Classical Realism And Neo Realism Politics Essay


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Realism is a school of political philosophy on international relations/political realtions, also called as Political Realism. It purports to be realistic in its approach and gives importance to security and national interest rather than moral concerns, ideology and social reconstructions. It is popularly known as study of power politics. Realism assumes that both in the domestic or international ground, all political actions are for achievement of power. In the international perspective, the primary instruments are states/nations, which strive for maximizing their power and in the domestic field, the statesmen or heads strive for maximizing their power. Realism is to be studied as a recommendation of what nations and politicians ought to pursue power or their own interests, or as a depiction of the affairs of the state that power or self-interest is only aim of nations and politicians.

Realism dates back to as early as 5th century and has been a reliable tool for accounting and envisaging international relations. In the current scenario, with the advent of liberalization, privatization, globalization and economic warfare, the realist convention has become apparently intricate for the world. From the works of thinkers like Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Morgenthau to thinkers such as Kenneth Waltz, Robert Gilpin, realism has transformed some of its notions and has become more streamlined. These changes were received positively, since the developments in the international arena have been in consistence with the movement.

The study of international relations as a separate discipline started after World War-II and it has been largely influenced by realism. By passage of time, the concept of realism has undergone changes, as a school of classical-realism to neo-realism.

In the beginning, realism was proposed as an opposition to a moralizing, idealistic perception of relations between states. Classical realism analyses domestic and international political practice under the light of human nature, which is not value-free, having an innate dark-side. The neo-realistic scholars argue that, classical realism becomes non-operational as it is dragging a complex analysis of political practice into the concept of realism. Neo-realism focuses on the competition between sovereign states leading to anarchic nature of the international system.


Realism, although in informal manner, can be traced to be in existence from fifth-century B.C. in the works of many thinker and philosophers. Thucydides, an ancient Greek thinker whose work, History of the Peloponnesian War is as a great resource work on realism. The account of Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese military leader Art of War, the Kautilya’s Arthashastra exhibits Indian Literature on Realism. Han Feizi, Chinese researcher in his works Legalism, Warring States Period, The Two Handles explained about an unbiased, scheming leader who acts as Head of State, while secretly controlling the executive. Niccolo Machiavelli, a Florentine political thinker, composed the book The Prince, in which he ordained that the politician shall have the main aim to seek power, without any religious or ethical concern. Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher wrote Leviathan enunciating that the State of Nature was prone to a “war of all against all”. Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and military theorist who wrote On War, explaining all about war and nations.

Apart from the works of many authors, the regime of rulers, diplomats has also contributed to the study of realism and international relations. The Prussian monarch, Frederick the Great changed Prussia from a small power to a dominant European nation through warfare and dubious diplomacy. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, French diplomat who guided France and Europe through a variety of political systems. Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, Koblenz-born Austrian statesman opposed to political revolution. Otto von Bismarck, a Prussian statesman coined the term balance of power. Balancing power meant keeping the peace and careful realpolitik practitioners tried to avoid arms races. 20th century proponents of realism include Henry Kissinger, the National Security Adviser and Secretary of State to President Richard Nixon, French General and President Charles de Gaulle, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

However, after the World War-II the study of international politics, international relations has become a separate branch of study and the classical realism emerged as the first school in the field. Hans Morgenthau, proponent of classical-realism was the person to have maximum impact on the study of International Relations. In his book, Politics Among Nations (1948), Morgenthau presented his theory of political realism, which was the basis of study of international politics for over two decades. The classical realism was followed by neo-realism, under the leadership of Kenneth Waltz. Waltz, who is considered as father of neo-realism, in his book, Theory of International Politics (1979) argued for development of a more systemic and scientific form of realism. Classical realism and Neo-realism are the two schools which are in prominence in current field of realist study of International Relations.

Classical realism V. Neo-realism:

Classical Realism believes that human nature is not innately benign but rather selfish and competitive. Human actions cannot be subject to common guiding principles, as they are very unpredictable. Decisions cannot be calculated or forseen. Its principles concentrate on the innate nature of the human beings.

Neo-realism is developed from classical realism. Neo-realism concentrates more on placed by international systems on sates rather than the nature of man. They believe that states are possessed with fear of security and intrinsically belligerent. According to neo-realists all states do not trust each other and are in the process of increasing military capabilities, through alliances and economic expansion. A state must always be conscious of activities of the nations around it and must use a pragmatic approach to resolve the problems that arise.


Conflict between the nations is the basic subject of study of Realism. According to classical realists the root cause of war and international conflict is an imperfect human nature. Classical realism focuses on the selfish nature of human being selfish to explain the constant development in the military force of state in the international system. It believes man has lust for power and the state as a unit which carries out its impulses at the international stage.

Neo-realists uphold that the deep causes of conflict are found in the anarchic international system. All states are sovereign and have equal standings and they act to protect their own interests, thereby leading to disparity in powers. In the mission to protect these self interests, states end up being in conflict with other states, as they cannot sacrifice their own needs for the sake of others.

Survival and Security:

Classical realism holds the egotistic human nature responsible for the military steps taken by the states. It determines that immoral behavior and political recklessness is kept under control by the common values and norms of the members of the community. It is based on the nature of the human being. This theory does not give proper explanation to all occurrences related to military systems in international politics. The use of ‘survival’ as the main reason behind military behaviours by nations is a more valid argument.

According to Neo-realism, states strive basically to make sure about their own survival it is a prior requirement for the pursuing of other objectives. The need of survival is the influences the behavior of the states and leads to development of offensive military capabilities, to enlarge the relative power of the state. There is a lack of trust between states, as they cannot be assured of future intentions of other states, which requires them to be on watch for any threat to their survival by other states. The state of uncertainty and lack of trust on the other states is referred to as concept of security dilemma.

International authority:

Classical realism relies on motives and intentions of political leaders for explaining diversities in political struggle. Hans Morgenthau suggests that power is a manifestation of the control that one human being has over another. The same theory has been applied to state and international system, but it is hard to relate the same the entire state or international system, as these are more complex institutions.

According to Neo-realists, the distribution of the capabilities, power within the international system is governed by the principle of Anarchy. As all states are sovereign powers and equal, they act for protection of their own interests leading to differential powers. Thereby some states become more powerful than others as states cannot sacrifice their own needs for the sake of others.


According to classical-realism, the state is ontologically superior to the system. They differentiate between the status-quo powers and revisionist powers of the state and again derive the nature of the state from trickling of human nature. Classical realism confines its analyses to the subjective valuations of international relations. In contrast neo-realism, allows more space for agency in the former approach and regards states as unitary actors in the international setup, independent of each other. Neo-realists attempt to construct a more scientific and rigorous approach to the study of international politics and relations.

Balance of power:

According to Classical realists, the intention of political leaders plays a pivotal role and restricts the kind of relationships made with other nations. They propound that, there are during international relations even moral decisions come into play. It purports that, the concept of ware is less important than Balance of power, as it causes clashes rather than war. As there is issue of statesmen striving to thrive in their political actions, there is impact on the decisions and successful actions out to be initiated by the statesman, which is the primary reason for diversity in decision making with respect to different countries.

In view of Neo-realists, states balance power in two ways: (a) Internal Balancing and (b) External Balancing. By way of internal balancing states increase their own capacities by raising economic growth and military spending, leading to more economic and military stability and becoming relatively powerful. As a mode of external balancing, states enter into alliances with other states, to regulate and keep a check on the power of other alliances and more powerful states.

According to Neo-realists there are three possible systems depending on the changes in allocation of capabilities, within the international system basically regulated by the number of dominant powers in the system. A unipolar system has only one great power, a bipolar system has two great powers, and a multipolar system has more than two great powers. Neo-realists think that, conclude that bipolar system is less prone to great power war and systemic change, as such, more stable than a multipolar system because balancing can only occur through internal balancing as there are no extra great powers in the international system to form alliances with. As there is only internal balancing in a bipolar system, rather than external balancing and internal balancing, there is less opportunity for miscalculations and therefore less chance of great power war.

Political man – Economic man:

According to Classical realism, the facet of man that influences politics is crucial and different from other spheres of human nature. They propound that it is a totally separate facet of man’s nature. State is a collective reflection of Political man’s lust for power and the unit which carries out its impulses at the international stage.

Neo-realism contains equivalence to theories economics, especially the theory of markets and the firm where the market is a structure and exists independent of the wishes of the buyers and sellers who nonetheless create it by their actions. The theory is based on the famous “economic man” and rational markets, where an ongoing analysis of particular companies or specific transactions. In order to develop an operational theory, which can be used to find out “what to expect in general” economic man theory has been developed. The actors acting towards their own self-interest in a laissez-faire environment nevertheless produce a global result favourable for everyone involved.

Internal & External factors:

Classical realists lay prominence only upon the internal factors which may affect states and do not consider external factors. Their theory revolves around the state the absolute authoritative unit and the head of the state by his virtues, morals and decisions shall act to the best interest of the state. But in the lust of power and supremacy, motives and interest, the statesman taking into consideration all the internal factors affecting his position and power, to secure his position and to defend from the attacks, threat of the persons in thirst of power takes decisions.

Neo-realists use the market forces model to explain about the factors. They equate states to markets having a number of factors accessible to them externally. The market makes its decisions basing upon the external factors. Just like, the prices are subject to the market forces of demand and supply, decisions of states are regulated by certain external factors. These factors range from the relative power of the neighboring states to the emerging dominating markets in the international setup. The states by adopting various methodologies react to these external factors; these can be equated to niceties observed in international relations.

Power & Supremacy:

The Classical Realists believe in the issue of power in indication to nature of man. According to them, there are three issues which govern the conduct of the human being. They are (1) Livelihood, (2) Reproduction and (3) Domination. In the quest for the satisfaction of these desires man is instigated to reach out for power. As the thirst for power cannot be fully be achieved within the state, people search for it internationally and the same attitude drips down to other parts of the international system.

According to Classical realism, diversified power struggles are caused due to various reasons These may be national moral standards, industrial potential, population natural resources, geography or national character. Power is based upon a number of objective laws that are inherent in the very nature of the human being. As human psychology is very influential in power politics, there are constant fights trying to gain control of limited resources.

According to Neo-realists power should be placed in the context of the international system. Power of state comprises of, size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence, in view of neo-realists. The anarchical international system inevitably leads to the logic of self-help and power politics.


The subject of International Relations is the art and science, which studies the facts that drive nations in taking decisions. Neo-realism provides opportunities to understand the world stage in ways that classical realism simply does not grasp. Classical realism is content to assume some ‘nature’ of human beings and neorealism content to assume a specific structure of the international systems as an anarchic system of self-help in order to explain the dynamics of international relations. As world society and the international stage evolve, the theory of neo-realism may evolve as well.

It is not satisfactory to focus on human nature in an attempt to explain international politics. Even though the scholars of both classical and neo-realism are mainly concerned with constructing an explanatory theory, the former did incorporate critical and normative elements into his theory. Morgenthau’s concept of speaking truth to power describes this concept. Waltz has been reluctant to undertake normative and critical analysis. As, in his theory there is little room for agency making policy prescriptions superfluous.

However, for now, and in the context of the early 21st century, neo-realism updates the most reliable theory, as it provides explanation to the concept of centralised authority in the international system. In addition, it provides link between the past and present occurrences of war and it is more scientific in its approach.