Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Classical realism and neorealism: How to view the world as “half empty” in two similar ways

Realism vs Neorealism

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think of how the world ought to be and those who deal with it the way it is. The latter group is commonly referred to as “realists.” Realism is diametrically opposed to romanticism or idealism; it offers cold, calculating depictions as to how the world functions, which are often considered pessimistic. From an international relations perspective, realism frames global politics in a similar fashion: a balance of power that is guided by nations who are simply seeking to achieve their narrow self-interest. Realism can actually be divided into two subcategories: classical realism and neo-realism. The differences are slight, but deserve some discussion.

Niccolò Machiavelli is often referred to as one of the first political realists when he wrote The Prince. In his treatise, he explains the process in which a prince may maintain or attain political power, even if through morally dubious ventures. (The end justifies the means in the eyes of realists, so conflict – even violent ones – are inevitable.) It wasn’t until 1979 when the hegemony of classical realism was upset by Kenneth Waltz’s book The Theory of International Politics. Waltz’s take on realism borrows from the classical tradition, but makes it more scientifically applicable to the modern era – thus, creating the neorealist school of thought.

The driving force behind both schools of thought is the nation-state. This is the primary unit and political actor that factors into each equation for the realist. Each nation-state is considered to be a unitary entity whose sole mission is to self-preserve – simply put, each country is only interested in protecting itself. As mentioned before, conflict is inevitable from the realist perspective. The pursuit of self-preservation produces the “security dilemma”: As states build and ramp up their own military to protect themselves, they influence neighboring or competing states to do the same as a direct response. The result is usually a conflict that was not intended. The Cold War best encapsulates this phenomena.

Although they agree that conflict is unavoidable, classical and neorealists differ on why this conflict arises. Classical realism isolates the source of conflict being the result of human nature, which is imperfect and flawed. Neorealists view conflict from a more systemic vantage point, and reject the subjective nature of the classical school. To paraphrase Waltz, if human nature is the cause of war, it also is the cause of the peace accords that follow. Neorealists assert that the international system, which they describe as “anarchic,” influences national actors to vie for power due to a lack of a global system of governance or central authority. The United Nations certainly cannot be considered a leviathan force that effectively oversees and dictates all global actions, so nations are typically left to their own devices in how to assert their authority in the global theatre of international relations.

To better formulate how the world functions, neorealism sought to create a more methodical and objective approach to the realm of international relations. Neorealism borrows from and improves upon the traditions of the classical school by building upon its empiricism. Neorealist theorists interpret world politics as a delicate system of balance: No matter what style of government, each nation is viewed as the base unit in the neorealist equations. All nation-states are similar in their needs – energy, food, military, infrastructure, etc. – but differ in their ability to achieve these needs. Defined as the “distribution of capabilities,” these deficits in finite resources limit cooperation between national actors because each side fears any relative gains made by their competitors. Gains made by competitors diminishes the relative power of the self-interested state. It’s a constant game of “one-upping” the other side, and neorealists seek to calculate this balancing act.

Classical realists and neorealists are cut from the same cloth. If anything, they shouldn’t be viewed as separate ideologies because their foundational values are essential identical. Neorealism is a natural progression of the classical model as its need to adapt to a much more complex system of international relations. The glass is “half-empty” in realism, and these two philosophical versions only differ slightly in how this glass was poured.

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  1. According to engineers the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

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