Undergraduate Module Descriptor

POL3207: Realism and International Security

This module descriptor refers to the 2019/0 academic year.


NQF Level 6
Credits 15 ECTS Value 7.5
Term(s) and duration

This module ran during term 1 (11 weeks)

Academic staff

Dr David Blagden (Lecturer)





Available via distance learning


Between 1945 and the end of the Cold War, “realism” was the dominant approach to the study of international politics. Having perceived the vision of liberal international order embodied in the League of Nations system to have failed in its aspirations to contain aggression prior to 1939, scholars and statesmen alike entered the Cold War determined to view international politics “realistically” – as it was, in their view, rather than as they may have wished it to be. The sudden unravelling of the Soviet empire and superpower confrontation of the late 1980s and early 1990s appeared to pose a critical challenge to foreign-policy realism’s intellectual hegemony, however – realist theory and theorists alike were accused of an inability to predict or explain such sudden, radical, and seemingly progressive change. The post-Cold War world, meanwhile, has seen liberal and particularly constructivist approaches to international politics – in which international outcomes are explained more through reference to ideas and identities than realism’s focus on the material power of states – come to the fore.

This module will provide you with an opportunity to investigate the relevance or otherwise of realist thought to contemporary international politics in general, and security policy in particular. What do realists think, what is the causal logic of their theory, and how strong is their evidence? What charges do critics of realism level against it, and how compelling is their case? Does realist thought still have applicability in the contemporary international system? What does realist thinking imply for states’ choices of national security strategy? And how do realist ideas manifest themselves in specific policy/issue areas: military threat assessment, contemporary Western relations with states like Russia and China, the (dis)advantages of trade and economic interdependence, nuclear weapons and deterrence, terrorism, and so forth? You will address all of these questions and more to leave you with a clearer idea of how some central, enduring ideas in international theory – the balance of power, uncertainty over others’ intentions and capabilities, international-systemic anarchy, and so on – impact on real-world security policy questions in the present day. 

Students taking this module may benefit from having previously undertaken first- or second-year modules in international relations theory and/or security studies, but it is not a binding requirement. The module will be pitched with an assumption of no prior knowledge, providing a basic introduction to the genesis and logic of realist thought, before progressing to consider key conceptual debates within realist theory and finally assessing the applicability of these ideas to real-world contemporary security policy. 

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