Neorealism and Classical Realism in International Relations

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18th May 2020 International Relations Reference this

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Neorealism and classical realism

Realism is any thought of international relations that takes the state as a unit analysis and that postulates that it defends its national interest and aims to maximize its power.
Political realism has its roots in the rich work of historians, philosophers, diplomats and political scientists from Thucydides to the present day. But can we[i] speak of a single realism policy? A heated debate has been surrounding this issue for several years. Indeed, if the realism has been dominant in the study of international relations for most of the 20th century, it was, since the 1980s challenged by the followers of different theoretical schools. We can therefore speak of a real crisis of realism which has provoked an attempt to redefine it to both on the epistemological level and on the ontological level, an attempt which took the name of neorealism or structural realism.

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Several postulates shared by classical realists, according to them, make it possible to explain the mechanisms of the international system and understand the policy that is being pursued. Five of they can thus be retained:

The state is considered as the main actor of international relations:

International organizations derive directly from the will of States, which are perceived as secondary. Realists say that states are sovereign because there is no higher authority to govern them. So, they are the main “units” of the system international. Relations between States are more than just a competition for level of material capabilities. For realists of all variants, a state does not seek only to position oneself in relation to one’s neighbor, but also in relation to the system in its together. States therefore have a natural propensity to want to become more powerful and want influence their environment. Therefore, the position of a State in the international system is crucial and it is at this level that the analysis of its foreign policy should begin.
Internal-External Separation:


In the field of foreign policy analysis, classical realists believe that internal does not play a crucial role. It’s not that internal factors do not affect the States’ foreign policy, but rather that they affect them less than external pressures coming from the anarchic system. For the classical realistic school, there is no doubt that the External pressures are much more important on the foreign policy of states: pressures of [international] competition weigh more than ideological preferences or internal policy pressures. That’s why many of these authors remove most notions of internal politics in their analyses.

The anarchic nature of the international system:

Without any superior authority capable of ordering the relations between the different States, the
context of international relations is characterized by a situation of anarchy, that is to say a
world marked by an incessant struggle for influence and power. Realists give a great ontological importance to the international system. That’s why the keystone of all
realistic classic, neorealistic or neoclassical realism is “system anarchy
As Alex Macleod explains: “All the premises of realism flow from of this postulate. This does not mean that classical realists are not interested in what within states, but rather that international politics evolves into a situation very different from domestic politics, that of anarchy. “Alex Macleod, E. Dufour, 2008.

In short, in the anarchic system, it is every man for himself: no state would sacrifice its interests (endanger its security, undermine its well-being, bet on its
future) in order to serve a larger community.

In this anarchic system, the defense of national interests defined in terms of
power. The concept “national interest” is another source of debate between and within the different schools theoretical. On the realistic side, we mainly define the national interest in terms of power. Thus, to ensure their security, States must be able to compete at military with their neighbors. For these authors, the national interest is to maintain the power of the state in order to survive in an anarchic international system.
In his classic political realism, Politics among Nations (1948), Morgenthau unveiled the first chapter what he considers to be the six principles of political realism. The second principle is that “the main indication helping political realism finds its way through the field of international politics is the concept of national interest defined in terms of power “.  Hans J. Morgenthau, 1978, p 4-15

Power balance:

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In this context, only the balance of powers or balance of power, ie a game reciprocal influence between the different actors (states or state alliances), helps to maintain the status quo and to avoid the occurrence of possible conflicts which, as the General
German Clausewitz, is only “the pursuit of politics by other means”. If such
balance does not allow for lasting peace, it nevertheless ensures superior stability
of the international system. Realists are faithful to what they call “balance of power”.
This theory states that “the balance of power would be a means to
to ensure their survival and the maintenance of order and stability of the international system; so a relative peace situation “. To achieve this, states accept alliances to promote (or
to maintain their interests at regional or global level. Realists have bent a lot
on the “Great Powers Policy.” From then on, he was certain that the nuclear issue was going to
to surface in their studies, especially when dealing with the Cold War (1947-1989). Yes
two powers possess the nuclear weapon; there arises a situation of symmetry where the two
parts in question are of equal strength. In case of attack, there can only be mutual destruction.
In other words, the two belligerents implement a perpetual “bluff”.
Potential enemy, this threat produces a “balance of terror”. Which means that each
State is so frightened that there is no need to go further. However, if a State, unlike its neighbors, holds an atomic strike force, the nuclear potential is a
means of deterrence. It is therefore on a relatively cynical conception of international relations that realism the classical way of thinking, the search for power is considered
as the central element in understanding international phenomena.

Neo realism or structural realism is also referred to as structuro realism. Founded by Kenneth WALTZ in 1979, neo realism is a rereading, a reformulation of classical realism. Neo realism has been formulated to fly to the aid of decline with the establishment and creation of international organizations.

According to the neorealist’s, the international system is defined according to three principles, namely the principles of ordering, differentiation and distribution. The first refers to the overall, general situation of the system. There is a differentiation between the internal political system of a state (the presence of a superior authority regulating relations) and the international system, which has no superior authority over states. According to the second principle, the internal regimes of states play no role at the international level. Because of the anarchy of the international system, the States are called to play the same role and whatever the regime is theirs. This role is to ensure their safety first and foremost. The state can only recover on its own to guarantee this security is the concept of self-help. The principle of the distribution of the physical capacities of each State differs from one to the other, it influences the structure of the international system and is likely to change it. The large or small capacity of States to perform their function will make the difference and play on the international structure, which ultimately depends on the number of great powers. The system will be all the more stable as it includes a small number of major powers.

Neo-realism is a structuralism theory: it considers that the only determinant of the behavior of the analyzed units, in this case the states, is the anarchy of the “international system”. In other words, he advocates the analysis of international relations by insisting on relations between states, at the risk of underestimating the importance of the internal political game (succession of governments, conflicts and internal divisions, etc.) on foreign policy.

Rejecting the pessimistic anthropology that underlies classical realism (Morgenthau, Carr), according to which anarchy is explained by a deeply selfish human nature, neo-realists claim on the contrary that the anarchy of international play results from the very structure of the international order, devoid of any sovereign authority over the states: rather than rooting their analysis on the motivations of the actors, they stress the structural constraints of the international order. They also emphasize the distinction between sovereign states, which claim the “monopoly of legitimate violence”, and the international order devoid of this central feature of the notion of statehood.

While the classical realists saw the search for power as the first concern of States (human nature obliges), neo-realism considers that the first concern of States is their security. This can be achieved by two options: increasing military capabilities or forming alliances. Neorealists tend to believe that the international game is a zero-sum game, in which anyone who wins necessarily has to lose their opponent, which leads to the theorization of the “security dilemma” as well as the balance of powers. On the other hand, neorealists are deeply skeptical about the “theory of democratic peace,” which would link peace and democracy.

But neo-realism is not the only variant of realism other sub-theories have also made their emergence according to the new international situation.

To conclude, the realists have a Hobbesian perspective of human nature that they perceive as egotistical and bellicose contrast with the liberal approach that perceives humanity as more cooperative. Realists believe that states are aggressive (offensive or defensive) and that territorial expansion can only be contained by the threat of force. This aggressive approach leads to a security dilemma where increasing the power of a state is perceived to bring additional instability while other states seek to strengthen theirs. However security is a zero sum game where according to “relative gains” are possible.

The presumption that progression or improvement of a hypothesis, model, or relational word into another structure consistently prompts increasingly effective points of view is misinformed. Despite the fact that Neorealism is a branch of old classical realism, its appropriation and utilization of scientific methods did not make it a superior hypothesis or point of view. Despite what might be expected, the consistency of the beliefs and standards of old classical theory makes it a strong hypothesis, and not expose to the waves related with the changing dynamic of worldwide legislative issues. During the development of neorealism, there was a suspicion that classical realism has been eclipsed by the new way of thinking. The disappointment and errors of Neorealism in its political expectations, nonetheless, reestablished belief to classical realism. Likewise, the rise of neoclassical realism further shows the void that was made by neorealist’s disappointment in global relations, and its consideration, neoclassical realism of classical realism in its points of view repeats the strength of the old realist viewpoint. Thus I don’t think neorealism has a superior theoretical approach to classical realism.

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