Criticism of Classical Realism Through Neorealism


Classical realism sometimes called political realism is a theory of international relations that was put forward by Hans Morgenthau. This was done back in the mid twentieth Century after the Second World War. The theory presupposes that man’s actions are unpredictable and cannot be subjected to general laws. Decisions cannot be foreseen or calculated. The theory is based upon six principles which shall be examined in detail in the subsequent sections of the essay. The six principles focus on the inherent nature of the human being

Neorealism is an extension of classical realism. This was a theory put forward by Waltz (1979). Despite having some similarities to classical realism, neorealism shifts attention from the nature of man and instead focuses on constraints placed by international systems on sates. The theory postulates that the driving force behind decisions in international relations is the fact that states are trying to respond to changes in international systems in order to survive. The theory argues that all states are in constant mistrust of each other and consequently increase their military capabilities. However, some states have greater capabilities to improve their military prowess than others do. Military capabilities are changed internally through economic expansion and externally through alliances.

Validity of the emphasis on human nature in classical realism as questioned by neorealists

Human nature on politics

The first principle of political realism is that the objective laws governing politics are based on human nature. Neorealists argue that this principle is not strong enough to explain international politics. Human nature cannot explain why states react

to set orders and principles from the international world. Sometimes the decisions made are quite independent of any personal preferences of statesmen but they are made out of a need to adjust to external pressures. (Hein, 1983)

Neorealists claim that there is a very minor distinction between local politics and world politics. Most of the arguments put forward by classical theorists are not holistic in nature; they only look at actions of statesmen or people in positions of power. The theory does not clearly outline how human nature is related to politics on the international level. There is a very thin line between world politics and domestic politics in classical realism as pointed out by neorealists.

Why politics is irrational

The second principle of Hans Morgenthau adheres to idea that power is the main reason behind politics and is the reason why politics is quite irrational. Neo realists believe that irrationality is caused by attempts by states to try and redefine their positions of power. This is a position that explains current situations in international relations in modern times.

Classical realist’s inability to explain international authority

Neorealists argue that classical realism cannot be able to explain why there is a decentralised authority in international relations. Classical realism instead focuses on intentions and motives of statesmen to explain why there are differences in power struggles. The third principle of Hans Morgenthau postulates that power is a demonstration of the control that man has over another. In light of this belief, it is difficult to determine how this is related to the entire state. This is also difficult to relate to the entire international system.

The latter view is microscopic in nature and another explanation is needed so that it can be applied to the entire international system. It is however easier to understand the issue of decentralised authority in international relations using the principle of anarchy proposed by Neorealists. Anarchy is the ordering principle which governs how capabilities are distributed within the international system. This principle holds that all states are sovereign and have equal standings. Those states act to protect their own interests and thus give rise to differential powers. In the quest to protect these self interests, some states end up being more powerful than others. This is also the reason why most states cannot sacrifice their own needs for the sake of others.

Security dilemma

The theory of classical realism focuses on human being’s selfish nature to explain why there are military competences constantly being developed in the international system. The theory ascertains that political recklessness and immoral behaviour is kept on check by the common norms and values shared by all members of the community. This is according to the fifth Hans Morgenthau’s principle. All the above concerns are based on the nature of the human being. This view is not satisfactory in the explanation of all occurrences related to military systems in international politics. A more valid argument is the use of ‘survival’ as the main reason behind military behaviours by nations. (Gideon, 1997)

Neo realists believe that all states basically aim at surviving. This means that most of their actions made are in pursuit of this goal. Out of pursuit of survival, arises the issue of mistrust, this is because countries cannot predict what other nations are up to. Such nations are always cautious lest they loose their power. Loss of this power could pose a threat to their survival. This is what gives rise to the security dilemma.

Balance of power

The use of human nature to explain international relations in classical realism also applies in their attempt to explain power balances and cooperation between states. Classical realists believe that statesmen intentions will restrict the kind of relationships made with other nations. (Morgenthau Hans, 1985) They also believe that balance of power is important in international politics but it does not attribute this concept to war. Instead, they suppose that balance of power cause conflicts rather than war. The theory puts forward the view that there are some moral decisions that come into play during international relations.

There is also the issue of statesmen who want to succeed in their political actions. Consequently, there are apprehensions that may come about as a result of balance between moral decisions and successful actions for the statesman. This is the basis of differential decision making when considering different countries. But there is an underlying factor that the theory fails to explain; this was clarified in neorealism.

The latter theory ascertains that there are differences in the way states achieve their needs. Some states have greater potential for achieving these needs while others are weaker in this area. Because of these differences, some states may decide to cooperate with others while others may even depend on others. (Randall, 2003) This means that there are states that may cooperate with others in order to safeguard their own positions in the delicate balance of power while others may be afraid of other states getting an added advantage over them. This is the reason why there are alliances in international relations. Balance in power is believed to be achieved in two ways;

  • Internal balance.
  • External balance.

Internal balance is limited to changes that are done within the confines of a given nation or country. This can be done through economic development where a given country increases its financial capability and can therefore be able to invest in its military expedition thus implying that the country’s power will be increased. Countries can also increase their might by directing most of their budgetary allocations towards military missions rather than other issues.

Therefore, those countries will be militarily strong. External balance is done by forming alliances; this is normally governed by what kind of benefits states can get from others. The result of such kinds of endeavours is that states having too much influence are checked while those with seemingly low level of power can increase their control. (Gideon, 1997)

Neorealists then attempt to explain the kind of systems that can arise from these balances in power. They believe that there are essentially three types of systems that can come up i.e.

  • Multipolar.
  • Bipolar.
  • Unipolar systems.

Unipolar systems are those in which there is only one supreme power. This kind of system is characterised by a lot of system change because other weaker powers would want to gain the ultimate title. Then there is the bipolar system; this kind of system is characterised by only two supreme powers. This is the most stable system according to the theorists. That can be attributed to the fact that there are no other powers which the supreme powers can form alliances with. Miscalculations are therefore eliminated or minimised and balances are only done internally. (Niebuhr, 1932)

Similarities between the past and the present

Classical realism’s focus on human nature does not offer a satisfactory explanation as to why war has been occurring continuously in the international world. It simply points out to the fact that change can occur when there are differences in identity of the individual or when there are discourses. These changes (that ate brought by modernisation) are the ones that bring about a change in how people perceive security. But classical theorists do not link this directly to war in the international world. They simply say that to restore order, society should combine fresh and aged ideas thus minimising the destructive potential of changes.

In contrast, one of the most outstanding features about neorealism is the belief that war will never come to an end. Although the view has sparked a lot of controversy; one of them being that the view is too pessimistic, neorealism attempts to throw light on the issue of continuing warfare. Neorealists believe that the reason why wars have been occurring since the seventeenth century up to date is because there is anarchy at play in international systems. Therefore, this principle is affecting the way states view each other in the system; consequently, peace is disturbed. (Alfred, 1948)

Concept of ‘political man’

Neorealists question some assumptions found in classical realism’s focus on human nature. One such assumption is the concept of the political man. Classical realists claim that it is crucial to differentiate other realms of human nature from the aspect of man that influences politics. They hold that this is a totally separate sphere of man’s nature. But this idea is a basic assumption that should not be overlooked. There are other aspects of man’s nature that can influence the way he makes decisions. This is an abstract concept and has been found to be at fault by neorealists. This assumption is found in the sixth principle of Hans Morgenthau.

Idealistic tendency of classical theory

Neorealists argue that the emphasis on the concept of justice; it is too subjective for international politics. Classical realists argue that justice is the main reason behind the actions of statesmen. It emphasises that justice is important for two reasons. These are;

  • Justice is essential in influence
  • Justice is the basis of actor’s interests (Niebuhr, 1932)

Classical realists believe that this is the foundation of order in society. However, neorealists disagree rightfully with this perception because it is highly one-sided. Instead, there should be more emphasis on concepts that are not idealistic and those that are more scientific.

Concept of ‘tragedy’

Neorealists have criticised the way classical realists’ concept of tragedy claiming that it may be too simplistic. Classical realists articulate that man has the ability to spoil what he has constructed in a violent manner. The occurrence of such a phenomenon is called tragedy.

Tragedy occurs when man cannot be able to exercise self restraint. Yet this self restraint is the main cause of conflicts and may be perpetuated by the intoxication with power. Neorealists argue that this kind of explanation is not satisfactory in assessing situations in modern days. This is because the notion itself is vague and there are problems in determining what ate the circumstances that can qualify as tragedy and which ones are not. (Mearsheimer, 2001)

Values in international politics

Neorealists argue that the focus on human nature has led classical realists to place critical occurrences in international politics on values. They believe that the ultimate virtue in international politics is caution. If statesmen exercise this virtue, then all will be well with them. They also consider that statesmen who lack virtues are the ones that enforce their will upon the countries they are governing. This emphasis on virtues has been criticised by neorealists who suppose that values vary from person to person and they are difficult to predict. (Randall, 2003)

Consideration of external factors

Classical realists simply look at internal factors and do not consider external factors that may affect states’ actions yet this is the very foundation of international politics. (Knopf, 1960)

Neorealists provide an explanation for such a dilemma: They use the market forces model. Here, they ascertain that states can be considered as markets that have a number of factors available to them externally. These external factors are the basis upon which the market makes its decisions. For example, prices are adjusted according to market forces. Similarly, states are constrained by certain external factors. They have to react to these external factors through a number of methodologies. Neorealists attribute these factors to intricacies observed in international relations. The theory is therefore able to include external factors in its arguments instead of motives and interests as used by classical theorists. (Knopf, 1951)

Struggles for supremacy

Neorealists have also criticised classical realists’ explanations concerning the issue of power. The former believe that power should be placed in the context of the international system but the latter do the opposite. They explain the issue of power in reference to man’s character. They believe that man is driven by three main issues;

  • Need to live.
  • Need to reproduce.
  • Need to dominate.

These reasons are the ones that influence man to reach out for power. They also claim that the thirst fir power cannot be fully be achieved within a country’s borders. This makes people search for it internationally. They believe that the notion is a characteristic that is so distinctive of man and it trickles down to other parts of the international system. (OUP, 2003)

Classical theorists believe that there are a number of reasons that could cause differential power struggles. These are natural resources, geography, national moral standards, industrial potential, population and national character. This signifies that there will be a difference in those parties that want to preserve power and those who want a change in power. Morgenthau (1946) argues that power is bases upon a number of objective laws that are inherent in the very nature of the human being.

This same philosopher ascertains the fact that human psychology is very influential in power politics. This is the very reason why there are constant fights that show how man is trying to gain control of limited resources and as long as there is existence of democracy within a given state, then there will be constant struggles for power between men this is most likely going to be incorporated by the whole nation. But these views are presumptive and are better explained by neorealism.


In conclusion, it is not satisfactory to focus on human nature in an attempt to explain international politics. Therefore neorealists are right to question this stand point. This is because of the following reasons;

Use of human nature is not holistic in nature and is therefore more suitable for domestic politics rather than international. Besides, one needs to incorporate external factors in their argument when explaining international politics. Another reason why neorealists are right in questioning the standpoint taken by classical theorists is because the latter theory does not explain irrationality, balance of power and the security dilemma in international relations satisfactorily. (Waltz, 1979)Further more there is also no satisfactory explanation of centralised authority in the international system but this is adequately catered for in neorealism through the argument of external an internal balances. In addition, classical realism does not provide a clear link between past and present occurrences of war like neorealism does.

The former theory has subjective tendencies by looking at psychology of the human being; instead, it could have been more scientific like neorealism. Lastly, classical theorists believe that power is a manifestation of how the inherent nature of man and this nature trickle down to the state. This argument lacks precision and leaves room for ambiguity. Therefore neorealists are right in questioning the position taken up by classical theorists to explain international relation using human nature.


Alfred A. Knopf. (1948): Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace New York Printing Press.

Knopf. A. (1951): In Defence of the National Interest; Melbourne Press.

Knopf A. (1960): The Purpose of American Politics; New York Publishers.

Hein D. (1983): Essays on Lincoln’s Faith and Politics: Univ. Press of America.

Morgenthau Hans and Thompson Kenneth (1985): Politics among Nations; McGraw-Hill Publishers.

Gideon, R. (1997): Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy; a journal on World Politics.

Randall, S. (2003): The Progressiveness of Neoclassical Realism; MIT Press.

OUP (2003): International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity. Web.

Niebuhr (1932): Moral Man and Immoral Society; journal on ethics and Politics.

Mearsheimer, J. (2001): The Tragedy of Great Power Politics; Norton Publishers.

Morgenthau, H. (1946): Scientific Man versus Power Politics; University of Chicago Pres.

Waltz, Kenneth (1979): Theory of International Politics; Addison-Wesley Publishers.

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