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II. Evolution and Main Precepts: Realism
III. Evolution and Main Precepts: Neorealism
IV. Classical Realism Versus Neorealism
V. Beyond Waltz
VI. Challenges to (Neo)Realism
Realism has long been one of the main theoretical approaches to the study of international relations. It is an intellectual tradition built on distinct concepts and arguments about what governs politics among states. As such, its main precepts assert that the international system is characterized by anarchy, states are its principal actors, which are sovereign and rational acting on national interests, the main ones of which are security and survival. To ensure the latter, states are constantly in the pursuit of power, which ultimately leads to the security dilemma. Leading proponents of the classical realist perspective include Hans Morgenthau, E. H. Carr, Reinhold Niebuhr, John H. Herz, Arnold Wolfers, Charles Beard, and Walter Lippman.
Over the last 20 to 30 years, a new form of realism, known as neorealism or structural realism, emerged in response to internal and external debates that challenged key realist assumptions. In particular, neorealism sought to redefine classical realism into a more positivist social science. To that end, neorealist scholars (such as Kenneth Waltz, Stephen Walt, Robert Gilpin, Randall Schweller, John Mearsheimer, Robert Jervis, Joseph Grieco, and Robert J. Art) reformulated realist rhetoric in favor of a systemic approach to international relations. More specifically, neorealism introduced the concept of international structure in order to construct a systems theory explaining what governs relations among states.
Both realism and neorealism are still among the leading schools of thought governing the study of international relations. In addition, they are often invoked by politicians and academicians alike, not only to explain but also to justify state behavior on the international scene. This research paper first reviews in a consecutive fashion the evolution andmain precepts of both realism and neorealism. Next, it presents key differences between classical realism and neorealism and outlines main neorealist contributions to the study of international relations. Finally, it summarizes several challenges posed to realism and neorealism by proponents of other schools of thought and discusses the current standing of realism and neorealism in the study of international politics.
II. Evolution and Main Precepts: Realism
Although realism developed as a distinct theory in international relations only around World War II, key realist concepts can be found in much earlier works. Among those are the History of the Peloponnesian War, written by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who in the 5th century BCE attributes the real reason for the war to “the growth of Athenian power and Spartan fear of it” (1:23). One century earlier, the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu also endorsed the role of realpolitik strategizing in states’ behavior in his classic, The Art of War. The essence of Thucydides’ realism was recaptured in the writings of the medieval Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (2008), who, in The Prince, emphasized that a politician (i.e., a prince) above all is to be pragmatic (and not idealistic), seeking and using power when necessary to attain practical ends. Other writings promoting realism included Leviathan, by the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (2009), wherein he established the concept of anarchy defined as a state of “war of all against all” (1:xiii). Two centuries later, Otto von Bismarck, a Prussian statesman, used and coined the term “balance of power”—a key realist concept depicting a delicate, balancing act among states trying to keep the peace or the status quo in an anarchic environment.
Thus, increasingly, key realist terms such as national interest, security, realpolitik, and raison d’état (introduced by Cardinal de Richelieu during the Thirty Years’ War) as well as balance of power entered the lexicon of state foreign relations. World War I, however, brought a blow to realism: Woodrow Wilson, the president of a country whose national historical experience had differed substantially from that of the European states, put forward 14 idealistic points aimed at permanently ending the war and establishing peace based on transparency, diplomacy, and honesty. It is also during this postwar era of optimism and pacifism that the study of international relations was first established as an official academic discipline (in 1919) at the University of Wales. Thus, some argue, the climate surrounding its establishment also bestowed a responsibility on academia (and the branch of international relations in particular) to contribute to ending armed conflicts.
However, World War II ended the idealistic optimism that attempted to curtail, if not to end, realist explanations of state behavior. In the climate that followed this war of unprecedented dimensions, E. H. Carr (1939), a historian and former diplomat, wrote The Twenty Years” Crisis, 1919–1939. In it, he called for a return to realism, which he saw as an antidote to the (liberal) utopianism that marked the beginnings of international relations theory in the interwar period. The return and evolution of realism was further fueled by a European immigrant to the United States: Hans J. Morgenthau (1973), whose 1946 publication of Politics Among Nations outlined the premises of classical realism. The latter’s theory is based on six principles that Morgenthau delineates in the first chapter of his book, affirming according to classical realism: (1) Politics are governed by objective laws rooted in human nature, which does not change, and it is therefore possible to derive a rational theory reflecting those objective laws; (2) interest, defined in terms of power, is key to understanding the complex tapestry of international politics, but power, on the other hand, is defined as “anything that establishes and maintains the control of man over man” (p. 13) and covers social, physical, and psychological means; (3) the key concept of interest, defined in terms of power as an objective category, is universally valid but is not endowed with a fixed meaning; (4) prudence, or the “weighing of the consequences of alternative political actions,” not morals, is the ultimate virtue in politics (p. 14); (5) the moral aspirations of a particular nation are not synonymous with the moral laws that govern the universe, but the concept of interest (defined in terms of power), however, prevents moral excess and political folly; and (6) the political sphere is viewed as autonomous, and the only question of importance probing the political life is that based on interests, asking, “How does this policy affect the power of the nation?” (p. 15). Thus, for the political realist, the only relevant standards of thought are the political ones, leaving out moral, economic, legal, and other considerations.
Based on Morgenthau’s six principles as well as on earlier realist concepts, the key precepts of classical realism assert the following: The international system is anarchic; states are its principal, unitary actors; states are rational actors driven by national interests, the ultimate of which are national security and survival; states pursue those interests by amassing power; power capabilities determine relations among states; and war is a natural, even necessary, occurrence (Carr, 1964; Herz, 1950; Morgenthau, 1973). Realists foresaw that in the pursuit of security through power and arms accumulation, states may face greater insecurity. This, termed as the security dilemma, is attributed by realists to the anarchic international environment that prompts all states to fend for themselves (Herz, 1950). In addition, classical realists perceived international relations as governed by objective laws rooted in human nature yet argued that moral principles apply differently to states (Morgenthau, 1973; Niebuhr, 2001). In fact, the inclusion of morality into international relations is seen by realists as problematic and potentially leading to irrational behavior and conflict escalation.
III. Evolution and Main Precepts: Neorealism
In the first half of the 20th century, classical realism was affirmed as the dominant strand in the classical tradition of international relations theory (with the second being the liberal, or Grotian, tradition, which stressed the impact of concepts such as domestic and international society as well as interdependence and international institutions) (Holsti, 1985). In the early 1970s, current events led many theorists to question traditional concepts of realism. In particular, the widespread opposition to the Vietnam War and the ensuing détente arguably reduced the importance of nuclear competition (Nye, 1988). In addition, the parallel growth of international trade, the spread of transnational corporations, a decline in U.S. economic predominance, and the oil crisis of 1973 led President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger to speak of a potential five-power world while some scholars foresaw the imminent formation of a multipolar international system (Kahn & Bruce-Briggs, 1972). The oil crisis and the vulnerability of the western states during a period of high commodity prices enabled even weak states to extract important resources from the strong. This led even Hans Morgenthau (1974) to observe that “an unprecedented divorce of military and economic power based on the control of raw material” (p. 56) is taking place. In fact, at this period, many political theorists shared concerns that power has undergone a transformation reflected in Brown’s writings:
The forces now ascendant appear to be leaning toward a global society without a dominant structure of cooperation and conflict a polyarchy in which nation states, subnational groups, and transnational special interests and communities would all be vying for the support and loyalty of individuals, and conflicts would have to be resolved primarily on the basis of ad hoc bargaining in a shifting context of power relationship. (cited in Nye, 1988, p. 236)
Thus, realist arguments were challenged not only by current events (which realism seemed ill-equipped to explain) but also by internal debates as well as external, alternative political theories. The latter included the behavioralist movement of the 1960s; the drive toward a more scientific, positivist approach in late 1970s; and the challenge to integrate theory with specific foreign behaviors in the 1980s and 1990s. More specifically, classical realism was particularly criticized for not being scientifically rigorous enough, which, coupled with the rise of alternative political theories, marked a decline in its evolution in the 1960s and 1970s. However, in 1979, in an effort to steer classical realism into a more scientific, positivist direction, Kenneth N. Waltz (1979), through his book Theory of International Relations, gave a new vigor to realism by opening a new page in its development, also known as neorealism.
Neorealism, also termed structural realism, developed from an internal realist debate seeking to address shortcomings of earlier theories of international relations (including reductionism and systemic theories) by developing a more scientific, positivist approach. In Chapter 3 of his book, Waltz (1979) presents the need for developing a systems theory of international politics. He argues that such a theory will describe how the international system works by focusing on its structure and how it affects the interactions among its main units. As such, a systems theory, Waltz writes, would deal with forces at the international, not the national, level and will have both an explanatory and predictive power. In addition, it will be elegant in its ability to apply general concepts to explain and predict continuity and repetition in international politics. Most of all, however, a system theory of international politics will focus on the system per se and not on the attributes or the sum of the system’s units. Thus, Waltz goes beyond the classical realists’ representation of international politics in terms of states’ characteristics, rationales, and interactions, focusing instead on one level higher—namely, the international system itself, as a unit of analysis. Later, Waltz points out that “the idea that international politics can be thought of as a system with a precisely defined structure is neorealism’s fundamental departure from traditional realism” (p. 27).
In Neorealism and Its Critics, Robert Keohane (1986) asserts that the significance of Waltz’s work is not in establishing a new theory but in the systematization of realism or in providing a “more elegant theoretical basis for realism” (Nye, 1988, p. 241). The key accomplishment of structural realism, therefore, consists in the introduction and definition of international structure, which includes three principles. The first is an ordering principle postulating that the international system tends to be either anarchic or hierarchical in nature. In the neorealist view, anarchy is defined as the lack of a central governing body that can arbiter between states. If the ordering principle of the system transitions from anarchy to hierarchy, the structure of the system will change as well. The second principle is the function of the units (i.e., states). Neorealism perceives states as having similar functions and therefore does not take into account changing state functions when studying the structure of the system. The third principle is the distribution of capabilities across units. By the term capabilities, Waltz (1992) refers to the comprehensive and combined material power of a state, including population, economic development, and military force. Based on the distribution of capabilities, neorealists contend that three possible systems may exist: a unipolar, a bipolar, and a multipolar system containing respectively one, two, or more than two great powers. A consensual neorealist argument is that a bipolar system is more stable and thus less prone to war and systemic change than a multipolar system since there are no additional powers with which to form alliances (see also Jervis, 1998).
IV. Classical Realism Versus Neorealism
Classical realism and neorealism differ in four substantive ways, namely by their changing focus on structure as a concept, shifting understanding of causality, different interpretations of power, and dissimilar views of the unit level (Waltz, 1992).
First, the idea that international politics can be conceived as a system having a well-defined structure is the main departure point of neorealism from the classical realism. It is the structure, in fact, composed of interacting units with behavioral regularities, that dictates the behavior of its parts. Neorealism argues that the structure of the international system is defined by an ordering principle and by the distribution of capabilities across units (Waltz, 1979, 1992). In international politics, neorealists affirm, the ordering principle of the international system’s structure is anarchy, defined as the absence of a neutral arbiter and higher authority between states. (Yes, ordered anarchy sounds like an oxymoron, but it is indeed key and logical within neorealist theory.) The distribution of capabilities, on the other hand—seen in terms of unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar power configurations—predicts variations in the balance-of-power behavior of states. Thus, Waltz not only provides a systemic theory to explain and predict the behavior of states (the units) but a parsimonious structural theory at that. However, Waltz’s theory—and specifically its parsimony— has been critiqued extensively in Keohane’s (1986) Neorealism and Its Critics and Rosencrance’s (1986) The Rise of the Trading State (both works are summarized and assessed by Nye, 1988). Waltz (1986), in fact, offers his counterarguments in defense of neorealism in his “Reflections on Theory of International Politics: A Response to My Critics.”
One of the criticisms of Waltz’s neorealist systems theory is its vaguely defined concept of international struc ture. Keohane (1986) has argued that neorealist theory is too adaptable, for it “can be modified progressively to attain closer correspondence with reality” (p. 191). Barry Buzan (1988), on the other hand, questions whether the structural logic of neorealism captures “the main features of the international political system” (p. 35). He writes, “The criticisms of Ruggie, Keohane, and others suggest that it does not, because their concerns with factors such as dynamic density, information richness, communication facilities, and such like do not obviously fit into Waltz’s ostensibly ‘systemic’ theory” (cited in Waltz, 1992, p. 30).
Waltz (1992) responds to such criticisms by affirming that concepts such as dynamic density, information richness, and communication facilities are not and cannot be elements of a theory, in general, or of his systemic, structural, neorealist theory, in particular. Rather, those are conditions that develop within nations, across nations, or both, that may disrupt and even transform respective societies or cross national relations. Yet such concepts do not and cannot define neorealist theory. In general, Waltz argues, a theory, if it is a good one, would help to understand and explain such concepts’ significance and effects within and on the system. However, he affirms, a theory cannot fit the facts or concepts that it seeks to explain. In other words, a theory can be written only by omitting most matters that are of practical interest. To criticize the neorealist systems theory based on its omissions is to misconstrue the essence and purpose of a theory.
Second, classical realism and neorealism differ in their views of causality in international politics—in other words, what causes the observed outcomes in relations among states. For classical realists, the international world is one of interacting states, and causes run in one direction: from interacting states to the outcomes their acts and interactions produce. Neorealists, on the other hand, adopt a more deductive approach by distinguishing between structural and unit-level causes and effects in order to study interacting states. As such, neorealism contends that international politics can be understood only if the effect of the international structure is added to the classical realism’s unit-level analysis. Neorealist theory adopts, therefore, a two-directional causality running from interacting units to produced outcomes, on one hand, and from the structural level to interacting units, on the other. Neorealists contend that the inclusion of both unit-level and structure-level causes allow for neorealist theory to “cope with both the changes and the continuities that occur in a system” (Waltz, 1992, p. 34).
A third dissimilarity between classical realism and neorealism lies in their different interpretations of power. Morgenthau (1973) recognized that scarce resources and the lack of neutral arbiter would lead to a struggle for power among competitors, which speaks of the latter’s nature. Classical realists saw states’ desire for and the pursuit of power as ultimately rooted in the nature of man. In addition, even when one has accumulated much power, Morgenthau asserts that more is still needed:
Since the desire to attain a maximum of power is universal, all nations must always be afraid that their own miscalculations and the power increases of other nations might add up to inferiority for themselves which they must at all costs try to avoid. (p. 208)
Thus, in seeking to explain state behavior internationally, Morgenthau (1973) conceives it as that of the rational statesman acting with prudence and striving to accumulate more and more power. Power is the ultimate goal and an end in itself. When nations act outside of power considerations, Morgenthau asserts that those actions are not “of a political nature” (p. 27). Thus, the claim that “the desire to attain a maximum of power is universal” (p. 27) is among Morgenthau’s objective laws that are ultimately rooted in human nature. Neorealists, on the other hand, rather than seeing power as an end in itself, perceive it as a potentially useful means of which states may have either too little or too much (Mearsheimer, 2001; Waltz, 1979, 1992). Further, neorealists use the concept of power as one of the central characteristics of the system and define it as the combined capabilities of a state.
The fourth main difference between realism and neorealism is their treatment of the unit level. Since realists perceive anarchy to be a general condition (rather than a distinct structure) of the international system, they see interacting units acting in response to their anarchic environment. The different outcomes are attributed to differences within the units, such as dissimilar forms of government, rulers, and types of ideology. Neorealists, on the other hand, affirm that “states are made functionally similar by the constraints of the structure, with the principal differences among them defined according to capabilities” (Waltz, 1992, p. 36). In other words, neorealism argues that it is structure that mediates the outcomes that states produce and not exclusively the internal state characteristics. Thus, neorealists concentrate on a previously unanswered question in the study of international politics— namely, “How can the structure of an international-political system be distinguished from its interacting parts?” (p. 37). Neorealists perceive states like units, with each state being like all other states in its political autonomy. Thus, while realists concentrate on the heterogeneity of states to explain differences in external behavior, neorealists also add the effects that structure has on state behavior and outcomes.
In summary, although neorealism, pioneered by Waltz, concurs with classical realism that states are the principal actors, it argues that the conditions of the system as a whole influence state behavior and not only state interactions per se. The international system is seen as a structure that causes and defines relations among states. Neorealists reject reductionist theories and, instead, view states as socalled black boxes, thereby dismissing their domestic characteristics as having an exclusive role in states’ foreign behavior (Mearsheimer, 2006; Waltz, 1979). In addition, neorealists, similarly to the classical realists, assert that conflict and war are unavoidable and permanent occurrences in relations among states. However, while classical realists view war as rooted in human nature, neorealists argue that it is the anarchic structure of the international system characterized by the absence of a neutral authoritative body enforcing rules and agreements between states that causes and perpetrates interstate wars.
V. Beyond Waltz
Thanks to several key contributions, neorealism evolved beyond Waltz’s (1979) pioneering Theory of International Politics. In The Origins of Alliances, for instance, the neorealist scholar Stephen Walt (1990) introduces the “balance of threat” thesis by expanding on the realist concept of the balance of power. He argues that since states exist in an anarchical self-help system, they tend to balance not against a rising power but rather against a perceived threat. To strengthen his arguments, Walt examines 36 bilateral and multilateral alliance formations and 86 national decisions in the Middle East from 1955 to 1979. Following the examination of these alliances, Walt affirms that his balance of threat thesis gives a better understanding of alliance formation in the Middle East than that provided by variables such as ideology, foreign aid, and political penetration. In addition, he observes that balancing rather than bandwagoning is the aim of alliances formed in the Middle East for the examined period.
Also associated with structural realism is Randall Schweller, who developed the “balance of interests” thesis reviewing Waltz’s balance of power and Walt’s balance of threat concepts. Schweller (1993, 1998) expands his arguments on this subject in two main works—namely, “Tripolarity and the Second World War” in International Studies Quarterly, and Deadly Imbalances: Tripolarity and Hitler’s Strategy of World Conquest. In addition, contrary to Waltz, Schweller (1994, 1996) differentiates between states in terms of pursued goals. As such, he classifies them in two categories: (1) status quo and security maximizers or (2) revisionist and power maximizers. Schweller demonstrates that the end goals motivate states as well, and they may align not only to balance (against a loss) but also to gain. However, since he is willing to also consider nonstructural explanations of state behavior (Schweller, 1994; Schweller & Press, 1997), he may more accurately be defined as a neoclassical realist (see subsequent discussion).
In addition to this internal division as to the (exclusive) role played by the international structure on relations among states, neorealists are further divided as to how state security must be ensured. To that end, the two main neorealist branches are offensive and defensive realism: While the former defends aggressive state behavior to protect national security, the latter upholds preventive measures. In addition, John Mearsheimer, a leading proponent of offensive realism, blames security competition among states not on human nature (an argument advanced by the classical realism of Hans Morgenthau) but on the anarchy of the international system. In contrast to his defensive neorealist colleague, Kenneth Waltz, Mearsheimer questions the permanency of the status quo, arguing instead that states are never satisfied with power but ultimately seek hegemony to ensure their security. This argument is clearly expressed in Mearsheimer’s (2001) work The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, asserting the following:
Given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough for today and tomorrow, 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 become hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive. (p. 35)
Thus, offensive realists argue that, in international politics, aggression is a natural outcome that is generated by rational power maximizers, which are all states. Also, in contrast to Schweller, Mearsheimer stays at the structural level, arguing that it is the structure of the international system that causes states to behave offensively rather than perceived gains or losses (Mearsheimer, 2006).
VI. Challenges to (Neo)Realism
Some have suggested that, in modern international relations, realism has become obsolete (Lebow, 1994; Legro & Moravscik, 1999; Russett, 1993; Vasquez, 1997). These scholars assert that realism’s concepts of anarchy, self-help, and the balance of power are little, if at all, applicable to the current state of international environment marked by the spread of democracy, the growth of interdependence, and the influence of international institutions. Waltz, specifically, has been long criticized for not incorporating into his system theory unit-level processes that may generate system-level change (a long-standing criticism in this aspect is that neorealism is poorly equipped to explain system change).
However, realist and neorealist scholars argue that although changes in the system have indeed occurred at the unit level, changes of the system have not (Waltz, 2000). Unit-level, within-system changes, such as changes in technology, transportation, communication, and war fighting, occur all the time, and they do affect how states interact. Nuclear weapons, for instance, have decisively altered how states provide for their security, yet nuclear weapons have not changed the anarchic structure of the international system. And only when changes of the system have taken place can one begin to consider whether realism has run its course. However, if the international system’s nature has remained unaltered, realist concepts still apply.
Yet some have raised the question whether realist premises really explain the most important phenomena in international relations. As such, in present-day international relations, key realist assumptions have been challenged through several modern phenomena. First, the argument advanced by (neo)realists that long-lasting peace is unattainable because of the anarchic structure of the international systemis challenged by the democratic peace theory. The latter argues that realist predictions do not necessarily apply to democratic states and their relations to other democracies (Owen, 1994). Realists have critiqued this claim by pointing out several of the theory’s causal inconsistencies as well as weaknesses of its definitions of war and democracy that can and must be adjusted in order to demonstrate the key claim that democracies do not fight other democracies (Rosato, 2003;Waltz, 2000).Yet the latter statement has been an observed fact that both realists as well as proponents of other international relations schools have yet to explain.
The constructivist school has also challenged realism and neorealism. Through several influential articles, Alexander Wendt (1987, 1992, 1995, 1999) provided perhaps one of the most ardent constructivist critiques of neorealism. In his articles and subsequent Social Theory of International Politics, Wendt challenges the core neorealist premise that anarchy forces states into recurrent security competition. Wendt argues that anarchy and power do not define whether a system is conflictual or peaceful; instead, it is shared culture formed through discursive social practices that define it. Since each state’s conception of self (including its interest and identity) is shaped through internal processes, states can reshape the structure through new gestures and reconstituted interests and identities and move toward more other-regarding and peaceful means and ends. Thus, Wendt (1992) argues: “Anarchy is what states make of it,” or in other words, states are not forced by their anarchic environment to endlessly amass power and fall into unavoidable conflicts. Instead, focusing on process rather than structure, Wendt argues that states’ identities and interests can be collectively transformed by many factors at the individual, domestic, international, and transnational levels and, as such, are an important dependent variable that state-centered theories need to consider.
Despite Wendt’s important insights into realist–neorealist polemic, realists argue that his critique has several flaws. First, it does not address a key neorealist concept— namely, that of uncertainty. For structural realists, states’ uncertainty as to the present and future intentions of others is what places the concept of (relative) power as a central causal variable. The main issue, neorealists affirm, as to why systems sometimes fall into conflict is not the differently constructed interests, as Wendt affirms, but the uncertainty about other states’ interests and motives that leads to the pursuit of security and, potentially, to conflict (Copeland, 1999–2000; Fearon, 1995). In addition, Wendt does not address incentives that actors may have to deceive one another, which may further exacerbate a situation (Copeland, 2000).
Another challenge to realism is posed by the development of critical theories (including feminist approaches) that question the reasoning behind the formulation of key realist concepts (Tickner, 2005). Further, nowadays, with the advance in both theory and practice of such concepts as complex interdependence, globalization, global justice, transnational, and nonstate entities, realist assumptions accounting solely for the role of states as unitary, sovereign actors are challenged to accommodate new political realities. For instance, the presence of federal states wherein sovereignty is constitutionally split between the national and local governments (with citizens having political obligations to both authorities) challenges realism to account for the role of sovereign subunits that may also participate in the central decision making of a state.
Finally, realism and neorealism are positivist approaches focusing on state security and the pursuit of power above all. Realist insistence to study the impact of material forces (such as the size of military forces, and the balance of powers) through a replication of scientific methods has been increasingly challenged by postpositivist epistemology rejecting the idea that the social world can be studied in an objective, value-free way. Postpositivist theories challenging central realist tenets, such as rational choice, argue that scientific methods are inapplicable to the world of social interactions, making it impossible to build a science of international relations (Bernstein, Lebow, Stein, & Weber, 2000). Those arguments, hitting at the very core of realism—namely, its methodology—have grown in preponderance and in adherents over the last two decades. In particular, studies examining the role of psychological factors in international relations have grown in number and importance over the last few years. Evaluating these factors has come from the rejection of the realist representation of states as black boxes and the argument that there may be other influences on foreign policy decisions that come from within the state. Some of those internal influences are pointed to come from psychological factors, such as the concept of groupthink, the propensity of policymakers to decide based on (mis)perceptions and analogies, or both (Jervis, 1968; Stein, 2002).
In response to some of the above criticisms, neoclassical realism evolved as the third wave of realism (following neorealism). Neoclassical realism does not reject Waltz’s neorealist assumptions but rather refines them in order to offer explanations about specific states’ behaviors. In particular, neoclassical realists examine how the distribution of power in the international system, together with states’ domestic incentives and perceptions of that system, shape their foreign policy. Thus, neoclassical realists replace the neorealist claim that the possibility of conflict shapes the actions of states with assessment of probability, referring to how likely the worst-case scenario is to occur. Similarly, to the neorealist view that short-term gains matter, neoclassical realists add a consideration of long-term state objectives. Finally, to the neorealists’ emphasis of state military preparedness, neoclassical realists add economic gains that may outweigh potential security losses (Brooks, 1997).
Although neoclassical realism has been most useful in theories of foreign policy, Schweller (1994, 2003) argues that it can be used to explain other political outcomes as well. Thus, neoclassical realism has been a positive development of realist theory, for it combines the theoretical rigor of Waltz while allowing for a robust method to test theories on specific case studies of states’ foreign behavior. Other prominent neoclassical realists include Fareed Zakaria, Thomas J. Christensen, and William Wohlforth.
Realists today disagree on many internal issues, yet they are united in what they agree on—particularly when faced with alternative international relations theories. Namely, they see international relations as relating to objective conditions; they reject ideological, psychological, and normative considerations to explain relations among states that they perceived as defined by the anarchic environment surrounding states; and they view military capabilities and power accrual as paramount to both states’ positioning within the international system and their survival and security.
In 1997, Michael Doyle (1997) expressed what is considered the conventional wisdom that “realism is our dominant theory. Most international relations scholars are either self identified or readily identifiable realists” (p. 41). However, a study conducted by Maliniak, Oakes, Peterson, and Tierney (2007) of the current state of the international relations discipline (from 1980 to 2006) reveals rather interesting results as to the current standing of realism in the academic community—namely, that “the share of published work that fits squarely in the realist tradition” (p.11) is relatively small. This observation goes against a widespread belief among scholars that realism is the most prominent and popular approach in international relations. In fact, despite the fact that realism is highlighted in academia, Maliniak et al. demonstrate that for the past 27 years, “Realism has never been the most popular paradigm for journal authors, and in 1999 it fell to third behind constructivism” (p. 12). In particular, over the past 10 years, realist arguments seem to have been declining, as observed through published articles in the top 12 journals of the international relations discipline. However, Maliniak et al. demonstrate that even though the number of realist articles has declined, nonrealists continue to consider realist approaches seriously, against which they test their own models of state behavior. Thus, Maliniak et al. argue that “realism still looms large in the minds and research designs of non-realist IR scholars” (p. 12). In sum, directly or indirectly, realism is still much present in current international relations debates, research, and teaching.
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