Realism, the oldest and most prominent theoretical approach in international relations, is in trouble. Its theoretical core is being undermined by its own defenders, who have addressed anomalies by recasting realism in less determinate and distinctive forms. Realists now advance the very assumptions and causal claims in opposition to which they traditionally—and still—have claimed to define themselves. This expansion would be unproblematic if it occurred through the further elaboration of an unchanging set of core realist premises. Yet contemporary realists increasingly defend propositions that manifestly and fundamentally contradict core realist assumptions by permitting other exogenous causes of state behavior—specifically, varying domestic interests, collective beliefs, and international institutions and norms—to trump the effects of material power. Contemporary realism has thus become little more than a generic commitment of rational state behavior in anarchy—a view shared by all major strands of liberal and institutionalist theory, as well as some strands of constructivism. It has thereby compromised its distinctiveness and thereby its analytical utility as a guide to theoretical debate and empirical research. Unlike many other critics, we propose not a rejection but a reformulation of realism in the form of three assumptions: (1) unitary, rational actors in anarchy; (2) underlying conflict of preferences; and (3) resolution of conflict on the basis of relative control over material resources. This formulation, we argue, is the broadest possible one that maintains a clear distinction between realism and other rationalist IR theories. It also promises to clarify the empirical domain of realism, to generate more powerful empirical explanations, and to permit realism to take its rightful part in rigorous multicausal syntheses with other rationalist theories.
Moravcsik, Andrew. "Is Anybody Still a Realist?" Working Paper 98–14, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, October 1998.