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Neorealism addresses the limitations of classical realism

By: Saeed Kakeyi


April 08, 2007

Realism, also known as Classical Realism, became known as a discipline in International


Relations (IR) during and after the World War II as a response to the arguable Liberalist
IR theory, adhered by Woodrow Wilson and others, who claimed that states cooperate
among each other. Classical Realism, which began as an active field of research for the
United States’ academics and statesmen, has undergone changes due to its negative view
of human nature. These changes, thereafter, became encompassed in a new and modern
form of realism, known to us as “Neorealism” or “Structural Realism”. Hence, one might
ask why classical realism has a negative view of human nature, and to what extent
neorealism has addressed the limitations of classical realism.
This assay will address these questions by providing a brief but through
summaries of the two theories drawing upon claims and arguments made by their
respective theorists, highlighting and explaining their key theoretical difference and
illustrating that with examples from contemporary IR and my own personal inputs and
views with respect to their viabilities and limitations. But, first, I will address the reasons
which led to the evolution of classical realism.

Liberalism and the Evolution of Classical Realism


It was during the WW I, when scholars and statesmen made consensus based on various
theories of historical, philosophical, economics, strategy and international law to form a
discipline whereby governs the IR with which they can avoid major wars. The need for
peaceful changes of IR issues, then, became known as the “Idealism” which refers to the
school of thought personified in American diplomacy by Woodrow Wilson.
Idealism holds that a state should make its internal political philosophy to be the
goal of its foreign policy by emphasizing the rule of international law through the
creation of the League of Nations.
Shortly after the failure of the League of Nations in managing the balance of
power in Europe, and due to the outbreak of WW II, Idealism was replaced by the
liberalists with a modified version of “Wilsonianism” known as liberalism or “Classical
Liberalism”.
During and after the WW II, and due to its profound impacts on mankind, many
western democratic students and statesmen in all braches of politics, and specifically in
the study of IR, engaged in rigorous researches to find an alternative for the optimistic
liberal behaviors and to refute the liberalists’ claim that states seek cooperation.
In such, some have turned to Thucydides’ “The Peloponnesian Wars” in which he
argued some twenty four hundred years ago that “International politics is driven by an
endless struggle of power which has its roots in human nature” (Baylis and Smith 166).
Others reached out to Machiavelli’s “The Prince” to benefit from his political realism
which “recognizes that principles subordinated to policies…to accept and adapt to the
changing power-political configurations in world politics” (166).
But, it was E. H. Carr who, studying Thucydides’ history and Machiavelli’s
strategy combined with his inconsistent philosophical denotes with the liberalist theories,
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laid the ground for the rise of the mid 20th century realism. In his book “The Twenty
Years’ Crisis, Carr explains how positive rational and peaceful cooperation among states
contribute to anarchy and create insecurity in the world (1939).
Picking-up from that, Hans Morgenthau, a German scholar who migrated to the
United States because of the WW II, argued that, “International politics, like all politics,
is a struggle for power” (Kaufman et al. 61). Yet, in order to explain power, he furthers
that “Political power is a psychological relation between those who exercise it and those
over which it is exercised. It gives the former control over certain actions of the latter
through the influence which the former exert over the latter's minds. That influence may
be exerted through orders, threats, persuasion, or a combination of any of those” (62). In
other words, Morgenthau argued that since politics is governed by laws created by human
nature, therefore, it is interests which driving by power make us plays our roles in
international politics (Baylis 166).
Thus, classical realism, can be characterized as an aggressive approach to achieve
belongings, and with that been said, its adherents share the following key assumptions:

1. The international system is anarchic. There is no authority above states capable of


regulating their interactions.
2. Sovereign states are the principal actors in the international system. International
institutions, non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations are
viewed as having little independent influence.
3. States are rational unitary actors each moving towards their own national interest.
There is a general distrust of long-term cooperation or alliance.
4. In pursuit of national security, states strive to amass resources.
5. Relations between states are determined by their comparative level of power
derived primarily from their military and economic capabilities (Wikipedia).

Structural Realism:
Structural Realism or Neorealism derives from classical realism except that
instead of human nature, its focus is mainly on the international politics with greater
emphasis put on the struggle for power. According to Baylis and Smith, the key idea in J.
J. Rousseau’s book of “The State of War,” stipulates that “it is not human nature, but the
anarchical system which fosters fear, jealousy, suspicion, and insecurity (166).
Kenneth N. Waltz, redefining Morgenthau’s Balance of Power theory, takes the
key thoughts of the classical realism into his “Theory of International Politics” (Kaufman
et al. 289). He clearly states that anarchy is the nature of the international system that
leads to the common sense of “self-serving states” in pursue of their vital security (293-
294). In contrast to classical realism, Waltz argues that while states remain the main
actors in the international system, greater reflection must be given to the outer-core
elements of the states through a level of analysis or structure-agency debate (295-296).
He sees international system as a structure whereby the state with individuals below the
level of the state act as unitary agency for the state (297). Furthermore, unlike classical
realists, Waltz advocates bipolarity by saying that “the great powers of a bipolar world
are more self-sufficient, and interdependence loosens between them” (327).
It is worth mentioning that structural realism, just like classical realism, has its
own variations when it comes to defining power struggle within the international system.
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For example; John Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism discloses that states in the
anarchical system are inherently aggressive and that there is no status quo or satisfied
states with the amount of power in their possessions. Critics of Mearsheimer’s
aggressive build-up of power, however, argue that aggressive status will create a security
dilemma since the maximization of power by any one state will perpetuate greater power
competition (Baylis and Smith 176).
In summary, although there are variations in the formations of both, classical
realism and structural realism, the later was able to reframe realism into a coherent theory
with emphasis been put on international anarchy and the balance of power in the
international system.

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Reference:
Baylis, John, and Steve Smith. The Globalization of World Pollitics. 3rd. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2005.

Kaufman, Daniel, Jay Parker, Patrick Howell, and Grant Doty.Understanding


International Relations: The Value of Alternative Lenses. 5th. Boston: Sustom
Publishing - McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Carr, E. H.. "THE HARMONY OF INTERESTS." The Twenty Years Crisis. 1939.
http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/carr.htm. 6 Apr 2007
<http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/carr.htm>.

"Realism (international relations)." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 9 April2007.


Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.. 6 Apr 2007. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Realism_
%28international_relations%29#Common_assumptions>.