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

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Different Versions of Realism
  • Classical Realism
  • Structural Realism (Neorealism)
  • Defensive Structural Realism
  • Offensive Structural Realism
  • Hegemonic Realism
  • Precursors of Neoclassical Realism
  • Neoclassical Realism and Regional Studies
  • Neoclassical Realism and Issue Areas
  • Criticism of Neoclassical Realism and Counterarguments
  • Recent Developments in Neoclassical Realism

Political Science Neoclassical Realism
Layla Ibrahim Abdallah Dawood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0187


Neoclassical realism is a theoretical approach that belongs to the realist tradition in international relations theory. Realist theories have tried to make sense of the international reality by focusing on power and conflictual relations among states. In spite of this common trait, realist theories have reached for different sources of explanation in order to appraise conflict and war: human nature, the dynamics of national politics or major characteristics of the international arena (such as the lack of a central government, i.e., anarchy). In contrast, neoclassical realism primarily aims at explaining the foreign policies of states by referring to both international and national (domestic) levels. By doing so, the supporters of neoclassical realism claim that this theory is able to fill in the gaps found in other versions of realism, especially with respect to previous failures in explaining and predicting foreign policy choices. More recently, neoclassical realism has evolved toward becoming both a “theory of foreign policy” and a “theory of international politics.” While a theory of foreign policy focuses on the explanation of behaviors of states in the international arena, a theory of international politics discusses the main trends in the international system, such as the supposed systemic tendency toward the formation of balances of power and the durability/stability of bipolar systems. The main objective of this article is to identify the central works of neoclassical realism, enabling the reader to differentiate this theory from other versions of realism. For that purpose, this article is divided as follows: the Foundational Works of neoclassical realism are first discussed, that is: the pieces that give a name to this theoretical approach. The reader is then introduced to Different Versions of Realism, such as Classical Realism, Neorealism (which is sometimes also called Structural Realism (Neorealism)), Defensive Structural Realism, Offensive Structural Realism, and Hegemonic Realism. This is a necessary step to fully appreciate the innovative proposal of Neoclassical Realism. Finally, the variables introduced by neoclassical realism to explain state behavior are presented, as well as some recent applications of this theory to explain international politics and the foreign policies of various countries with respect to different issue areas.

Foundational Works

The term Neoclassical Realism first appeared in Rose 1998 to designate the works of Christensen 1996, Schweller 1998, Wohlforth 1993, and Zakaria 1998. All these works attempt to explain the foreign and security policies of the great powers: Christensen 1996 discusses the bilateral relationship between the United States and China during the beginning of the Cold War; Schweller 198 studies the foreign policies of Germany, the United States, and the Soviet Union prior to the Second World War; Wohlforth 1993 analyzes the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War; and Zakaria 1998 focuses on the path followed by the United States in becoming a great power. To explain state behavior, the aforementioned scholars dealt with the same independent variable: the distribution of power among states in a system, that is, relative power. An independent variable is composed of a concept or a phenomenon that is believed to affect the object of analysis (the dependent variable) without being affected by it. The authors of the works cited here also use similar intervening variables, such as leader’s perceptions and state structure. Intervening variables are composed of concepts or phenomena that are believed to mediate and/or modify the independent variable’s effect over the object of study. In addition, the authors of the foundational works of neoclassical realism use the same methodology to explain foreign policy: they have carried out detailed historical case studies to establish causal relationships between variables. Finally, anarchy (the lack of a central government) was not considered as an independent variable by these scholars but as a permissive and permanent condition allowing states to define their grand strategies.

  • Christensen, Thomas. Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947–1958. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

    The book discusses the relationship between the United States and China in the first decades of the Cold War, arguing that Sino-American rivalry was manipulated by the Truman administration to gain internal support for its policies toward Europe and the Soviet Union. Christensen argues that state extractive capacity was increased as the result of the emphasis given to the rivalry with China. Increased state extraction capacity (a domestic variable) helps to explain general American foreign policy.

  • Rose, Gideon. “Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy.” World Politics 5.1 (October 1998): 144–177.

    The term neoclassical realism first appeared in this review article to designate works that sought to explain state behavior by making reference to independent variables that are located at the structural level (like power distribution among states) and intervening variables placed at the unit, or domestic, level (such as the perception of decision makers and state extractive and mobilization capacity).

  • Schweller, Randall. Deadly Imbalances: Tripolarity and Hitler’s Strategy of World Conquest. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

    Schweller proposes a “balance of interest” theory, claiming that state behavior is not only determined by relative power, but also by “state interests,” which can be offensive (revisionist powers) or defensive (status quo powers). The scholar contrasts this theory to the developments that led to the Second World War.

  • Wohlforth, William. The Elusive Balance: Power and Perceptions during the Cold War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

    Wohlforth argues for the introduction of the intervening variable “perception of power” to explain state behavior. This scholar claims that the Soviet grand strategy during the Cold War was consistent with the perceptions of the Soviet leaders of the objective/material distribution of power between the United States and the Soviet Union.

  • Zakaria, Fareed. From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America’s World Role. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

    This book claims that wealth is not automatically translated into power and introduces the intervening variable “state mobilization and extractive capacity” to explain the delay in the emergence of the United States as a great power. Zakaria argues that a foreign policy of external expansion depends on the existence of a strong executive, and he tests this argument in considering many historical opportunities for expansion available to the United States in the 19th century.

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