Neorealism emerged as an influential theory of international relations during the early 1980s. The biggest contributor to neorealism was Kenneth N. Waltz, who published the landmark book Theory of International Politics in 1979. This work gave a scientific and systematic approach to classical realist theory, which became known as structural realism or neorealism. Waltz expanded on some earlier realist ideas but greatly changed realist theory to make what he thought was a more scientific way. His Theory of International Politics is seen as a major text in world politics of the 20th century. The new way of thinking was named neorealism, which contrasted with the old realism. Neorealism tried to show why fights and wars happened between countries in an international system with no main global boss. It was mainly about how the layout of the global system, not the inner features of nations, influenced results. Neorealism is still a popular and used theory today.
What is Neorealism?
In the context of international relations, neorealism refers to a theoretical perspective within the broader field of international relations theory. Neorealism, also known as structural realism, emerged in the late 20th century as a response to the perceived limitations of classical realism in explaining and understanding the behavior of states in the international system.
Objective – Analyzing State Behavior and International Relations Through Structure- Neorealism, also called structural realism, wants to study and understand why countries behave the way they do and how they interact with each other by looking at the structure of the global system. Neorealism claims that the world system’s structure, with its lack of rules and how powerful each country is, is the principal reason why states act the way they do. In a system where no one has a boss, states are worried about their safety and living. This makes them want to wield power and deal with possible risks. There is a structure that can lessen how states behave and this structure is determined by how much power, especially military power, states have over a system. The number of large state’s power and how power is divided makes the international arrangement stable or unstable. Neorealism differs from old realism as it does not center on human nature as the cause of fighting. Instead, it focuses on how the world setup provokes states to compete with each other, and to fight and war. The setup makes fights happen no matter what culture, type of government, or other inside features you have. Neorealism tries to explain why states behave in certain ways and how political results happen by closely looking at powers and their spread in the world system. The theory tries to give a science-based and organized way to understand relationships between countries.
Factors Contributing to the Rise of Neo-realism
Neo-realism came into being because people felt that classical realism did not explain international connections well during the 1960s and 1970s. A few key factors contributed to the rise of neo-realism:
Difficulties for Realism in the 1960s
- In the 1960s, people criticized realism as a big theory for understanding how countries relate to each other. People who criticize realism say that it does not give a reason for all actions by countries and cannot explain important international events and working together between nations.
- Global groups like the United Nations seemed to disagree with some realist ideas about natural fighting between countries. Realism had a hard time explaining the working together part of international relations.
- Impact of Behavioralism
- The increase of behavioralism and methods that measure things questioned realism’s way of thinking and its focus on philosophy. Behavioralists placed more importance on actions that can be seen and measured, unlike realism’s focus on assumptions about human nature.
- Critics said that realists didn’t make testable guesses and didn’t use fact-based methods. This caused people to try and make realism more scientific in the way it was studied. In short, realism could not fully explain world events in the 1960s and got a lot of criticism from the growing behavioral method. This made scholars like Kenneth Waltz create a more scientific form of realism called neo-realism or structural realism.
Basic Assumptions of Neo-realism
Neo-realism makes some important guesses about how the world system works. Two of the most notable are:
- People don’t matter much in getting power between nations, but the setup (Anarchy) of the world system does. Neo-realists don’t think human nature is the main reason why states act and interact with others. Instead, they say that the world system’s messy setup, where no one is in charge, makes countries search for power. This is to protect their safety and stay alive.
- Structural realists say security competition and fighting between states happen because there is no big leader over states. Without a global government, countries live in a do-it-yourself system and worry about their safety. This makes a setting where areas fight for control and safety in a never-ending zero-win game. Neo-realists believe that the structure without rules, not humans themselves, causes this change.
Important Parts of “World’s Order” in Neo-realism Viewpoint” Details: I. Anarchy: Based on the belief that international relations are dominated by the actions of powerful states, neorealists believe that in a world with no overarching authority, all states are fundamentally equal and must constantly exert power, form alliances and use strategies
Elements of Neorealism
Neorealism focuses on the structure of the international system, which has three key elements:
Organizing Principle- Neorealists say that world politics is controlled by chaos. This is because there is no big boss over everything. In a system without rules, there’s no big boss to control relationships between countries or make sure they are safe. This makes states mainly worry about keeping themselves alive by helping themselves.
Differentiation of States- While neorealism thinks of countries as equals, it knows they have different levels of power and control over what happens around the world. Different areas have different sizes, money situations, defense power, number of people, and technology. This difference is a key aspect of the global system.
Distribution of Capabilities- In neorealism, the arrangement of power in the global system is very important. The amount of big powers and how they share power affects the mood and peace in the global system. When a state quickly gets more power, it can make the system less stable.
Types of Neorealism
There are two main types of neorealism – defensive and offensive neo-realism.
Defensive Neo-Realism- Defensive neo-realism says that the messy world system makes countries think carefully and be cautious. They believe in safely protecting themselves. States want to make things safe, keep the way power is shared like it is, not act too hard, and stop losing ground to others so they don’t fall behind in ranking. This kind of neo-realism says that countries don’t usually start fights. They want to stay safe and don’t like changes in power that make them less secure. The focus is on making security stronger by using careful and safe plans in dealing with other countries.
Offensive Neo-Realism- In comparison, offensive neo-realism argues that big countries always search for ways to increase their power over opponents in the chaotic world system. John Mearsheimer is a main neo-realist who says states want to get as much power as they can to control others and become the top dog. According to offensive neo-realists, the messy nature of global rules makes every country want to gain more power in the world and be better than other countries.
The ultimate objective of every major power, under this view, is to become the hegemon and exercise control over the international system. Offensive realism is more aggressive and zero-sum in its view of state behavior aimed at gaining power and influence through domination.
Significance of Neorealism
Neorealism focused on the arrangement of international relations and aided in improving the knowledge of how the global system works. Some key ways neorealism contributed to the field of international relations theory:
- Emphasized structure: Neorealism changed the focus in world relations theory to how the global system works, rather than other things like human nature. Neorealists say that the system’s structure, which has no boss, is the main reason why states act the way they do.
- Understands international system: Neorealism gives us a way to study and understand the international system made up of independent countries. It looks at the connections between countries depending on things like the spread of power.
- Analyze state behavior: Neorealism helps us understand why nations act the same even though they have different things inside them. The idea can be used to see and guess how states act using building parts rather than beliefs or types of rules.
- Scope of International Relations: Neorealism made international relations, a study area, grow more than just looking at past diplomatic history and describing things. The theory helped make dealing with other countries more like a science.
- Features of Neorealism
Features of Neorealism
Neorealism tells us why nations act alike even though they differ inside. It does this by focusing on key structural elements of the international system:
- Disorder in the world system – There is no big boss over all independent countries, which makes it a help-yourself system. Countries can only trust themselves for safety.
- States are the main parts- States are the important leaders in global connections. What they do is decided by their abilities compared to others and where they stand in the system, not things inside them.
- Power abilities – Power is expressed as material skills. States are sorted and ranked by comparing their power. How skills are spread is a major reason for this.
- Doubts international groups – Neorealism isn’t sure if global groups can help countries work together. It views them as tools of the stronger countries.
The messy system makes countries mainly focus on power and safety. This causes fighting as they fight for control and sway.
Criticisms of Neorealism
IR experts have criticized neorealism in different ways. Some of the main criticisms are:
- Ignores role of institutions: Neorealists are not sure if international groups can help countries work together better. They say that global organizations just show how power is divided in the system. But, critics say that neorealists don’t see how important it is for international bodies to help reduce fights and make countries work together better. Groups like the United Nations have been very important in solving conflicts and have changed how countries behave.
- Downplays ideology: Neorealism doesn’t pay enough attention to how ideas play a big role in international relations. Things like communism, democracy, and nationalism have greatly changed how countries act and form groups together. For instance, during the Cold War, the US and Soviet alliance types were formed because of belief ideas instead of only an international system setup.
- Economic interests matter: Neorealists mainly focus on military capabilities and safety needs. But, money matters also greatly affect international policies and relationships between countries. Economic connections between countries can help to reduce fights and make working together easier. Neorealists are criticized for not considering economic issues.
- Pessimistic view: Neorealism has a negative view of international relations. It views fighting as part of the messy setup of the global system. But, some people say that neorealism makes conflicts look bigger than they are and undervalues the chance for countries to work together. A theory that only talks about fighting and winning doesn’t give us a full picture of the world.
Neorealism started in the 80s. It tried to give a more scientific way to the realist idea of world relations. Kenneth Waltz’s neorealism mainly looks at how the world system’s structure shapes what countries do. This is different from assuming things about how humans behave. The main parts of neorealism are the unordered system of the world, countries as the main parts, power skills being important, and doubt about working together globally. Neorealists say that countries mostly care about their safety and staying alive in a world without rules. This causes them to balance power and compete instead of working together. There are two main variants of neorealism: Defensive neorealism, which thinks of states as keeping things steady and controlling their power. On the other hand, offensive neorealism sees states as wanting boss power and control. Even though neorealism has been blamed for being too negative and easy, it is still one of the strongest theories about how countries interact. Neorealism looks at big systemic things instead of human nature or local politics, giving simple reasons for why countries act how they do and patterns in international politics. In short, neorealism adds to old realism to give a neat and very useful idea about how structures change rewards and actions in world matters. By ignoring local politics and what makes humans do things, neorealism gives a strong way to see how countries interact in their strategies and patterns of fighting and working together. Even though there are criticisms, neorealism still has a big impact on studies about global relations and foreign policy analysis.