Romeo Dallaire, requested more troops and financial reinforcement but the US used its veto power to oppose the move. Many African states had initially voted to increase peacekeepers in the region but the US was against the move. This brings into focus another attempt by African leaders in 19992 to formulate policies that would shape the relationship between poor states and the rich states. The countries of the periphery tried to block the countries of the core from accessing resources in some parts of the continent.

The US urged the African states not to attend the summit since it could affect the national interests of the US. Due to this, the American policymakers threatened poor states such as Kenya, Burundi, and Rwanda with sanctions ranging from military, economic, and diplomatic. African states had no option but to skip the meeting to avoid controversies with the powerful states.

On his part, Barnet analyzed the importance of bureaucracy and experts in foreign policymaking processes in the US. The scholar noted that bureaucracy played an important role in keeping the US away from hot spots such as that in Rwanda. In other words, the scholar shows that foreign policymaking has been bureaucratized in the current international system. Bureaucracies in the international system have the same principles as those seen in the nati0on-state.

They both aim at achieving efficiency. In this regard, policies are organized in a manner that would bring about some benefits. Policymakers ensure that policies made are consistent with national interests. Barnett argues that the UN does not represent the interests of the majority in the global system. The organ only represents the interests of the rich and the most powerful. This is evidenced when the UN Security Council failed to endorse the proposal suggesting the increase of foreign troops in Rwanda.

He further notes that there are specific differences between the laws applied globally and within states. However, the scholar observed that some similarities between the national and international bureaucracies exist. Policies makers experience some problems when formulating policies to be applied globally. They usually attempt as much as possible to balance national interests and morality in the global system. In the Rwandan case, Barnett found himself in between the hard place and the rock.

He never knew whether to formulate policies that would better the lives of Rwandese or make policies that would fulfill the interests and wishes of the American society. He says, “Such indifferences are a testimony to the dominance of the needs of the organization over those of the individual, a testimony to the primacy of the universal over the particular2. However, he surmises that bureaucrats tend to make laws that go against the wishes of the community and justify the same with the transcendental inviolability.


Michael, Barnett. “Peacekeeping, indifference and Genocide in Rwanda”. Borderlines 14 (1999): 187-190.

Samantha, Power. “Bystander to the Genocide: Why the US Let the Rwandan Tragedy Happen”. The Atlantic Monthly 1072 (2001): 86-100.


  1. Samantha Power, “Bystander to the Genocide: Why the US Let the Rwandan Tragedy Happen”, The Atlantic Monthly 1072 (2001): 86.
  2. Michael Barnet, “Peacekeeping, indifference, and Genocide in Rwanda”, Borderlines 14 (1999): 187.

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