Realism and Neorealism in International Relations

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 7
Words: 1655
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: College


International politics have changed significantly since the end of the Second World War. After the global upheaval, realism gained much attention from political scientists and scholars. This was after the United States and the Soviet Union began a new journey towards global domination. The next decades ushered in a new era characterized by diverse foreign policies and approaches to international security.

Realism emerged in the United States when scholars began to focus on various developments that reshaped international relations such as power, security, anarchy, and national interests (Isaac 1987). Throughout the 1990s, many political scholars and leaders believed strongly that realism had become obsolete in the world of international relations (IR). The Cold War had already come to an end, thereby minimizing global conflicts. However, the events of September 11 proved that realism was still consequential in IR.

Isaac (1987) defines realism as a concept that seeks to analyze the world the way it is. The approach goes further to indicate that people should not be concerned with what the planet ought to be. Realism is, therefore, an empirical exemplar that seeks to unravel the recurrent events in global wars, politics, and conflicts. Realists usually treat nations (or states) as the major players in international affairs.

Realists tend to consider two diverse concepts. These include neorealism and classical realism. Classical realism is a model that traces international politics and conflicts from human nature. Neorealism, on the other hand, is a premise that supports power as the most critical attribute in IR. It is undeniable that the theories have unique differences. Neorealism asserts that nations are unitary actors in international politics. According to conception, upheavals are rooted in disordered international systems.

Followers of this model use scientific approaches to study and analyze the nature of international politics. On the other hand, classical realism indicates that wars and global conflicts are catalyzed by people’s blemishes (Osianderm 1998). Classical realists focus on revisionist and status-quo dominance in global affairs (or wars). Using the case of Syria, this essay seeks to prove and describe why neorealism remains a valid theory in international relations.

Why Realism is Still a Valid Tradition in International Relation

After the end of the Cold War, the United States became the only superpower capable of determining the course or development of various global relations and wars (Osianderm 1998). The emergence of this new dawn convinced many scholars in international relations that realism theory had become obsolete. The issue of power struggle, according to them, had come to an end. However, September 11 became a turning point in the manner in which different analysts viewed realism as a tradition in IR.

Most of the events experienced in different countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan confirm that war is a critical aspect of international politics. That being the case, realism will influence and dominate both practice and theory in IR. Structural realism (also called neorealism) has emerged as a powerful model for analyzing international relations (Osianderm 1998). According to the model, power is treated as a critical factor in the manner in which nations relate to each other.

Power Struggle

Different structural realists have presented unique views to examine the issue of power struggle. The two leading theorists include Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz. These scholars indicate clearly that power is the ultimate goal or price in the international landscape. Many analysts acknowledge that states’ behaviors are informed by the material structure defining the international system (Morgenthau 1960).

Waltz believes strongly that power is composed of different components such as military strength, political competence, economic stability, population size, and resources (Osianderm 1998). This analysis reveals that material possessions are necessary for promoting power. The theorist goes further to support the relevance of political stability. This description shows clearly that power is limited to material factors. On the other hand, Morgenthau singles out military strength as the true definition of power. However, he goes further to focus on a country’s governance system, morale, and character. These attributes work synergistically to dictate the rate at which a given state realizes its objectives in the pursuit of global supremacy.

These theorists have managed to present convincing arguments to explain why nations struggle for power. Morgenthau indicates that people’s desire to control others is what informs the aspiration for power in the international landscape. States are therefore collective reflections of this desire for dominance (Waltz 1979). The absence of governance across the globe can result in ineffective behaviors among other countries.

Waltz goes further to correct Morgenthau’s arguments. He indicates that the anarchical nature of the world is what calls for power politics (Morgenthau 1960). According to the theorist, nations yearning for power follow the rhythms of the international system. This is done in an attempt to endure a worldly order that cannot offer protection. This becomes the guiding principle for the behavior of a given state.

The Rise of New Powers

As mentioned earlier, neorealism is a powerful theory that explains why countries utilize their resources and manpower to attain power. Within the past three decades, new changes characterized by emerging powers such as India, Brazil, and China have been recorded across the world. Some analysts have indicated that the wave of globalization has catalyzed the economic growth of these nations. However, the truth of the matter is that most of these nations appear to match most of the requirements for attaining power as described by Morgenthau and Waltz. The concepts outlined by structural realists can be used to study and analyze how different international relations have evolved in the recent past (Isaac 1987).

As Morgenthau indicates, nations utilize their resources to succeed in a world that might not offer the required protection (Morgenthau 1960). At the same time, some countries will utilize their resources to strengthen their armies in an attempt to become powerful. This approach appears to echo the materialistic approach outlined by many structural realists such as Waltz. The emergence of new powers can be described as a potential threat to the security or survival of a given nation (Isaac 1987). This notion is presented by many realists to explain why different nations analyze the nature of the world as it is.

According to this understanding, the current rise and growth of countries such as China present a new status quo that continues to attract the attention of many countries such as the United States. The neorealism theory asserts that great powers will be in a position to dictate their counterparts (Waltz 1979). Waltz presents a detailed analysis of specific resources that can empower a specific nation to become powerful. Unfortunately, many developed western nations such as the United States, France, and the United Kingdom are usually afraid of any new global power. This issue should be analyzed clearly through the lens of structural realism.

The complexity of National Interest: Syrian Crisis

Research indicates clearly that national interest has become complex than ever before. Neorealism asserts that a state will utilize its resources to ensure its survival is guaranteed. Consequently, the state will be willing to pursue its economic, political, and military goals. Many realists acknowledge that the survival of a nation is what influences this behavior. Neorealism goes further to explain why different nations work hard to develop their military strengths and offensive capabilities (Wendt 1987).

Such achievements are critical because a given nation cannot be aware (or sure) of the specific aims of other states. The theory accepts that many global leaders distrust one another. Consequently, such states should utilize their resources and assets to pursue power. The loss of control can create a loophole that might be targeted by different enemies.

The Syrian conflict reveals that international relations are something that should be analyzed from a realistic perspective. Many analysts believe that the conflict has brought together three different powers that are trying to outshine each other. The nations have presented their expectations to their respective counterparts. Consequently, the key stakeholders such as the United States, Assad, and Russia have realized that their national interests are critical. This situation has awakened the notion that sovereign states are equal players in the international system (Adler 1997).

The conflict experienced in Syria has proved that different states should reconsider their positions and focus on the best strategies to support their intentions. The survival of global powers appears to be threatened by the rise of various terrorist groups such as ISIL and Assad. The same pressure is also experienced by emerging hegemonies such as China and Brazil. Since the anarchic principle defining the international system remains decentralized, it becomes quite clear that every sovereign state will be identifying new ways to pursue their interests (Wendt 1987). This move will ensure the states are prepared against the unknown intentions of every emerging power and terrorist group.


The evolution of international relations is a subject that cannot be clearly understood without examining how different sovereign states have been struggling for power and supremacy. The struggle matches the description and meaning of neorealism. It is agreeable that the theory seeks to explain how power is the leading factor in international relations (Waltz 1979). The nature of realism existing today explains how different nations continue to pursue power.

A materialistic approach is an evidence as more nations focus on the best initiatives to remain powerful. This distinction fulfills the unique attributes of neorealism. A neoclassical explanation is also evident since human nature can be used to describe the driving force behind the pursuit of power. The rise of new powers such as China and the emergence of conflicts in Syria explain why more states are working hard to pursue their national interests. Despite such changes, the anarchical attributes of global politics remain unaltered. This development reveals that realism is still a legitimate model that informs the behaviors of US-allied states and their rivals. In conclusion, this discussion has confirmed that neorealism is a valid tradition in international relations.

Reference List

Adler, E 1997, ‘Seizing the middle ground: constructivism in world politics’, European Journal of International Relations, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 319-363.

Isaac, JC 1987, ‘Beyond the three faces of power: a realist critique’, Polity, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 4-31.

Morgenthau, HJ 1960, Politics among nations, Alfred Knopf, New York, NY.

Osianderm, A 1998, ‘Rereading early twentieth-century IR theory: idealism revisited’, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 3, pp.409-432.

Waltz, K 1979, Theory of international politics, McGraw Hill, New York, NY.

Wendt, A 1987, ‘The agent-structure problem in international relations’, International Organization, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 335-370.