Le’ Notes #36: Neoclassical Realism – a short introduction

This post introduces the basics of Neoclassical Realism based on my reading notes. Prior knowledge of Realism is preferred.

When you first walk into any Introduction to IR (or IR Theory 101) class, the first school of thought the professor bombards you with will most likely be Realism. Building upon the assumption that international politics reflects the darkest side of human nature, it proceeds to view the world with pessimism. This is reflected in tales of international politics as told by Thucydides and later, Hans Morgenthau in his classic, Politics Among Nations (1948).

Fast forward to the Cold War, when Realism was considered too “romantic” for the emerging rationalists. Kenneth Waltz (Theory of International Politics, 1979) sought to explain international politics using a model of systemic distribution of power. This handy tool would allow us to add a more scientific touch to international politics: it would be possible to predict state behavior using rational choice models. This school of thought later replaced Classical Realism and would later be called Neorealism and has since been the defining school of thought in IR.

Neoclassical Realism as a critique of Neorealism

However, there has been ample criticism of Neorealism, specifically of its “rational actor” assumption. If states ought to rationally balance against greater powers through bandwagoning or internal balancing (beefing oneself up), then why hasn’t Japan allied with South Korea to balance a more powerful China? Why hasn’t Japan acquired nuclear weapons? Schweller [paywall] (2004) writes:

The main problem is realism’s assumption of states as coherent actors. The closer the policymaking process and actual state-society relations approximate a unitary actor, the more accurate realism’s predictions. Conversely, when states are divided at the elite and societal levels, they are less likely to behave in accordance with balance of power predictions.

The state, according to Neoclassical Realists, is not a “black box” that can be ignored. In fact, domestic processes can act as intervening variables that could potentially make or break a proper “rational” choice.

Imagine the state as an “imperfect transmission belt” (Lobell, Ripsman, and Taliaferro, 2009, p. 4). While Neorealists assume the state can perfectly transform their raw sources of power (e.g. human and natural resources, geographical advantage, etc.) into foreign policy, Neoclassical Realists argue that the process is never as smooth as thought to be. There are some intervening variables—such as incompetent domestic leadership, in-fighting within the bureaucracy (which leads to corruption), misperception of the enemy (which leads to either overestimation or underestimation of threat), or unsupportive domestic institutions—that interfere with the process.

If you’re still lost, here’s a visual representation of the Neoclassical Realist framework as proposed by Lobell, Ripsman, and Taliaferro (2016). Notice the shaded boxes, which highlight the main focus of neoclassical realist theory.

NCR model.png

The major differences and methods

As far as fundamentals go, Neoclassical Realism accepts some of the major axioms that make up the Realist school. These include:

  1. A pessimistic view of the human condition
  2. A rejection of teleological (endpoint) views of international politics, such as a rejection of concepts like Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis
  3. A skepticism for recipes of international peace and order
  4. A skeptic view of ethics and morality (if not to say ethically ambivalent)

As you may have seen in the model above, Neoclassical Realism is indeed a bit different from Classical and Neo-Realism. It tries to bring in the best of both worlds by balancing between systemic influences (what Neorealists like) and the domestic structure of the state along with its problems (what Classical Realists like).

Due to this difference in methodology, however, the goal of Neoclassical Realism isn’t as grand as Neorealism. Instead of trying to explain systemic trends, Neoclassical Realism is more modest in that it attempts simply to explain why states choose different policies in response to their external environment at a given time. It makes little predictive claims (How can it? The intervening variables are unpredictable!) nor does it seek to explain whether there would be systemic consequences of a certain state’s policy.

Because of this modest goal, it’s now my favorite research framework.


To summarize:

  • Neoclassical Realism can be considered as a middle ground between Classical Realism, which focuses heavily on domestic politics, and Neorealism, which deals with systemic distribution of power. Neoclassical Realists accept that the international system can influence state behavior, but the character of behavior is also influenced by the domestic actors.
  • The main focus of the analysis is domestic variables, including leaders, social and political institutions, and even sub-state actors. These variables are considered to intervene in the process of “rational” policy-making.


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