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Is Neorealism a Superior Theoretical Approach to Classical Realism?

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The theories of Classical Realism and Neorealism are based on the realist perspective of international relations and global perspectives. As such, these two – classical realism and Neorealism – are seen as forms of realism, and neoclassical realism seen as a combination of the two perspectives. Political realism – Realpolitik – is considered the oldest and most frequently adopted theory of international relations. Realism has two faces. Firstly, realism as a theory is rooted in power. Secondly, the theory encompasses a body of explanatory theories, prepositions, or models – emphasising anarchy and the balance of power (Burchill and Linklater, 2013, p.32). Definitions given to realism may differ on various accounts, but share a clear family resemblance. There is emphasis by realists on the political constraints imposed by human selfishness – egoism. In addition, there is emphasis on the absence of international government – anarchy. The identified core realist premises are state-centrism and rationality. The core of realism lies in the conjunction of anarchy and egoism and the resulting imperatives of power politics (Burchill and Linklater, 2013, p.33). A distinction is made between classical realists and neorealists. Classical realists emphasise human nature without denying the centrality of anarchy – and that conflict and war are rooted in human nature. Neorealists – belonging to Neorealism – advanced an approach that combines analyses of structures and internal attributes of states. Neorealists pay special attention to the ways in which internal characteristics of states interact with international structural forces to produce state behavior (Burchill and Linklater, 2013, p.34).

Classical Realism

Classical realism as a theory of international relations was established after World War II, seeking to explain international politics as a result of human nature. Classical Realism is strongly associated with Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli. Importantly, the emergence of classical realism was a response to idealist perspectives that dominated international relations after the First World War. Idealists had goals of building peace to prevent another world conflict (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith, 2013). These idealists –also called utopians or liberal internationalists – saw the creation of a respected international law as a solution to the conflicts. Essentially, idealists believed that wars were a result of imperfect political arrangements and social conditions, which could be improved to prevent conflicts. The League of Nations, resulting from these beliefs, could not prevent the Second World War. This consequence – World War II – produced a strong realist reaction (Vasquez, 1998).


Neorealism is a product of classical realism, emerging from the incorporation of scientific methods of analysis and predictions. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a large influx of scientists from different fields entering the domain of international relations. These new “arrivals” attempted to replace the “wisdom literature” of classical realism with scientific reasoning and concepts. These attempts resulted in a counter attack by Morgenthau and other scholars associated with the English school – especially Hedley Bull. The scientists, however, had established a strong presence in the field, mainly in the area of methodology. Greater influences on the emergence and development of Neorealism were the training of game theory, quantitative research, and other new research techniques among international relations students in the United States (Brown, 2001, p.35). Kenneth Waltz reformulated realism in a new and distinctive way. Waltz responded to the liberal challenge and attempted to cure the defects of classical realism. Waltz came up with a scientific approach as a cure to Classical Realism of Morgenthau. Importantly, Waltz did not involve himself in the philosophical discussions of human nature -- Morgenthau rooted his theory in the struggle for power, which he related to human nature. Waltz’s version of realism was analogous to microeconomics. Waltz’s argument is that states in the international system are like firms in a domestic economy and have similar interests – to survive.

Contrary to classical realism – which asserts that power is synonymous to human nature -- Neorealism provides that human nature has little to do with why states want powers. Instead, the international system and its structures compel states to pursue power. Essentially, in a hypothetical system where there is lack of a higher authority sitting above the great powers, and where there are no guarantees that one will not attack another, it makes good sense for each state to be powerful enough to protect itself in the event of attacks (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith, 2013, p.78). The internal structures of a state do not pre-determine its actions towards other states. Whether a state is democratic or autocratic is irrelevan

t – international systems create same incentives for all great powers. In addition, it does not matter who – an individual – is in charge of a country’s foreign policy


Although classical realism emphasises the concept of national interest, it is not based on the Machiavellian doctrine that “anything is justified by reason of state.” In addition, classical realism does not involve glorification of conflicts and wars. Whereas they – classical realists – do not reject possibilities of moral judgment in international politics, they are critical of moralism. Classical realists assign supreme value to successful political actions based on prudence – ability to judge the probity of a course of action from among various alternatives on the basis of its likely political consequences (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014).

The differences between the two schools of thought are observed in their six major principles. Each of the principle offers contrasting views of a similar principal in the opposing theory. Firstly, whereas Neorealism is based on the continuity assumption, classical realism is pegged on historical variability. Secondly, Neorealism explains its arguments by assuming the positional or relative gains, and classical realism explains through relative and absolute gains. Thirdly, whereas Neorealism takes the political sovereignty assumption, classical realism takes social sovereignty approach. Fourthly, Neorealism propagates the survival rationality assumption, and classical realism is based on variable social rationality. Fifthly, the agency relationship explained by Neorealism is based on high domestic agential state assumption, and classical realism explains through variable domestic agential state power. Lastly, Neorealism suggests an amoral assumption and there is no international agential state, and the classical realism suggests variable international agential state power and morality (Hobson, 2000, p.18). In addition to these differences arising from the principles, differences in the two theories arise from their interpretation and perceptions of power. Whereas Classical realists believe that power is an end in itself, Neorealists suggest that power is a means to an end, and the ultimate end is survival (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith, 2013, p.78).

Strengths and Limitations

There is belief among some political analysts and thinkers that classical realism was overshadowed by Neorealism. This dominance is associated with the rise of structuralism in the spheres of international relations in North America, which favoured Neorealism due to its emphasis on rationality rather than human nature as a cause of political conflicts (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith, p.237).

The major strengths of classical realism are pegged on the fundamental unity of thought spread across nearly 2500 years. Principal thinkers in this school of thought – such as Carl von Clausewitz, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Thucydides – were concerned with questions of justice, order, and change, at the domestic, regional, and international levels. Classical thinkers understood that communal bonds are fragile and easily undermined by the struggle to attain solitary advantage by individuals, factions, and states. In such scenarios, time-honoured mechanisms of conflict management – such as balance of power and alliances -- may not only fail to maintain the peace but may make domestic and international violence more likely. Classical realism, in emphasising this position, considers history as cyclical. Whereas efforts to build order and avoid fear-driven worlds may succeed for a considerable period of time, they ultimately succumb to the destabilising effects of actors who believe they are too powerful to be controlled by law and custom (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith, 2013, p.60).

The overconfidence placed in Neorealism by its proponents has been the trigger for its criticism. In 1979, Waltz declared that in the nuclear age, the bipolar international system based on the two super powers – the Soviet Union and the United States – was not only possible but also likely to persist. Waltz’s prediction was proven wrong with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the USSR (Waltz, 1979). The bipolar system turned out to be more precarious than what most realists had anticipated. The end of this bipolar system introduced new challenges and possibilities related to globalisation. Consequently, many critics argued that Neorealism, like classical realism, cannot sufficiently account for changes in world politics.

Neorealism has been criticised as lacking the ability to deal with change. Neorealists are considered to take particular views, historically determined state-based structure of international relations and assume it to be universally valid. On the contrary, critical theorists believe that the analysis of material factors, interplay of ideas, and social forces can enable observers to understand how the structures come about, and how they may eventually change. Neorealism ignores the historical processes that formed identities and interests. In addition, Neorealism ignores the diverse methodological possibilities. There is emphasis by neorealist on status quo, justifying strategic relations among states and considers the scientific method as the only way of obtaining knowledge. This approach demonstrates an exclusionary practice, an interest in control and domination (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014).

The tragedy of Neorealism is further exacerbated by its differentiation into defensive and offensive realism. These two diversions create a major divide among structural realists. This divide is based on the approaches and belief by each school of neorealism on how much power is enough for a country. Defensive realists – such as Kenneth Waltz – hold that it is not wise for countries to try to maximise their share of world power -- because they will be punished by the system if they attempt to gain too much power. On the contrary, offensive realists – such as John Mearsheimer – maintain that it makes sense for countries to gain too much power as possible, and if circumstances are right, to pursue hegemony. The offensive realists’ position is based on the fact that having immense power is the best way to guarantee one’s own survival (Dunne, Kirko, Smith, 2013, p.78). The divide into defensive and offensive realism within structural realism demonstrates lack of a clear consensus in neorealism, undermining the prospects of the theory commanding recognition arising out of unified and authoritative principles shared among the scholars. In addition, the divide further weakens Neorealism by exposing the two approaches – defensive and offensive realism – to further scrutiny that identifies distinct weaknesses or flaws of each approach. The limitations of offensive realism, for instance, are demonstrated by the rise of new superpowers. The emergence of China as a dominant economic powerhouse and associated advancement in warfare tools can be used to illustrate application of the offensive realism approach. Based on this approach, the United States should do whatever it can to slow down China’s rise. This approach – offensive realism – is wrong and dangerous (Kirshner, 2012, pp.53-75).


Kenneth Waltz’s attempts to convert realism into a scientific theory were not successful, and consequently denuded realism of its subtlety and complexity. Neorealism, therefore, is a parody of science, with its key terms such as polarity and power loosely and haphazardly formulated. In addition, its scope and conditions are undefined. The declined of Neorealism was precipitated by the end of the cold war, which was understood by many scholars as the critical test for Neorealism, a theory that sought to explain endurance or stability of the bipolar system (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith, 2013, p.59). The end of the cold war and collapse of the USSR diverted attention to a new range of political problems, making Neorealism irrelevant. The events leading to the collapse of the USSR, demonstrating the limitations of Neorealism inspired many realists to return to their roots – classical realism. Reference was made to scholars such as E.H Carr, Hans Morgenthau, and Max Weber in deriving insights relevant to contemporary international relations (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith, 2013, p.60).

The superiority of one theory over the other, based on this analysis, is not entirely based on the inherent strengths of individual theories, but rather on the magnitude of the weaknesses or limitations of the opposing theory. Evidence collected in this analysis demonstrates that Neorealism, despite having its foundations from classical realism, has exhibited major weaknesses and inefficiencies in accurately describing and predicting political phenomena and trends in international relations. Neorealism's inferiority arises from the failure by its scientific methods to forecast the end of the Cold war and disintegration of the USSR. Consequently, critical theorists, feminists, poststructuralists, and postmodernists were inspired to re-examine how they think about politics by subverting traditional theory. This subversion of traditional realism casts doubt on the entire canon of twentieth century realism (Bain, 2000, pp.445-464).

The limitations of Neorealism, and the subsequent referral of scholars and political analyst to classical realism, led to the emergence of neoclassical realism. Neoclassical realism is a combination of classical realism and Neorealism. Neoclassical realism suggests that actions of states in the international system can be explained by systemic, domestic, and cognitive variables (Lobell, Ripsman, and Taliaferro, 2009).


The assumption that advancement or development of a theory, model, or preposition into a new form always leads to more efficient perspectives is misguided. Although Neorealism is an offshoot of classical realism, its adoption and use of ‘scientific’ methods did not make it a better theory or perspective. On the contrary, the consistency of the ideals and principles of classical theory makes it a solid theory, and not subject to the waves associated with the changing dynamic of global politics. During the emergence of neorealism, there was an assumption that classical realism has been overshadowed by the new school of thought. The failure and inaccuracies of Neorealism in its political predictions, however, restored credence to classical realism. In addition, the emergence of neoclassical realism further demonstrates the void that was created by neorealism’s failure in international relations, and its inclusion – neoclassical realism -- of classical realism in its perspectives reiterates the strength of the traditional realist perspective.


  • Baine, W., (2000) Deconfusing Morgenthau: Moral Inquiry and Classical Realism Considered, Review of International Studies, Vol.26, Issue 3.
  • Brown, C., (2001) Understanding International Relations, 2nd edition. New York: Palgrave.
  • Burchill, S., and Linklater, A. (2013) Theories of International Relations, Fifth edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Dunne, T., Kurki, M., and Smith, S., (2013) International Relations Theory, Third edition. Oxford: oxford University Press.
  • Hobson, J.M., (2000) The State and International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kirshner, J., (2012) The Tragedy of Offensive Realism. European Journal of International Relations, Vol.18, No.1.
  • Lobell, S.E., Ripsman, N.M., and Taliaferro, J.W., (2009) Neoclassical Realism, the State, and Foreign Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rathbun, B.C., (2007) Uncertain about Uncertainty: Understanding the Multiple Meanings of a Crucial Concept in International Relations Theory. International Studies Quarterly, Vol.51, Issue 3.
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (2014) Political Realism in International Relations [online] Available at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/realism-intl-relations/ [accessed January 21, 2016]
  • Vasquez, J.A., (1998) The Power of Power Politics: From Classical Realism to Neotraditionalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Waltz, K. (1979) Theory of International Politics.Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.

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