Realism and Developing Countries: Do They Fit Together?

realism and idealismRealism and Developing Countries:  Do They Fit Together?

Wendy Prajuli

“Is realism relevant for analyzing developing countries’ problems in international politics?” is the research question of this paper. There are three reasons why I chose this research question. Firstly, realism is the dominant theory in international relations studies. Its evolution, since Thucydides to Hans Morgenthau to Kenneth Waltz, has influenced discourses in academic world and policies in many countries. Realism has been the most powerful theory in international relations studies.

Secondly, the entire realist thinkers come from developed countries. Stephanie G. Neuman wrote on her book “…mainstream IR theory – (classical) realism, neorealism, neoliberalism – is essentially Eurocentric theory, originating largely in United States and founded, almost exclusively, on what happens or happened in the West”.[1] Then, this condition questions its abilities to understand and to explain the problems that grows or grew on developing countries.

Third, developing countries are the majority of countries on the international system.[2] Therefore, many international problems associate with developing countries. Consequently, every international relations theory has to have ability to understand and to explain the conditions of developing countries.

Is Realism Relevant for Analyzing Developing Countries?

There is no single internationally-recognized definition of developing country, and the levels of development may vary widely within so-called developing countries. In general, developing country is a term generally used to describe nations with a low level of material well being.[3]

Developing country have limited capability on economy, such as low of economic income, lack of skillful human resources to exploit natural resources, having problem for sharing economic cake fairly. Then, those problems cause unemployment, poverty and, of course, low of human development index (HDI).[4] In the other side, there is developed country. The term is used to describe countries that have a high level of development according to some criteria, such as HDI, income per capita and level of industrialization.

Those economic problems cause developing countries live in guns versus butter dilemma. The dilemma makes the countries find difficult to increase or to accumulate their power significantly, for example military power. As a result, they have to live in the lower level of international system. We can see their position in international system from table 1 that shows most of the fifteen military spenders in the world is developed countries.

Table 1

Top 15 Military Spenders

Source: SIPRI, December 15, 2009.

The position of developing countries indicates that states in international system are not equal, but are divided by its power capability. In such system, states are classified into several vertical levels of power capability.[5] Superpower sits on the top of the system. Then, there are great powers in the second layer. Beneath the great power are middle powers. Finally, in the lower place of the system, there are small powers. All of developed countries sit on the top and second layer of the system.  In the third layer some developed countries and few developing countries share their position. Then, the most of the developing countries sit in the lower place.


Picture 1

Pyramid of Power in International System

Source: modified from Ronald L. Tammen, 2000, p. 7.

Superpower is the dominant power. Superpower, together with his allies that live in great and middle power position, controls the system and managing the international system under rules that benefit them and satisfying their national aspirations. In contrast, small power or developing countries do not play anything on the system. Their very limited power capability limits them to influence the system. Waltz realizes this condition when he said that only states that have great capability can keep the world survives.[6] Hence, Waltz’s thought indicates that realism, especially structural realism, never give attention to developing countries or any state that has small power.  This is the first problem of realism to understand developing countries.

Either state is security maximizer or power maximizer, realism offers balance of power as the solution to secure from the others’ threats. If state does not have enough capability to increase their power by itself for balancing the others, realism proposes alliance as the answer. Because of its limited capability, developing countries cannot increase its power by itself. Then, it needs to ally with others for balancing the others. Mostly, they ally with developed countries that have a bigger power than them.

But, allying with developed countries does not mean developing countries have solved their security problem. The gap of capability always makes developed countries forcing developing countries to obey what they want. Even, this also happens although they do not have an alliance with. Unfortunately, developing countries are difficult to reject the pressures because of its small power and its security dependency to developed countries. In the other words, developing country loses their sovereignty and independency as a state. Paradoxically, they lose their security when they try reaching security. At the same time, sovereignty and independency are vital for Realism. This is the second problem of realism to understand developing countries.[7]

Structural realists believe that states are differently by its power capability, but they put that difference in anarchical international system. In fact, this difference of capability makes developing countries live in hierarchical international system than anarchy, because of the developed countries have privilege to rule the international system and forcing developing countries to obey the rules. In other words, the relations between developed countries and developing countries international system is determined by super-subordinate relations.[8] This is the third problem of realism to understand developing countries.


As a conclusion, my answer to the question above is that realism is not relevant for analyzing developing countries’ problems because realism has problems to understand developing countries. First, realism doesn’t give attention to small power states, such as developing countries, second, realist’s concepts of balance of power cannot be implemented in developing countries. And third, realist’s concept of anarchy is contradictive with the condition of developing countries that living in hierarchical world.

[1] Stephanie G. Neuman (ed.), International Relations Theory and the Third World, London: McMillan, 1998, p. 2.

[2] IMF listed 149 countries as developing countries. See IMF website: December 15, 2009 at 10:40pm

[3] Developing countries have several other names. For examples are third world countries, south countries, and undeveloped countries.

[4] This definition is relatively similar with Michael Handel’s terminology of Weak States. Handel defines weak states as states that have relative low score on most of the criteria, namely population, territory, economy, military power and international politics. See Michael Handel, Weak States in International System, London & Totowa: Frank Cass, 1981, p. 52-53.

[5] Ronald L. Tammen (, Power Transition: Strategies for the 21st Century, New York & London: Chatham House, 2000, p. 6-7.

[6] Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, Reading, Op.Cit., p. 109.

[7] The other explanation about the danger of balance of power for developing countries or weak states can be read in Michael Handel, Weak States in International System, Op.Cit, p. 176-177.

[8] The other explanation about this hierarchy can be found in Carlos Escude, “An Introduction to Peripheral Realism and Its Implications for the Interstate System: Argentina and the Condor II Missile Project” in Stephanie G. Neuman (ed.), International Relations Theory and the Third World, Op.Cit.