Realism has been the dominant theory in international relations since the realist victory in the ‘first debate’. There is discussion as to whether the various strands of realist ideology can be viewed as a single theory, but there are some generally accepted tenets that all realists subscribe to. Realism sees the international community as residing in anarchy, affirms that the state is ‘the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’ (Smith, 1986, 23). Realism asserts that ‘a nation’s survival is its first and ultimate responsibility’ (Kissinger, 1977) and also that ‘security can therefore only be realised through self-help’ (Baylis, Smith, Owens, 2008, 102). Furthermore, realism depicts international relations as they are rather than attempting to work towards what realists see as an unattainable utopia.

There are many theoretical approaches to international relations that challenge these assertions. The historical opponent and still the most widespread is liberalism which aims to deliver liberty, justice and order to international relations through the influence of both domestic and international organisations. The failure of realism to predict the end of the cold war and the break-up of the Soviet Union saw resurgence in liberal policy. President Clinton’s administrations response to the conflict in Kosovo, seen as a humanitarian intervention, is an example of such liberal policy. However, it is in feminism that we find the most comprehensive emancipatory agenda and an ideology that enables a reinterpretation of domestic and international power structures.   

Feminism asserts that realism is a flawed masculine theory being both the describer of and advocate for a states need of power, for security, in the anarchic international system. Through the use of language, cultural constraints and the systemic feminising of groups within society, international relations are entrenched in realisms masculinity. It is through gender analysis, gender being a socially constructed set of characteristics that define human activity, that feminism offers an approach to international relations that redefines current gender roles and offers alternatives that empower individuals and enable feminised groups to participate in global affairs.

For realism then, ‘the people who “people” IR are statesmen and soldiers, that is, political leaders of powerful states and the armies they command’. (Amico, 2004, 3) Feminists argue that liberalism does not address society’s inherent discrimination and the male hierarchies that dominate international relations, that liberal’s simply add representatives from government organisations and multinationals to the statesmen and soldiers of realism. This then, given the general acceptance of feminised groups and male hierarchical systems, inevitably leads to the majority of the world’s population being excluded from participation in global affairs.

It is also well argued that the liberal capitalist economy relies upon these inequalities of opportunity and the oppression of minorities and women. This is starkly evidenced by the following statistic: the richest 20per cent of the world’s population holds three-quarters of the income, the poorest 20 per cent receive only 1.5per cent. (Baylis, Smith, Owens, 2008, 117). Women are surely at the bottom of both of these income groups.       

The might is right assertion of realism is challenged by feminism through examining gender. Feminists look at gender roles, such as women as homemakers and men as labourers, seeking to deconstruct such entrenched labelling. This redefining of individual’s roles within society allows for equality of opportunity, empowerment and a new political language. Feminism looks also at other power in-balances, the feminised groups, such as ethnicity, religious conviction or sexual orientation. This emancipatory approach has had an increasing impact upon international relations as evidenced by women’s programmes initiated by both the World Bank (women’s empowerment), the United Nations (gender issues in participation) and grass roots movements (the green belt movement).                                                                                

To imagine the interaction of states structured not through a masculine hierarchy which promotes self interest through economic and military strength, but through a structure that is inclusive of all voices within society is to imagine a safer and more secure international landscape. Where there are groups within society that are victimised, excluded from the political process or discriminated against and where there is such global inequality of resource distribution, inherent consequences of both realism and liberalism, there will be conflict.  

Feminist theory affirms that the concepts of war, of power and of security in international relations are masculine in nature and it is this masculinity that assists the path to conflict rather than to negotiated settlements. If we are to look away from the realist’s acceptance of war and towards a future where conflict resolution is by negotiation and not by force, then the imagery and language of politics and warfare needs to be emasculated. For example: the male dominated hierarchies in the military use masculine imagery such as ‘vertical erector launchers, thrust to weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration’ and ‘releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump’. (Cohn, 1987).  Given the male gender role of protection through the exercising of power the sexualised terminology appears to encourage the use of force. This can be further evidenced by weapons names such as peacekeeper or patriot and descriptions of the use of force such as clean strike.  By deconstructing such language, across the political spectrum, feminists argue that international relations will begin to focus on an inclusive and peaceful security. Perhaps the dangerously unfair position of women and feminised groups in a 21st century world can be starkly highlighted by this short quote: ‘I asked a Burmese why women, after centuries of following their men, now walk ahead. He said there were many unexploded land mines since the war’. (Mueller)    

Realism has failed to imagine a safer global future and liberalism to find a fair structure that enables an equitable distribution of power. Feminism offers a deconstruction of the power hierarchy within state systems, international organisations, non-governmental organisations and multi-national companies. This emancipation of women and feminised groups, this demolishing of the structures that facilitate economic and power discrimination offers the chance for positive change in international politics. 


Baylis, Smith, Owens (2008) The globalization of world politics, 4th edn , Oxford, Oxford University Press

Cohn, C (1987) Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals, Signs, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, Vol. 12, No. 4, 693

D’Amico, F. (2004) Resurgent (Sur)Realism – A critical feminist challenge, Syracuse, Syracuse University

Kissinger, H (1977) American Foreign Policy, 3rd edn, New York, W. W. Norton

Meuller, R, Quotes, Litera, http://www.litera.co.uk/t/MTkzMjQ/ (Accessed 2/11/08)

Smith, M. (1986) Realist thought from Weber to Kissinger, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press