“Theory of Neorealism and Neoliberalism” in International Relations

Do you know about the popular theory of Neorealism and Neoliberalism” in International Relations? The theory of Neorealism and Neoliberalism is quite prevalent in International Relations. Especially when it entered world politics. Here I am going to discuss this theory of Neorealism and Neoliberalism” in International Relations.

Theory of Neorealism and Neoliberalism

In the early 1980s, the world of international relations studies entered new debates on world politics. It is the work of Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (1979) which aims to develop a scientific international theory. That provokes the debates and breeds the so-called Neorealism and Neo-liberalism school of thought.

Neo-realism dominates the world of security studies and Neo-liberals focus on political economy and more recently on issues like human rights and the environment.

Waltz’s theory emphasizes the importance of the structure of the international system and its role as the primary determinant of state behavior.

Unlike traditional Realism which views states’ behavior as directed by their self-interested nature, Waltz argues that structure directs states conduct. The structure of the international political system is defined first by its organizing principle, which is anarchy.

Where every state (as units in the system) has a similar ultimate interest for survival. However, the second defining principle, units’ capabilities to pursue their interest is not equally distributed. It varies, with the more capable ones, of course, shaping the realm, posing the problems that the others have to deal with. The unequal distribution of states’ capabilities creates states’ balance of power behavior either multipolarity or bipolarity.

The second difference between traditional realists and neo-realist is related to their view of power. For the classical Realists power was both a means and an end, and rational state behavior was simply accumulating the most power. For neo-realists power is more than the accumulation of military resources and the ability to use it to coerce and control other states in the system.

The third difference is each one’s view on how states react to the condition of anarchy. To Realists, anarchy is a given the condition of the system and states react to it according to their size, location domestic politics, and leadership quality. Whilst neo-realist suggest that anarchy defines the system and the states react to it in line with their power capabilities.

Kenneth Waltz’s structural realism or neorealism has had widely criticized by other scholars. Robert Cox claims that Waltz has sacrificed the interpretive richness of classical realism as a critical theory in order to transform it into a positivistic problem-solving theory.

Cox argues that the inability of this particular approach in differentiating between times and places is the cause of a major flaw in Waltz’s theory of neo-realism. Neo-realism is unable to explain structural transformation since the positivist approach cannot account for variations whether in the basic nature of the actors (power seeking) or in their mode of interaction (power balancing).

Richard Ashley points out several weaknesses of neo-realism.

  1. Statism. Neo-realism denies the recognition of global collectivist concepts on transnational class relations or the interest of humankind.
  2. Utilitarianism. The utilitarian perspective of neorealism has undermined the notion of the state as an actor whose interests and interactions shape the structure of the international system.
  3. Positivism. By embracing the positivist approach neo-realism disregards the value-laden social activities such as social consensus that may perhaps coordinate practices as well as distribution of resources.
  4. Atomist conception. Neo-realism defines international structure not as an independent internal relation prior to and constitutive of social actors, but as a joining of states. Therefore, the international structure is not established independent of the parts taken together, since it emerged as a result of joining the parts together.

Waltz has not only ignored changes in the density of interactions in systems but has been too quick in assuming that the differentiation in units can be dropped as a characteristic of the structure of the international system.

In the short term, states may be the dominant units and play a similar functional role, but over long periods other units may grow in importance, and roles may alter. Ruggie points to the evolution of the concept of territoriality at die end of the feudal era to illustrate such generative changes and argues that Waltz’s theory is too static to explain such changes.

Another critique comes from Robert Keohane, a liberal institutionalism theorist. Keohane accepts basic tenets of the neo-realist argument such as the assumption that states act rationally, and the assumption that states seek power to affect other states.

However, Keohane argues that the concepts of states “maximizing power” and states creating a “balance of power” is in fact contradictory. He points out that “states concerned with self-preservation do not seek to maximize their power when they are not in danger”.

Keohane argues that “realism is particularly weak in accounting for change, especially where the sources of that change lie in the world political economy or in the domestic structure of states”.

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Further, in their book Power and Interdependence, Keohane & Nye highlights the current interdependence feature of world politics.

Interdependence refers to situations where states or actors are determined by external events in a reciprocal relationship with other states or actors, jointly limiting their autonomy.

It is created through the expansion of international transactions, insofar as the costs associated with them constrain political activity.

While these relationships impose costs, the benefits may exceed them. Complex Interdependence is characterized at least by three features:

  1. Multiple channels connect societies: informal ties among governing elites, transnational actors and organizations, and formal international channels
  2. The agenda of international politics consists of multiple issues which are not arranged in a clear hierarchy
  3. Military force is not used when complex interdependence prevails on a set of issues.

The debate between Neorealism and Neoliberalism

The debate between neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism has dominated International Relations (IR) theory, particularly in the United States.

The ‘neo-neo’ debate has brought much contention among the scholars of IR, equally the two schools of thought have been considered by many to be remarkably similar.

In the first part the framework of the ‘neo-neo’ debate, discusses the fundamental points of contention between neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism.

Two prominent Institutionalists, Robert Keohane and Lisa Martin (1995), have suggested that “for better or for worse institutional theory is a half-sibling of neo-realism”.

The study of IR has experienced dramatic change as the foundational epistemology has been criticized by post-modern theorists who attack the underlying assumptions of positivism. As post-positivists are simply united through their opposition to the positivist movement, it is not a clean two-sided debate.

In the second part the fundamental similarities that bring neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism under the theoretical umbrella of rationalism, whilst comparing the rationalist position to the recently surfaced reflectivism.

As the debate has evolved the common assumptions of neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism have become increasingly obvious. In the final part of the essay, I will analyze the similar assumptions of the international system held by rationalist theories, with particularly close attention paid to ‘anarchy’, ‘self-help‘, and ‘collective security.

To some extent, the ‘Great Debate’ was an artificially constructed debate, invented for “specific presentational purposes, teaching, and self-reflection of the discipline”.

Moreover, the debate has highlighted the comparable paradigm positions of neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism, giving rise to a ‘neo-neo synthesis’ further consolidating the idea that the two approaches are simply manifestations of the same approach.

The Neo-Neo Debate

The debate between neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism has dominated the IR debate for decades. The two schools of thought have jostled overviews of the international system in an attempt to define the world of international politics.

These two paradigms have been important to defining policymaking and research within international relations. The debate is characterized by their disagreement over specific issues. Such as the nature and consequences of anarchy, international cooperation, relative versus absolute gains, intentions versus capabilities, institutions, and regimes, and the priority of state goals.

Kenneth Waltz is one of many scholars responsible for expanding the ideas of traditional realists such as Hans Morganthau, who looked at the actions and interactions between states in the system, in an attempt to explain international politics.

Neorealism looks to separate the internal factors of the international political systems from the external. This separation isolates one realm from another, allowing theorists to deal with each at an intellectual level. Neorealists focus on the structure of the system, analyzing the variations, how they affect the interacting units and the outcomes they produce.

Waltz (1986) claims that the anarchic international system was a force that fashioned the states which constitute the system. The structure of the anarchic system compelled states to worry about security and take adequate measures to achieve it.

The preferences of states could not explain international outcomes, rather, Waltz argued that “state behavior varies more with differences of power than with difference in ideology, in the internal structure of property relations or in the governmental form”.

Where neorealists were seen to focus on security measures, neoliberal institutionalists are believed to have placed greater emphasis on environmental and economic issues, with a specific focus on the latter. Keohane and Nye argue that interdependence, particularly economic interdependence, is now an important feature of world politics.

Furthermore, Keohane and Nye argue that states are dominant actors in international relations; equally, there is an assumption that hierarchy exists within international politics and force can be used as an effective instrument of policy.

Globalization represents an increase in interconnectedness and linkages; this mutual interdependence between states positively affects behavioral patterns and changes the way states cooperate.

The realist view on international cooperation is rather more pessimistic. As man by nature has a restless desire for power and self-interest cooperation becomes difficult to achieve as this strive for power is likely to upset the status quo.

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According to Mearsheimer (1995), the two main obstructions to international cooperation are relative gains considerations and cheating, both of which stem from the logic of anarchy.

Grieco (1988) argues that realists find that states are positional, not atomistic, in character; therefore, as well as being anxious about cheating, states are primarily concerned with how their partners might benefit from any cooperative arrangements.

Since international relations are a zero-sum game, states compete with each other to ensure their own benefits outweigh that of others.

For realists, survival within the anarchic international system is paramount. The intentions of states are unknown and subsequently, state actors are cautious about the gains of others when cooperating; a friend may gain from cooperation one day and use it as a threat the next.

Waltz (1979) argues, that under global anarchy, “when faced with the possibility of cooperating for mutual gains, states that feel insecure must ask how the gain will be divided. They are compelled to ask not Will both of us gain? but Who will gain more?

For neorealists, the balance of power is essential to understanding world politics; when states have such concerns about the balance of power cooperation is much more difficult to achieve.

Neoliberals show more concern as to how a state benefits overall, as opposed to how a state will benefit in comparison to others. It is suggested that policymakers will consider absolute gains to be made from an agreement, including potential longer-term gains.

Neoliberals argue that focusing on relative gains is misguided as economic interdependence ensures that neither side can effectively exploit the economic relationship and take advantage of the other politically.

Mastanduno (1991) suggests that relative gains can be destructive as they are conducive to the twin evils of protectionism and nationalism. Focusing on the distribution of benefits could affect the total benefit overall.

Neoliberal institutionalists agree that states act in their own interests, yet hold a much more optimistic view on cooperation.

Keohane (1984) recognized that cooperation is not an easy feat and can lead to tension, but states could potentially benefit from cooperative strategies (Keohane, 1984).

Duncan Snidal (1991) believes that if absolute gains from cooperation are considerable then relative gains are likely to have minimal effect on cooperation. Like realists, institutionalists are concerned about cheating, but unlike neorealists, they place great faith in institutions themselves.

Institutions provide a coordinating mechanism to help states capture potential gains from cooperation; this “constructed focal point” increases the opportunity for cooperative outcomes.

Furthermore, institutions provide an arbitrary body that is able to provide states with information preventing states from cheating. As explained in the game theory, more specifically the Prisoner dilemma, states seek to maximize individual pay-offs, and so institutions offer a platform through which greater coordination and cooperation can be executed, subsequently benefitting both parties.

In Mearsheimer’s article The False Promise of International Institutions, he purports that institutions reflect the distribution of power in the world. Moreover, institutions have little influence on state behavior and offer a diminutive opportunity for holding stability in a post-Cold War period.

Where neoliberals believe there to be a strong correlation between institutions, economic cooperation, and peace, neorealists doubt the link made between cooperation and stability as neoliberal theorists avoid military issues.

Mearsheimer (1995) argues that absolute gains logic can only apply to the economic realm, whereas relative gains apply to the security realm. Neoliberal institutionalists attempt to divide a line between the economic and security realm, yet there is a correlation between economic might and military might.

If neoliberals accept this realist claim that states act in accordance with self-interest in an anarchic system where military powers matter, then according to Mearsheimer they must deal with the issue of relative gains.

Keohane anil Martin (1995) recognizes that there is not a clear analytical line between security and economic issues, but the institutionalist theory has placed importance on the role of institutions in providing information and removing the problem of uncertainty.

Driven by survival, neorealists are sensitive to any erosion of their relative capabilities as these factors are the basis for security and independence.

Similarly, Krasner (1991) criticizes the neoliberal school of thought for placing too much emphasis upon intentions, interests, and information, paying little attention to the distribution of capabilities.

Again, institutionalists envisage the issue of capabilities being” amended through security institutions signaling governments’ intentions by providing/others with adequate information. Institutions reflect advancing principles and norms of community standards lowering the costs of multilateral enforcement strategies.

The ‘inter-paradigm’ debate between neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists lasted for decades as scholars continued to pick flaws in the position of the opposing approach, in an attempt to highlight problems with the causal logic. It was not until the emergence of alternative approaches to international theory did the axis of the debate changed.

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Common Assumptions of Neorealism and Neoliberalism

As discussed, we can see that neorealism and neoliberalism have their differences, yet equally, they share similar analytical premises.

Both are state-centric structural theories, using state actors as basic units of theoretical analysis. Through the state-centric approach, both theories try to explain the behavior of states with reference to the material structure of the international system (Thomas, 2001, p.10).

Whether concerned with relative gains or absolute gains, there is common agreement that states act within the rational choice model.

Grieco recognizes that for both realists and neoliberals there is a common understanding of international anarchy, an absence of a common inter-state government.

In his groundbreaking book Theory of International Politics (1979) Kenneth Waltz focused on the ‘structure’ of the international system and the ramifications of the structure of international relations.

A defining feature of the international system is that it is anarchic, with no overarching power governing states. For neoliberals, international order is defined by the state of anarchy, but contrary to realists, this absence of an overarching authority does not mean that we are in a constant state of war.

Charles Lipson believes that anarchy is the “rosetta stone of international relations”, although neorealists slightly exaggerate the importance of anarchy at the expense of interdependence; nevertheless, both neorealists and neoliberals recognize anarchy as fundamental to shaping the future of world politics.

Although neorealists were primarily concerned with security, and neoliberals focused on the economy, rationalist theories share a common analytical starting point: i.e., states are in the self-interested main actors within the anarchic international system.

Regardless of their slight differences, this self-help approach to anarchy held by rationalists generates a competitive notion of security and creates an issue for collective action. The logic of self-help encourages states to adapt to the system.

Although neoliberals have conceded to neorealism the causal powers of the anarchic structure, they argue that this process of self-help can spawn cooperative behavior between states, even in an exogenously given, self-help system.

The rationalist approach provides analytical debate for notable issues within the study of IR, such as cooperation among great powers, but offers little guidance in situations where their basic ontological assumption that states are autonomous actors is violated.

If decisions made within a state are constrained by external factors, autonomy is not demonstrated. For both neorealism and neoliberalism, the Westphalian model presents a logical paradox as both theories assume autonomy and self-help.

A logical contradiction between self-help and autonomy is purported by focusing on wars between great powers or economic bargaining between major powers, where autonomy is rarely an issue; these actions are not consistent with the rules and principles of Westphalian and international legal sovereignty (Krasner,1999).

Arguments of collective security recognize the importance of military force as a characteristic of international life, but similarly, advocates of this theoretical approach believe that there are real opportunities to move beyond the self-help world of realism.

In order to accept collective security, one must adhere to three main principles. First, states must surrender the use of military force to alter the status quo.

Second, in order to take in the interests of the international community states must broaden their conception of national. Finally, states must look past the fear that encapsulates world politics and begin to trust one another (Baylis, 2005, p.310).

The preservation of NATO, even since the end of the Cold War and the Soviet threat, appeared as confirmation that international cooperation could outlast the initial realist-inspired conditions for that institution.

Since the end of the Cold War collective security theorists believe that the international environment is more conducive for states to cooperate, and share values and interests.

Neither neorealism nor neoliberalism is able to account for the variability of states’ willingness to take part in collective security institutions as both theoretical approaches choose to ignore the role of domestic politics in shaping the interests and, hence, the behavior of states.


Both ‘neo’ theoretical approaches have their differences, neorealists focus primarily on high politics and neoliberal institutionalists focus on low politics, but regardless of this, they both share similar worldviews.

They share a comparable epistemology and ontology, focus on similar questions, and have a number of assumptions about world politics, solidifying the international relations (IR) mainstream against reflectivist attacks.

The assumptions shared by neo-neo purport that there is no common authority and states are unitary and interest-maximizing actors.

Furthermore, the research platform for which these theories focus on behavioral regularities. The state-centric empirical focus on addressing issues that disrupt the status quo shows clear evidence of synthesis.

To conclude, I firmly believe that the evolution of both neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism has resulted in these theories falling under one header, and has subsequently together come under fire from positivist attacks.

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