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Classical Realism & Neo-Realism Notes

Classical Realism & Neo-Realism

What is Realism ?

  • Realism, also known as "Political Realism" or "Realpolitik", continues to remain one of the dominant schools of thought within the domain of international relations.

  • Realism emerged as the dominant international perspective only during the 20th Century. More specifically, it emerged in its modern form largely in reaction to idealism.

  • Realists maintained that a science of international politics must study the world, as it was an insistence that resulted in the Realists' self-acclaimed appellation.Realists appears as a natural phenomenon given the inherent craving -for power in human nature.Realism is grounded in an emphasis on power politics and the pursuit of national interest.

  • Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states.

  • According to Ainsley, “the name of theory can also be reason for its popularity.

  • Realism (or political realism) is a school of thought that explains international relations in terms of power. Power is often define as the ability to get another actors to do what it would not otherwise have done (or not to do what it would have done).

  • Advocators of Realism - Thucydides (c. 430-406), Machiavelli (1532), Morgenthau (1948) – classical realism; Rousseau (c. 1750), Kenneth Waltz (1979), Mearsheimer (2001) – Structural realism; Zakaria (1998).

  • Realism is based on some of the assumptions:-

  1. Human nature is selfish.

  2. Most important actors are States

  3. Causes of state behavior is Rational pursuit of self interest

  4. Nature of international system is anarchy.

Core Characteristics of Realism

  • In the works of crucial thinkers like Thucydides and Kenneth Waltz, we identify three core elements of realism are described below-

1. STATISM: It is the term given to the idea of the state as the legitimate representative of the collective will of the people. The legitimacy of the State enables the States to exercise authority within its domestic borders. Yet outside the boundaries of the state, realists argue that a condition of anarchy exists. Here, the concept of anarchy emphasize the point that the international realm is distinguished by the lack of a central authority rather than denoting complete chaos and lawlessness.

Realists argue that the basic structure of international politics is one of anarchy in that:

  • Each of the independent sovereign states considers itself to be its own highest authority and does not recognize a higher power.

  • First priority of leaders of each of the independent sovereign States is to ensure the survival of their States.

  • All States wishes to maintain their existence. For example, Poland has loosen its existence four times in the past three centuries.

2. SURVIVAL: In International Politics, the most important goal for each state is survival. States struggle for power as to have security that is to survive. So, survival is held to be a precondition for attaining all other goals either to have war or alliance or treaty.

  • Waltz argues that states have security as their principal interest and therefore seek only the requisite amount of power to ensure their own survival.

  • Mearsheimer argues that the ultimate goal of all states is to achieve a hegemonic position in the International system.

3. SELF-HELP: According to realism, Self-Help refers to lack of global government. It means, each state actor is responsible for ensuring its own well-being and survival. In other words, States should not depend on other states or international institution, such as the United Nations, to ensure their own security.

  • To conclude we can say, realism views a State to strengthen its power capabilities by engaging in a military arms build up, etc, if the state feels threatened. But, this strategy may prove to be insufficient for a number of smaller States who feel threatened by a much larger state.

  • Therefore, Realists considered ‘the balance of power’ in order to the liberty of states. The most common definition of ‘the balance of power’ holds that – if the survival of a state or a number of weaker States is threatened by a hegemonic state or a coalition of stronger states, they should join forces, establish a formal alliance.

  • Cold War is the best example of the balance of power mechanism.

There is a debate about the types of realism however, Realism can be classified into a variety of distinct categories. The simplest distinction is a form of periodization that differentiates realism into following historical periods:

  1. Classical Realism

  2. Modern Realism

  3. Structural Realism (Neo-realism

  4. Neoclassical Realism

Classical Realism

  • Realists, although recognizing that human desires range widely and are remarkably variable, emphasize ‘the limitations which the sordid and selfish aspects of human nature place on the conduct of diplomacy.

  • Classical Realism represents a whole worldview of international politics encompassing several generations of theorists ranging from Thucydides, Machiavelli, and E.H. Carr to Hbs J. Morgenthau, the most famous high priest of post-war Realism.

  • The central argument of classical Realism rests on the assumption that international politics is driven by an endless struggle for power,' which has its root in human nature.

  • In this framework,justice, law, and society have either no place or are circumscribed.

  • They argue that to survive, states must increase their power by internal development such as in the economic system, technological, diplomatic and military means

  • Classical Realism recognises that principles are subordinated to policies and that the ultimate test of the state leader lies in accepting and adapting to the changing power political configurations in world politics.

  • Classical realist argue that- it is from the nature of man that the essential features of international politics, such as competition, fear, and war, can be explained.

  • Later classical realists were notably Machiavelli and Morgenthau. Morgenthau’s era witnessed many drives for more power and territory, such as, Nazi Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1939, and The Soviet Union and Hungary in 1956, many more. These drives confirmed that role of human nature as defined by classical realism.


In 1948 wrote a book, “Politics among Nations”. He gave his theory of International Relations. His six principles of IR can be enumerated as follows:-

There is no fixed or constant national interest. Every states keeps on redefining its national


  1. Private morality is different from public morality. State cannot be put into pressure on ground of morality and immorality. Every states work on their views and interest.

  2. There is no place for morality and immorality in International Relations.

  3. Politics is autonomous. It is not connected with social culture, caste, religion etc.

  4. IR is based on objective laws in human nature.

  5. Human are selfish and therefore, state is also selfish.

  6. Power means control on other States.

Criticism of Morgenthau Theory

  1. Neither Fully Empirical and nor Fully Logical

  2. Guilty of Power Monism

  3. A Partial Approach

  4. Unrealistic View of the World

  5. Unscientific

  6. Difficult to Evaluate National Power and National Interest

  7. Little Importance to Morality

  8. Inconsistency in Views

  9. Lack of Clarity in Conceptualizing Autonomy


“How is a leader supposed to act in a world animated by such dark forces?” Machiavelli answered the questions saying that- “all obligations and treaties with other states must be disregarded if the security of the community is under the threat.” However, he says that imperial expansion is legitimate as it is a means of gaining great security.

Neo-Realism (Structuralism Realism)

  • Neo-realism is primarily based on the philosophy of classical realism.

  • It had three sources. If political realism provided the primary source of neo-realism, then structuralism definitely contributed as its more immediate source.

  • It is widely established that the approach of neorealism originated with the publication of Kenneth Waltz's Theory of International Politics in 1979.

Structural realism believes that:-

  1. International Politics is a struggle for power.

  2. Struggle for power is not a result of human nature, unlike the belief of classical realism.

  3. Struggle for power is result of security competition, inter-state conflicts, lack of overarching authority above states, and the relative distribution of power in International system.

  • Kenneth Waltz defined the structure of the international system in terms of three elements:-

1. Organizing principle:- he identifies two different organizing principles:

  • Anarchy, seen in international politics and

  • Hierarchy, prevails in domestic order.

2. Differentiation of units:- here, States are unit of international system. He argues that in international system, all sovereign States are functionally similar. Hence, unit-level variation is irrelevant in explaining international outcome.

3. Distribution of capabilities:- according to Waltz, distribution of capabilities among units is important to understand crucial international outcomes such as war and peace, alliance politics, and the balance of power.

  • Structural realist views to rank all the states on the basis of strength in the following areas: ‘size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence’.

  • We can consider an example, during cold war (1945-89), there were two great powers-the USA and the USSR - that constituted the bipolar international system.

  • According to Mearsheimer, the structure of the international system compels States to maximize their relative power position.

Core Characteristics of Neo Realism

  • Neo-realism is not an entirely different approach of realism but it shares some core assumption with classical realism.

  • Gilpin identified three assumptions which are common to all strands of realism:

  1. The nature of international affairs is essentially conflictual.

  2. The essence of social reality is the group rather than the individual, and particularly the conflict group, whether tribe, city-State, kingdom, empire, or nation-State.

  3. The prime human motivation in all political life is power and security.

  • The main assumptions of neo-realism are as following:

  1. Instead of unit level analysis the neo-realism focus on the System level analysis

  2. Anarchy as a central theme of the international system

  3. International order as mechanistic rather than organic

Criticism of Neo-Realism

  • Difficulty in ranking states: Structural realist views to rank all the states on the basis of strength in the following areas: ‘size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence’. Here, the difficulty is that resource strength does not always lead to military victory.

  • Example:- in the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, the distribution of resources clearly favored the Arab coalition and yet the supposedly weaker side annihilated its enemies’ forces and seized their territory.

  • Improper definition of 'Power as Capabilities': The definition of power as capabilities failed at explaining the relative economic success of Japan over China.

  • Exclusively Focuses upon state Power: For realists, states are the only actors that really ‘count’. MNCs, TNCs, International Organizations, and ideologically driven terrorist networks, such as Al Qaeda, ISIS etc. are ignored.


The evolution of international relations is a subject that cannot be clearly understood without examining how different sovereign states have been struggling for power and supremacy. The struggle matches the description and meaning of neorealism. It is agreeable that the theory seeks to explain how power is the leading factor in international relations (Waltz 1979). The nature of realism existing today explains how different nations continue to pursue power.

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Nov 04, 2023
Rated 4 out of 5 stars.

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676Bhawana Singh
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May 28, 2023
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