Neoclassical Realists and their Critics

March 11, 2013
Realism is a theory with important explanatory
power. But there are problems, not created
by its critics, but by its new adherents.
 Expanding the paradigm to discuss
explanatory factors not addressable by the
core realist insight. Therefore
 Dilute realism by making it less determinant,
less coherent and less distinctive.
 Confuse realism with other theories and
Research implications:
 Make distinguishing between research
theories and paradigms difficult
 Make tests between paradigms difficult
 Make it impossible to understand, appreciate
and apply the explanatory potential of other
types of theoretical approaches. Much of the
work those other theories are doing in
contemporary studies is obscured by the
approach being mistakenly labeled as realist.
 Make it impossible to understand and apply
the real explanatory value of realism
To recapture a true and workable
understanding of realism, must recapture an
understanding that is coherent and
This means going back and identifying the core
assumptions of realism. It is this core that
gives realism its explanatory power,
coherence, and difference from liberal,
epistemic, and institutional approaches.
There are three assumptions, all of which must
be used for a theory truly to be realist.
 Rational unitary state operating in an
anarchical world system
Anarchy = no overarching sovereign power
Rational = choosing the most efficient means
available to attain ends given available
 State
preferences are fixed and can conflict
across states
Preferences need not just be about survival
No need to assume that every state goal is in
conflict with other states’ goals
No need to assume that all outcomes result in
conflict or competition– may also be deterrence,
domination, threats, bribes, balancing.
world structure created by the distribution
of resources
This means that power is proportional to the
share a resources a state possesses.
The determinative power of structural position is
not affected by ideology or form of government.
All states tend to extract the same proportion of
resources from the territory it controls not
matter if a democracy or another type of state.
Defensive and neoclassical realists do not
adhere to all these premises. Instead, they
tend to accept only the first two.
These tend to argue that they are realist, but
are expanding or adding to realism. They are
in this sense “minimally realist”, but in
trying to expand or synthesize realism, they
lose realism’s coherence and distinctiveness.
Realism to Liberalism
Occurs when the presumption that states have
fixed and uniform preferences is dropped.
This allows for the consideration of
additional factors said to influence the
nature of preferences, including culture and
political system.
Examples: Snyder, Zakaria, Van Evera,
 Snyder’s discussion of imperialism as the
product of internal political factors that play
off of systemic factors
Another example of what is really liberal
analysis is that of neoclassical realists.
These “realists” argue for different state goals
by hold that states exploit power
differentials to expand influence, rather than
pursuing a universal fixed goal such as
security or power.
Zakaria: different types of states are different
in their abilities to extract resources; e.g.,
democracies weaker states than autocracies.
Somewhat akin to democratic peace theory.
Schweller: different types of states engage in
different types of balancing or coalition building
activities. Not the distribution of power in the
system, but characteristics of the state that
make them revisionist (jackal, wolf) or status
quo (lamb, lion). States adjust their power to
their preferences rather than their preferences
to their power.
In contrast, Morganthou argues that the terms
“status quo” and “revisionist” do not really
apply to states or goals, but rather to strategies
that are driven by systemic factors.
Realism to Epistemic Theories
This occurs when theorists move from
understanding power operating objectively and
in an unmediated fashion to determine behavior
to seeing power as operating as a factor through
mediating factors such as perceptions and
Walt and balance of threat: analysis depends upon
understanding leaders viewing power through
the lens of threat– states ally with others they
see as non-threatening, and balance against
states they perceive as threats.
Realist to Regime Theory
Occurs when a theorist agrees that
international institutions actually create an
international order (or influence an order)
rather than seeing them as instruments of
Generally based on the theoretical
understanding that states can contract
among themselves to solve particular
problems by creating an institution.
Again, the problem isn’t that such studies are
wrong or misguided; it is that their insights and
theoretical contributions are confusingly labeled
as realist.
But in fact, realism cannot explain everything, and
attempting to supplement or water down realist
theory in the attempt to do so again creates
incoherence and confusion.
Better to see each of four theoretical approaches
as the best ways of understanding the influence
of particular factors, each of which may be
predominant in particular circumstances:
Power in international system– realism
“Tastes” (influence of domestic preferences)–
Preferences– epistemic
Institutions– institutional theory
This recognition also means that useful realist theory
building recognizes the limits of that enterprise, and
discards Carr’s misleading characterization of theory
as divided between realists and idealists, with its
dismissal of everything that is not realist (and
mischaracterization of all others as idealist) and its
implicit call to explain everything by recourse to
Both rationalism and constructivism are
approaches to the study of international
politics, but are not in themselves
theoretical paradigms, as are realism,
liberalism and institutionalism.
Thus, to be useful, they must be joined with
one of these theoretical approaches,
including realism.
There are many different types of realism; the common
assumption among them is that sates are the main
actors in the world system and that states focus on
their own security.
Security within the realist paradigm:
 May not be the only good states pursue
 Pursued in many ways, but cannot be ignored
 Reason why international politics exists (e.g.,
individual security mitigates against the rise of an allpowerful state)
 Reason for moderation towards enemies and suspicion
of allies– don’t want the former weakened to much or
the latter strengthened too much
 Affects and is affected by economic policy
States as actors in the broader realist paradigm:
 May not be the only actors, but will never be
 Are the targets of other actors and often the
means by which other actors operate
 Do not all necessarily have the same goals
 Understanding a state’s goals depends on
analyzing a number of factors that realism by
itself cannot analyze– thus the need to
supplement realism
 Conflict among them always a possibility, but not
necessarily always ongoing
Realism also important for other theoretical
approaches because it provides a necessary focus
on the state and on the influence of
international power structures. Particularly
important to understanding:
 Understanding how power is related to goals, in
that power is mobilized to meet goals, and goals
are trimmed to match power
 Understanding that differences in power affect
states in that they are wary of engaging in
destructive actions, such as threatening the vital
interests of another state.
 Understanding situations in which cooperation is
Extensions of realism important to
 How amoral nature of international policies
is accepted while such action that would
benefit leaders themselves is not
 Creation and manipulation of ethnic and
national identity by leaders.
Neo-realism asserts that a true theory of
international relations can explain the dynamics
of the international system, outcomes, and
pressures, but not the foreign policy of a
particular country
Thus, the position of those who follow that brand
of realism argue that the study of foreign policy
should be left to others. It is not an autonomous
realm of activity, and therefore while it can be
analyzed, it cannot be theorized– too many
variables, too many contexts.
Other schools of realism do attempt to explain
foreign policies:
Offensive realism: systemic factors explain
Defensive realism: system factors can explain
some state-level actions.
Neo-classical realism:
 Can use realism to explain foreign policies
 International system factors are dominant–
reference to relative national power and
capabilities, anarchy
 But these factors are mediated by additional
factors at the national level
Additional factors that neo-classical realists
use to theorize foreign policies:
 Leaders’ perceptions and possible
misperceptions of power
 Strength of state in extracting and mobilizing
resources from territory and society
 Fact that international system in general is
indeterminate: dictate a menu of options but
not one particular option.
Neoclassical positions itself as a realist
alternative to other ways of theorizing
foreign policy:
Innenpolitik: internal factors are decisive:
political systems, clashes between political
systems, ideology, national character,
partisan politics
Problem: why do states with different internal
politics act in the same fashion
Offensive realism: states will create security
policies that lead to conflict– foreign policy
is the record of how states attempt to be
secure within a given international system.
Defensive realism: states are not constantly
concerned by security or survival within an
international system, thus can pursue various
goals. When they do feel threatened, they
respond by balancing.
Neoclassical realism provides an alternative to
 Primary factors are international
 Most practitioners go beyond defensive realism
to understand that perceptions of threats are
shaped by relative material power
 States don’t seek security, but rather to control
and shape the international environment in
order to eliminate uncertainty
 Thus, the relative amount of material power a
state has at hand will shape the outlines of the
scope and ambition of a state’s foreign policy
To explain why a state choose from the possibilities
presented by its relative material power, we must
look to state level for intervening variables:
 Leaders’ perceptions of security, power and
 State situation and ability to convert potential
national power into actual national power.
Thus method:
 Look at interaction primary and intervening variables
 Develop theoretically informed narratives– archive
work, primary sources, area studies expertise
 Model is the Peloponnesian Wars
Precursor examples:
Kennedy: Rise and Fall of Great Powers
Christianson: Useful Adversaries
Leffler: American foreign policy during the
early Cold War
Other differences from neorealists:
 Neorealists assume that states have accurate
understandings of relative power, and power
relations are objective, while neoclassical
realists argue that misperceptions and
intellectual developments affect such
 Neorealists think of states as actors with
power– all potential power is actualized, no
differences; neoclassical: type of state a
factor in turning potential power into actual
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