What is the difference between Realism and Neorealism?
The nature of international politics has long been a subject of immense debate between scholars since time in memorial. These scholars would present their own ideology as to why states go to war and what should be the main focus of actors in terms of policy-making and the use of force. Several ideologies have come and go in terms of explaining the erratic nature of international politics with only a few considered to be one of the foundations of international relations theory. One of these founding theories is known as Realism or classical realism and like its fellow international politics theories, it has earned several skepticism and commendation in explaining as to why states go to war and the role of the actors in the international community. However, a new form of realism had also been established, called neo-realism or structural realism, challenging the argument of realism on power, states and international structure. Realism argues that states are the main actors in the anarchic international sphere for power and influence, while neorealism argues that that it is the structure of the international political system which affects the actions of all states.
The theory of classical realism can be considered one of the oldest theories on international politics as it predates back sometime around 431 BC when Thucydides released his account on the Peloponnesian War and in the publishing of the book The Art of War by Sun Tzu in the same period. Thucydides, a historian of the Peloponnesian War, argued that power politics is the main focus of human behavior. Power becomes the main goal of human societies and its citizens, urging the need for dominating other societies as a means to sustain its power. He also argues that given this human nature, law and order cannot influence the struggle for power. This play on power politics is what led Sparta to fear Athens and went into war to stop Athens. In the case of Athens, Thucydides argued that Pericles had acted for the sake of self-interest and ambition. Sun Tzu had also mirrored this sentiment in his book The Art of War as the book detailed strategies and tactics that would influence the course of war and its aftermath. Earlier discourses on classical realism also include the works of Niccolo Machiavelli in explaining the necessity of war and the nature of international politics. In the book, The Prince, Machiavelli cites that leaders should learn how to accept and adapt to the changing international system for it would determine the change of power and influence. In Machiavelli’s book, Florence is left vulnerable due to the expanding influence of the great powers to Italy .
Realism only became a dominant theory for explaining the nature of international politics in the 20th century due to the outbreak of the First and Second World Wars, fueling the argument of the reason for war. Known realists E.H. Carr (1939) and Hans Morgenthau (1948) had argued against other international theories, especially the belief in internationalism and harmony since it was unable to contain the German expansion in the First and Second World War despite the presence of a collective security framework under the League of Nations. Morgenthau is considered one of the high-priests of classical realism and writes in his book Politics among Nations that ‘politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature’. Morgenthau’s position cites that there are laws that already exist in international politics which were devised by human nature, which are flawed and imperfect. Morgenthau also mirrors Thucydides’ position that states keep seeking power because it is ingrained human beings .
With the theorists supporting classical realism or realism, realism has several arguments that provides several concepts to explain the essence of international politics. Realism, and other variants of realism, supports three‘s’s to support their argument: statism, survival and self-help. When it comes to statism, realism argues that states are the main actors in the international arena and can act as an autonomous entity by itself. The ideology is further fueled by the rise of nationalism in several parts of the globe, leading to the development of nation-states. Sovereignty enables these states to use force and make and enact laws between its people. Thomas Hobbes stated that in this regard, people trade their liberty for the sake of security. Once this is attained, it is only then can civil society develop or else society cannot persist. Unlike other theories, realism argues that power influences the nature of human action and would go to war for the sake of national interest and influence.
Furthermore, in the case of survival, the international system is anarchic and chaotic, leading states to prioritize its own national interest to survive rather than placing unwavering faith to international law and organizations. In this end, realists argue that power is an essential element in international affairs as states would require leverage from other states should they be threatened. While conflict is inevitable, realists argue that this pattern of conflict and cooperation is needed to sustain the balance of power in the international system. Alliances would be created between states to ensure peace, balancing out the tensions in the region. If these alliances were to break, realists believe that war is sure to follow. In this end, states would try to defend themselves and would not jeopardize their own security for further power. However, if the opportunity occurs, they will take into consideration disrupting the balance of power if they can grasp the power placed before them. The last “S” factor, self-help, is mostly attached to structural or neo-realism.
This perception of the international system as an anarchic society is warranted according to realists because power, wealth, and resources are not equally distributed amongst states. As a result of this, there are states that are considered great powers or superpowers and the remaining states are distributed through a hierarchy with a specific influencing capability. The great powers exercise a significant degree of influence in trading blocs and nations as a means for them to distribute their power. In the time of the Cold War, a bipolar system was established due to the separation of the US-Soviet Union blocs, paving the way for further expansion. Realists add that this bipolar system enabled peace to exist because it led to the creation of nuclear deterrents and subsequent nuclear disarmament in the 1960s. With the removal of weapons capable of destroying other states, a hierarchy is developed to keep anarchy at bay and triggered the creation of an anarchical society . At the present time, realism remains an influential theory in understanding the nature of international politics.
With the arguments raised by realism, many scholars had tried to develop their own version of realism to explain the importance of power and the role of states. One of these newer variations of realism is neorealism established in the 1980s with three variations: structural realism, relative and absolute gains realism and offensive realism. Under structural realism, while power is a crucial factor in the international system, it is structure of international politics itself which plays a key role in the in the position of states and its organization . The leading theorist under structural realism is Kenneth Waltz, who utilized the essence of classical and neoclassical realism to develop his position explaining the system of international anarchy and how states fit in the picture. However, he revised this essence of these realist principles and added positivist economic models to explain the behavior of states. In the book Theory of International Politics (1979), Waltz argues that a neorealist systems theory would be efficient in proving that it is the structure of the system that influences the balance of power, the actors and the changes occurring in international politics. In addition to this, Waltz argues that the structure of the international system, most especially the distribution of power, is what influences actors to do their actions because it determines their capabilities and influence in the overall system. Waltz also adds that under neorealism, international relations is mostly comprised of decentralized structures of anarchy between states. States, may they be from different parts of the globe, are alike in function and in this regard, only vary as to their potential capabilities in maximizing their tasks. In this extent, change occurs when great powers rise and fall and disrupt the nature of the balance of power due to the onset of a great war. Like classical realism, neorealism acknowledges the importance of the great powers in maintaining the balance of power. Waltz also acknowledges that the bipolar system in the Cold War is stable and has higher chances of maintaining peace than multipolar systems .
In addition to this, Waltz also cites in his book that international politics is not unique because war is a regular occurrence and it is also a way of life in domestic politics. For neo-realism, both domestic and international order is different from each other as seen in their structure. Domestic polity does not give power to its citizens to fight for their survival while in the international polity, no higher authority can influence the use of force or halt it. Security in this extent can then be attained through self-help or through action. However, as the state tries to protect its security, the state would find itself vulnerable to other states which may try to take over the state. This insecurity is known as a security dilemma, pointing that states are not as trusting to other states especially if the neighboring state has a military capability that can overthrow the other state. Neo-realism also argues that the balance of power would return to normal even if there is no international law that would call for cooperation between states to maintain this peace . Power, in the case of Waltz’s study, pertains to the acquisition of military power and use of force to influence other states. States are then classified through their power since states have similar functions which is not different from the other. Position is also determined by power as seen in the Cold War as the US and the Soviet Union stood on top as the two superpowers, pointing their similarity on their capacity to influence and counter the other state. With these two superpowers present, any shift in power and influence would determine the structure of international politics. Upon the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union fell into disarray and upset the overall balance of power that inspired instability between states .
Aside from structural realism, neorealism based on relative and absolute gains is also available for study and is considered another version of neorealism. In this version, its major proponent Joseph Grieco argues that states prefer to fight because they wish to increase their influence and power over other states or absolute gains. In order to attain these gains, states would do anything – from entering into agreements, alliances to reform within the state on technology and overall capability – to attain this power and protect it. While this is being done, states would then focus on monitoring other states for their capability and amount of power held should it be taken over or the relative gains. However, since states are weary over the capability of other states, complete and trustworthy cooperation between states is difficult since states may cheat or even retreat from the cooperation due to the relative gains challenged by the alliance. Cases of nations moving out of cooperation alliances continue to increase each year because participants would find out that a state would benefit more with the agreement. In an example given, states find it difficult to discuss the banning of landmines because the states may argue that the landmines are helpful and provisions regarding its disposal. These provisions may be detrimental to the countries affected and enable great powers to influence the country. Grieco also adds the argument that even if states have a share of the benefits garnered from the partnership, someone would still argue that the other gains more.
Finally, neo-realism also covers the nature of security and how states and their structure act while taking into consideration the impacts it may have to the behavior of states and how the international structure would hold towards this change. In this version of neorealism, the position is divided into two: offensive and defensive realism. Offence realism supports Waltz’s position regarding the importance of power in determining the capacity of states. One of its proponents, John Mearsheimer, suggested that relative power is more important as compared to absolute power. His position also adds that leaders should utilize security policies that would weaken possible foes and at the same time, improving their own capability. Possible expansions of other states should also be taken into account as it would influence the balance of power and stability of international politics. On the other hand, defensive neorealist theorists like Robert Jervis and Jack Snyder argue that each state is aware of the possible impacts of war and would prepare accordingly to ensure that they get more benefits rather than the costs. It is most often that defensive neo-realists are seen as neo-liberals as they see the possibility of cooperation between states to take fruit. Defensive neorealists also argue that conflict unnecessary to assert their influence and relations with other states .
Since the introduction of neorealism presents an alternative theory as to how other states acts contradicting realism, it is often argued as to whether or not the other is advance or better from the other theory. On the one hand, realism is more influential than neo-realism for the fact that it provides a thorough perspective on the issue of moral conduct within the international stage and how it affects the already anarchic system. Realism is also advanced for the very fact that it covers ignored factors such as the role of power, the nature of human beings and the belief that humans can overcome the aftermath of war. On the other hand, however, neorealism is advanced as compared to realism for it already explains that anarchy persists because of the current world order and state action is influenced by this change. Neorealism can also be considered advanced because unlike realism, neorealism believes cooperation can persist under its defensive realism clause .
As the international system continues to change, the necessity on understanding as to why events can disrupt the balance of power and the role of each actor is crucial to prevent further onset of war or conflict. In the end of realism and neorealism, both theories present an alternative perspective as to explaining the nature of international relations. While both realist theories sustain the perspective of the three‘s’(statism, survival and self-help), both differ as to how they see the nature of human kind, the essence of power and the nature of the international arena itself. Realism argues that international politics is anarchic and humans are the main actors of this system, fighting for the sake of influence and power. On the other hand, neo-realism’s three versions argue that the structure of international politics itself influences the overall behavior of states in the world arena. Taking into consideration these differences, both realist theories provides a plausible theory to explain as to why the international system continues to change.
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