Is there a “timeless wisdom” to neorealism?

Posted on May 3, 2013



Is there a “timeless wisdom” to neorealism?

“The process of trying to falsify theories in the social sciences is really one of searching for their bounds of applicability” (Elman, Elman 1995; p186).

A process of falsification of neorealist theory as a whole is a task impossible to undertake successfully in such a short essay. However, by considering the key assumptions of neorealist theory and its critics’ arguments against them, this piece of work aims to show that there is indeed a timeless wisdom to neorealist theory. However, such timeless wisdom exists only when some key assumptions are left aside.  A theory of international relations cannot, by definition, have no bounds of applicability. In other words, a theory aiming to be the lens through which the contextualisation and justification of the international system and all which it implies will necessarily have limits to its application. Limits of a geographical or temporal nature would be fatal to a theory of international relations that sought to cross time and space. For instance, if a particular theory only applied to a certain period of time it would not apply to the whole world of international politics either in that, assuming that development is not homogeneous on a geographical level, the implication would be that said theory could not be applied to all areas of the world with equal coherence. However, neorealist theory can offer some precious and indeed guidelines to understand how states interact within the constructed anarchy of international politics. To assess the timelessness of neorealist theory, however, it is necessary to understand what purpose neorealist theory was designed to fulfil by its creators. This article wants to avoid criticising neorealist theory for what I think it should achieve, instead I will judge it for what neorealists thought it should be. Particular focus will be given of course to Kenneth Walt’s and Robert Gilpin’s works.

To begin with, Kenneth Waltz has spent some thought on what a theory of international relations should be and concluded that “a theory is a depiction of the organisation of a domain and of the connections among its parts”. He accuses realists like Morgenthau and Aron for allowing their theory to be undermined by “their belief that the international political domain cannot be marked off from others for the purpose of constructing a theory. Waltz also attacks the incapability of the aforementioned realists to let go the role that chance plays in the unravelling of international relations (1995:26). Indeed, Waltz claims to have reached around the realists’ difficulty in ideating a theory of international relations by isolating what he considers the ‘realm’ of the international-political system from others to analyse it intellectually.  To him, neorealism circumscribes international politics from what made it too complex for some pre-neorealist theorists to pin down and separates so that it can be theorised (p.29). Of course, this process of circumscription has been seen by onlookers as rather a process of simplification.

Indeed, Robert Cox suggested that neorealism, as intended by Waltz, has been made into a form of ‘problem solving theory’.  For Cox, the key characteristic of neorealism is that it is an ahistorical theory, which as a consequence makes it impermeable to change. As pointed out in his article, neorealist theory was inspired by the world order of the Cold War and yet “abstracted from the historical framework” (Cox 1986:221). Neorealism’s claim to invulnerability to structural changes in the international system is criticised by other theorists. John Ruggie, for example, highlights the absence of a ‘dimension of change’ within Waltz’s neorealism; this flaw is caused by the latter’s failure to consider the differentiation of units within international systems. Ruggie brings the medieval feudal system of Europe as evidence that Waltz’s model is not proof to change; a “system of rule which reflected a patchwork of overlapping and incomplete rights of governments” which was clearly international. Moreover, Ruggie also argues that this system of rule was rendered possible by common –and I add ‘interstate’- bodies of law, religion and custom, embodied by the Roman church (Ruggie 1986:142-146). Robert Keohane agrees on neorealism’s avoidance of change, “especially when the source of that change lay in world economy or domestic structures of states” (1986:159).

To Richard Ashley, neorealism is but a “positivist structuralism that treats the given order as the natural order”. In his view, neorealism “limits rather than expands political discourse, negates or trivialises the significance of variety across time and place, subordinates all practice and interest in control, bows to the ideal of a social power beyond responsibility, and thereby deprives political interaction of those practical capacities which make social learning and creative change possible. What emerges is an ideology that anticipates, legitimises, and orients a totalitarian project of global proportions: the rationalisation of global politics” (1983:228). Ashley observed that, to make neorealist theory coherent, the state “must be treated like an unproblematic unity…whose existence, boundaries, identifying structures, consistencies, legitimisations, interests, and capacities to make self-regarding decisions can be treated as given, independent on transnational class and human interest and undisputed”. Indeed, neorealism’s ontological commitment to the state requires that the very essence of the state as equal in theoretical terms to its counterparts be an assumption (1893:238-9).

It is this assumption of state as a homogeneous entity that critics of neorealism find particularly hard to swallow. Robert Keohane, albeit through a much more cautious delivery, amends neorealist theory for simplifying the internal character of state actors into mere assumption rather than being treated as variables. Indeed, Keohane claims that, because neorealists do not engage in the process of how states’ interests come about but rather treat them as givens, the theory itself is unable to predict state interests, which makes it a less powerful theory (1986:165,183). Neorealists treat state interest as a given because by stating the contrary, neorealist theory would have no reason to exist unless social forces, production and labour relations were added to the international picture -as done by historical materialism. By ignoring the internal facets of states that are observed by Marxist theory history becomes, for the neorealist, a ‘quarry’ supplying “variations on always recurring themes”–which make the ontology of neorealist theory itself. Indeed, Cox concludes that this essential epistemology makes sure that “the future will always be like the past” (Cox 1986:212-216).

Constructivist approaches have exposed another weakness of neorealist theory. Cox suggests that the way state actors seek security within the international system depends entirely on the actors understanding this system in the same way; hence on “each of them adopting neorealist rationality as a guide to action” (1896:212). Similarly, Alexander Wendt has come to the conclusion that self-help is an institution which can by all means be defied (1992:396-403). Keohane stated that “neorealism can be criticised for paying insufficient attention to norms, institutions and change”; this is because “to be self-reflective, human action must take place with an understanding of the context within which it occurs”. Keohane implies that, because neorealism is an offspring of the modern capitalist era, it is based on the socially constructed modern interstate system (1986:169,181).

Neorealist Robert Gilpin has political realism should be considered more as a ‘philosophical disposition’ and ‘set of assumptions’ about the international system rather than strictly a scientific theory (1986:304). The Elmans also suggest that neorealism is not as much as a theory, but rather a ‘paradigm’ to be applied to contextualise international politics (Elman and Elman 1995:183) Equally, Waltz agrees that assumptions are central to neorealist theory and indeed necessary, because in his view the heterogeneous nature of states does not affect directly the way in which they interact nor in the outcomes that their behaviour produces. (1988:617)Waltz acknowledges that wars are directly caused by patterns internal to the states that fight them, yet history shows him that all states fight wars and respond to international threats the same way, although their interests will inevitably vary depending on their capabilities. These differences will obviously spring from the internal dimension of states but Waltz believes that states are made similar for they all coexist within the same anarchical structure (1995:34-36). The Elmans reproach those critics of Waltz’s theory who point out its failure to acknowledge the individual level of international relations by pointing out that the former’s theory was not designed to “explain the particular motivations of individual statemen and units” (1995:189). To be sure, Waltz himself proclaimed that “critics of neorealist theory fail to understand that a theory is not a statement about everything that is important in international-political life, but rather a necessarily slender explanatory product” (1995:31).

To those, like Ashley, Ruggie, and Cox who accuse neorealist theory of deliberately ignoring change, Waltz replies that, although he agrees that when the conditions that a theory contemplated are subjected to change, this theory ceases to be relevant. But Waltz also stresses the difference between two concepts: changes of the system and changes in the system; in his view, it is the latter that is always more likely to take place (2000:4-22).

While Cox claimed that historical materialism does what neorealism is designed for, only better, (1986:211-216), other critics of neorealist theory have however admitted that it can be a very useful one, if used with caution. Chiefly, Keohane has concluded that the key to the usefulness of neorealism is to see it as a “sophisticated network of questions and initial hypotheses” rather than a set of answers. To him, neorealism is a god basis “for explaining the outcome of conflicts, since it directs attention to fundamental questions of interest and power within a logically coherent and parsimonious theoretical framework”. Indeed, Keohane goes as far as to admit that realism as a whole is vital to a coherent analysis of world politics, for the reasons listed above. (1986:159,189).

To conclude, some of the wisdom of neorealist theory may well be confined to our time. Namely, the constructivist approach to the concept of anarchy highlights how the anarchical system can indeed be subjected to change. The fact that neorealist depiction of the international system does not entirely apply to Medieval Europe suggests that neorealist theory in its integrity-given its commitment to ahistorical assumptions- does not have a timeless wisdom. However, if we look at neorealist theory as the Elmans’ paradigm and Keohane’s network of sophisticated question-while bearing in mind that neorealism may well be a theory that is suited to systemise the modern international structure in which it was born- its timeless wisdom is revealed. The neorealist way of observing international politics is vital to understanding the system as long as the internal peculiarities of states are not ignored by international relations theory. Neorealism was not intended to be a theory that would explain where in society an individual actor’s foreign policy originates from but rather to analyse the way such foreign policy is pursued by a certain state and how it relates its counterparts’. It is a waste of time to criticise a theory for failing to achieve what it was not projected to achieve in the first place. The question about neorealism should not be “Is it completely wrong?” but rather “Is there a theory that can achieve neorealism’s goals better than neorealism itself?”. To the latter, Cox for one would have no doubt in replying that historical materialism is an improvement from neorealist theory without departing completely from its core assumptions. Excluding historical materialism’s focus on state-society relationship and the production process, historical materialism, like neorealism, gives much importance to conflict and the way in which it brings changes within the international system. Unlike neorealism, historical materialism does not believe in the infinite timelessness of the anarchical international stage and focuses on imperialism “which adds a vertical dimension of power to the horizontal dimension of rivalry among the most powerful states” (Cox 1986:215). Strip neorealism of its ahistorical epistemology and acknowledge that it, on its own, will not give a comprehensive explanation on why conflicts come about between individual actors. You now have a concise paradigm to add on top of those theories that focus on societies and class relations and below historical materialism vertical power concept.


Ashley, K. Richard (1984) ‘The Poverty of Neorealism’, International Organization, Vol. 38, No. 2 pp. 225-286.

Cox, Robert (1986) ‘Social Forces, States and World Order: Beyond international Relations Theory’ in Keohane, O. Robert (ed.) ‘Neorealism and its Critics’, New York, Columbia University Press: 204-254.

Elman, Colin; Elman, Miriam; Schroeder, Paul (1995) ‘History vs. Neo-realism: A Second’, International Security, Vol. 20, No. 1 pp. 182-195.

Gilpin, G. Robert, ‘The Richness of the Tradition of Political Realism’ in Keohane, O. Robert (ed.) ‘Neorealism and its Critics’, New York, Columbia University Press: 301-321.

Kenneth, N. Waltz (1995) ‘Realist Thought and Neorealist Theory’, Journal of International affairs, 44 pp.21-23.

Kenneth, N.Waltz (1988) ‘HistoryThe Origins of War in Neorealist Theory’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 18, No. 4, The Origin and Prevention of Major Wars pp. 615-628.

Kenneth, Waltz (2000) ‘Structural Realism after the Cold War’, International Security, Vol. 25, No. 1 pp. 5-41.

Keohane, O. Robert, ‘Theory of World Politics: Structural Realism and Beyond’ in Keohane, O. Robert (ed.) ‘Neorealism and its Critics’, New York, Columbia University Press: 158-203.

Ruggie, J. Gerard, ‘Continuity and Transformation in the World Polity: Toward a Neorealist Synthesis’ in Keohane, O. Robert (ed.) ‘Neorealism and its Critics’, New York, Columbia University Press: 131-157.

 Wendt, Alexander (1992) ‘Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics’. International Organization, Vol. 46, No. 2 pp. 391-425.

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