Key Differences Between Realism and Neo Realism

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Theories offer a systematic and rational approach to comprehending our world, going beyond speculations. They provide a perspective for analyzing the social phenomena and aspects that shape Politics and International Relations. Each theory is based on an assumption and backed by empirical evidence. Theory represents testable concepts or ideas. In science, theories are not mere conjectures but factual frameworks for explaining particular phenomena.

Scholars have attempted to organize ideas in a more systematic and rational manner than relying solely on intuition, leading to the development of general theories. The benefit of studying theories in the field of International Relations is that it enables a more nuanced examination of thoughts on International Relations. Various theories emphasize different aspects and can also narrow scholars’ perspectives, restricting their exploration beyond certain boundaries. Theories pose specific inquiries while leaving others unaddressed. The theories in International Relations can be categorized into problem-solving and critical approaches.

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Problem solving theories focus on addressing issues within the existing system, while critical theory questions the origins of the system and may challenge it. This essay will analyze the differences between realism and neo-realism, both belonging to the problem solving group of concepts. Realism, the oldest and widely embraced theory of international relations, is highly valued by scholars and students. The author will compare and contrast realism and neo-realism in a detailed analysis.

The term classical realism is used in various disciplines with differing interpretations. In philosophy, it refers to an ontological theory that opposes idealism and nominalism. Within the realm of science, “scientific realism” is a philosophical standpoint that challenges empiricism, instrumentalism, verificationism, and positivism. In literature and cinema, realism is juxtaposed against romanticism and “escapist” approaches. Finally, in the field of international relations, political realism represents an analytical tradition that highlights states’ necessity to engage in power politics for their national interest (Jack Donnelly, 2005:29).

Political Realism, a field of study in International Relations, emerged after World War II but has roots in the intellectual works of Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. Realism is based on the belief that humans are inherently selfish and self-centered individuals driven by their desire for power. These individuals form states that act to pursue their own national interests, often centered around gaining and retaining power. Within an international society lacking superior authority or hierarchy (referred to as anarchy), states exist.

States are compelled to rely solely on their own capabilities when faced with such conditions. The primary objective for states in this scenario is to address the uncertainty that arises from the anarchic system. Consequently, states take every action possible to maintain an advantageous position or, at the very least, create a balance of power with other states. As stated by Jack Donnelly (2005:29), statesmanship entails the management and reduction of conflict rather than its complete eradication, aiming for a world that is less dangerous rather than one that is completely safe, just, or peaceful. Thucydides Peloponnesian War presents evidence for at least four of the core assumptions of Realism.

Thucydides posits that the state plays a central role and holds ultimate authority in war and politics, a view shared by contemporary realists. Thucydides acknowledges the involvement of other actors such as international institutions but regards them as insignificant. Furthermore, Thucydides assumes that the state acts as a unified entity. While conflicts among citizens within the state are portrayed, he asserts that once the decision to start or end a war is made, the state behaves and communicates cohesively.

Thucydides states that individuals at a lower level than the state cannot undermine or nullify state decisions. He also observes that those who make decisions for the state do so rationally. Thucydides, like other educated Greeks, believed in human rationality and decision-making based on evaluating different options to solve problems. However, he recognized that certain factors can hinder the ability to make rational decisions.

Among the factors that influence decision making are the desires of leaders, unclear national intentions and interests, and a deceived perception of fellow decision makers. Despite these challenges, the author maintains that fulfilling national interest is accomplished through a rational decision making process. This perspective aligns with modern realism, where rational decisions ultimately benefit the national interest, regardless of how ambiguous that interest may be. Additionally, Thucydides, like contemporary realists, was concerned with security issues; he believed that states must protect themselves from potential internal and external threats and enemies.

The state enhances its security by enhancing its internal capabilities, strengthening its economy, and forging alliances with other like-minded states. Thucydides argued that the fear of enemies compelled states to form alliances before and during a war – a rational choice for the leader of a state. In the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides presents a classic realist versus liberal dilemma through the Melian Dialog: should states adhere to laws grounded in internationally recognized moral and ethical principles, as suggested by liberals?

Is state power the key factor in facing the lack of a superior international arbitrator? Thucydides did not present all of the axioms of realism. The concepts of realism have been developing over centuries and not all realists agree with every single one of them. This way, six hundred years after Thucydides, Christian Bishop and philosopher St. Augustine supplements realism with fundamental assumptions about human behavior. Humans have the freedom to choose between good and evil, but they are influenced by lower desires such as excessive materialism and pleasure, which leads to conflicts and wars.

In spite of questioning St. Augustine’s biblical interpretation of humanity’s inherently selfish and self-centered nature, realists acknowledge mankind’s inherent drive for power. The effects of this corrupt human nature on the State were further explored by Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. In his work, “The Prince,” Machiavelli emphasized the constant awareness that leaders must have of the potential threats against both themselves and their country, and that moral principles do not apply when the state’s interests are at risk.

Machiavelli supported treaties and defensive and offensive strategies for protecting the state. Realist theorists agree that states exist in an anarchic international system where there is no higher authority controlling their interactions. This concept, initially proposed by Thomas Hobbes, suggests that individuals in a state of nature must defend themselves and have the right to do so, a principle that also applies to countries in the international system. Hobbes describes this international anarchy as a situation where states act like gladiators facing each other. According to Hobbes, the “right of nature” allows individuals to use their own power to preserve their own lives, as they see fit. (Pt. I, Ch. 13)

In the international system, states are not constrained by rules or norms due to the absence of a superior power. Following World War II, dissatisfaction with liberalism reached its peak. It was during this period that Hans Morgenthau, a political realist and international relations theorist, put forth his influential synthesis of power politics. In line with Thucydides and Hobbes, Morgenthau asserted that international politics involves a struggle for power. This struggle can be understood through three levels of analysis: an individual state strives to survive in the state of nature.

In the international system, a self-governing and united country constantly engages in power struggles, opposing one power with another to protect its national interests. As there is no higher authority to resolve conflicts, the competition continues. The need for state survival forces leaders to follow a moral framework distinct from that of regular individuals. From a realist standpoint, moral principles are evaluated based on the political outcomes sought by the state.

Following World War II, Morgenthau’s “Politics among Nations” gained widespread respect as a valuable resource for realists. It provided valuable perspectives on power politics and the idea of political realism. Notably, both George Kennan, an author and US ambassador to the USSR, and Henry Kissinger, who served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, embraced political realism. Kennan played a critical role in shaping American policies during the Cold War era with the aim of containing the USSR’s influence from spreading further into Eastern Europe.

In realism, different perspectives exist regarding the appropriate policy despite a general principle. Defensive realists contend that states can enhance their security by adopting a defensive stance without posing risks to other states. This is especially relevant when defensive forces surpass offensive capabilities. However, discerning between defensive and offensive weaponry is frequently challenging, if not unattainable. As a result, the opposing faction may perceive the acquisition of defensive armaments as an act of aggression.

Offensive realists argue that states can never be completely certain about the intentions of other states, so they should always strive to maximize their power and improve their position relative to other states. Neo-realism, although there are different definitions of realism, has a distinct and recognizable flavor. Realism encompasses a collection of related ideas, based on common assumptions and sharing similar thesis, but it is not a homogeneous theory.

Neo-realism (also structural realism) is considered one of the most influential interpretations of realism, as outlined in Kenneth Waltz’s groundbreaking Theory of International Politics. According to Waltz, structural realism aims to focus on the impact of anarchy and the distribution of capabilities by abstracting from every attribute of states except their capabilities. The international structure emerges from the interaction of states, constraining them from certain actions while pushing them towards each other (Waltz 1991: 29, 1979:99).

According to Jack Donnelly (2005:35), there exists a “striking sameness in the quality of international life through millennia” despite the variations in states’ attributes and interactions. Kenneth Waltz aimed to enhance the rigor of political realism by conducting his interpretation of ‘classical’ realism in international politics. Neo-realists also attempt to explain events in the international system by presenting general rules, hoping to predict and justify overall trends.

Structural realists prioritize the structure of the international system as a primary factor in explaining theories, contrasting it with the classical realist viewpoint that emphasizes the importance of individual states and human nature. Waltz argues that the structure of a specific system is determined by the absence of dominant power and the abilities of each state. These capabilities dictate the state’s position within the system. The international structure possesses power and the ability to limit state actions, but remains beyond their control.

Neo-realists argue that the world order is determined by the structure of the international system, not by individual state characteristics. Both structural and classical realists agree on the concept of balance of power. However, structural realists believe that the system’s structure largely determines the balance of power between states. This type of system restricts opportunities for international cooperation.

States considering the possibility of cooperation are concerned about how to divide the gains. The issue is not whether both sides will benefit, but rather who will benefit more. If the expected gains are to be shared, such as in a two-to-one proportion, the state that gains more may seek to harm or destroy the other using its newfound resources. Sometimes, even with the potential for significant gains for both sides, states are reluctant to cooperate due to concerns about how the other state will use its increased capabilities. Due to the inherent uncertainty regarding the intentions of others, security measures taken by one actor are seen as threatening by others. This leads to other actors taking steps to protect themselves, which in turn confirms the initial hypothesis of the first actor that the others are dangerous. This creates a spiral of unfounded fears and unnecessary defenses (Snyder quoted by Jack Donnelly 2005: 38). The dilemma of relative gains among states arises from the fact that states try to maximize their power compared to other states in order to enhance their chances of survival.

The reluctance of states to initiate cooperation arises from the fear that the benefits may not be evenly distributed among the participating parties due to power imbalances. Even if cooperation has the potential to benefit both sides, states will refrain from aligning if one side’s gains outweigh the other’s. In the neo-realist paradigm of balancing power, a state’s survival relies on its power and capabilities, therefore any increase in power must be viewed in relative terms. Structural realists are also concerned with the issue of dishonesty.

States often resort to deceiving their allies during the execution of agreements, as this allows them to gain an advantage over other states. This apprehension is most prominent in the military domain, where any alterations to armament levels or agreements regarding nuclear warhead reduction can swiftly affect the balance of power. The pursuit of self-interest serves as a strong incentive for states to strive for an advantage over their counterparts. The presence of these motivating factors, along with the logical inclination to safeguard one’s own existence, typically eliminates any potential for international cooperation.

Countries create alliances to counterbalance aggressive nations. A prime illustration of this phenomenon is the collaboration between the United States and the Soviet Union when opposing Germany under Hitler’s rule. Another significant aspect of neo-realism is the allocation of capabilities. Jack Donnelly distinguishes three prevailing systems: Unipolarity, characterized by one major power and numerous smaller states, which must unite and support emerging major powers to maintain a balance of power.

Compared to a multipolar system, a bipolar system is more stable because there are only two great powers and no additional superpowers to form alliances with. In a multipolar system, which consists of three or more superpowers, the balance is more prone to shifts, as conflicts on the outskirts can significantly impact the overall balance (Jack Donnelly, 2005:36/37). Realism and neo-realism strongly influence the field of international relations, providing a critical perspective on liberalism as a utopian dream. These theories present an alternative that reflects the realities of the world. Critics of realism and neo-realism often reference the European Union as an institution that embraces liberalism as its leading theory.

Both realism and neo-realism reject the notion that states and human beings are essentially negative, hostile, and self-centered. Instead, they believe that individuals possess intelligence, good intentions, and a desire for mutual benefits. However, these perspectives also have limitations, such as disregarding the influence of economic and social factors on policy-making and their inability to modify the structure of the international system. Realism, neo-realism, and mercantilism all influence economic policies, espionage activities, business practices, and everyday human interactions.

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Key Differences Between Realism and Neo Realism. (2017, Mar 25). Retrieved from

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