Example International Relations Essay

What are the main differences between ‘classical realism’ and ‘neo-realism’?


Realism has become a foremost theory within international relations over six decades. Its contemporary construction is attributed to Hans Morgenthau and his work in the late 1940s. Morgenthau utilised previous works from scholars and strategists, which include, Ancient Greek scholar Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes and his notions of the anarchic state, and the 1939 work of E.H Carr. Realism became the primary theory as the discipline of International Relations blossomed, forming political hypothesis based on its philosophies, such as Real Politik. As International Relations expanded as a discipline with Realism at its centre the theory become reformed. Kenneth Waltz succeeded in becoming the father of Neo-Realism in the same way Morgenthau had done with Realism thirty years prior. This resulted in a schism in the Realist theory between classic Realism and structural (neo) Realism.

The purpose of this essay is to investigate this split and to distinguish the major differences of the two Realist strands. These theories are vast volumes of work that have been considered by the brightest minds of discipline for several decades, the salient features of the two theories discussed in this text will offer just a glimpse into their philosophies. Investigation to compare the differences of the two shall be split into two parts, firstly examining the theoretical base and highlighting the noticeable distinctions. The second part will conceptualise these points in a practical sense, attaching them to historical events predominantly from the twentieth century.


Morgenthau’s key principles of Realism consider states as individuals, a 'unified actor.' One state represents itself, and these states are primary in international relations. Internal politics and contradictions are irrelevant as states pursue interests defined by power. Power, is a further key proponent of Morgenthau's paradigm, he believed it central to human nature and therefore state actors. Morgenthau considered human nature as corrupt, dictated by selfishness and ego, resulting in a dangerous world constructed by egotistical greedy actors. Thus Realism possesses at its core a very pessimistic outlook of constant threat and danger, logically therefore Realism submits as one of its fundamental considerations that state actors are driven by survival and the need for greater dominance and power to create a favourable balance of power and decreasing the actors potential to diminish. (Gellman, 1988). Realists consider these attitudes to consume national interest, trumping any other concern. Self-help becomes a necessity. Reliance or trust of other actors is foolish as Machiavelli describes - “today’s friend is tomorrow’s enemy” (Morgenthau, 1948).

Realisms success and prominence in international relations naturally exposed it to a series of critiques. Authors and scholars disagreed with its ideological theory and often advocated alternative theories. These included a Liberalist outlook that promotes the importance of democracy and free trade, while Marxists believe international affairs could be understood as a class struggle between capital and labour. Other theories derided the lack of morality, collectivism and simplicity in Realism. Despite it retaining several of the basic features of classical Realism, including the notions that states are primary unitary actors and power is dominant. Neo-Realism provided criticism of the classic paradigm. Structural Realism directed attention to the structural characteristics of an international system of states rather than to its components (Evans and Newham, 1998). Kenneth Waltz detaches from Morgenthau’s classic Realism suggesting it to be too ‘reductionist’. He argues that international politics can be thought of as a system with a precisely defined structure, Realism in his view, is unable to conceptualise the international system in this way due to its varying limitation, essentially due to its behavioural methodology. (Waltz, 1979) Neo-Realism considers the traditional strand as being incapable of explaining behaviour at a level above a nation state. Waltz is described as offering defensive version of Realism, while John Mearsheimer promotes an offensive consideration of Realism, suggesting Waltz’s analysis fails to chart the aggression that exists in international relations, however they are often considered as one through neo or structural Realism. (Mearsheimer, 2013)

The idea, that international politics can be understood as a system, with an exact construct and separate structure, is both the starting point for international theory and point of departure from the traditional Realism. The fundamental concern for Neo-Realists is why do states exhibit similar foreign policy behaviour regardless of their opposing political systems and contrasting ideologies. The Cold War brought two opposing superpowers that although were socially and politically opposite behaved in a similar manner and weren't separate in their pursuit of military power and influence. Realism in Waltz’s view was severely limited, as where other classic disciplines of international relations. Neo-Realism is designed as re-examination, a second tier explanation that fills in the gaps classic theories neglected. For example, traditional Realists remain adamant that actors are individuals in international affairs, referencing the Hobbesian notion that two entities are unable to enjoy the same thing equally and are consequently destined to become enemies. Whilst, Neo-Realists consider that relative and absolute gains are important and they may be attained by collusion through international institutions. (Waltz, 1979)


The salient theoretical differences exhibited in the first section will be strengthened in this second section by applying the theory to practical situations in order to enhance the understanding and the degree of separation. As one has discussed, traditional Realists consider that the foundation of international affairs is war, perpetrated by states. A Realist doctrine is exhibited by the actions and musings of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, during their time together during Nixon's presidency and with Kissinger's influence on Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford. While in the theatre of the Cold War, they attempted to maximise American power in order to safeguard American security against fellow actors. Incursions in Vietnam and Korea were designed at a basic level to keep their ideology as the primary superpower and increase American dominance. Nixon’s presidency was associated also with his administrations dialogue with China, and their keenness to exploit the Sino-Soviet split in order to tip the balance of power in America’s favour, all illustrating a class Realist mentality of international relations, that it is constructed entirely between state interactions and a grasp for power. (Nye, 2007)

Another example that depicts this mentality is Thucydides work concerning The Peloponnesian War, an often-utilised example used by traditional Realists; Thucydides in his works expresses an unrelenting Athenian desire to pursue self-interest, and achieved this through the use of force and hard power. He famously wrote, “The strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept” (Thucydides, 1972, p402). Thucydides sentiments illustrate the Realist notion of human nature being motivated primarily by power, and it is similar to subsequent wars throughout human history. Colin Gray a modern scholar concurs with the Realist outlook suggesting an inherent human characteristic that still drives states in the same way it did in 400 B.C (Gray,2009).

Neo-Realists tend to distance themselves from this notion of a corruptible human nature. They blame the starting of the Second World War, not on innate human corruptibility, but on the failure to achieve a recognised international system. They disagree with Realist logic that the primary reason for the Second World War was Hitler’s lust to institute his power and influence across Europe. In their estimations the disorder provided by the Treaty of Versailles was principal in throwing the world back into war. Its adoption on the behest of French, British and American states provided the opportunity and the catalyst for the Nazi Party to flourish. Resentment in Germany of the allied powers, coupled with a weak nation unable to recover because of this ‘dictate’ rendered the German economy and military perpetually weak, all contributing to Hitler’s ability to snatch power and consequently produce the elements to start a world war. The world was failed in Neo-Realist estimations by a lack of substantial system (Jervis, 1994).

The response classic Realists provide to Neo-Realists is that their re-worked form of the theory is simply presented in a way that is more structural and scientific but with the core maintaining the original doctrines offered by traditional Realism. Although Neo-Realists do not deny that their ideology is extremely similarIt is an improvement on the original theory offering a more structured and formulated paradigm., but Realists argue those alterations, which include these structural formations is what inhibits the new theory. Richard Ashley is one author that concurs with these sentiments stating traditional Realism, provides an advanced concept of analysis (Ashley, 1984). For example, even if the Treaty of Versailles did create bleak conditions on Germany that incited the Nazi’s upsurge, the fundamental lust for power Hitler exhibited in the extreme was still predominant for starting World War Two regardless of structural factors. This analysis echoes Colin Gray’s opinions regarding the characteristics exhibited from the Peloponnesian War still being relevant in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and illustrates Realism relevance.

A further crucial difference between the two strands is the role of political belief or governance. Classic Realism has always established this consideration. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Hirohito all had what was classed as un-democratic governances. Stalin, with a similar totalitarian system had initially signed a pact with Hitler, it was only the latter’s covetousness for supremacy that scuppered that particular alliance, illustrating the pessimistic nature of traditional Realism, not being able to trust other actors. Conversely, Neo-Realists, led by Waltz concluded that there is no “differentiation of function between different units, i.e. all states perform roughly the same role” (Halliday, 1994). Neo-Realism came at a time where the system had altered from what classic Realism was founded upon, a pre-war world of several great powers. The Cold War heralded a bi-polar system, dominant on nuclear weapons rendering the differing ideologies and political regimes irrelevant, it was the system that prevailed. Furthermore, America propped up highly undemocratic regimes throughout the Cold War in Asia, South America and the Middle East. Suggesting classic Realist arguments of governance systems is incomplete (Merhasimer, 2013).

Traditional Realism witnessed a degree of a resurgence post-9/11, the event itself and the subsequent fallout was deemed textbook of classic Realism. Actors had to employ self-help and act unilaterally to stop attacks and an assault on the states survival. 9/11 produced a real illustration to the strength non-state actors can have on the international relations. Although Neo-Realism maintains the classic theory consideration of state primacy, it does reference non-state actors as relevant in the international system. Additional actors however must adapt to the actions of states Waltz suggests, “When the crunch comes, states remake the rules by which other actors operate.” (Waltz, 1979, p94) Furthermore, America’s democratic crusade dubbed ‘the war on terror’ was viewed as traditional Realism in action, inferring Morgenthau’s consideration of autocracy vs. democracy. However, Neo Realists will reference American support for very non-democratic states, such as its unwavering support for Saudi Arabia as the system still triumphing over the state and its form of governance. The actions of the US tie in with Mearsheimer's offensive Realist outlook to seek hegemony, "great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. Only a misguided state would pass up an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive." (Merhasimer, 2001)


In conclusion whilst both strands of Realism remain constant in key areas such as the anarchic state, unitary actors and the importance of Power. Neo-Realism presents a shift away from the traditional theories offering a tangible alternative to the corruptible human nature consideration being the root of the cause conflict, as exemplified aptly by the debate on the outbreak of World War Two. However, the crucial point of departure that Neo-Realism provides is the importance given to the international system over the state, claiming that traditional Realism is inhibited by its methodology, failing to explain behaviour of an entity above the nation state. Neo-Realism allows for co-operation among states at a higher level than Realism permits, this provides an opportunity to succeed in achieving absolute and relative gains. The concept flourished during the Cold War, rejecting Morgenthau's system of governance analysis, suggesting that states behave the same regardless whether it's democratic or not. Neo-Realists still maintain this is relevant. Classic Realists disagree using the events of this century to prove that its methodology was always correct.

In Sum, the two differ fundamentally on approach, Neo-Realism seeks to offer a systematic and scientific approach that they believe is lacking in traditional Realism; according to its proponents it complements the original theory by correcting its fallacies, building on classic Realism emphasis on self-interest, power and the state, challenging the human nature concept and behaviour above state level.


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