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

by Allison Wilson

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. https://doi.org/10.1177/03058298810100020501

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.

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