Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Publication Title

The Oxford Handbook of International Relations


Department of Government


The academic study of international relations can be considered a debate about realism. Realism provides a foil against which many other schools of thought define themselves and their contributions. Take realism out of the picture and the identities of these other schools as well as the significance of their arguments become much less clear. The study of international politics thus is in an important sense inexplicable without a grounding in realism. Gaining such a grounding, however, is harder than it seems. Precisely because realism is so influential, it is also systematically misunderstood. Whether favourably or unfavourably disposed toward realist ideas and theories, scholars face powerful incentives to make realism into something it is not. As a result, many of the most popular criticisms of realism miss the mark. This article attempts to set the record straight. It argues that the notion that realism can and should be reduced to a single, internally consistent, and logically coherent theory is the taproot of the greatest misunderstanding.



Original Citation

Wohlforth, William C. 2008. "Realism." In The Oxford Handbook of International Relations, ed. Christian Reus-Smit and Duncan Snidal. Oxford: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199219322.003.0007