Realism Relations Political

How is classical realism different to neo-realism?

Neo-realism is a school of thought in international relations, which has its origins in classical realism which was advanced by writers such as Hans Morgenthau. He believed that states acted only in the pursuit of their self-interests to promote survival. Kenneth Waltz introduced a new approach, through his book, ‘Theory of International Politics,’ claiming that neo-realism can strengthen the previous paradigm of realism by looking at international relations in a more structural and methodological perspective and as a result, enhanced conclusions can be obtained.

Therefore, in order to assess the differences between realism and neo-realism and whether Waltz’s neo-realism is an improvement on classical realism, it is firstly important to define both neo-realism and classical realism. It is also important to consider Waltz’s perspective in detail and analyse the elements which could be deemed as improvements. Thus, it will be argued that neo-realism is an improvement on classical realism due to its more rigorous scientific approach to international relations.

Morgenthau was an international theorist who advocated the paradigm of realism. His theory consists of many principles which he believed gave a more pragmatic approach to international relations compared to the earlier paradigm of idealism. He considers states to be aggressive and power-seeking and that these specific characteristics stem from the imperfect humans from which they are constructed. Additionally, he deems that states are the key actors in international relations and stresses that national interests dominate state behaviour. This poses the question whether states can have interests, but realists like Morgenthau argue that states not only have interests but also behave in accordance with these interests. He further personifies states adding they will continually pursue their self-interests even though it may be detrimental to others. Central to Morgenthau’s theory was the concept of power as the dominant goal in international politics and the definition of national interest in terms of power. He called for recognition of the nature and limits of power and for the use of traditional methods of diplomacy, including compromise.

In, ‘Politics Among Nations,’ Morgenthau outlines his six principles in international relations, with the first of these being that, ‘politics is governed by objective laws which have their root in human nature.’ These objective laws cannot be changed nor affected over time and human preferences. Therefore, the laws of human nature, tied with an assumption that actors are rational, provide a good framework for the explanation of international relations. His second principle regards the understanding of international politics through the, ‘concept of interest defined as power,’ and so sets the realm of international politics as autonomous to other spheres of action such as ethics and religion.

The third principle in his doctrine focuses on the premise that state power can change but the concept of interest remains constant. The political and cultural situation determines that state power and this objectivity of interest can provide a general starting point in the analysis of international politics. His fourth and fifth principles centre on the need to differentiate between the morality of the state and the individual. He believes that universal moral principles do not guide state behaviour even though that behaviour may have moral and ethical consequences. States are not moral agents, and their actions should be judged solely on the principle of national interest and survival.

His final principle concerns the autonomy of the political sphere and its separation from the other spheres of human concern. Morganthau sees man as being pluralistic in nature and the political nature of man must be abstracted from all other aspects of human nature. He says, ‘A man who has nothing but ‘political man’ would be a beast,’ and as he considers the concept of interest defined in terms of power this ‘political’ man, ‘would be completely lacking moral constraints.’ The realist interpretation of the political man gives primacy to political considerations by defining interest in terms of power in contrast to the ‘economic man’ who thinks of interest defined as wealth.

In the international structure, Morgenthau characterises states acting in a rational fashion because they carry out a cost-benefit analysis before proceeding with any action. In hypothetical terms country ‘A’ would only invade country ‘B’ if the benefits were far superior to the costs. He says ‘…a rational foreign policy to be good foreign policy; for only rational foreign policy minimizes risks and maximises benefits.’ Therefore this emphasises states as being unified and rational actors, with respect to the implementation of foreign policy. Furthermore, an additional concept of the classical realist paradigm is the balance of power between states in the international system. States align themselves with other states to form alliances and to feel more secure against the threat of a superpower. This reiterates the need for states to promote, their pre-eminent goal of survival and forming alliances and thus balancing of power ensures this. Alliances are seen by realists as the paramount method of gaining power as the likelihood of invasion is reduced. Thus, the potential aggressor will have to attack more than one state, thereby in undertaking a cost-benefit analysis; the cost of an attack would outweigh the benefits.

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Morgenthau argues that states are the real actors in international politics and there is no supreme power or sovereign authority above them. The lack of governance consequently leads to an anarchic structure to the international system, thus creating the rise of insecurity. Initially, states begin with a defensive motive, but are forced to think and somewhat act inherently offensive because of the anarchic structure of the international system. As states are motivated by power and the pursuit of national interest, normally defined in security or military terms, to ensure their own survival the principle of self-help becomes more significant. It emphasises the need to differentiate between the international and domestic political structure. It surmises the domestic political system to be hierarchical, with the central government superior to local and district governments. In contrast, this clearly defined structure is absent in international politics, and therefore anarchy is dominant.

In 1979, Kenneth Waltz published, ‘Theory of International Politics,’ and from this the neo-realist approach to international relations emerged. He sought to develop a more rigorous theory of international politics than earlier realists, like Morgenthau. Waltz’s paradigm argues that, ‘classical realism understood the constraints inherent in anarchy but failed to develop a serious account of its structure.’ He believes the theory had to be defined precisely and in terms drawn from the thinking of the scientific method. Furthermore, he demonstrated how one can distinguish between the unit level and structural elements and then make connections between them. Waltz not only restricted the kind of theory he was producing but also its scope. He argued that there were patterns in the international system which recurs over time and these were products of the system itself, and not of its subsystems. He used this approach to show that the interdependence theory overstated the reliance of great powers on other states, military power was extremely useful in preserving stability and that great hegemonic powers had a role in overseeing world affairs. Waltz judged there to be two types of system which were possible, hierarchical and anarchical. In the hierarchical system, different kinds of units are organised under a clear line of authority, whereas, ‘International systems are decentralized and anarchic,’ leading to units being similar in nature even though they may have different capabilities.

The scientific approach by neo-realists is a specific aspect of the theory which distinguishes itself from classical realism. Waltz believes in a more methodological approach to the international system as the path to knowledge must originate from observable data from which an effective hypothesis can be made. Also by producing large data, regularities can be found and therefore hypotheses can be tested against further data. Furthermore no prior assumptions can be made, especially in regards to human nature, which opposes Morgenthau’s realist paradigm. The data must also be open and explicit, about how it was gathered allowing modern theories to be rejected. Indeed, Waltz was able to produce three criteria to distinguish between the domestic political system and international system, and the first of these is the ordering principle. In agreement with the classical realist paradigm, the anarchic system has lead to a lack of authority and a self-help system. He says, ‘each unit seeks its own good: the result of a number of units simultaneously doing so transcends the motives and aims of the separate units.’ States are only able to survive if they increase their military capabilities and therefore enhancing the security of it. It is the ordering principle that Waltz believes, leads to states performing identical primary tasks.

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This very doctrine assumes that states have to defend themselves but in conjunction to this preparation, a ‘spiral of insecurity gives rise to a security dilemma,’ in the system. When states increase military spending and build up arms, other neighbouring states may feel undermined and threatened, even though the build up was entirely defensive. In believing that states perform the same primary functions, the neighbouring states start to build up their arms. This leads to an arms race as states continually act to restore the balance of power, a race which Waltz argues stops when equilibrium is reached. This corrective mechanism is seen as part of the nature of the system allowing the removal of human nature when describing the power struggle between states.

In Waltz’s second principle, he emphasises the anarchic structure of the international system which leads to states being independent, separate yet formally still being equal units in the system. Waltz writes, ‘states…are not formally differentiated by the functions they perform,’ therefore due to the anarchical structure of the system, states remain like units. Since each state performs the same tasks, ‘…the ends they aspire to are similar.’ Furthermore, the states recognise its interests must only count on its own resources as they, ‘all do more business at home than abroad.’ He stresses that it is their ability to accomplish these tasks, which distinguishes states not the actual functions they accomplish.

Indeed, due to states performing the same important primary tasks it signifies the inability to differentiate them from on another, yet it is their actual distribution of capabilities which does distinguish them. Waltz states, ‘The structure of a system changes with changes in the distribution of capabilities across the system’s units.’ The distribution, allows the prediction of the balance of power and the comparative power of the states in the system. Waltz argues that states in anarchy prefer the balance of power, as the power of other states is interpreted as aggressive. Neo-realists see the balance of power between great powers always occurring as it is a natural phenomenon in the anarchic system. The actual balance of power implementation of this balance is not done by diplomats, declare neo-realists, rather it is a spontaneous and corrective mechanism.

All forms of realism therefore have a number of characteristics that are in common such as emphasis on the importance of the state and political groups, especially the military, and not the individual. They also advocate the continuity of human condition, for Morgenthau’s realism this is embodied within human nature, whereas for neo-realism this is centred on anarchy as the ordering principle. In both approaches, anarchy is paramount in the international system and this creates powerful incentives for aggression. Therefore, due to the lack of constraints on states implies that conflict is the natural state of the system. The role of diplomats in both paradigms is to act competitively, but Morgenthau stresses the personification of states with respect to human nature and the pursuit of self-interest, while Waltz’s theory is that policies arise in the need to compete for security to be maintained in the system. ‘Neo-realism stresses continuities but it does not deny the existence of change,’ as Waltz concedes that militarily change has occurred in the international system yet the fundamental organising principle has not. Despite their differences over the question of co-operation in the international system, both neo-realists and realists both construct upon assumptions that the main units in the international system, explicitly states, are assumed to be self-interested and rational.

Furthermore, both theorists have contrary views on stability of the international system. Morgenthau argues that the balance of power in a system is governed by policies of states. However, Waltz contends that, ‘these balances tend to form whether some or all states consciously aim to establish and maintain balance, or whether some or all states aim for universal domination,’ therefore, he is more interested in the impact of power on state behaviour rather than the opposite. Neo-realism advocates that whether states consciously pursue a balancing policy or not is irrelevant for explaining the probability of peace or war. Furthermore, another debate in system stability is concentrated up polarity, the number of power centres in the system, on the probability of war. Morgenthau advocated the system stability was achievable only through the effects of a multipolar balance of power. This is more stable international order because of, ‘the plenitude of interacting partners means that there is a greatly reduced danger of mutually reinforcing antagonism between both states. Individual states will have associations with a great variety of others; their cross-cutting loyalties will tend to reduce hostility expressed toward one particular state or against one particular cause.’ However, Waltz dismisses this supposition and develops a theory of bipolar stability in which he argues is more stable because, ‘competition in multipolar systems is more complicated than competition in bipolar ones,’ and as a result, ‘uncertainties about the comparative capabilities of states multiply as numbers grow.’ The inclusion of only two leading powers allows fewer grey areas in the system, as interests are clearly defined and produce less opportunity for misperceptions. Furthermore, Waltz deems the bipolar system easier to manage, as change can be monitored closely and therefore, the chance of conflict is significantly reduced. This is in contrast to a multipolar system where, ‘there is a highly probability in an increase in the number of international conflicts. A bipolar system can have but one antagonism; multipolarity, on the other hand, may have virtually numberless frictions.’

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However, both theories have defects when applying them to the present international system. They both ignore other important actors which are not states, such as multinational companies. Liberal pluralists highlighted the understanding of non-state actors, undermining the state-centric world of realism. Keohane and Nye claimed that world politics was no longer the exclusive preserve of states and that, ‘the growth of transnational organizations has lead to the state-centric paradigm becoming progressively inadequate,’ therefore a new theory called complex interdependence was introduced to run as an alternative to realism. Additionally, with both theories overemphasising power being defined as having strength in the military, this therefore, dismisses other means of being powerful such as economic and territorial strengths.

It is arguable therefore, that neo-realism as propagated by Waltz, is a doctrine that adds and improves on Morgenthau’s realist theory. His ability to apply a more scientific and methodological approach allows the theory to be clearly defined and tested. In addition, it responds more accurately to the question of economic theory as Waltz argues that while the growth of wealth maybe infinite, states must stress security to promote its survival. However, Morgenthau’s doctrine should not be completely dismissed as Waltz still agrees that states as pursuing self-interests to promote their own survival. Though, to a greater extent it is arguable that Waltz’s obligation to include the concept of a corrective mechanism, when portraying the balance of power and the fact that no prior assumptions are made on human nature, underlines a more rigorous and precise approach to international relations.


Burchill, Scott – Theories of International Relations (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001) pp. 70-99

Keohane, Robert O. and Nye, Joseph S. – Transnational relations and World Politics

(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973) pp. ix-xxix

Linklater, Andrew, ‘Neo-Realism in Theory and Practice’, in Booth, Ken and Smith, Steve – International Relations Theory Today (Cambridge: Polity, 1995) pp. 241-262

Mearsheimer, John – ‘Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War,’ International Security, Vol. 15, No. 1, (Summer, 1990) pp. 5-56

Mearsheimer, John – ‘The False Promise of International Institutions,’ International Security, Vol. 19, No. 3, (Winter, 1994-1995) pp. 5-49

Morgenthau, Hans J. – Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1955) pp. 3-13, 320-340

Rosecrance, Richard – ‘Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Future,’ The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 10, No. 3, (Autumn, 1996) pp. 314-327

Waltz, Kenneth – Theory of International Politics (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1979) pp. 48-57, 110-120

Waltz, Kenneth ‘Structural Realism after the Cold War,’ International Security, Vol. 25, No. 1, (Summer, 2000) pp. 5-41

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