Jean-Jacques Rousseau was undoubtedly more of a philosopher on society within states, and not relations between states, and he does make that clear distinction. However, both structural realists and realists in general use two particular Rousseau extracts as a philosophical basis to their writings, in a similar way Liberal Internationalists use Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, or English School thinkers use the writings of Grotius. This does not mean Rousseau is an entirely realist thinker, it is undoubtedly true that Machiavelli or Thucydides are more avowedly realist than Rousseau, but these two passages are commonly used by structural realists.

The Stag Hunt

This parable about co-operation between people is often used as an analogy for realists as an example of how self-help manifests between states. It is very similar to a game theory of the same name, but not entirely.

“Assume that five men who have acquired a rudimentary ability to speak and to understand each other happen to come together at a time when all of them suffer from hunger. The hunger of each would be satisfied by the fifth part of a stag, so they ‘agree’ to cooperate in a project to trap one. But also, the hunger of any one of them will be satisfied by a hare, so as a hare comes within reach, one of them grabs it. The defector obtains the means of satisfying his hunger, but in doing so permits the stag to escape. His immediate interest prevails over his consideration for his fellows.”

Rousseau wrote this to justify the establishment of a form of government, but in Kenneth Waltz’s Man, The State and War, the main work in structural realism, he uses this to explain how the anarchy of the system, which is inevitable in international politics (a common realist maxim), means that efforts to cooperate between states will happen, but they will fail due to the self interest of each state. Each state might say that they would cooperate to capture and divide up the ‘stag’ of power, but when offered a hare, every state would take it, because the chances are, if they didn’t, one of the others would, and then they’d be ones going hungry. This parable is basically used to explain why, because of the anarchical nature of international politics, states will fight over a ‘hare’, but cooperation in order to catch a ‘stag’ is very unlikely. This is also used less frequently by classical realists, who would claim that the seizure of the hare is more proof of natural self interest, but of course, the problem is, classical realists would have the five men go out and hunt a hare on their own.

The State of War

This is a passage in Book I of Rousseau’s Social Contract (Chapter 4, Slavery) in which Rousseau attacks Grotius’ approach to the enslavement of conquered peoples.

Grotius…claims to find in war another justification for the so-called right of slavery. They argue that the victor’s having the right to kill the vanquished implies that the vanquished has the right to purchase his life at the expense of his liberty – a bargain thought to be the more legitimate because it is advantageous to both parties.

Rousseau argues against this idea, and through doing so, defines war in terms still used by structural realists today, who again use this to argue, against classical realism, that anarchy defines how states act in international politics, not human nature. Rousseau’s reference to the ‘primitive condition of independence’, what he classes as true liberty, or human nature, and how,

“men are not naturally enemies. It is conflicts over things, not quarrels between men which constitute war…the state of war cannot arise from…personal relations, but only from property relations. Private wars cannot exist…in a state of nature, where there is no fixed property, nor in society, where everything is under the rule of law.”

By defining war strictly as “not a relation between men, but between states,” Rousseau debunks the classical realist idea that war is derived from a human nature of conflict, and goes on to defend this idea,

Individuals are enemies wholly by chance, not as men, not even as citizens, but only as soldiers…A state can only have an enemy as another state, not men.

Rousseau then goes on to describe what is a modern norm of warfare; that once a soldier lays down his weapon, he should not be fired upon.

“A combatant has the right to kill the defenders of that (a hostile) state whilst they are armed, but as soon as they lay down their arms and surrender, they cease to be either enemies or instruments of the enemy; they become simply men once more, and no one has the right to take their lives.”

He then goes on to argue that they should not be enslaved, that if a conquered army or population should not be massacred, it should not be enslaved either.

War gives the conqueror no right to massacre a conquered people, no such right can be invoked to justify their enslavement. Men have the right to kill their enemies only when they cannot enslave them, so they right of enslaving cannot be derived from the right to kill. It would therefore be an iniquitous barter to make the vanquished purchase with their liberty the lives over which the victory has no legitimate claim.

In conclusion, the whole mood of this piece reflects structural realism’s approach to war and morality, something which is entirely different in classical realism, and takes conflict away from a state of human nature and places it firmly with the structure, or lack of one, within international politics. It places international relations as one with no society, but plenty of fixed, sovereign property, thus war is an instrument only used amongst states, not amongst private individuals, and this should be taken into account when deciding upon the ‘rights’ of states within conflict.

ETA: A slight after thought. Please do note that I mean Realism in an International Relations aspect, not in a philosophical one. He is a romantic, in normal terms, I am aware.


Rousseau, J-J, The Social Contract, Book I, ‘Slavery’.

Dunne, T. and Schmidt, B, ‘Realism’ in Globalisation of World Politics, eds. Baylis, J. and Smith, S.

Brown, C, Understanding International Relations

The lectures of Professor Ian Clark, Aberystwyth University.

A footnote: I am seriously beginning to think somewhere on What should I node?, there should be ‘node your revision’.

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