Realism in International Relations


Realism refers to a broad spectrum of ideas in international relations theory, which gyrates around the four key central propositions of egoism, power politics, international anarchy, and political groups (Morgenthau, Thompson & Clinton 2005). Realist theories show a practical way of understanding international relations. There seems to be no single approach to political realism; instead, there is an understanding of archeologically integrated tensions, evasions, and contradictions. Waltz and Kahl (2012) have described the supporters of realism as having a pessimistic perception of human nature. In addition, the supporters of realism strongly believe that the well-being of humans in competitive relations with others is a matter of a great concern. Inherently, realism views internal relations as a power struggle between the self-interested countries (Feaver, Hellmann & Schweller 2000). Similarly, realism seems pessimistic concerning the prospects for the elimination of war and conflicts. Other international relations scholars, such as Feaver, Hellmann, and Schweller (2000) have termed realism as a tradition that gives a high preference to revolution, stability to change, and experience to testing. This essay focuses on two popular forms of realism: classical and neo-realism.

Whereas there are various kinds of realist theories, there are several primary aspects possessed by all of them, such as the balance of power and concepts of anarchy (Feaver, Hellmann & Schweller 2000). Whether neo-realist or classical realist, all realists strongly agree that there exists some form of anarchy, within which every independent country acts autonomously and free from the international interference. According to Waltz (2000), each country can depend on itself in this anarchy state. Therefore, its main concern is attending to its security needs.

Both classical and neo-realism approve that the state is a prime actor in the global arena (Feaver, Hellmann & Schweller 2000; Morgenthau, Thompson & Clinton 2005). As a result, international relations center on the connection between nations (Behr & Heath 2009; Feaver, Hellmann & Schweller 2000). Certain entities, including multi-national corporations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) among others, have a lesser role. The idea that countries will act rationally is also another central aspect common to both neo-realism and classical realism (Buzan 1996). Nevertheless, whereas this presumption is significant for neo-realists, rational behavior of countries is not a guarantee for classical neo-realists (Donnelly 2000; Elman, Elman & Schroeder 1995).

Despite classical realism and neorealism having some common aspects, the two theories differ in certain areas. They include the view of human nature and structure, power and conflict, and the role of morality and scientific methodology (Morgenthau, Thompson & Clinton 2005). The main differences will be discussed under thesis’ headings.

Human Nature

The roots of classical realism can be traced back to Thucydides, the Greek philosopher (Waltz 2000). Whereas classical realism had several leading proponents, international scholars have noted three prime areas of agreement between them. It can be used in summing up the crucial classical realism elements (Behr & Heath 2009). Firstly, all classical realists agree that human nature is a conflict and insecurity condition that must be addressed. Secondly, these realists also agree that there is a significant body of political wisdom to address the security problem (Spegele 1996). Thirdly, according to classical realists, the world cannot escape from the human condition. In fact, the human condition is an enduring aspect of human life.

According to Smith (1991), neoclassical realism emerged mainly is a reaction to the failure of liberal internationalism. It was the main ideology of the earlier portion of the century to provide sufficiently an account for the development of international relations leading to the outbreak of the Second World War. Morgenthau, Thompson, and Clinton (2005) were among the leading proponents of classical realism, who consequently had drawn much motivation from earlier scholars. Morgenthau, Thompson, and Clinton (2005) have described the six core ideologies of political realism.

The consequent inception of neo-realism has developed a debate over what constituted the essential ideologies of realism (Gellman 1988). Firstly, among the classical realism approach, there were such philosophers as Morgenthau, Thompson, and Clinton (2005). They had such a belief that objective laws and regulations, which have their origin in human nature, govern politics. In classical realism, human nature remains principally similar. According to Morgenthau, Thompson, and Clinton (2005), it is because it has been first appraised by Greek classical philosophers. In addition, human nature remains egocentric to this day. Conversely, neo-realists would not acknowledge the human nature’s role (Milner 1991).

Neo-realists, including Kenneth Waltz, have classified classical theorists as reductionists. They concentrate on the respective human beings instead of the entire system that they comprehensively maintain and constitute (Donnelly 2000). For neo-realists, such as Waltz and Kahl (2012), an emphasis is put on the internal system structure as opposed to human nature. Neo-realists refer to structures as being non-hierarchic with states, as political actors, performing the inherently similar roles as one another in order to guarantee survivability (Waltz 2000; Elman, Elman & Schroeder 1995). Neo-realists also strongly trust that the behavior of countries is not deeply linked to human nature in the global system. According to neo-realists, it is because the behavior of respective states is a product of these countries finding themselves in anarchic systems that compel them to take an appropriate action to guarantee survivability (Elman, Elman & Schroeder 1995). A key to neorealism is the abilities’ distribution among respective countries. It influences the position of a country in the international system (Elman, Elman & Schroeder 1995). Interestingly, some classical realists, including Thucydides, also have approved some form of the structure in the global system, such as the laws and regulations governing human behavior (Griffiths 1992). However, Thucydides has maintained that human nature is a crucial element of the neo-realism structure.

Whereas neo-realism acknowledges the possible effect of NGOs and transnational influences on the global system, it perceives such an effect as taking place within the context of the universal environment dominated by countries (Rosenberg 1990). Morgenthau, Thompson, and Clinton (2005) have also argued that whereas non-political actors might perform a role in the system, political actors reserve the entitlement and power to define the terms of intercourse. When any crisis arises, a political actor remakes the regulations by which other actors operate (Buzan 1996).

The second ideology proposed by Morgenthau, Thompson, and Clinton (2005) perceives the interests as defined in terms of power. It is viewed by neo-realism as a means to an end. The differences between classical and neo-realism in terms of power is discussed in further details as a sub-topic of this paper. The third ideology has emphasized the significant and deep comprehension of the human condition for the country to be capable of conducting its affairs efficiently in the international system (Elman, Elman & Schroeder 1995). However, with regard to the third ideology, Mearsheimer (2001) has argued that human behavior could be understood as surface practice being developed consequently by a deeper and autonomously existing structure.

The fourth ideology from Morgenthau, Thompson, and Clinton (2005) points out that the global moral principles can be used in some relations among countries. Leaders must take actions regarded morally wrong to serve the interests of those to whom they are accountable to (Halliday & Rosenberg 1998). However, neorealism does not acknowledge the role played by global moral principles. The fifth ideology stated by Morgenthau, Thompson, and Clinton (2005) stresses that politics is an independent sphere of action in its entitlement that cannot be reduced to moral or economic explanations (Elman, Elman & Schroeder 1995; Feaver, Hellmann & Schweller 2000). Additionally, it also emphasizes that leaders should act based on political farsightedness converse to neo-realism. It argues that the international system determines political actions.

Power and Conflict

Classical realism perceives power as an end in itself, whereas neo-realism perceives power as a way to an end (Behr & Heath 2009; Feaver, Hellmann & Schweller 2000). Despite all forms of realism stating all the involved actors in politics aim at achieving power, they seem to differ strongly on a reason of the scenario. For classical realism, the reason resides in the nature of human beings (Behr & Heath 2009). They believe that humans are political in nature, and they are born to hunt for power and enjoy the results of that power (Donnelly 2000). The stress of any state must be on relative gains only, owing to the anarchic nature of the international system. Nevertheless, neo-realists at least show some openness to a presumption that countries might be free to robust operations in future. The openness suggests that states should emphasize both absolute and relative gains (Behr & Heath 2009).

Classical realists identify three core causes of conflicts that are crucial for the human nature: hesitancy, competition, and glory (Waltz 2000). Classical realism tries to consider the key responsibility of rulers as attempting to seek the optimal advantages for facilitating the defense of their state and ensuring survivability (Waltz & Kahl 2012). On the other hand, neo-realism is analytical of a classical realism perspective on power. In the debate concerning the pursuit of power, neo-realists tend to refocus their attention away from subjectivity towards objectivity (Feaver, Hellmann & Schweller 2000). Subjectivity is a nature of human beings, whereas objectivity is a nature of social and economic factors. However, both neo-realism and classical realism reach an agreement on the significance of power balance but for various reasons (Feaver, Hellmann & Schweller 2000; Feaver, Hellmann & Schweller 2000).

For classical realism, the power balance is a general social occurrence present in all social interaction levels (Behr & Heath 2009). Classical realists believe that power balance may arise as states attempt to exercise their power on stage. They regard this occurrence as a product of any strong international society, led by strong countries making it up. According to Elman, Elman, and Schroeder (1995), the prime reason for achieving power balance is maintaining order in the global system. However, it directly contrasts to the nature of power balance defined by neo-realism emphasizing the political role of political structures (Waltz & Kahl 2012).

Neo-realism and classical realism differ on whether the bipolar or multipolar system is more unwavering power balance (Behr & Heath 2009; Behr & Heath 2009). The classical realism proposes the multi-polar system in which great political powers can create various formations based on the international circumstance (Feaver, Hellmann & Schweller 2000). On the contrary, neo-realism supports the bipolar system. According to Elman, Elman, and Schroeder (1995), states balance their power against each other. For instance, in the global situation, the two powerful actors in the global political system are Russia and the US. Each of them is an only considerable threat to another party (Behr & Heath 2009). Unlike classical realism, neo-realism also recognizes that countries might sometimes invade one another for the reasons not directly linked to power.

The Role of Morality

Classical realism argues that justice is a crucial element for a normal functioning community. It is within this kind of community that the hunt for an individual interest is possible (Waltz & Kahl 2012). According to Waltz and Kahl (2012), the same justice ideologies facilitate power to be easily translated into influence. Morgenthau once has stated that to do justice and receive it means a rudimentary aspiration of human beings. This statement is a measure of proof that there is a limited role for morality in global politics (Feaver, Hellmann & Schweller 2000).

On the other hand, neo-realism does not provide any direction on the formation of policies in the global arena. The policy is ultimately determined by the dynamics of a structure. Neo-realists exhibit some pessimism concerning the likelihood of morality having a significant effect (Elman, Elman & Schroeder 1995).

The Role of Science

Both neo-realism and classical realism reach an agreement that there is an aspect of science in international relations. However, they disagree on the methods applied to a broader realist theory. Classical realists, including Feaver, Hellmann, and Schweller (2000), have described their neo-realism as the progressive scientific redemption of classical realism scholarship. Classical realism considers the scientific aspects of the discipline as emanating from its being grounded in necessity. Donnelly (2000) has characterized classical realism as coming from the analytical study of philosophy, law, and history. Most classical realists are highly analytical of the scientific methods utilized by contemporary realists. It indicates that the contributions made to the field of international relations using a scientific approach are done using classical realism methods (Morgenthau, Thompson & Clinton 2005). For neo-realists, the classical realism is not well integrated with social theory and ignores the significance of factors such as sociology and economics.

Suitable Realism in Analyzing International Realism

Morgenthau, Thompson, and Clinton (2005) have argued that with the emergence of China. India, and Brazil as strong global political actors, countries might have become more realistic to ensure their survivability. According to the mentioned scholars (2005), it is likely that it will be in a neo-realism form as opposed to classical realism. Whereas classical realism is helpful in the assessment of the country’s behavior towards an institution, it is not frequently capable of explaining other major events (Feaver, Hellmann & Schweller 2000). Recent years have witnessed the increasingly complex national interests. Countries are being compelled to consider several factors when choosing the suitable course of action. Countries will continue acting in an egocentric manner until when there are some efficient ways of authority above the level of the state. As a result, neo-classical realism is a suitable approach. Nevertheless, this approach cannot be utilized on its own or as an only contributing factor to state behavior (Elman, Elman & Schroeder 1995).


It can be viewed that neo-realism and classical realism reach an agreement on certain fundamental issues, such as the existence of anarchism and the significant role played by power balance in the global system. However, they also seem to differ on the reason for the continued existence or origin of these factors. Classical realism continues to view power as an end in its own right. On the other hand, neo-realism views power as a way to the end. Classical realism will continue the pursuit of power as not aimed at the attainment of moral values. Rather, moral values are used in facilitating the attainment of power. On the other hand, neo-realism continues to uphold its claim regarding the role of morality, justice, and values in classical realism. It goes further advocating for the place of scientific methodology. Whereas there are various kinds of realist theories, there are several primary aspects possessed by all of them. They include such as the balance of power and concepts of anarchy. Both classical and neo-realism approve that the state is the prime actor in the global arena.


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