Realist is a political science term used in the field of international relations to describe someone who sees the state, and its quest for power and security as being the only real issue in international affairs. This often means that realists are pessimists, who see human nature as rather violent, and think that anything that can be done to defend the state and maintain its security is justified.
The history of realism goes back very far, but owes much of its clarification as an intellectual doctrine to the writings of Machivelli, and to the later development of the balance of power system of shifting alliance that was continental politics from the early modern period until World War I.
World War I was considered by many people to be the downfall of the system of states forming alliances merely to balance each other, since in the end this system didn't provide security, as it was intended to do, but actually ended up pretty much destroying Europe and killing a big chunk of its people. It was at this point that liberalism (in the sense of international relations) became a dominant philosophy, with the belief that international institutions such as the League of Nations could help maintain peace, instead of the hope that all nations competing against each other would balance out somehow. However, the interruption of fascism and Nazism was to disprove the liberal view as much as World War I was a challenge to realism.
The return of realism occured in a slightly altered form, with the advent of the Cold War. While in its classical form, realism was non-concerned with the domestic affairs or ideology of a state, during the Cold War, both NATO and the Soviets used the underlying excuse of ideology to indulge in politics that would be seen as strictly realist in other terms, including such strange alliances as the United States using the idea of fighting communism to support the communist government of Pol Pot. With the downfall of the Cold War, and the increasing importance of world trade and economical growth, realism became a somewhat less important views, but recent events have seen a return to the primancy of state power through military force as the guiding principle of international affairs.
That being the short history fo realism, I will outline a few of the more frequent objections to realism.
- First, realism doesn't seem to be totally aware of the difference between descriptive and prescriptive truths. That is, realists don't seem to realize that saying "everyone is bad" does not neccesarily imply "it is our right\duty to be bad, also".
- With some exceptions, the modern world seems to be getting more based on international economy and world wide cultural ties. In light of this, an obsession with counting the beans of who has more guns than who seems to be a rather 18th century obsession.
- Realism takes for a starting point the fact that the state is real and that international institutions such as the United Nations are epiphenomenea. However, as long as they are engaging in such skepticism, there is no reason to assume that "states" are real. It could as well be argued that the state itself is an epiphenomonea of the interests of classes, clans or individuals.
- Henry Kissinger is an ugly wart of a man, inside and out.
- From a historical viewpoint, the only state ever to apply something like a Realist ideology was not at all succesful.
Like all ideologies or systems of belief, Realism does have things to teach us: as long as we don't take it too seriously.