Neorealism and Traditional Realism

Overview of Neorealism

In the 1980s, there were emerging debates especially in the field of international relations focusing on world politics. Kenneth Waltz is credited for coming up with the Theory of International politics whose main focus is to initiate international theories of a scientific nature that have elicited the debate which has been witnessed hence giving birth to neo-realism.

Neo-realism is prevalent in studies related to security matters. It pays close attention to the importance attached to international system structures and the vital part it plays in shaping the state behavior. There are some differences between neo-realism and the earlier strains of realist thinking (WordPress, 2007).

Differences between Neorealism and Traditional Realism

The first difference between neo-realism and traditional realism is that traditional realism looks at behavior of the state as being determined by the self-interest facet. On the other hand, neo-realism argues that the conduct or the behavior of a state is directed by the structure. In most cases, the structure of a political system is expressed in terms of the principles for organization used. In such a structure, individual states have the same survival interests in the end.

The other principle that defines the structure of an international system is the ability of the units to follow their interests. There are some differences where individuals with high capability become the leaders and create challenges that the rest have to contend with. This unequal distribution traditional realism argues it results in a balanced power behavior for the state (Clinton, 2007).

Neorealism and traditional realism do not view power the same way and this brings about the second difference between the two. According to the traditional realists, power to them was looked at as the means as well as the end. To them state behavior that was deemed rational comprised of amassing the most power one could amass. However, in neorealism, power is more than just having a wealth of resources and using the resources later to gain tutelage over other nations (WordPress, 2007).

The third difference between neo-realism and traditional realism is on the basis of how both treat and react to anarchy. According to traditional realists, anarchy is a characteristic of systems and how nations react is determined by the values held by leaders. On the other hand, neo-realists say that the system is defined by anarchy and the reaction of states to anarchy is dependent on the power and capability of the state (Waltz, 2003).

Weaknesses of Neorealism

Neorealism has been criticized by a number of scholars due to its weaknesses. This theory has been criticized for its inability to make a difference between places and times which has resulted in numerous flaws in the theory. Neorealism looks down upon the changes that exist in the magnitude of interactions among systems. Instead, it makes an assumption that unit differentiation can be eliminated as a feature of the international system structure.

For some duration of time, nations may be dominant in some performances but this may change later. At the end, there may be resurgence of concepts such as territoriality to portray the generative changes. The weakness of neo-realism is that it cannot explain such changes because of its static nature. This necessitates the application of other concepts to explain these changes (WordPress, 2007).

Another weakness of neo-realism is that though some of its tenets such as its assumption of rationality among states, it still has some contradictory concepts. For instance, the idea of seizing maximum power and power balancing by states has neer been absolutely clear.

This is because states whose endeavor is to preserve themselves have no business maximizing their power when they are not facing anything dangerous. Neorealism is therefore weak in explaining change and more so where the change emanates from states’ domestic structures.

Strengths of Neo-realism

One of the strengths of neorealism is that it does not use the perspective of human nature in coming up with an explanation of the prevalence of conflict. Instead, the theory relies on international system state structure.

The reason why states get into conflict is not because of the human nature, but because the environment provides a suitable avenue of engaging in conflict. The existence of states is characterized by anarchy which occasions a state of uncertainty in the security matters. Neorealism has a close semblance of the theory of natural selection advanced by Darwin.

Most states are interested in security as opposed to glory and power since the ultimate goal is survival. Neorealism is an important theory because it puts states in a wider perspective and gives details of the advantages and disadvantages of the structure. This makes it possible to predict the behavior expected of states. The human nature is put aside in neorealism and instead what takes centre stage is the emphasis of impersonal state being the most critical in affairs of the world (WordPress, 2007).

The other strength of neorealism is that it is systemic. This is because the theory can make predictions and explanations in describing behavior without having to consider first image or even second image variables. Neorealism explains the behavior of states and the impact on the international system by using third image variables or structural variables whose level of operation is the same. This makes the approach systemic in the way it operates (Freyberg-Inan, 2004).


Clinton, D. (2007). The realist tradition and contemporary international relations. Washington: LSU Press.

Freyberg-Inan, A. (2004). What moves man: the realist theory of international relations and its Judgement of Human Nature. New York: SUNY Press.

Waltz, K. (2003). Realist Thought and Neorealist Theory. Available from (Accessed 26 Aug 2011).

WordPress. (2007). International Politics as Social Science: Neorealism and Neoliberalism. Available from (Accessed Aug 26 2011).