Classical Realism, or Traditional Realism (Waltz, 2003: 21), and Neorealism, or Structural Realism (Jakobsen, 2013), are “two of the major approaches” in the study of international politics (Waltz, 2003: 21). Robert Keohane (1986: 159) considers Classical Realism as the “central tradition” in the study of international politics, while Jo Jakobsen (2013) considered Neorealism as the “bedrock theory of International Relations.”
Despite the efforts of their respective proponents to distinguish one theory from the other, commonalities between Classical Realism and Neorealism do occur. First, both would agree that changes in policymaking among states “happen” more than making it happen (Rynning, 2011: 31). Second, both would also agree that a “collaborative balance of power” could internally regulate adventurism into public spaces held by another states (Hoffmann, 2000: 198). Third, both further emphasize the power of ideas and the inconceivability of statesmen acting outside the frameworks of culture and history (Rynning, 2011: 34).
This essay first describes the major characteristics of Classical Realism and then Neorealism in two separate sections. The third section follows with a review of their major differences.
Classical Realism is a state level theory, born of the need to oppose modernism with its “blazing advocates of progress (Rynning, 211: 31). It proposes that all states seek power as its prime principle, the beginning and the end, of state behavior. Thus, the state is the principal actor in international affairs. States seek to increase their power in order to relatively decrease the power of their enemies. Powerful states therefore are seen as rivals based on the principle that power not in the state’s control is a power that threatens. It perceives international politics as a realm of recurrent interstate conflicts driven by a struggle for power and survival (Cozette, 2008: 667). Jackson and Sorensen (207: 60) contend that there is nothing new in power politics as each pattern repeats itself throughout history: conflicts, rivalries, wars they recur and look much as they were in the past. Realism by definition concerns itself with the world as it is in actuality instead of how it ought to be. It deals with empirical data not with norms (Morgenthau, 1956: 4).
Assumptions: The three most fundamental assumptions in Classical Realism is territoriality of the organization, rationality of state behavior, and search for power. The most important actors in world politics are territorially organized either as states or intrastate organizations (Keohane, 1986: 163). Consequently, they behave towards each other in terms of specific characteristics such as type of government (e.g. democracy) and neighborhood behavioral patterns. As a state-level theory, it does not claim to understand the international systems.
Moreover, state behavior can be explained rationally. That is, it is possible to understand the underlying rationale of its external behavior. Furthermore, states seek power, calibrated accordingly to their interests, relative to the states they expect to face. Although, at times, consideration of the international system involved may be essential to take notice. Rynning (2011: 25) noted, however, that such politics of power and its meaning cannot be adequately appreciated outside its territorial boundaries. A Classical Realist needs lots of internal data in order to derive a reasonable and accurate understanding of a state’s power politics.
Determinants of state behavior: Classical Realism accepts three primary determinants of state behavior: power, interests, and rationality (Keohane, 1986: 159). States struggle in international politics in order to increase power, and everything they do seeks to amass that power. State interests act as the primary driver for its search for increased power. Understood in terms of power, interest is the “main signpost towards international politics” (Morgenthau, Thompson and Clinton, 2005: 11). Such behaviors, however, occur within a framework of rationality, which links its actions to the system structure, which can either support or obstruct the achievement of a state’s interests (Keohane, 1986: 167). The national interest animates the state behavior due to its essential rationality (Brown and Ainley, 2005: 30).
Hallmarks: Two hallmarks in the Classical Realism thought consists of its contention that use of scientific knowledge in understanding and predicting state behavior is not possible or even desirable (Rynning, 2011: 29). This means that a general theory of foreign policy is not possible (Aron, 1984: 102). Moreover, it believes that interpretation is necessary of the meaning embedded in state goals and systems to understand power politics (Rynning, 2011: 29).
Neorealism is a system level theory that rose from Classical Realism. The idea of international politics “as a system with precisely defined structures” constitutes its “fundamental departure” from Classical Realism (Waltz, 2003: 30; Jorgensen, 2010). Waltz, however, “refused to adapt” Neorealism for the purpose of foreign policy analysis, which his supporters conversely refused to follow (Rynning, 2011: 28). Sten Rynning (2011: 35) and Jennifer Sterling-Folker (2002: n. p.; 2009: n. p.), further, contend that it still cannot be considered a theory as it remains unable to effectively guide analysts towards necessary information.
Assumptions: The Neorealism defines three constant elements in its understanding of the structure of international system: anarchy, interaction, and distribution of capabilities (Keohane, 1986: 165-166). Anarchy, rather than hierarchy, constitutes the international system’s ordering principle wherein states do what they can get away with to gain power (Keohane, 1986: 165; Jakobsen, 2013). Keith Shimko (1992: 281) defines anarchy as a “permissive force” instead of a causal one.
Anarchy consists of interactions among units with similar functions, creating rivalry over power, which is considered as threatening (Keohane, 1986: 165). Morris (2005) and Scott (2004) described this interaction as governed by international law. State behavior, according to Morris, occurs “in accordance with international rules.” Conversely, Scott believed that there exists a “selective engagement” with international law wherein a state may participate only insofar as such participation supports its national interest, like the US participation with the Uruguay Round that increased its exports lesser tariffs or its refusal to sign the Ottawa treaty on the use of landmines that was detracting to its security interests. Further, Scott noticed how powerful states use the enforcement power of international to influence the foreign policies and behaviors of other states, making international law “subordinate to national purposes” (Waltz, 2000).
Meanwhile, the distribution capabilities (that is, power) across states in the international system varies from specific systems to another (Keohane, 1986: 165) and between states, with which they can be analytically differentiated (Jakobsen, 2013). It, however, follows an “essentially self-help system” (Jakobsen, 2013; Steiner, 2010: 129) wherein states are autonomous, functionally homogeneous, and each must be capable to fend for itself.
Determinants of behavior: The primary focus of Neorealist is external factors that affect the international system. Thus, it is primarily concerned with the balance of power as determinant of state behavior to the neglect of internal factors, such as individuals, national politics, ideology, and many more (Steiner, 2010: 130).
Hallmarks: There are three hallmarks in Neorealism that constitute as its “key building blocks” (Rynning, 2011: 28): the balance of threat, the offense-defense balance, and the balance of power. The offense-defense balance, understood in terms of military technology, geography, and strategy, refers to the belief that the world is not terribly dangerous as states maintain a balance that will not be easily defeated (Rynning, 2011: 26). This balancing occurs “quietly and cautiously” in an environment where unipolarity exists (Posen, 2006: 153).
This offense-defense balance occurs in the context of the balance of power among states, between Russia and the United States during the Cold War and the current unipolarity with the United States as the remaining international super power (Rynning, 2011: 26). In order to balance the American power, second-tier states, such as France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China, use institutional and diplomatic strategies to manage the American foreign policies.
Some Neorealists, however, considered this approach as ambiguous as it can be interpreted either as a precursor of real balancing or as an approach to redress grievances outside the framework of power balancing. Instead, they propose the concept of threat balancing (Rynning, 2011: 26). These threats could be in the form of “power, military capabilities, political intentions, and geographic proximity.” When great powers behave aggressively, less powerful states act in concert to balance the aggressor and check the threat effectively in order to survive (Steiner, 2010: 129).
The primary differences between Classical Realism and Neorealism can be found in four important levels: the source of international conflict, the relationship of the state with the international system, its preferred analytical approach, and their respective status as a thought of international politics.
Classical Realism believes that the roots of international conflict and war came from the imperfect human nature; while the Neorealism maintains that the causative factors are found in the anarchic international system instead. Classic Realism also holds that the state possesses ontological superiority over the system, while Neorealism insists that states are unitary actors (Schweller, 1996: 155). Moreover, Classical Realism focuses its analyses to the subjective valuations of international relations instead of the favorite scientific approach of the Neorealism (Georg and Sorensen, 2007: 75). This indicates that Classic Realism holds a broad understanding of agency as compared to the stringency of Neorealism’s account of structure (Rynning, 2011: 33).
One final difference between Classical Realism and Neorealism rests in their state of thought, which remains controversial at best. Despite its creative contribution to the realist school of thought, Sten Rynning (2011: 35) and Jennifer Sterling-Folker (2002: n. p.; 2009: n. p.) believe that Neorealism remains an approach and not a theory due to its limitation of not “telling us what to look for” (Rynning, 2011: 35). This is so, even amidst Waltz’s insistence that it is of the same theoretical level as Classical Realism (Waltz, 2003: 21). Rynning maintains that Neorealism can help Classical Realism improve its thoughts. Still, the theory remains Classical Realism. Keith Shimko (1992), however, disagreed. Although, Neorealism does not systemize Classical Realism, he believes that it constitutes a “fundamentally different conceptualization of international politics from classical realism.”
The importance of these differences in the understanding of international politics, it follows, is of controversy too, depending on which side the critique is included to be. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that Neorealism tried to push Classical Realism from its state-level involvement into a wider and more complicated realm of international systems. Although the success of this Neorealist ambition cannot be affirmed with definiteness, proponents certainly had gone beyond the state-level scope that Waltz had intended Neorealism to be.
It is beyond contention that Classical Realism distinguished itself as the pioneering thought in international politics that first managed to provide a serious analysis of state politics and the impact of its foreign policymaking behavior towards other states worldwide. It provided an adequate understanding on the probable determinants of state behavior in its understanding of power, influence, and the more controversial concept of state rationality. It, however, clarified that it provides no fixed answer for any policy question. Its insights, by definition, are contextual and must be interpretive of history.
Conversely, Neorealism tried to understand the impact of state behavior in the international arena through the lens of a permissive force called anarchy and to determine the complex choices that are needed in maintaining the balance of power, whether understood as the balance of threat or the offense-defense balance, between states, particularly between the more powerful states and the lesser ones.
Moreover, the two approaches contributed significantly to the growth in the study of international politics both as a branch of history, which chronicles and dissects unique events and situations, and a branch of sociology, which analyses non-logical actions in an attempt to find general relationships in all these actions (Waltz, 2003). It provided an impetus, and the necessary raw materials, with which scholars in international relations can begin their investigations in such a vast field of study.
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