Classical Realism, Neorealism and Why They’re Wrong

In studying international relations there are several theories for interpreting the past and attempting to predict the future. While “no single approach can capture all the complexity of contemporary world politics” (Mingst, 4), it is important to understand and compare competing theories. It is through this synergistic (the sum is greater than the parts) approach that the kaleidoscope of international events are brought into focus.

The field of international study has been considered its own field of study for the relatively brief span of time of a hundred years and classical realism is one of the earliest theories. Indeed, many of the theorists and ideas of classical realism pre-date the formal school of thought. Modernly speaking, classical realism began as a foil to the theory of liberalism, that is, people (and thus the states they create) are basically good. Classical realists countered that the state is a self-serving entity that is neither good nor evil, simply exists in state of anarchy and acts in any way necessary to serve its own interests (Mingst, 3).

There have been many writers who have contributed to classical realism from Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes to Rousseau, Richelieu, Clausewitz, and Carr (Mingst, 70 and O’Connor). It is Hans J. Morgenthau, though, who codified the theory of classical realism into six concise principles: 1) politics follows objective rules rooted in human nature; 2) the linchpin of politics is power; 3) power is an objective quantity; 4) there is tension between politics and morality 5) morality is not universal; and 6) politics operates outside of any other concern, like morality. While these six principles represent the core of Morgenthau’s theory, there is an additional important aspect to realism. Realism holds that nation-states exist in a state of anarchy with a ‘balance of power’ among states.

To understand classical realism it is important to understand the lexicon of the theory. (Of course, the theory is simply known as realism until the arrival of its off-spring, neorealism. At that point, then, realism becomes ‘classical realism’ for clearer distinction.) Classical realists believe the nation-state to be led by a principal, unitary actor who speaks wholly and solely for the nation-state. To paraphrase Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution, the mission of the state (and thus its unitary actor) is to preserve, protect and defend the state. Classical realism makes two more major assumptions: that domestic issues are subordinated to foreign issues and that state always acts rationally (Mingst, 65).

As a construct, the theory of classical realism is sound, but if any of the four parts [anarchy/balance of power system, principal-actor/unitary-actor, acts rationally, and the supremacy of foreign affairs/security] of the theory are undermined, then the entire theory is suspect. As it happens, there are several problems with the theory of classical realism. First, as noted, the theory assumes that the state is lead by a unitary actor and ignores internal disputes. In the words of Karen Mingst, it assumes “there are no subnational actors trying to overturn the decision of the government or subvert the interests of the state” (Mingst, 66). Realists believe that any internal squabbling is forgotten in the interests of the nation-state. The theory woefully underestimates internal subnational actors (such as Robert F. Kennedy arguing against the war in Vietnam during the Johnson Administration) and ignores non-state actors (Such as Pope Urban who called Christendom to the Crusades, but was only the unitary actor or a relatively small Papal State).

Secondly, classical realism’s assumption of rational actors is naïve. The “classical” writer Thucydides himself “admitted that there are potential impediments to rational decision-making, including wishful thinking of the part of the leaders, confusing intentions and national interests, and misperceptions about characteristics of the counterpart decisionmaker[s]” (Mingst, 66). Was Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia rational and in the nation-state’s best interest or was it a selfish, personal tragedy? What of Adolph Hitler’s much compared invasion of the Soviet Union less than a hundred years later? There is a literal and medical question as to the rationality of nation-state leaders. In addition, what happens when different leaders believe competing actions/inactions are in the national interest? Again to use the Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson tension, Kennedy believed that withdrawing from Vietnam was in the US national interest while Johnson felt that continuing to fight against Domino Theory was in the US national interest.

Finally, classical realists, like Morgenthau, highlight the importance of power as the tantamount issue for a state. Foreign affairs dominate the power issue because of the historical danger of one state conquering another. [By and large, the number of states has been increasing over the past sixty years, so being militarily “conquered” may be less of a danger than it was during much of the era of classical realist writing.] Here classical realism exposes its inherent cynicism that security is more important that morality. Is it possible that there are times that a nation-state takes the morally correct course of action and perhaps weaken itself? In the era of mass media, the media has the extraordinary power to massage the emotions and perhaps the morality of a nation-state, regardless of the principal actor’s wishes. How did the humanitarian mission to Somalia (1992) make the United States more powerful? Without the threat of a Soviet invasion of Europe, how was the stability of the Balkan Peninsula (1994-present) in American security interests? These were moral decisions by the nation-state which not only ignored power in the classical sense, but actually put the United States in danger by stretching resources.

In classical realism, whose current disciples are called traditional realists, the emphasis of the theory is on the nation-state. Since the nation-state is synonymous with the unitary actor, then traditional realists become ‘soft’ scientists who follow people and watch interactions among people. The inherent danger is that the “theory” is not actually a theory in the scientific sense of the word. A history and analysis of leaders, diplomacy, and wars can not be used to predict the future actions of a nation-state. But, if there are ‘soft’ theorists, then, of course there must also be ‘hard’ theorists. These ‘hard’ theorists emphasize the system, not the person. This dichotomy within international relations is reflective of the dispute among academics who call their field of study political science versus those who call it politics.

‘Hard’ theorists in international relations are known as structural realists or neorealists: “structural” because the focus is on the system and “neo” as they chronologically compare to classical theorists [as a school of thought, not as people]. The founder of structural realism is Kenneth Waltz, who wrote primarily from the late fifties to early nineties. He wanted to reinterpret classical realism to be more quantifiable and thus scientific. As has been stated about all realists, Waltz’ “structure” is anarchy, though he uses the term only as an “organizational concept” (Kaufman, 293). “States” exist in a perpetual ‘state’ of anarchy, if you will (Kaufman, 294). What Waltz did is organize states without looking at history. In a shift from classical realism, Waltz includes non-state units (such as religions and multi-national corporations) in his research. The final component of Waltz’ structure is capability: how do states measure up to each other in their ability to accumulate power and at the same time limit each other. Waltz postulates that, at any given point in history, there are never more than eight consequential states (Kaufman, 300). In fact, a classical realist and a structural realist meeting in kindergarten might have a conversation like this:

  • CLASSICAL REALIST: Hey, I have more crayons than you! Look my box has 64 and yours only has 8!
    STRUCTURAL REALIST: Yeah, but mine are the only 8 that matter!
    CLASSICAL REALIST: But I have more!
    STRUCTURAL REALIST: Yeah, but I can make all the colors with mine and I don’t have to waste time watching 64 crayons.

At the same time, however, Waltz and his disciples in the school of neorealism believe that the world operates most stable when there are only two powers, that is, a bipolar world order such as the United States and the Soviet Union (Kaufman, 301).

Neorealism has attempted to fill some of the holes in the classical realist argument. Classical realists focus on the principal/unitary actors seemed to clash with the post-WWII world of global interdependence. Neorealists have maintained the primacy of the nation-state units but acknowledged the existence of non-state units. Neorealists also point out that power is not the answer; security is and, sometimes, having too much power actually backfires by inviting nation-states to attack. For example, look at the nuclear program of Iran in the 1980s. Becoming a nuclear power made Iran a target of Israel. The same can be said for Iraq from 1990-2003. Neorealists have not only successfully saved classical realism in this regard, they have “updated” the classical realists’ concept of power. While classical realists viewed power primarily as military might, Waltz emphasized technology as a vehicle for power. Technology, then, can be converted into economic, political and military power (Kaufman, 315).

Unfortunately, the classical “balance of power” (such as the Concert of Europe) was reduced from a multipolar balance to a bipolar balance. When the true source of power, technology, gave the U.S. too great of an advantage, the Soviet Union collapsed (Waltz, 317). This is unfortunate because, according to neorealists, security is the ultimate goal. Is the U.S. safer or more vulnerable now as opposed to 1989? Neorealism may have updated classical realism vocabulary and quantified its study, but it still fails to identify the power of subnational and transnational actors. In addition, both theories are short-sighted. Both ignore issues of legitimacy and morality. To realists, all that matters is the power a nation-state has at the moment, yet legitimacy/morality/internal_policies determine the lasting power of a unitary actor (and thus the nation-state). What good did it do the U.S. to use Saddam Hussein as leverage against the Iranians during the 1980s? We have now fought two wars with Iraq and none with Iran. What good did it do to support strong-arm dictators in Latin America when the graduates of the School of the Americas murder and rape U.S. citizens. When the U.S. supports short-term interests by supporting dictators in Africa, the U.S. loses its influence as soon as the dictator dies or is exiled. As a result of the inconsistency by supporting some illegitimate regimes, the U.S. loses respect when it criticizes other illegitimate regimes (such as Cuba). Respect is a soft power which is less expensive and more effective than technological or military power (Nye). Neorealism may have attempted to bring classical realism into the real world, but its approach has failed.


  • Kaufman, Daniel. Parker, Jay. Howell, Patrick & Doty, Grant (2004). Understanding International Relations: The Value of Alternative Lenses. New York: United States Military Academy.
  • Mingst, Karen A. (2004). Essentials of International Relations. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • O’Connor, T. (Dec 31, 2005). In International Relations Overview, MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from htttp:// on 30 December 2005.

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