Allison Wilson

Pillars of Truth in International Relations – The Duality of Idealism and Realism

As I have been grappling with how to get the right balance or even to pick the correct theory within the multitude of theories that International Relations offers, it occurred to me that it is, in fact, this multitude of theories that keeps the discipline healthy. Potentially the most influential thinker to my research has been E.H. Carr and the foundation that he has laid out in The Twenty Year Crisis. Carr establishes the benefits that both the Intellectual, Utopian, Idealist, Leftist holds in conjunction with the different but equal benefit that the Bureaucrat, Reality-based, Realist, Rightist has to offer. In this post, I will be demonstrating that in forming a theory it is important to try and find a balance between these two epistemological approaches and in conjunction to this I will be examining Neo-Liberalism with Regime Theory and its supposed balance. With Regime theory and Neo-Liberalism I will demonstrate how even a theory that aims to incorporate aspects from both sides still contains its own set of flaws and influences that are intrinsic to theory itself, demonstrating Robert Cox’s point that, “there is no such thing as theory in itself, divorced from a standpoint in time and space. When any theory so represents itself, it is more important to examine it as an ideology and lay bare its concealed perspective” (Cox). 

E.H Carr’s examination of the balance of Ideologies between Utopia and Reality helps to demonstrate the value in both of these traits and the ever-swinging balance “towards and away from equilibrium and never completely attaining it” (Carr). The first great debate in International Relations stems from the competing ideas of Idealism vs Realism. It seems to me that in this debate itself we have to accept that there must, in fact, be some validity on either side.

It is easy enough to critique Classical Realism in its extreme form. The limitations of a realist point of view is often criticized for being too parsimonious in its desire to look only at state relations and their propensity to go to war. It is also clear that there are in fact other influences and actors that we should be considering and to turn a willfully blind eye to non-state actors would be missing half the picture.

We can relate this to the way that E.H. Carr describes the bureaucratic way of thinking, Carr states that “the bureaucrat purports to handle each particular problem ‘on its merits’, to eschew the formulation of principles and to be guided on the right course by some intuitive process born of long experience and not of conscious reasoning” (Carr 16). There is practicality in this desire to use one’s experience, in reality, to then form the epistemology that follows. Moreover, Carr goes on to state, “the bureaucrat… is bound up with the existing order, the maintenance of tradition, and the acceptance of precedent as the ‘safe’ criterion of action. The bureaucrat easily degenerated into the rigid and empty formalism” (Carr 16). It is this stagnation that we risk if we only focus on what has been in order to shape our way of understanding the world. This leads to more of a constructivist critique of Realism that sees it as the hand that creates its own pessimistic fate.

If we examine the upsides to theories like Realism and Critical Theory— and I would argue that they are quite similar in their advantages,—we can see a practicality that is necessary for world politics. As it is pointed out in the article, Best Friends Forever? Classical Realism and Critical Theory,

epistemologically, classical realism and critical theory operate with what Karl Mannheim (1985) called the spatiotemporal conditionality of knowledge. This means that knowledge depends upon and only has significance in the historical, cultural, and socio-political context in which it was created (Rosch).

This is important and one of the greatest strengths that Realism and Critical Theory offer is that they are rooted in history. These ideologies look to what was to try to dissuade us from making the same mistakes again. Critical Theory roots itself in movements like the French Revolution and the Holocaust to show us the dangerous it is to have too much hope in the future. Revolutions as we have seen in history — are dangerous. However, the question then when examining theories that focus on what has gone wrong begs the question — is dwelling too much on the negativity of the past helpful for the future?

The idealism of the other side holds too much optimism for the future that has easily been disproved in the past based on states propensity to go to war. Idealism was made to look foolish after the first and second world war and thus was easily deemed as naive. E.H. Carr states about the political intellectual and utopianism that, “the characteristic weakness of utopianism is also the characteristic weakness of the political intellectuals — failure to understand existing reality and the way in which their own standards are rooted in it” (Carr). This is the opposite problem of what realism faces and why we can see that aspirations and theory are not enough. Carr goes on to state that the additional pros and cons to the idealist are,

they could give to their political aspirations,…a ‘spirit of purity and independence, of philosophical idealism and of the elevation above the concrete play of interest … but through their defective feeling for the realistic interests of state life, they quickly descended from the sublime to the extravagant and eccentric (Carr 14-15).

This is the risk we run in being too focused on potential ideals or being too epistemologically based if we are too disjointed from reality there is no practical use to theory.

Conversely, it is naive at best to believe that International Relations can be treated as a science and thus we need the incorporation of political philosophy and idealism. Although simplification for theory is necessary Realists run the risk of creating their own cycle of war and struggle for power. Therefore an ideal is necessary to try to aim at. Even if a utopian reality is not possible we at least need to know what would, in fact, be better than what is now.

The development of Neo-Liberalism seems to bridge the gap in the extremes of Realism and Liberalism. Neo-Liberalism rejects the aspects of Realism and Neo-Realism that it deems as too parsimonious. Neoliberalism continues with the assumption that the system is anarchical but picks up some of the traits of liberalism that allow it to study more international actors and regimes and some respects I would argue it picks up Idealist tendencies in that it believes in cooperation. From the addition of these valuable aspects from the two sides, the development of trying to create a middle ground seems to be a self-conscious and beneficial decision. If we look at the strategies and concepts that Neo-Liberalism has added on to a foundational realist perspective such as Game Theory, which proves that cooperation is possible.

A potential proof of a middle of the road theory and one that is seemingly benign is Regime Theory in correlation with Neo-Liberalism. Regimes in Stephen Krasner’s book International Regimes are defined as, “sets of implicit or explicit principles, norms. rules and decision-making procedures around which actors converge in a given area of international relations” (Krasner 5), and are seen to influence the way that states operate and the patterns in power relations that emerge. As much as we can see the inclusion of a bit more to study, adding in some actors other than just the state to examine the influence of is good, some, such as Susan Strange argues as Krasner summarizes, “the concept is pernicious because it obfuscates and obscures the interests and power relations that are proximate, not just the ultimate cause of behavior in the international system” (Krasner). One of the benefits though of a theory like Regime Theory is that it is not too pessimistic of the past nor optimistic of the future, but falls somewhere in a middle ground.

With the Critique that Susan Strange makes in Stephen Krasner’s book Regime Theory, it helps to demonstrate that in trying to find a perfect middle ground we are still under the assumption and potentially the folly of believing that there can be a perfect theory. Strange stats that once again we can see that a theory is reflective of its time. For the Regime theory scholars mainly the neoliberal there is a certain fashion to their ideas that Strange points out. Although the study of Regimes is a useful idea that is certainly necessary  Not only are theories reflective of biases and agendas, but they are also reflective of time and circumstance. From this, it is important to be conscious of the theory itself within its influences and surroundings. This seems to be further representation from when Robert Cox states, “divorced from a standpoint in time and space. When any theory so represents itself, it is more important to examine it as an ideology and lay bare its concealed perspective” (Cox).

The specific flaws that Strange lays out in Regime Theory are, “first, that the study of regimes is, for the most part, a fad, one of those shifts in fashion not too difficult to explain as a temporary reaction to events in the real world but in itself making little in the long-term contribution to knowledge”. This first point ties closely to Cox’s idea that theory cannot be divorced from place and time. Looking back on different theories it is clear how reactionary they tend to be to real-life events or surroundings, however, this is difficult to see when engrossed in the theory of the day. Strange goes on to state that “second, it is imprecise and woolly. Third, it is value based, as dangerous as loaded dice. Fourth, it distorts by overemphasizing the static and underemphasizes the dynamic element of change in world politics. And fifth, it is narrow-minded, rooted in a state-centered paradigm that limits vision of a wider reality” (Strange 337). The fifth point that Strange makes that Regime Theory limits vision of a wider reality, seems to be one of the true downsides of choosing any theory. Potentially though, I would argue that we could place most of these critics on theory itself. What seems to be the most dangerous about a theory such as Regime Theory as it tries to demonstrate itself as a truth or a balanced approach, and potentially in this balance we should be the most cautious.

As Robert Cox States, “theory is always for someone and for some purpose. All theories have a perspective. Perspectives derive from a position in time and space, specifically social and political time and space” (Cox). If we take this as being true then all theories will contain their own set of limitations and flaws no matter how well crafted or well-intentioned.

A risk in believing that we have found a good middle ground of epistemology or ideology is that we can become complacent or unaware of the remaining flaws. It is necessary for theory to be self-conscious in nature to understand the limitations of its view. As Cox states, “the more sophisticated a theory is, the more it reflects upon and tenseness its own perspective; but the initial perspective is always contained within a theory and is relevant to its explication”. In order to have the best theory possible, we must be aware of the limitations of theory itself and our own perspectives coming into it. 

What these flaws demonstrate within Regime Theory that Strange points out are that even if we are doing our best to come to a middle of the ground theory, theories are always going to be flawed and have a narrow vision in nature. Theories that stick to extremes on their perspectives such as Realism or Idealism are easy to critique because they stand for something so strongly. To say that Waltz is too parsimonious in his limitations of the study in classical Realism is obvious. To say that Woodrow was too optimistic in his belief for cooperation and peace is again obvious, in hindsight. What is less obvious is to critique a theory that presents itself as trying to balance itself. It is impossible is to divorce yourself from time and space. What we are influenced by and what we wish to focus our study is a product of both our time and space. From this then we can see why it can be beneficial to have a multitude of theories and perspectives to view International Relations with and we should value pillars of Idealism and Realism.

In summation, I believe a good way to see it is regarding,  “the case of Idealism and Realism, the politicization of these ostensibly heuristic categories leaves us with less with an appreciation for the philosophical duality of the subject, than crude distortions largely divorced from intellectual reality” (Crawford). This helps to demonstrate that a little bit of Idealism and a little bit of Realism is good for a healthy theory, and potentially neither the idealist nor the realist camp is as extreme as we make them out to be. With that aim in mind, we then must be aware that no theory will be perfect. Theory itself will always have limitations, and influences of its space and time and so from this acknowledgment we can see why it is, in fact, beneficial to have a multitude of theories and critiques within International Relations.


Carr, Edward Hallett. The Twenty Years Crisis: 1919-1939 ; an Introduction to the Study of International Relations. Palgrave.

Cox, R. W. (1981). Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory. Millennium, 10(2), 126–155.

Crawford, Robert M. A. Idealism and Realism in International Relations. Routledge, 2000.

Trevor Taylor (1985) “Utopianism.” in International Relations: British and American Perspectives. Edited by Steve Smith, 92–107. Oxford: Blackwell.

Krasner, Stephen D. International Regimes. Cornell University Press, 2013

Axelrod, Robert. Keohane, Robert. (1985) “Achieving Cooperation under Anarchy: Strategies and Institutions,” World Politics 38: 226-254.

Keohane, Robert O. Neorealism and Its Critics. Columbia University Press, 1993.

Rittberger, Volker. Regime Theory and International Relations. Clarendon Press, 2002.

Rosch, Felix. “Best Friends Forever? Classical Realism and Critical Theory.” E-International Relations, 20 June 2014.

Walker, R. B. J.(1995) “International Relations and the Concept of the Political,” in Ken Booth and Steve Smith, International Relations Theory Today, Oxford: Polity Press

Wallace, William. (1996) “Truth and Power, Monks and Technocrats: Theory and Practice in International Relations,” Review of International Studies. Vol. 22.

Poli 367B Blog Post #2

For this assignment, I chose to discuss The Twenty Years Crisis. In this reading, it discusses the extremes of Utopianism and Realism. This article did a good job in describing both the benefits and the downfalls of both extremes. Carr highlights the initial inclination to want to impose a utopian idealistic notion and have something to aim at. However, the short fallings are also addressed, that no one will live in an idealist state. I especially liked the line that, “nobody has ever been able to live in Plato’s Republic or in a world of universal free trade or in Fourier’s phalansteries” which is, disappointingly, true.

Realism is then brought into play and with it the ability to examine and implement in the real world. These contrasts between Utopia and Realism and highlighted further throughout the reading with the examples comparisons such as Theory and Practice, and the Intellectual and the Bureaucrat. I found these particularly useful ways to put into more simplified terms how there are pros and cons to each side and that they are different in nature. Carr also describes the Left and Right sides of the spectrum stating, “the intellectual, the man of theory, will gravitate toward the Left just as naturally as the bureaucrat, the man of practice, will gravitate toward the Right”. I especially liked this way of describing the two sides of the spectrum because neither seems inherently wrong but just different.

From these extreme sides of the ideological spectrum, it is clear that a viewpoint somewhere in the middle would be beneficial to adopt some of the benefits from either perspective. This then made me think of the English School of thought which I then turned to examine in the textbook. The English School of thought seems to be right in the middle of the spectrum and potentially we can see it as quite beneficial because of this. Dunne describes the English School stating that ’those who identify with the English School today see it as occupying the middle ground in International Relations alongside constructivism: this location is preferable to the dominant mainstream theories of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, and the more radical alternatives (e.g. critical theory and poststructuralism)”. This seems as if it is potentially the best of all worlds.

Examining the extreme ends of the spectrum that the Twenty Year Crisis describes it has helped me to see a value in a balance between the two. This in combination with my examination of the English school highlights how the middle of the spectrum could be ideal and curious if this does, in fact, give it the benefits of the Utopian and the Realist. However even if a middle ground cannot be achievable, Carr in the Twenty Year Crisis, has described the benefits that come with any point of view on the spectrum and potentially the diversity in opinion can lead to an equilibrium of sorts, if nothing else it does describe why the discipline is in fact so divided.

Poli 367B – Blog Post #1

When enrolling in my courses for this fall I admittedly tried to register for as many Political Science courses that I could as I needed the credits for my major. However, when going through all the Political Science courses offered at UBC I knew Poli 367B was one that I had to take not for the credits but because it sounded like my ideal subject matter. I am completing my degree at UBC with a double major in Political Science and English Literature. I chose to do this because I went into my degree thinking I would major in English but discovering (not shockingly) that I loved Political Science and especially where these two disciplines intersect.

In my first year at UBC, I took arts one and I found myself loving Plato and Hobbes and Foucault and all their big ideas and theories and how it could relate to the political climate and power relations. I also adored both Poli 240 and Poli 260 and knew that I wanted to place my focus on the political theory that 240 touched on but I also liked the slightly more current and practical angle that 260 offered when examining global politics. It thus seemed obvious that a course like Poli 367B would be ideal for me as it relates to both the practical and applicable sense of IR and the theories that make it up. The big theories and theorists are what most interest me so the fact that the class focuses on things like Realism, Liberalism and Marxism is what drew me in and greatly interests me.

So far I am really enjoying the course and the way that it examines the multiplicity of schools of thought and ways of examining IR. I also like the use of real-life events to understand the political stage of international relations. I think this course will be very helpful to me in mapping out schools of thought and thinkers.

When I think of the subject matter of IR I do come into it still of the belief of studying the relationship between states however the amount of additional actors in today’s world complicates and potentially makes for far more interesting subject matter. Going into this course I am most fascinated with where the schools of thought are going, and what will be the dominant ideology or ideologies going forward. Learning the histories and foundations of these ways of thinking is thus paramount in understanding this trajectory as well as today’s current world of politics and political thought.

Visual context

The context in which art in placed can completely change the meaning that we interpret from it. When reading and examining Buddha we are more concerned with the relationship between each image than with than we are with each image alone. This then brings attention to the traditions and shots being used on each page layout and what that does to the story. It then also calls attention to how we read the story and how much of our interpretation is altered by our own individual reading and what we choose to focus on as we read through the novel.  Unlike a film we can stop and take in as much detail as we like, with this control how much does the story then change?

The relationship between images also reminded me of the way we attempted to interoperate John Berger’s pictorial essays, as we tried to figure out what they were trying to say as a whole as apposed to individually. In this medium it also feels like the reader in more conscious of how they are reading the story, something that Mulvey and Berger would advocate for, so what does this really do when put in practice?

This idea of context made me also want to be able to somehow tie it to visual appropriation. When taking an image out of its original context can create an entirely new piece of art. (I found this particularly interesting in this video just to see this new entity being created from Vertigo and many other films) We can see the idea of visual appropriation a little bit in Buddha with the Buddhist imagery but also with the story itself. Tezuka says that “If [he] removed all of the fictional elements from Buddha, there would be so little left that it could not be called a story” (Collected, 129). This then raises the question that in changing the context of the story of Buddha to what extent has he created an entirely new story and how can we interoperate this?

Lt. Gustl

The wanderings of someone’s mind is a concept that I find immensely interesting but I don’t know if we would be better off if we all spoke whatever was on our minds. I think there is a lot to learn from streams of consciousness. In the story, Lt. Gustl has many thoughts and excuses for his lack of action but he cannot see his own cowardliness or insecurities (or maybe he does but he is never able to admit it to himself). It never explicitly states these things in the story and there isn’t a narrator to give us an overarching tone but simply from reading his internal dialogue, we can infer for ourselves and read between the lines. This is an interesting concept because potentially it shows us how much more can be seen about ourselves if we can manage to take a step back from our own thoughts and come back to them with new eyes and a new perspective.

From this, we can examine the concept of seeing and knowing from the opposite perspective and looking internally to what we believe we know. There is a relationship of perspective in this story: Gustl is living in his present struggles so extremely and (potentially aggravatingly) that he cannot put this seemingly insignificant (to our eyes) incident with the baker into its proper perspective and has instead blown this up to such a magnitude that it has become a life of death situation. This also demonstrates the perspective of society as a whole at the time. From their point of view Gustl isn’t being that unreasonable but from ours, this appears to be a ridiculous reason to have to kill one’s self. This goes to show how subjective perspective can be and how time, social constructs, and the way in which we think about something can dictate our reality.

Morals in Stories

Over time Snow White has managed to remain a prevalent story that we’ve almost all heard or seen as children. This made me begin to wonder why that is and what the moral of the story is that we’re supposed to come away with. Snow White—at least in this version— is only really described by her looks. She is beautiful, and she is also “the fairest of the land”. I never really questioned this statement before but the world “fair” holds quite a lot of significance. Snow White is praised for being as “white as snow” which could be taken for her skin colour as she is the “fairest” but also with virginity. Neither of these statements being worthy of this praise makes it seem questionable what we really are presenting as an ideal of beauty and whether or not this should still be a prevalent story. In defense of the story, however, the Evil Queen is always envious and in search of these qualities in Snow and this vanity in her is what leads to her own downfall. Could the story then be seen as an advocate against vanity and the desire to be the “fairest”?

This then led me to begin to question the morals being imposed in the other two stories as well. In Earthquake in Chile, their mistake seems to be that they didn’t escape from the city as a family when they had the chance. Could this then be seen as a sentiment to live a simpler life and praise of Rousseau’s philosophies? Or are they receiving just punishment for the crimes they have already committed? 

I then looked at Fair-Haired Eckbert for its moral. It again seems to praise a simpler life, Bertha could have remained living in the hut with the old woman and been content, but her desire for more led her to marry her brother. That being said though would it really have been much of a life to have remained with the old woman? For the time that Bertha lives in the city with her husband (and with the ignorance that she doesn’t know it is her brother), she seems content. It is only when they reveal this story does it lead to their own knowledge and unhappiness. Therefore was it in telling her story that was Bertha’s downfall? What does this story say about knowledge and community vs solitude?

Uncanny of Dolls

Freud uses the example of dolls coming to life to be a source of uncanny. He says this is true only as we grow up because children dream of their dolls coming to life, but this is a source of fear for adults. I found this to be true in part; as a child I would not have been afraid of my dolls coming to life and would have revelled in it, but as far as now I still would find this kind of enchanting. When I was a child my mom read a book to me called The Doll People. This book is centred around the dolls coming to life each night after everyone was asleep and all the mischief and adventures they would get into. This was one of my favourite books growing up and if I’m going to be honest it is still one of my favourites. Part of me before the books and since has always ever so slightly believed in the realness of dolls. There’s a certain amount of magic and wonder in the concept of dolls having their own world inside of one’s own home that can only come to life when you’re not looking. So maybe this goes to show that one’s sense of dolls being a source of uncanny depends on the person more than it does the age of the person. Although I think it does tend to be significantly more creepy if say an older person has a doll collection than if a child does—you’re supposed to grow out of dolls, but why is this? Why is it normal for a child to play with dolls but as you grow up this is a habit you must grow out of? It seems that we no longer have a need for dolls anymore: we can live our own lives, as well as find entertainment elsewhere such as in books and movies. Whenever I played with dolls as a child it would be to act out stories—something I still do but now I am capable of doing so inside my head. It seems that in childhood we like to be able to act out the fantasies that we think up but as we grow older we are able to this entirely with thought. Maybe this is why these dolls then hold the power of the uncanny because we become aware of the power in thought and with this increased depth we fear the uncertain ‘minds’ of our dolls. 

The Tempest and Prospero’s Books

Prospero loves his books above anything else. While he was the duke of Milan he was too busy in study to be an adequate ruler and hence lost his position of power. When he is telling Miranda about their exile from Milan he says that Gonzalo packed them things and “knowing I loved my books, he furnish’d me, from mine own library, with volumes that I prize above my dukedom” (Act 1 scene 2). This being said why would Prospero then wish to return to his dukedom of Milan and have to give up his books? He says in act 5 scene 1 “Ill break my staff, bury it certain fathoms in the earth, and deeper than did ever plummet sound Ill drown my book”

Now this all seems to fit with the portrayal of Prospero being Shakespeare quite well; as he is at or near the end of his career he has to retire from his plays and return to the real world. So in that sense it makes sense that Prospero has to relinquish his magic books and return back to Milan to become the duke once more. He is going back to his reality which also ends the play with everything back in its rightful order. But has something changed about Prospero to make him give up his books?

This also brings me to the film Prospero’s books, when he throws his books in the water. It begs the same question but also if Prospero is supposed to be Shakespeare than who is Caliban when he saves the works of William Shakespeare and what does this show us about Caliban’s character? Why does Caliban want the book?


Hi, my name is Allison and I’m from Richmond, British Columbia.

The literature and writing components are what first appealed to me about Arts One, as well as the theme this year of Seeing and Knowing. I am excited to explore the theme and try to interpret the texts in different ways, relating them to each other and to the world around us. What I’m probably most excited for though are the lectures from experts on each subject and text in order to understand things in an interdisciplinary way.

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