Theories on International Relations: Realism and Neo-Realism

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What are the main issues and concepts on which realist thinkers focus?

The dominant theoretical elements underpinning realism are statism , survival and self-help inherent in the writings of classicist realists such as Thucydides and structural realists such as Kenneth Waltz. A central theme of realism is the concept of anarchy which is used to denote the idea that ‘international politics takes place in an arena that has no overarching central authority above the individual collection of sovereign states.’ ( Baylis 2014, p. 101) . In the absence of such a global authority transcending individual states, Morgenthau explains the politics of international relations ‘according to a concept of interest defined by power.’ (Gellman, p.251) . The idea of a struggle for existence, through wars , competition in the political, legal and economic arena of international society is depicted by the Classical realist, Morgenthau, to be a consequence of the nature of man ‘longing for order, for control of his own fate, and for security against the unknown, death and domination by his fellow.’ (Gellman, p.252) . It is interesting that such views of human nature are similar to those the 17th century philospher, Thomas Hobbes, in his depiction of the brutish state of nature without the existence of goverment.
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How do the different forms of realism differ in their approach to these concepts and issues?

The forms of realism include Classical realism, Structural realism and Neoclassical realism. Among the Classical realists was Thucydides, the historian of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. His writing suggests that Sparta was driven to war due to the threat posed to its survival. Herein we observe an underlying theme of classical realism- the protection of the national interest of a state when distribution of power among states change; In this respect, another Classical realist, Machiavelli, in his text ‘the Prince’ suggests the idea that the ‘ultimate skill of the state leader is to accept and adapt to, the changing power political configurations in world politics. ( Baylis 2014, p.103). To the Classical realists war and conflict between states is a reflection of the innate human nature and its propensity for aggression and violence.
Structural or neo-realism, while agreeing with the classicists that the struggle for power characterizes international politics, disagree that such struggles are attributed to human nature. Instead, structuralists argue that it is the ‘anarchical system that fosters fear, jealousy, suspicion and insecurity.’ (Baylis 2014, p.103). In other words, the absence of an ‘overarching  authority above states’ (  Baylis 2014, p.104) accounts for power struggles and conflict among states. In this respect, Waltz’s form of structural realism reflects the idea that  ‘balance-of-power behavior by states is predicted from the structure of the international system.’ (Nye , p.241)In Waltz’s estimation, therefore, States  including superpowers, would have to take into account the capabilities of other states to ensure their security.
Perhaps one of the strengths of realism is  that it ’emphasises the continuities of the human condition, particularly at the international level’ ( Buzan, p.50) in that the power struggles of states in ensuring their survival is perceived to be a reflection of the state of mankind. In this respect, the Classical realism of writers such Morgenthau may be understood to be less of a theoretical abstraction of the realities of global politics and more of a an empirical observation of human nature ‘reflected in the political construction of states.’ (Buzan, p.50) . Realism as a dominant theory of International relations thus provides us with practical analytical tools for assessing the relations between states and the conflicts they face by pointing to the concepts of anarchic structure  and the balance of power.
A possible limitation of realism is the lack of an agreed definition of the concept of power ‘and therefore encompasses a very wide range of quite different understandings of what ‘power politics’ might mean.’ ( Buzan, p.51) Conceptualizing and measuring , for instance, the military and economic power of individual  states in relation to determining the balance of power in the international arena may be problematic and lead to varying subjective accounts of global events.
The possible limits of neorealism may be linked to its particularistic emphasis on ‘power’  within the context of ‘a positivist structuralism that treats the given order as the natural order, limits rather than expands political discourse.'(Ashley, p.228). Thus further political and sociological discourse  on, for instance, the psyche and motivation of statesman could perhaps assist the realist perspective to go beyond  ‘a framework that could be deployed to legitimize and orient the state.’ (Ashley, p.232).
I wonder if Realism has some relevance to the Myanmar government’s rejection of the UN’s recent fact finding report that accused six generals of the Tatmadaw of genocide. war crimes and crimes against humanity, and its recommendation that they be investigated by the ICC. The UN report also criticises the defacto leader Aung San Su Kyi for her failure to prevent the atrocities against the Rohingya carried out by the Tatmadaw. In her speech at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Singapore on 21 August 2018,  Aung San Suu Kyi spoke of  ‘terrorism as the root cause of conflict’,  and the danger of terrorist activities, which was the initial cause of events leading to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine’, stating that  “the outside world can choose the issues on which they wish to focus”.  ( Straits Times, 2018). The importance given by Suu Kyi to the the protection of national interests of Myanmar as threatened by ‘interlopers’ gives credence to the neorealist perpective,  that in the absence of a global governing authority with the legal and political power to enforce , for instance, the  findings of the UN, sovereign states such as Myanmar may continue to act with impunity. The fact that Myanmar’s economic and military allies in the UN Security Council such as as China have indicated their refusal to support any punitive actions against Myanmar possibly features in its national security assessments and its perception of the maintenance of the the balance of power in the ASEAN region .  To the neorealist,  ‘distribution of capabilities (multipolarity, bipolarity) …..predicts variations in states’ balance of power behavior.’ (Nye, p.241)


Baylis, J., Smith, S. and Owens, P. The Globalisation of World Politics,  6th ed. Oxford University Press.
Gellman, Peter. “Hans J. Morgenthau and the Legacy of Political Realism.” Review of International Studies, vol. 14, no. 4, 1988, pp. 247–266.
Nye, Joseph S. “Neorealism and Neoliberalism.” World Politics, vol. 40, no. 2, 1988, pp. 235–251


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