The Micro and Macro of Realism: Neorealism’s Answer to Classical Realism

To what extent has Neorealism or Structural Realism addressed the limitations of Classical Realism? Neorealism has gone so far to address the limitations of Classical Realism that it cannot stand alone without Classical Realism as a theory of IR. Each theory presents a set of challenges that one cannot be overcome without the aid of the other. Where the two theories diverge, Neorealism appears to be a maturing of Realism by accepting a greater importance of structural factors. In the aim for scientific validity, however, Neorealism falls into its own quagmire by denying the composition of the state and simplifying it down to a singular unit.

Classical Realism, or Political Realism, places a great emphasis on power and human nature. Hans Morgenthau, a leading realist thinker, tells us that human nature is truly at the root of all cause in man. Morgenthau considers human nature to be imperfect, with that imperfection manifesting itself as man’s gregarious desire for power, or interest taken in terms of power (Dunne & Kurki & Smith, 2013). More specifically, Morgenthau (1948a) said, “All politics is a struggle for power that is inseparable from social life itself” (Morgenthau, 1948a). Morgenthau does forewarn that what constitutes power will change. He advocates for readers to be uniquely aware of the moral significance that comes with action in IR. He also warns that morals and norms will not be the same across the playing field. He doesn’t leave out the supremacy of the state and realism’s focus on that supremacy. If power is the motivator for man, it is unfortunately what causes him to unravel in the end. One can easily draw comparisons to that wonderful John Dalberg-Aton proverb (1907), “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men” (Acton, 1907). While that might be referencing absolute monarchies, the meaning is still relevant.

Human nature and the desire for power are simplistic ways to comprehend Classical Realism. In IR, however, Realism is much more complex and far reaching. The balance of power, while beautifully simple in concept, is rather complex in application. The balance of power has tempering qualities that can be applied to IR but can be seen as a catch twenty-two. Within a strong community, alliances and the balance of power can mitigate and or prevent conflict. Morgenthau, in his pondering of community, goes to tell of the opposite effect happening in the absence of community (Morgenthau, 1948a). Those very alliances and balance of power, in a weak international society, might actually exasperate potential conflict because they can easily be perceived as threats towards a lesser state.

Justice, or rather justification, is another point of Realism that can be taken rather ambiguously. According to Dunne et al. (2013), “Justice, or at least a belief in justice, was the foundation for community” (Dunne et al., 2013). It is argued that because ideas of justice are not held universally, and often mask other interest, they are rather inappropriate in IR (Dunne et al., 2013). Morgenthau is very specific regarding justice as the ethics of our time, which correlates to those ever changing modalities of interest mentioned earlier (Dunne et al., 2013). The example of American intervention or containment of terrorism can be used as a good example to showcase the follies of justice within IR. Much like Morgenthau’s forewarning to the eroding of American prestige in Vietnam, the same can be argued of the United States in the 21st century (Dunne et al., 2013).

Morgenthau equates the eroding of American interest to the ‘ends and means’ of policy being a direct front against the morality of the age regarding Indochina in the 1960’s and 70’s (Dunne et al., 2013). The United States for much of the 21st century has constantly fought an uphill battle, regarding the tactics and end result of constant conflict relating to extreme terrorism within the international community. The ends and means of the fight against terrorism are not universally held, and are argued against being ethical, specifically targeted killings (Plaw, 2008). Dunne et al. (2013) defines this morality as “Powerful states are not restricted, and the past success that made them powerful breed hubris, encourage their leaders to make inflated estimates of their ability to control events and seduce them” (Dunne et al., 2013). As of 2015, the situation in the Middle East is spiraling out of control in many areas. Did America make inflated estimates of its ability to contain terrorism? Did the United States overestimate even the time it would take to accomplish its goals? These answers are of great debate in IR today, the parallels to Indochina in the 1960’s and 70’s are profound.

Neorealism, or Structural Realism acts as a sort of orchestra conductor – ultimately controlling the individuals who are controlling the instruments. While in truth, the musicians are supreme in an orchestra, without them there is no need for the conductor or an orchestra at all. However, the conductor calls the shots and is ultimately of a greater force on the orchestra. How this looks in IR is, much like Classical Realism, simple in concept and drastically complex in application. In Neorealism, much like the anonymousness of orchestral musicians, states are supreme but transparent units of measure. Hobson (2000) defines this as the “Theory of the state, though it is highly `minimalistic’: the state is exclusively derived from the systemic reproduction requirements of the anarchical state system.” (Hobson, 2000). These units of measure are all considered to be alike in an attempt to garner further validity in IR being scientific (Dunne et al., 2013). There is sound logic in this notion as it’s argued that structure is the dominate cause of a state’s behavior. Power is argued as not being an end but rather a tool used for the ultimate goal of survival. A state’s drive for survival is factored on the structure being anarchic, a self-help system where everyone fears everyone due to a lack of knowledge in the unknown. States are rational actors within this fear based system (Dunne et al., 2013). In further defining Neorealism, the security dilemma and desire for hegemony begin to name specific behaviors of a state’s actions within Neorealism.

Neorealism advocated tempering a state’s appetite for power because of the prevalence of balancing behavior (Dunne et al., 2013). This describes the security dilemma where ones states advancement toward greater security will cause another to act in reaction, often taking the original security move as offensive. This can have a spiraling effect akin to an arms race. Arguably, an arms race can be a tool used in an escalating security dilemma. However, hegemony, where no other states can rival in power, is contentiously thought of as achieving the greatest security (Dunne et al., 2013). A state’s behavior in a security dilemma, much like the balance of power, can lead to erratic alliances and security moves. This led to factions of thought relating to offensive and defensive theories within Neorealism. Use of nuclear weapons would without a doubt ensure anything but security and rather mutual destruction of many states. Neither offensive nor defensive thinkers place much stock in the use of such weapons, until only one side has them (Dunne et al., 2013).

Hegemony is not always a singular state. In fact, it is often argued that a uni-polar system, one single state, is simply too much to achieve. John J. Mearsheimer (2012) has casually noted there is “too much water” encompassing our planet to achieve hegemony (Mearshimer, 2012). The Cold-War, with dominating forces from the United States and the USSR, represented a bi-polar system. Waltz argued this bi-polarity as the preferred form of polarity (Kreisler, 2003). There is also multi-polar system, with more than two states. The time before the World Wars is often looked at as multi-polar, with the UK dominating economically and imperialistically. Mearshimer goes even further in describing desired hegemony as regional. The United States could be considered the unrivaled power in the Western hemisphere. Mearshimer goes to argue that while we don’t want universal hegemony, we also don’t want any other regional hegemony around the globe (Mearshimer, 2012). This idea is fueling the current debate on China’s rise as the regional hegemon in Eastern Asia and what response has been and will be given by the United States.

Neorealism and Classical Realism hold many similarities, as one would expect. The similarities also give rise to the facetious titles of Macro and Micro. Realism holds that the ideologies within Idealism were faulty and the World Wars showed Idealism as an ineffective theory of IR (Dunne et al., 2013). Both theories do hold the state supreme and acknowledge the system of self-help. Both theories can be seen as advocating a state’s strength, power and singular quality. Neorealism can be seen as an expansion of Classical Realism but without the innards of the state and human behavior. This simply feels macro in essence while Classical Realism seems micro in its importance of human nature and the makeup of a state. Playing the devil’s advocate, one could easily see Neorealism as the micro, as it specifically focuses on the state and structure in IR and not a board theory of politics.

The differences, argued here as being the need for dependency, are profound and frustrating in composition. Classical Realism diverges from Neorealism with the root of cause being in human nature versus the structure of anarchy. This raises a few questions. Waltz make a lot of sense when he asked if human nature is empirical, or even quantifiable (Dunne et al., 2013). To paraphrase Waltz: if human nature caused it, didn’t it by that same effect fix it (Waltz, 1959). He argues a continuity in behavior irrelevant to the ever changing map of states. The argument at its basic is that human nature is not empirical and cannot describe any constant that might be within a state of flux. This is a valid concern when arguing Classical Realism is reductionism because you cannot describe the whole in terms of its parts. You have to describe the entirety of units as a unique factor in itself. Classical Realism needs Neorealism in order to be a more accurate depiction of IR because a state is not a closed system impervious of outside influence.

To further illustrate the frustration in this debate, the almost complete opposite quagmire befalls Neorealism. Neorealism ignores the composition of the state and the impact of human nature (Dunne et al., 2013). Neorealism, at times, appears to be a convenient theory created to work around the idea of justice which Morgenthau thought was lost (Dunne et al., 2013). Seeing the state as a black box ignores the outputs of a state in an open system. Nationalism is a strong idea that can have a profound effects on the behavior of a state, as well as the international community. Mearshimer recalls nationalism as one of the major threats to his theory of Offensive Realism, a subset of Neorealism. He also attributes nationalism to an uncontrollable variable that might overturn his popular view on the rise of China, or it might help prove it (Mearshimer, 2012). Mearshimer (2012) stated “Nationalism is more important than democracy. Nationalism breeds self-determination. The communist party suffers legitimacy problems but excels at producing nationalism which holds it up” (Mearshimer, 2012). Mearshimer reaches all the way down into human nature to describe the quite porous effects nationalism has on a person.

Nationalism is a deeply held personal belief as well as a national outlook. You cannot deny the very human aspect of nationalism and still use it to support an argument disavowing human nature. Nationalism fits nicely into Classical Realism which allows for a greater variance in a state’s behavior because it factors the internal makeup. Nationalism can be said to have greatly aided the voracity of both the Axis and Allied powers in the Second World War (Folly, 2002). The variables nationalism can breed dictate a finer, less macro lens. Neorealism needs Classical Realism in order to peer deeper inside the makeup of a nation’s specific breed of nationalism.

Neither Classical Realism nor Neorealism describe IR precisely. Together they get a lot closer at describing a nations behavior in IR than going at it alone. Classical Realism, with its emphasis on human nature and the state, does not deny what it is to be human and occupy a nation. Neorealism, with its mantra of structural dependencies, doesn’t deny the apparent continuities in IR regardless of what human occupies the state. It would seem a great disservice for any realist to put forth policy that did not evaluate the complete breadth of variables at play within their stark view of the world.


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Dunne, T., Kurki, M., & Smith, S. (2013). International relations theories: Discipline and diversity (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Folly, M. (2002). The United States and World War II: The awakening giant. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Hobson, J. (2000). The State and International Relations. London: Cambridge University Press.

Kreisler, H. (2003, June 1). Conversation with History: Kenneth Waltz. Retrieved October 5, 2015, from

Mearshimer, J. (2012, October 17). Why China Cannot Rise Peacefully. Retrieved October 3, 2015, from

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Plaw, A. (2008). Targeting terrorists a license to kill? Aldershot, England: Ashgate.

Waltz, K. (1959). Man, the state, and war; a theoretical analysis. New York: Columbia University Press.

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