Realism or Neo-Realism: Theory in Light of Globalization

Realism and Neo-Realism: Evaluating the Limitations in Light of Globalization


“To what extent has neo-realism addressed the limitations of classical realism (if limitations there be)?

Realism as a discipline in international relations was not introduced formally, as such, until World War II. However, the primary assumptions of realism were expressed by earlier writers. According to the theory of Realism state power is not subject to the influence of people, multinational corporations, terrorists, or international organizations. The state itself is the supreme power. Balance, peace and progress are maintained and achieved through tactful negotiation and balance of power.
As time has passed and globalization has taken hold, it has become necessary, according to neo-realists, to address the influence of people, multinational corporations, terrorists, and international organizations. It became necessary to simplify the theory, examine the state within the structure, the structure within the state, and the influences affecting each.
The lack of classical realism to address the structure’s influence on the state, and the individuals influence on the state, is perhaps the biggest difference between classical realism and neo-realism. It is an area that neo-realism attempts to address.
To that end, this paper will attempt to examine classical realism, its limitations, and the solutions, if any that neo-realism offers to the realist theory.

Classic Realism

The theory of classic realism is rooted in a belief that war is a regular condition in international relations. Classical realists believe that the state of war can be reduced to human nature. It is the nature of man that pushes states and individuals to act in a way that places interests over ideologies.
Great emphasis is placed on the state, each having its own set of values and therefore being the supreme good, due to the lack of community across borders. Essentially, classical realists recognize the state as supreme, ignoring all other influences within the international system. The state exists in and of itself and exists independently in the international sphere of anarchy and chaos. For example, as noted by Baylis, Smith and Owens (2008), “the decision by Pakistan and India to test nuclear weapons would be explained by looking at the influence of military leaders in both states and the long-standing differences compounded by their geographic proximity. All of these explanations are unit or bottom-up explanations” (p. 127).
Thucydides, a classical realist, examined the underlying causes of the Peloponnesian War in The Melian Dialogue. As noted by the Athenians, “…the path of justice and honour involves one in danger…”(Baylis et al., 2008, p. 98). This is key in classical realism, they believe in the human condition and the pursuit of power, but “[j]ustice law and society have either no place or are circumscribed” (Baylis et al., 2008, p. 96) from the theory.
To classical realists, power is an end. National interests are secured through the use of power to gain even more power. “Although traditional Realists recognize different elements of power…, military power is considered the most obvious element of a state’s power” (Baylis et al., 2008, p. 127).


Neo-realism, a later discipline of realism agrees on many of these factors, but instead of focusing strictly on human nature, they expand the theory to include the international system. Instead of seeing the system as states existing separately within a sphere of anarchy, neo-realism attempts to examine the force of the international system on the state and the influence of the individuals within a state. This is perhaps the biggest difference between classical realism and neo-realism. Furthermore, classical realism defines the state’s interests by power, as a result of man’s natural condition, neo-realism defines the state’s interests as defined by power and wealth. As noted in Baylis et al., (2008), “according to Waltz, structure is defined by the ordering principle of the international system, which is anarchy, and the distribution of capabilities across units, which are states” (p. 127).
While most states needs are the same, capabilities to obtain these needs differ between states. The relative differences in capabilities among states to meet their needs therefore results in distrust and fear within the international system. It is the fear that other states, with the capabilities, will become more powerful which result in the uneven globalization process and an uneven distribution of power in the international system. In addition, and supporting Waltz’s theory, neo-realists view globalization as a challenge but still see politics as international, and states as the principal actors in the international political arena. Their main concern, in regards to Globalization is uneven distribution of power, which results in inequality and therefore conflict.
According to Waltz’s essay in the Journal of Politics & Society, “[d]ifferent structures permit and cause the units of a system to change their behavior and produce different outcomes” (Waltz, p. 4).
Waltz understood the structure of the international system to be one that operates as either a bipolar, multipolar, or unipolar system. Waltz argued that, “[s]tates matter, and the structure of international politics matters. Which matters more varies with changes in the structure of international politics” (Waltz, p. 4).
States behavior may be influenced by the conditions surrounding the state. The behavior will vary from the norm if external change around the state is drastic.
Waltz insisted that we look at system level factors of conflict because “shifts from multi-, to bi-, to uni-polarity during the past century well illustrate how strongly differences in polarity affect the behavior of states and alter international outcomes” (Waltz, p. 5).
Waltz also argued that the disappearance of the balance of power will result in the remaining power eventually exercising its superiority. The disappearance of the balance of power occurs in several different ways. One of which is through the growth of a country’s economy. As a country’s economic ability grows it moves the country from a lower level of power to a dominant presence in regional and global affairs. Neo-realists believe that a states position in the hierarchy of the international system will influence its behavior. It is the combined power of a state, such as economic and military powers, that will define the capabilities of a state and thus its position in the international system. This is in contrast to the belief that a state’s function in the international system is that which would determine its place.
In contrast to the belief that military power is supreme, Waltz actually believed that it was not as important as it once was. “As recent conflicts in Russia, Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, and Sri Landa suggest, many leaders still believe that they can resolve their differences with force” (Baylis et al., 2008, p. 128). International relations today, means that force will take forms other than military strength. One such force today is the implementation of sanctions and tariffs as a means to apply force to other states.
In addition, classical realist and neo-realist differ fundamentally, as noted by Baylis et al., (2008),
“in the sense that they [neo-realist] engaged with moral philosophy and sought to reconstruct an understanding of virtue in light of practice and historical circumstance” (p. 96).
One of the most notable theorists who undertook this engagement was Machiavelli. Machiavelli noted that while virtue is desirable the best practice is to act so as to preserve and protect the state. As he stated in The Prince, “a prince should seem to be merciful, faithful, humane, religious, and upright, and should even be so in reality, but he should have his mind so trained that when occasion requires it, he may know how to change to the opposite” (Kaufmann, Parker, Howell and Doty, 2004, p. 139).
To Machiavelli morality had no place in international relations, except to be used as a tool to earn the support of the people within the state. In regards to international relations, it was, according to Machiavelli, “much safer to be feared than loved” (Kaufmann et al., 2004, p. 126).


In conclusion, regardless of their differences, realists, neo or classical, do have a common set of basic assumptions that they agree on, being, self-help, statism, and survival. However, classical realism was indeed limited, perhaps not in the era of its conception, but in light of current events and the expansion of globalization, it has become such. Neo-realism has addressed the limitations of classical realism, allowing us to evaluate the evolving world of international relations. For example, the evaluation of the influence that organizations such as the G-20, the IMF, and the World Bank have on international relations are possible with a neo-realist approach. Realism did not provide for the evaluation of actors outside of the state, or special interest groups who drive political influence within the state. A neo-realist approach to current affairs such as terrorism and international market regulation is absolutely necessary if we are to be able to evaluate the influence that these individual actors have on international relations today.


Baylis, J., Smith, S., Owens, P. (2008). The globalization of world politics: An introduction to international relations (4th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Kaufmann, D.J., Parker, J.M., Howell, P.V., Doty, G.R. (2004). Understanding international relations: The value of alternative lenses (5th ed.). Boston: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Waltz, K. (n.d.). Neorealism: Confusion and Criticisms. Journal of Politics and Society, 1-6.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply