In studying international relations, there are two big theories called realism and neorealism. Both are theories that focus on the self-interests of countries and the power of states in global issues. They believe in making decisions based on reason. Realism started after World War II and is linked to people like Hans Morgenthau and E.H. Carr. It sees the world system as chaotic and competitive, with countries getting power and working in their interests. Neorealism, also called structural realism, started in the 1970s and 1980s by researchers like Kenneth Waltz. It pays attention to power struggles and competition for security like realism does, but it focuses more on the rules of the world system as the main factor changing how countries behave. Although realism and neorealism share some main ideas about how countries interact, they have different beliefs and results in their theory. This write-up will look at and differentiate these two main ways of thinking about international relations theory.
Origins of Realism and Neorealism
Realism started because of idealism during the time between wars, mainly as a response to the League of Nations not stopping World War II. Realists said that idealists’ ideas about how people are, becoming better morally, keeping everyone safe, and international rules were silly and wrong.
Neorealism, or structural realism, came later in the 1970s and 1980s. It tried to make realist theory better because of new things happening during the Cold War. Kenneth Waltz especially tried to make realist theory more like science by focusing it on the structure of the world system instead of the traits of separate countries. Instead of blaming human nature for war and fighting as classical realists did, neorealists looked at the structural problems of a world without leaders.
Core Assumptions realism and neorealism
Realism and neorealism share some core assumptions about the nature of international relations but also have some key differences.
Fundamentally, both realism and neorealism see the international system as anarchic – there is no overall global authority that can enforce rules between sovereign states. States must ultimately rely on their resources and capabilities to ensure their security and national interests. However, classical realists believe that human nature, and the selfish quest for power, drive conflict between states. States are unitary, rational actors seeking to maximize their power and security. Neorealists, in contrast, downplay human nature and focus more on the structure of the anarchic international system as the key driver of state behavior. The international distribution of capabilities, rather than motives or greed, leads states into competitive and conflictual relations as they seek security.
Furthermore, classical realists see power as tangible – derived from resources like military and economic assets. Neorealists emphasize structural power – a state’s position in the international system relative to others. Having greater capabilities is a potential power, but it is the structure of the system that determines how those capabilities translate into actual power and influence over outcomes. So in summary, while both theories see conflict as inherent in an anarchic international system, realists emphasize human nature and the quest for power as the root cause, whereas neorealists highlight the distribution of capabilities and competition for security driven by the structure of the system itself. Both, however, conclude that states must rely on self-help to promote their interests in a competitive world.
View of the State
Realists and neorealists have some differences in how they conceive of the state.
For classical realists, the state is the most important actor in international relations. States act as unitary rational actors in pursuit of their own self-interest and national security in an anarchic international system lacking a higher authority. Survival and power maximization are the priorities.
Neorealists have a more nuanced view of the state. They see states as the dominant actors in the international system but don’t treat them as unitary rational actors. States have a variety of institutions and individuals influencing their behavior and interests. The overarching goal remains national security and power maximization, but domestic politics and perceptions shape how states pursue those aims.
While realists treat states as “billiard balls” balancing power, neorealists believe domestic factors like regime type and government institutions influence state behavior. But the global spread of abilities puts heavy limits on every state, no matter if they are a dictatorship or democracy from inside a country. So, the outside world is still most important, even if things at home also count. In general, neorealists know that countries are more complex than realists say. But, the global system still puts strong limits on states that make them worry about safety and power more than anything else. The differences are more about how much instead of basic ideas. Both ideas think that states are mostly focused on power and safety in a chaotic world where they have to help themselves.
View of Human Nature
Realism and neorealism differ in their view of human nature and how this affects state behavior.
Classical realists see human nature as flawed – humans are inherently selfish, competitive, and power-seeking. This egoistic aspect of human nature carries over into how states behave – they too are selfish and power-hungry. Nations aim to use their power and control more than other nations. Realists think that human nature doesn’t change, and always wanting power leads to conflicts between countries.
Neorealists have a more structural view. They argue the international system creates incentives for states to pursue power, regardless of human nature. In Kenneth Waltz’s view, even if humans were altruistic, states would still be forced to seek power and security under anarchy. The structure of the system is what compels certain state behaviors. So neorealists emphasize structural factors over human nature as the key determinant of state actions. While neorealists acknowledge human nature may play a role, they see structure and systemic pressures as far more important in shaping state behavior. The core difference is that neorealists do not view flawed human nature as the root cause of conflict between states.
Priorities of the State
Realism and neorealism differ in their view of the top priorities of states in the international system.
Classical realists see military and economic power as the key priorities. They believe states are primarily concerned with maintaining and maximizing their relative power capabilities. Building a strong military and economy are ways to increase a state’s power and influence compared to others. Realists argue states fundamentally seek power above all else.
Neorealists, in contrast, view security as the top priority for states. They believe the anarchic structure of the international system, and uncertainty about other states’ intentions, force states to be preoccupied with security and survival. Neorealists say that power is used to get security – states want to get power to protect their rule and land. But living safe and protected, not controlled, are the main objectives. So realists look at power, but neorealists think security is the main reason for what states do. This difference comes from neorealism’s focus on how the messy system makes and limits what states do. Both ideas think power matters, but neorealists say the rules of the world system make safety the primary thing.
Balance of Power
Realism and neorealism have different thoughts about how power balance plays a part in global connections.
Realists believe that a balance of power is essential for keeping peace between countries. Realists say that states develop their military power and make alliances to fight back against dangerous states. This makes sure that no one nation is stronger than others and stops any fighting. Realists believe that power sharing is a natural part of an international system without a main boss, which exists in chaos.
Neorealists see a balance of power positively. Neorealists say that often balancing doesn’t work. They think there’s usually one big state in charge of the international system. This is because alliances are short-lived and countries can’t perfectly balance strength. Neorealists say that times of stable balancing change into times of rule by one big power. They point to examples of dominant states like Napoleonic France, imperial Britain, and the Cold War-era United States. So while realists see power balancing as promoting stability, neorealists believe balances are temporary and that the international system tends toward unipolarity. This difference stems from neorealism’s focus on the distribution of power capabilities between states as the key determinant of international outcomes.
Realists and neorealists have different views on the role of international institutions in the international system.
Realists argue that international institutions have minimal influence over state behavior. They see institutions as a product of state power dynamics, not independent forces that shape state interests. Since states ultimately pursue self-interest in an anarchic system, institutions have little real impact. Institutions depend on state compliance and reflect the underlying balance of power. For realists, international institutions are of secondary importance compared to the distribution of state power capabilities.
Neorealists take a slightly more nuanced view. They agree that institutions are created by states seeking to advance self-interests. However, neorealists see institutions as providing states with information and mechanisms for cooperation under anarchy. Institutions can facilitate coordination between states by disseminating information about state preferences and policies. They also allow states to monitor compliance and punish defection from agreements. For neorealists, institutions are useful to powerful states as tools that reinforce state interests. However, their functionality is still dependent on and shaped by state power dynamics. Overall, neorealists grant more of a role to institutions than classical realists do but still view state power and self-interest as far more significant explanatory factors in world politics.
Criticisms of realism and neorealism
Both realism and neorealism have received their fair share of criticisms over the years. Here are some of the main critiques leveled against these theories:
- They take too narrow and pessimistic a view of human nature and interstate relations. By assuming states are solely self-interested, they ignore the possibility of shared interests, cooperation, and progress.
- Their focus on material power overlooks the importance of ideas, norms, domestic politics, and non-state actors in global affairs. Power alone does not determine state behavior.
- The emphasis on state-centric realpolitik marginalizes issues like human rights, economic development, and environmental protection. Morality is excluded from their realist worldview.
- The anarchic “self-help” model of international relations is too simplistic. It underestimates the roles of international law, regimes, and institutions in constraining state behavior.
- Their predictions are often contradicted by the complex realities of world politics. For instance, alliances and cooperative security arrangements continue despite realist predictions.
- They have limited explanatory power for recent phenomena like globalization, international trade, and economic interdependence between states.
- Neorealism in particular is attacked as too abstract and lacking empirical content. Its systemic focus provides little insight into the actual policies and motivations of states.
- So in summary, critics argue realism and neorealism provide an inadequate picture of global affairs due to their pessimistic assumptions and state-centric framework. The theories ignore many things that shape world relationships in today’s world.
Realism and neorealism have some important things alike but also big differences. Both of these theories think that safety and control are the big goals for countries in a world system without a main leader. They think humans are not very good and think the main job of countries is to stay alive, not believe in good things. But neorealism only looks at military and safety issues, while realism thinks national interests are wider. Realism thinks it’s important to keep power between countries even, while neorealism says this is hard and focuses on states getting as much power as they can. Realists think that international groups are more important than neorealists, who see them as mostly unimportant to the balance of power. In general, neorealism tried to make realist thoughts better by looking more carefully at the structure and the limits of country-free situations rather than considering all the things related to power and what individual nations want. A big difference between neorealism and classical realism is how much cooperation is possible and the part played by institutions. But, both ideas give big views on world politics.