Realism and neo realism

Elaborate upon the concept of Realism and Neo-Realism in international relations with a focus upon the works of Morgenthau and Waltz.

Most theories of international relations are based on the idea that states always act in accordance with their national interest, or the interests of that particular state. State interests often include self-preservation, military security, economic prosperity, and influence over other states. Sometimes two or more states have the same national interest. For example, two states might both want to foster peace and economic trade.

And states with diametrically opposing national interests might try to resolve their differences through negotiation or even war.

Realism is commonly viewed as the most dominant and oldest theory of IR, starting with the classical realism of Thucydides, Hobbes, Machiavelli and later Morgenthau to structural realism whose major advocates are Rousseau, Waltz or Mearsheimer. Realism, like any other International Relations theory, seeks to better understand the connections that bind the global community through the consideration of states and other agents.

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The clear core ideas of Realism have been best summarized by Dunne and Schmidt in the principles of statism, survival and self-help.

Realism is a particularly state-centric approach as the sovereign state is considered as the central actor in international politics as well as the legitimated representative of the society. A state’s primary interest is self-preservation. Therefore, the state must seek power and must always protect itself. In this context, one of the main realist arguments is the absence of an overarching central government/authority in the international sphere.

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Such a condition of‘Anarchy’ does not imply the presence of chaos and disorder. It simply refers to the absence of a world government (Waltz 1979, 88).

With no overarching global authority that provides security and stability in international relations, world politics is not formally and hierarchically organized . International politics is structured by ‘anarchy’, in contrast to domestic politics that is structured by ‘hierarchy’. The international system is thus defined in terms of an anarchic international structure.

The absence of an overarching authority, however, forces states to follow primarily their own national interest of survival since the latter cannot be guaranteed. The logical consequence is, that “states with more power stand a better chance of surviving than states with less power” A powerful state will always be able to outdo—and outlast—weaker competitors.

The most important and reliable form of power is military power. . This notion that each state actor is responsible for its own survival and progress and cannot rely on international institutions refers to the primacy of self-help. The constant threat to the national core interest of survival due to the anarchical structure of the system results in the augmentation of power capabilities of each state by e.g. “the development and use of military power in order to secure its survival.

Therefore, realism is often considered as a theory of power politics as its central claim is that the “acquisition of power is the proper, rational and inevitable goal of foreign policy”. Such strong focus on the acquisition of (military) power and its constant increase, however, creates a security dilemma. When there is no overarching authority for protection as it is the case in the state of anarchy, states try to acquire more and more (military) power the more they fill threatened. The idea of the ‘balance of power’ provides a back door solution for such a situation and further represents an essential element of realism.

If there is a preponderance of power by one state, others try to solve this security dilemma “both internally, by reallocating resources to national security, and externally, through alliances”) in order to reestablish an equilibrium of power in which “no state is in a position to dominate all the others” Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, the first edition of which was published in September 1948 was a book by Hans Morgenthau. The book was immensely popular proving far more popular than its main competitor, Fredrick Schuman’s International Politics.

Morgenthau’s book was the first coherent text that sought to make sense of the postwar world. Arguing that "international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power," Morgenthau proposed that the only correct approach to the conduct of a countrys foreign policy was an approach based on the tenets of realism. He specifically advocated an aggressive realist approach to foreign policy, an approach predicated less on securing an ideal peace between nations and more on recognizing that peace in the long- term could only be achieved through a realistic assessment of national interest.

In the framework that Morgenthau elabo- rated, every political action is seen as directed toward keeping, increasing, or demonstrating power. On the international plane, those behavioral patterns translate into policies of the status quo, imperialism, and prestige. The first has as its objective the maintenance of the existing balance of power, whereas the second seeks to acquire more power and the third seeks to show off strength in order to keep or expand power.

Consequently, Morgenthau argued that interest was at the heart of all politics and thus on the international stage it behoved each state to pursue its national interest, generally defined as power. Although Morgenthau conceived of interest and power as forces ‘‘inherent in human power,’’ he did not claim for them a meaning ‘‘fixed once and for all.’’

Rather, he held that change occurs constantly and thus environment plays a major role in shaping the interests that deter- mine political action. He subsequently clarified that the emphasis on power must be adapted to the changing circumstances of international politics. Hans Morgenthau's Principles of Political Realism

1. Politics’, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature which is unchanging: therefore it is possible to develop a rational theory that reflects these objective laws. 2. The main signpost of political realism is the concept of interest defined in terms of power which infuses rational order into the subject matter of politics, and thus makes the theoretical understanding of politics possible. Political realism stresses the rational, objective and unemotional.

3. Realism assumes that interest defined as power is an objective category which is universally valid but not with a meaning that is fixed once and for all. Power is the control of man over man. 4. Political realism is aware of the moral signifigance of political action. it is also aware of the tension between moral command and the requirements of successful political action. 5. Political realsim refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe.

It is the concept fo interest defined in terms of power that saves us from the moral excess and political folly. 6. The political realist maintains the autonomy of the political sphere. He asks "How soes this policy affect the power of the nation?" Political realism is based on a pluralistic conception of human nature. A man who was nothing but "political man" would be a beast, for he would be completely lacking in moral restraints. But, in order to develop an autonomous theory of political behavior, "political man" must be abstracted from other aspects of human nature.

Whilst similar in many respects, neorealism and its most influential text ‘ Theory of international Politics’ by Kenneth Waltz has several key distinctions from Classical realism. The incentive for its conception was a desire to adopt a more methodologically rigorous approach to International Relations, embracing scientific concepts and positive reasoning.

These desires led to a distillation of Classical realist thought, the first stage of which was to remove the concept of human nature fuelling the international power struggle. Neorealism instead conveys structural aspects of international relations as the deepest cause of power struggles; anarchy as the central force is fuelling conflict, rather than merely a permissive one as in Classical realism. Neorealism further distinguishes itself from that Classical realism by rejecting the importance of regime type in considering a state’s position in the international system.

Neorealism holds that the international structure is defined by its ordering principle, which is anarchy, and by the distribution of capabilities, measured by the number of great powers within the international system. The anarchic ordering principle of the international structure is decentralized, having no formal central authority, and is composed of formally equal sovereign states. These states act according to the logic of self-help--states seek their own interest and will not subordinate their interest to another's. States are assumed at a minimum to want to ensure their own survival as this is a prerequisite to pursue other goals.

This driving force of survival is the primary factor influencing their behaviour and in turn ensures states develop offensive military capabilities, for foreign interventionism and as a means to increase their relative power. Because states can never be certain of other states' future intentions, there is a lack of trust between states which requires them to be on guard against relative losses of power which could enable other states to threaten their survival.

This lack of trust, based on uncertainty, is called the security dilemma. States are deemed similar in terms of needs but not in capabilities for achieving them. The positional placement of states in terms of abilities determines the distribution of capabilities. The structural distribution of capabilities then limits cooperation among states through fears of relative gains made by other states, and the possibility of dependence on other states. The desire and relative abilities of each state to maximize relative power constrain each other, resulting in a 'balance of power', which shapes international relations.

It also gives rise to the 'security dilemma' that all nations face. There are two ways in which states balance power: internal balancing and external balancing. Internal balancing occurs as states grow their own capabilities by increasing economic growth and/or increasing military spending. External balancing occurs as states enter into alliances to check the power of more powerful states or alliances. It is the view about causation with respect to international conflict that is,perhaps, where the greatest discrepancies between the two theories lies.

Neorealism profoundly rejects the philosophical claims about human nature heldby Classical realism and Waltz embraces this by labelling Morgenthau’s thesis as a hypothetical account that is impossible to validate on these grounds. “Morgenthau”, he believes, is flawed in seeing the “‘ubiquity of evil in humanaction’ arising from man’s ineradicable lust for power”.

In an attempt to overcome the alleged ‘deficiencies’ in Morgenthau’s theory, Waltz attempts to locate causation at the systematic level instead. He posits that the pressures created by a lack of an international formal authority lead to a reformation in the agenda of the state, adopting survival,rather than power, as the central concern. When states collectively pursue their survival, he argues, interests become conflicting and the resulting anarchical condition is analogous to a competitive, liberal economy with firms of conflicting interest.

Neorealism improves on Classical realism to different degrees. It competently rejects human nature as a premise for international conflict, rendering the attempt to turn realism into a rigorous, quantifiable theory as successful, but posits an alternative that is also susceptible to scrutiny. Additionally, the neorealist assumption that states behave uniformly regardless of regime type seems to have varied levels of historical accuracy Kenneth Waltz structural realism or neorealism has had widely criticized by other scholars. Robert Cox claim that Waltz’s has sacrificed the interpretive richness of classical realism as a critical theory in order to transform it into a positivisticn problem-solving theory.

Cox argues that the inability of this particular approach in differentiating between times and places are the cause of major flaw in Waltz’s theory of neo-realism. Neo-realism is unable to explain structural transformation, since the positivist approach cannot account for variations whether in the basic nature of the actors (power seeking) or in their mode of interaction (power balancing). Richard Ashley points out several weaknesses of neo-realist. 1. Statism. Neo-realist denies the recognition to global collectivist concepts on transnational class relations or the interest of human kind.

2. Utilitarianism. Utilitarian perspective of neorealism has undermined the notion of state as actor whose interest and interactions shape the structure of international system. 3. Positivism. By embracing positivist approach neo-realism disregards the value laden social action such as social consensus that may perhaps coordinate practices as well as distribution of resources.

4. Atomist conception. Neo-realist defines international structure not as an independent internal relation prior to and constitutive of social actors, but as a joining of states. Therefore the international structure is not established independent of the parts taken together, since it is emerged as a result of joining the parts together.

Updated: Jul 06, 2022
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Realism and neo realism. (2016, May 15). Retrieved from

Realism and neo realism essay
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