International Relations

Neorealism: a pessimistic and one-sided analysis of international politics?

Manu ANZOLA (2016), LSE/Sciences Po Double Degree in International Affairs.


Although neorealism certainly continues the legacy of a pessimistic worldview of international politics, it is rather different from its predecessors, both defensive neorealism and classical realism, in various important respects. Lumping all the realist works together in one pile and dismissing the oldest school of thought in international relations entirely misses the nuances between these different realist takes on international politics and does not do the discipline of international relations justice. While The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, written by John Mearsheimer, may indeed be one-sided, if what is meant by one-sided is that offensive neorealism is a flawed system-level analysis with limited scope, this judgment is a disingenuous and clearly biased attack on realism.

This paper will argue that realism is by no means one-sided. First, I will briefly mention some similarities between structural realism and its predecessors. Then, I will mention some important epistemological and methodological differences between structural and classical realism to highlight the diversity and richness of realist thought. Finally, I will look at different versions of structural realism itself to further drive the point home that the judgment gives a superficial treatment of the realist paradigm.

Jervis quotes Lakatos to reaffirm that “all theories undergo change in light of empirical investigations.” (1998: 972) He goes on to mention that the difficulty of determining which research programs are progressive and which are degenerating is due in part to the influence of perspectives and interests on relevant judgments. The belief that we cannot separate subject and object in our analyses, inherent in Carr’s realism, is also visible in Jervis’ argument. It seems then that the judgment against The Tragedy of Great Power Politics is influenced by someone who holds a more positive worldview and who has an interest in discrediting realism by grouping the many different schools of thought in the realist tradition together and accusing them of being one-sided. Saying that Mearsheimer’s work is as one-sided as its predecessors assumes that there is no disagreement amongst realists in regards to methodology and epistemology, but the historical development of the realist paradigm shows the contrary.

The intra paradigm debate in realism illuminates the myriad shades of realism. For example, current realist works, many of which have incorporated unit-level factors into their analyses, is one example of methodological broadening within realism that attests to its flexibility and arguably its progressiveness. Despite this, others claim that this broadening has damaged realism’s coherence and distinctiveness. For example, Legro and Moravcsik (2009) believe that realists today, what they call minimal realists, have caused realism to slide into other paradigms by not adhering to a narrow set of core realist assumptions. Per them, defensive neorealists and neoclassical realists violate their classical realist assumptions that states are in constant competition for control over scarce goods and that control over material resources is the primary determinant of state behavior. To say that structural realism is just as one-sided as its predecessors is to insinuate a monolithic realism that this debate clearly disproves.

So, what does it mean to be one-sided? If it refers to the realist paradigm’s skeptical view of international politics, the same critique can be leveled against idealists and utopians who can be said to always look on the bright side, while ignoring the harsh realities of the international system. If by one-sided the judgment refers to structural realism’s overemphasis on structural variables to explain state behavior, then one needs simply to look back at classical realism or to current realist scholarship, such as neoclassical realism, to see that other factors such as domestic politics are indeed part of their explanations, albeit in an auxiliary role.

While some neorealists may claim that classical realism is atheoretical and inadequately structural, other realists argue for the continuity and similarities between the two. Realists do agree on some things: they have a tragic understanding of life and regard history as cyclical. In effect, what could be said to be one-sided about neorealism and its predecessors is that they remain ever skeptical of state behavior. The glass as they say is still half empty. What are realist core assumptions? Per Parent & Baron “what makes a realist a realist is superlative emphasis on the power of external circumstances, and this trait has been impressively (or depressively) uniform over time…” (2011: 208) Power of course is still the currency of international politics; states are still the main actors, security competition is still a major concern and it is still imperative to consider relative over absolute power and the overall balance of power.

Classical realism is not one-sided and still relevant to the study of international relations today. The usefulness of neorealism on the other hand is questionable. Lebow states that neorealism denuded the realism of its complexity and subtlety and appreciation of agency. (2013: 59) Only time will tell what purchase its explicatory power may have in international relations. There are some important breaks with classical realism, which refute the judgment that conflates neorealism with its predecessors. First and foremost, notions of power are different and the concept itself is notoriously difficult to define. For Waltz and Mearsheimer power means having material capabilities, which specifically refers to having the largest army relative to other states and not about the ability to influence another actor. Even though power is an end itself in classical realism it also recognizes the limitations of power, something that seems to have been lost unto Mearsheimer. Furthermore, although structural realism considers power as a means to an end, the ends differ according to what kind of neorealist you ask: Waltz maintains the state’s number one goal is security not power, instead Mearsheimer argues it is survival, thus painting a picture of a more hostile anarchical system.

Furthermore, not only do realists conceive of what constitutes power in various ways, but they also have differing answers as to why states pursue power in the first place. Classical realism is thus also known as human nature realism or the evil school, while structural realism is referred to as the tragedy school. In the latter, it is anarchy and the relative distribution of power, effectively systemic causes that are at the root of perpetual security competition, not our human nature that exhibits an inherent lust for power. Thus, the structure of the international system is what determines state behavior and not any unit level characteristics. This has important implications for state behavior and international outcomes.

Proponents of classical realism such as Legro and Moravcsik, while they assume that underlying state preferences are fixed and conflictual, nevertheless maintain that the resulting state behavior is not necessarily so, instead arguing that states have strong incentives to avoid futile endeavors. (1999: 16) Therefore, while Mearsheimer’s offensive neorealist logic says the US will and should do everything in its power to contain China’s rise, Morgenthau’s classical realist logic calls for moderation in statecraft. As such, classical realists would consider containing China’s rise a futile endeavor and a bad foreign policy directive, because it does not take into consideration the limitations of power. In addition, it would be futile and irrational for China to try and achieve a feat only the US has ever accomplished. Kirchner (2010) agrees that a bid for hegemony would probably result in destruction, as the historical record corroborates this, hence it is not rational for China to risk survival to become a hegemon itself.

Consequently, Mearsheimer’s world is considerably more pessimistic in the sense that states are doomed to conflict, whereas Waltz depicts a more benign order with the possibility to avoid conflict. As Schmidt suggests, the principal differences between the two are assumptions about uncertainty about state intentions and rational actors. (2013: 233) Offensive structural realism is also gloomier, because its assumption of perpetual uncertainty implies that nothing can be done to ameliorate the security dilemma, whilst Waltz believes that it can be mitigated through signaling of intentions.

Another major difference between classical realism and neorealism concerns methodology. Indeed, the second debate in IR was about methodology and it occurred in the 1960s between traditional humanists like Morgenthau and Carr on one side, and the American behavioralists championing a scientific, empiricist, naturalistic theory on the other. In the end, the former rejected positivism, whilst the latter embraced it and has dominated since. According to Oren (2009), the main source of tension between what neorealists say and what they do, specifically that they intervene in policy debates while simultaneously upholding that the subject/object exists separately from one another, lies in their belief that international politics should be patterned after the natural sciences. This divergence in methodology and epistemology both serves as a self-imposed straightjacket on structural realism and as a reminder of the depth of disagreement between realists themselves.

In addition to the dissimilarities between classical and structural realism, we must take into consideration the discrepancies within structural realism itself, which only further reinforces my point that saying the realist paradigm is one-sided is not only biased itself, but misses the important nuances that lead to different explanations of state behavior and international outcomes.

Probably the most considerable distinction between defensive and offensive structural realists is about how the international system affects state behavior and how we can expect states to behave. More specifically, Waltz and Mearsheimer disagree regarding the answer to the question “How much power is enough?” Thus, we can say that states are either power optimizers or power maximizers. At the heart of the disagreement is what each considers to be the primary goal of the state. As Schmidt puts it, “for Mearsheimer the primary goal of all states is to be the most powerful state in the international system, while for Waltz…[it] is security.” (2004: 434) Waltz, the father of structural realism, believes states are power optimizers or that states only pursue as much power as they need to ensure their security and then stop. Mearsheimer disagrees. He believes conquest does pay sometimes, while Waltz maintains it rarely ever does, because other nations will form a balancing coalition against states with hegemonic/imperialist ambitions.

Evidently, not all realists adopt the rational actor assumption, which leads us to the next distinction between the two: Waltzian neorealism does not assume that states are rational actors, whereas Mearsheimer maintains his offensive realism does not need an alternative theory to explain instances where great powers do not act according to structural realist logic. Mearsheimer states that Waltzian realists need to combine “domestic-level and system-level theories to explain how the world works.” (2013: 83) It is hard to envision Mearsheimer’s followers ever seriously considering unit-level factors in their analyses, which could help strengthen his theory’s explanatory power, whereas Waltz readily acknowledges this need.

In conclusion, while Mearsheimer may have made some contributions to the realist tradition by providing us new theoretical insights, he, along with other ‘purists,’ would not consider adding auxiliary unit-level variables, while simultaneously maintaining core realist assumptions and the primacy of realist causal factors. Others have done so and have helped fill in the gaps that offensive structural realism acknowledges, but has no intention of correcting. The fact is that Mearsheimer’s theory fails to explain the actual behavior of great powers and does not provide persuasive arguments as to why. Nevertheless, classical realism as well as the abovementioned attempts at adding auxiliary unit-level factors to their explanatory models demonstrates that there are many ways to interpret realism. The realist paradigm is in constant evolution, and judging it as one-sided not only obscures the important nuances within it, but also belies the fact that paradigms are defined so by their core assumptions. A skeptical or pessimistic point of view does not make realism more one-sided than a hopeful, positive point of view makes liberalism partisan.


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