In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Neorealism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Waltz’s Theory
  • Other Important Statements of Neorealist Theory
  • Neorealist Theory and the Study of Foreign Policy
  • Case Studies
  • Decision Process Theorists

International Relations Neorealism
Timothy McKeown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0037


Neorealism is an outgrowth of traditional balance-of-power (or “realist”) theories of international relations and was first articulated by Kenneth Waltz in 1975 and 1979. It is distinguished from the older theory primarily by its attempt to be more explicitly theoretical, in a style akin to economics—especially by its self-conscious comparisons of great-power politics to an oligopolistic market and its willfully simple assumptions about the nature of international relations. Neorealism is also termed “structural realism,” and a few neorealist writers sometimes refer to their theories simply as “realist” to emphasize the continuity between their own and older views. Its primary theoretical claim is that in international politics, war is a possibility at any time. The international system is viewed as completely and always anarchic. While norms, laws and institutions, ideologies, and other factors are acknowledged as influencing the behavior of individual governments, neorealists typically insist that they do not alter the central role that war plays in international politics. Nor do alterations in the characteristics of governmental units—from ancient empires to the European Union, and everything in between—affect the underlying logic. The theory purports to concentrate on how “international structure”—by which it means primarily the distribution of capabilities, especially among the leading powers—shapes outcomes. It also sometimes treats weapons technology (i.e., who possesses nuclear weapons) as another important “systemic” property. It can be usefully distinguished from what might be called “classical” realist theory by several ideas that it highlights: the claim of complete and persistent anarchy; governments as pursuing (at least in some versions of the theory) relative rather than total gains; natural selection of states or governments’ alleged concern (in other versions) for survival as the ultimate arbiter of wise policy choices; imitation as a supplement to selection; the irrelevance of small states; and international law and institutions as epiphenomena of the desires of great powers (they affect the behavior of nation-states, but only because great powers use them to do this). However, the distinctions between neorealism and realism, and even between neorealism and aspects of liberal and constructivist thought, are hardly clear-cut. An attempt to teach undergraduates about the differences between, for example, realism and neorealism will require making gross simplifications that run the risk of caricaturing each of the respective positions.

General Overviews

The issues raised by neorealist theory appear in a scattered fashion throughout the literature, and it is not easy to find a single succinct statement of the issues. Donnelly 2000 comes the closest to providing one.

  • Donnelly, Jack. Realism and International Relations. Themes in International Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511612510

    The best general overview. It covers realist and neorealist theory at a level suitable for more-mature undergraduates or beginning graduate students. The bibliographic essays are especially helpful.

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