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Is There A Timeless Wisdom To Neorealism Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3484 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Neo-realism is the starting point of international politics analysis and the basis of construction for the variant posterior theories. However, nowadays the emergence of new challenges against the neorealist thought lead to the partial marginalisation of the theory. This essay attempts to demonstrate that neo-realism’s wisdom, is diachronic and its main arguments can be proved over the time, considering the past and contemporary international system. To prove my argument, I will mainly focus on the theoretical analysis given by the two most significant representatives of neo-realism, Waltz and Mearsheimer. Firstly, I will examine neorealism’s fundamental assumptions regarding its interpretation of structure, power and alternations of war and peace, with a parallel evaluation of them. Throughout this process I will mention relevant examples taken from the past and recent history. Secondly, I will discuss the controversial criticisms made against the theory with a coincidently judgment of them. Finally, in the conclusion I will argue that instead of the recent decline, neo-realism’s depictions continue to be and always will remain a timeless wisdom for evaluating the International Relations.

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Neo-realism’s worldview about structures and alternations of war

Neo-realist theory comes to the front of politics debates before the beginning of Second Cold War, as a reaction to the new challenges of globalisation, as a resurrection of state’s role over the system and to restate the significance of bipolarity and systemic constraints in international politics (Burchill 2009: 87). To begin with, we should consider the neo-realist main theoretical arguments to form a clear view about the continuity of the theory until the present.

Waltz was the first who dedicated the “autonomy of international politics”, as a separate field, apart from domestic politics, in his attempt to introduce the “scientific rigour” to the study of politics (Waltz 1990: 27-28; Burchill 2009: 88). Waltz suggests that the system is formed by “structural and unit levels” (Waltz 1990: 29). Therefore, he makes a distinction between external and internal factors that affect the international system (Waltz 1990: 27-28) and he proposed the so-called “systemic theory” as a key to explain the behaviour of the states in the international system (Keohane 1986: 13).

Waltz’s theory can be valuable for predictions (Burchill 2009: 89). According to him, there is a defined “structural continuity” over the time situated in the anarchical condition of the international system (J.G. Ruggie 1986: 134). The variety of the unit’s structures, secures a disproportion in their policy outcomes. Hence, similarities in political structures between states sound similarities in their political effects (Waltz 1986: 81).

Internationally, the “anarchy” is the superior law that rules the universe and produces the perpetual willing of survival and power between them (Waltz 1986: 70-97). Though states are characterised by variety domestically, their foreign policy has an exceptional analogy: “international political systems stand in relations of coordination…No one is entitled to command and none is required to obey” (Waltz 1986: 81). States concede an existence of some “systemic constraints” (commanded by the situation of anarchy) between them, which determinatively affect the relations and impose the game of diplomacy and survival. States reconcile their interests and goals looking to their neighbours (Burchill 2009: 90; Waltz 1986: 70-97). As a result, the structure of the international system is defined by the position each state possess in the whole world ordering (Waltz 1986: 72).

Waltz analyzes his ambitious political structure concept reliant on three necessary calculations, in his attempt to distinguish the domestic politics from the international (J.G. Ruggie 1986: 134).

The ordering principle of anarchy

In international politics, the existence of anarchy indirectly demands from its members to take part in a process of a continuous competition, an “informal battle”. The international system is formed by “self-regarded” autonomous units. There is no “centralised authority” upon them to ensure their integrity, so each unit has the right to fashion its foreign policy and fight for its survival. Waltz states, that the balancing of power must be the ultimate aim of all states (Waltz 1986: 81-93, 99-115; J.G Ruggie 1986: 134-135; Mearsheimer, 2007: 72-75; Burchill 2009: 91-92)

At the same time, from the side of offensive realists, Mearsheimer, an equally significant representative of the neo-realism theory, further argues that states are always preparing to confront gainfully a future possible attack or even to gain the opportunity to be a powerful hegemony. Thus, there is no other path except for the pursuit of power in a “self-help” world. (Mearsheimer 2007: 72-75).

Each country sets its own aims and goals which are always depend upon their capabilities. There is no “night-watchman” who can command powerful states such as United States, so they continue to have the priority among the others. (Mearsheimer 2007: 72-75; Waltz 1986: 81-93, 99-115). Even an international organization such as the United Nations has no influence upon its most powerful members. Indicative is the case of the war against Iraq. Even though the Security Council did not approve the war, the US disregarded the decision and invaded Iraq (Mearsheimer 2006: 699; Weiss & Kalbacher, 2008: 332). Furthermore in Europe regional institutions such as NATO and European Union do not have the ability to enforce their member states to go against their strategic interests (Mearsheimer 2006: 699-700).

The intentions and the character of a state

“This assumption allows for the fact that no one state always acts exclusively to ensure its survival…States are free individuals who often make decisions under the heavy pressure of events” (Waltz, 1986: 85). Simplifying this statement, neo-realism argues that we can’t just trust that a culture or a democratic regime or the peaceful history or a status-quo character of a country or ideology can guarantee the deterrence of a war. The intentions of a country are not always certain (Waltz, 1986: 87-92, 99). Viewing the past, many traditionally peaceful states have changed their pure intentions into aggressive war strategies. This becomes worse if we account that every state has the military capability to do this. This is evident in the United States policy. Does any from the above reasons dissuaded Americans from declaring war against Iraq? The answer is no. This necessity imposed by the anarchy, began an endless game of power between the states. This competition actually is inevitable because no one can predict and be sure about the further intentions of a state. Of course the interests of statesmen are not always predictable as well. In the case of Germany for example, if the world knew from the beginning that Hitler’s ambitious plans, was to make his country an empire and a great power all over the world, I am sure that a big number of countries would have changed their foreign policy radically (Mearsheimer 2007: 72-75; Waltz 1986: 81-93, 99-115).

And Mearsheimer’s point completes the meaning: “In anarchic system…states that want to survive have little choice but to assume the worst about the intentions of other states and to compete for power with them. This is the tragedy of great power politics” (Mearsheimer 2007: 75).

The distribution of capabilities among the states

The distribution of capabilities among the states also helps to define the structure of the international system. As Waltz argues, “states are differently placed by their power”. The units of the anarchic system distinguished by their greater or lesser capabilities for performing similar tasks” (Waltz, 1986: 92-93). Although states seek to ensure their survival in the political order, they don’t have equal capabilities (Waltz, 1986: 101). A state’s capability of possessing military power for instance, can strike the fear in its competitors and the necessity of having an equally powerful military force. Consequently, neo-realists divide the states as “great” and “small” powers according to their place in the global system. (Burchill, 2009: 92) A vivid illustration is the United States. As Mearsheimer states, “no country in Western Hemisphere would dare to strike the USA, because it is so powerful relative to its neighbours” (Mearsheimer, 2007: 74; Waltz, 1986: 92-93, 99-115).

We can illustrate the diachronic value of neo-realism, by looking at the past behaviour of certain states. On the twentieth century Imperial Germany, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan have all tried to establish their hegemony by conducting great wars, but they failed (Mearsheimer, 2007: 77). In addition, Mearsheimer interestingly examines the case of China, which is parallel with Germany’s past behaviour. While USA had established its regional hegemony in the twentieth century, the gradual growth of China’s power over Asia frustrated United States and China’s neighbours. How the world will react on China’s challenge? Will China balance its power with the other great powers or will it assert the hegemony as a new Germany? Surely, the great powers will not just stand by and watch to their concrete position in the world being lost and consequently they will try to “chain” China’s increased development. So, no one is to guarantee that China’s rise will be peaceful (Mearsheimer 2007: 82-86). Changes like this in power distribution may cause a future war (Mearsheimer 2007: 78).

A growing power always light the suspicions of the dominant powers and “the dominant state knowing its days at the pinnacle of power are numbered, has strong incentives to launch a preventive war against the challenger to halt its rise” (Mearsheimer 2007: 82). Germany for instance, seeing the threatening rise of the Soviet Union in the 90s launched preventive wars in 1914 and 1939 correspondingly, to maintain its power in Europe. Furthermore, nowadays we can see China’s rise as a similar case, since as I have already mentioned before, its significant growth keeps United States and its neighbours in a constant lookout (Mearsheimer 2007: 78-82).

A controversial matter which neo-realism also tries to identify, is how many great powers are enough to rule the world (Mearsheimer 2007: 75). The most significant representatives of neo-realism, Mearsheimer and Waltz, converge in their analysis about the ideal polarity system and on how dangerous the unipolar system is. Both point out that the end of bipolarity between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 90s and the latter unipolarity of United States is “the single most dramatic change in contemporary world politics”. The theorists who claim that bipolar systems are “less war-prone” than unipolar, rely on the distribution of capabilities theory (Burchill 2009: 97-98). Waltz proposes that “with the end of bipolarity, the distribution of capabilities among states has become lopsided” and “the growing inequality” between states would undermine the peace (Waltz, 2000: 7). As a result of America’s dominance over the world, other states would attempt to “balance against it” or reach its power. Moreover, United States would probably feel militarily secure to impose its domination to other regions and try to reorder their polity, as in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan (Burchill 2009: 80).

Critics and challenges against neo-realism

“The importance of neo-realism has been widely recognized” as the primary school that established the international politics as autonomous field in politics (Keohane 1986: 16). However, the theoretical exhibition of neorealist’s approaches in the 90s was – and continues to be – the reason of the countless divergences between the critics, who mainly judge Waltz’s theories and propose new ways on viewing international relations.

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Some of them criticized Waltz’s theory for its “omissions”. Ruggie, for example, provides his “institutional transformation” concept (Keohane 1986: 17), an attempt to prove that Waltz’s political concept was “substantively mistaken” (Ruggie, 1986: 152), because he didn’t account structure’s property relations changes, such as “dynamic density” variations (Keohane, 1986:17, Walt, 1990: 28). Keohane, also discusses the weakness of Waltz’s theory to include further explanatory elements of the international’s system structure, like economic interdependence, international institutions and the information richness (Keohane, 1986: 18). They both believe that Waltz’s theory should paid more attention to aspects of world politics that ignores (Keohane 1986: 24).

Waltz’s response, is that these elements, even though are important, cannot be a part of a state’s theory because they are matters of practical interest and cannot alone write a theory. In contrast the “positional picture” of a state should stay the main explanation key for state’s relations because simply the anarchy rules the whole. States are positioned in a “self-help” world where there is a perpetual game of survival. Moreover, as Waltz argues, theories are useful for understanding and explaining and are not necessarily guides for application (Waltz 1986: 329-330; Waltz, 1990: 28-29). Therefore, “critics of neorealist theory fail to understand that theory is not a statement about everything that is important in international political life, but rather a necessarily slender explanatory construct” (Waltz, 1990: 30).

Other critics underestimate the conservative character of Waltz’s theory. They support that, Waltz presents structures as “given political fixtures” and the international system as a “cyclical pattern” (Burchill, 2009: 93-94). As a result, Cox argues, neo-realism legitimizes the status-quo, which favours the great powers and establishes a permanent disability of weak states for positional change (Burchill, 2009: 94). In other words, “the prospects for alternative expressions of political community are limited” (Linklater 1995: 258-9; Burchill 2009: 99). But Waltz identifies that Cox’s accusations are based on the fact that he overstates the state’s role as units in the international system and thereby make them static (Waltz 1986: 338).

Other theoretical perspectives have also emerged as a response to neorealist thought, and challenged neorealist. An example of those theories is liberalism. With childish naivety these theories strongly support the ideas of a big economic community co-operation, pacification and globalisation. In other words, neo-liberalists put the importance of ruling the world peace, not in the military capabilities like neo-realists, but on economic factors. Neo-liberalists argue that the new challenges of globalisation, the technological evolution and the appearance of non-state actors, have established a “borderless world” where states have now a very low profile (Burchill 2009: 95-97). Doyle suggests that because the unit-members of a liberal democracy have pounded continuously from violence and wars as a product of the anarchic system, now they have reduced their aggressive incentives and they are ready to co-operate with each other in the name of peace (Doyle 1986: 1151-1169). But, these hopes for a peaceful world in terms of economic globalisation and democracy were shattered “in the wake of September 11” and neo-realism “has made a stunning comeback” in the realm of international relations (Mearsheimer 2007: 86).

(Besides, I don’t believe that Cyprus could ever be as equal as United Kingdom politically or economically nor as able as it to pretend rights on the international foreground. This can’t be accomplished because, “states are rational actors”. The higher amount of power each state has, the higher security will enjoy (Mearsheimer, 2007: 74). )

Furthermore, neo-liberalists haven’t consider countries such as Africa which are unaffected by globalisation and consequently have little opportunity to take part in this community (Burchill 2009: 95-97). In addition, Krasner claims that, “not all the constituent parts of a nation-state’s sovereignty are equally vulnerable to globalisation” and “the transnational corporations are not as global as first thought. Despite their popular image, they remain largely anchored at home” (Krasner 1999). Burchill concludes that, the distribution of capabilities will always remain the primary key for understanding politics because “the economic interdependence of the last century failed to prevent the First World War” and some conflicts among this alleged economical community of the world, like the “break-up of Yugoslavia”. Nuclear weapons and the possession military power will always have the greatest importance in International Relations (Waltz 2000: 4-7; Burchill 2009: 95-97).

Waltz further accounts, that a state will never diminish its self-interests “for the sake of international order” (Burchill, 2009: 93). This will happen because the states “constantly looking for opportunities to gain advantage over each other, with the ultimate prize being a hegemony” (Mearsheimer, 2007: 77).


This essay has argued that neorealism’s main assumptions could constitute a diachronic guide book for states and statesmen. One claim made about neo-realism, is that neo-realism died with the end of Cold War, because the new challenge of globalisation guarantees the world peace in terms of cooperation, liberalisation and paralyzes the role of states. Another suggests that neo-realism is old-fashioned because now the idea of democracy and the subordination on law’s recommendations overflow into the world. However, there are strong evidence that the neo-realist’s view of politics will always remain a fundamental and essential key to explain world affairs and states’ behaviours (Burchill, 2009: 86).

Firstly, the units function in an anarchic international system. Domestically, the variety of the units still leads to differently potential outcomes and interests. Internationally, states still seek to maximize their power or balancing each other to survive.

Secondly, states always fear for possible attacks and therefore try to acquire as much power as possible in order to ensure their security. The inequality of capabilities gives a state the opportunity to be a threat against others or even to assert the hegemony. There is no one above states to safeguard their integrity and so states are never certain if other states intentions are aggressive or defensive. Associatively, the military and security power still remain the main concern for international politics with economic factors coming second.

Thirdly, neorealist’s views on what causes war, seems that are still well-timed. A change in the distribution of capabilities can light the suspicions and launch a preventative war. In terms of polarity, states struggle to gain the label of a great power and thereby to succeed their interests. As a result, even more states have the right and the opportunity to participate in this game of power which it may cause a war.

Those reasons, as neo-realism dictates, somehow coerce states to march each other temporally to keep a balanced peace or to cause a likely war. Therefore, though the theoretical line of neo-realism is fashioned on the past, it can also apply to the present and the continuity of the theory can be detected in neorealist’s approaches over the years.

“The world remains a dangerous place…States still worry about their survival, which means that they have little choice but to pay attention to the balance of power. International politics is still synonymous with power politics, as it has been for all of recorded history” (Mearsheimer, 2007: 86).


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