quarta-feira, 12 de novembro de 2008

Neo-realism and the limitations of classical realism

1. Introduction
In order to understand to what extent has neo-realism addressed the limitations of classical realism, we must understand the core assumptions of classical and neo-realism. By doing so, we shall be in a better position to evaluate important patterns of change and, therefore, assess how neo-realism has perfected classical realism and addressed some of its original limitations.
Due to the scope of this essay, it would not be possible here to address all the important contributions to this International Relation’s school of thought, classical realism. Understanding its core assumptions shall be enough for the purpose of analyzing to what extent some of its limitations have been addressed by neo-realists. We will restrict, therefore, our attention to some of the most prominent thinkers of the classical realist tradition, like Thucydides, Machiavelli and Morgenthau, all of whom are seminal writers in this field. Their work allows us to understand the core assumptions of classical realism. After that, we will examine the work of some important neo-realists and examine to what extent neo-realism has addressed limitations of classical realism.

2.1 Core realist tradition: Thucydides
Born in 460 BC, the historian Thucydides wrote an epic account of the Peloponnesian war, a conflict that involved two major powers of its time: Sparta and Athens (Dunne 2004: 167). His work has been highly regarded ever since due to the insights he raised about several important issues of international politics. According to Tim Dunne, “Thucydides makes it clear that Sparta’s national interest, like that of all other states, was survival, and the changing distribution of power represented a direct threat to its existence” (Dunne 2004: 167). As we can see, the Greek historian was the first to express the concept of balance of power, so dear to the realist tradition. He explained the causes of the Peloponnesian war in terms of the changes in the distribution of power, or a shift in the balance of power. He also stated the importance of survival as one of the laws guiding international politics.

In fact, survival is one of the three core elements that scholars identify with realism (Dunne 2004: 163). The other two elements that form the core realist assumption are statism and self-help. All three are present in Thucydides work (Dunne 2004: 163). For Thucydides, power politics is a law of human behavior and, hence, a law governing the international system. The international system functions in much the same way as societies do: it is essentially anarchic in nature. This anarchical characteristic is, in fact, one of the main features of realism (Grieco 1997: 164). From this anarchical characteristic, follows that survival and security are two of the most important elements that should be taken into consideration by states when performing their politics in the international arena (Kaufman 1998: 125). Grieco also concurs with the view that states have security as their main interest (Grieco 1997: 166). Furthermore, quoting Thucydides, Kaufman states: “in order to secure themselves in a global environment of anarchy, empires must recognize that ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’. The leaders of these states have an obligation to secure their ‘self-preservation’”. In sum, for the Greek historian the world politics is characterized by the quest for power and the need actors have in this environment to try to survive.

2.2 Core realist tradition: Machiavelli
Niccolo Machiavelli’s seminal book The Prince was written for the Duke of Urbino in the early 16th century Italy. In spite of all misperception associated with his work (Kaufman 1998: 126), Machiavelli remains one of the authors most often linked with realism. Without further extending into the complexities of his work, suffice it to say that the Italian also espouse some of the core realist assumptions, like the anarchical characteristic of the international system and the need for self-help in this hostile environment. Machiavelli denounces the faith in universal moral principles as well. This criticism of the faith in universal moral principles is indeed another important feature of realism. According to Tim Dunne: “Realists are skeptical of the idea that universal moral principles exist and, therefore, warn states leaders against sacrificing their own self-interests in order to adhere to some indeterminate notion of ‘ethical’ conduct” (Dunne 2004: 163). In addition, according to Kaufman, “(h)is goal was to promote the effective rule of the City-States in a world where morality had little place except as a tool to engender the support of the people” (Kaufman 1998: 126). Realpolitik, or power politics, is in fact a central consideration of Machiavelli’s thought. In this regard, the Italian social philosopher shares the tree main assumptions of realism: the centrality of the state (City-State), survival and self-help.

2.3 Core realist tradition: Morgenthau
Hans J. Morgenthau, author of Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, is regarded by many (Dunne 2004: 167) as the high priest of post-war realism. A refugee from Hitler’s Germany, Morgenthau believed that the drive for power is one of the perennial characteristics of human nature. According to Morgenthau, international relations are “governed by objective laws that have their root in human nature” (Kaufman 1998: 126). Realpolitik is the term which best describes, according to his view, the reality of the international system. In this context, states seek power and preventing one state from achieving absolute power (balancing against it) should be one of the iron laws of behavior for sates willing to survive. Kaufman notes that Morgenthau’s work is a continuation of the works of Thucydides and Machiavelli (Kaufman 1998: 126). Moreover, Dunne asserts that “for both Thucydides and Morgenthau, the essential continuity of the power seeking behavior of states is rooted in the biological drives of human beings” (Dunne 2004: 167). Power politics is, therefore, not only a perennial feature of the international system, but also a major law of human behavior. Hence there is, for realists, no escaping it: human nature is essentially aggressive, as Nazi’s Germany seemed to confirm. In a famous quote, Morgenthau affirms that: “international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power” (Kaufman 1998: 163).

3. Core assumptions of classical realism
As we could clearly see before, the centrality of the state (statism), survival and self-help are three of the main realism’s assumptions. Classical realist writers such as Thucydides, Machiavelli and Morgenthau share all of them, to a greater or lesser extent. For realists of all sorts, power politics is the term that best describes international politics. International politics, in turn, occurs in an anarchical environment, characterized by the quest for dominance and hegemony. In this hostile environment, survival emerges as the main concern for states. In order to survive states have to deal with what realists, such as John Herz, have termed the ‘security dilemma’. The problem is that a so-called “spiral of insecurity” (Dunne 2004: 174) arises when states, seeking to enhance their own security, end up endangering the security of others and thus forcing them to enhance their own security in turn. The arms race that ensues can have significant consequences for stability in the international arena, as the First World War remarkably well exemplifies.

Joseph M. Grieco thus summarizes the core assumptions of realism: “realist theory assumes that states are the key actors in world affairs; that they are rational, autonomous and unitary actors; and that their goals and strategies are shaped by their anarchical context. On the basis of these assumptions, realists argue that states are fundamentally concerned about their security… These assumptions and propositions form the core of realist international theory” (Grieco 1997: 168).

4. Limitations of classical realism and neo-realism
In order to discuss to what extent neo-realism has addressed the limitations of classical realism, we shall first identify what neo-realism means. According to Steven Lamy, “for most academics, neo-realism refers to Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics (1979)”. Waltz theory emphasizes the importance of the structure of the international system and its role as the primary determinant of state behavior.” (Lamy 2004: 207).

There are three main differences between neo-realism and classical or traditional realism and we could assume therefore that neo-realists considered these aspects to be limitations of classical realism and thus intended to have addressed them. The first major distinctive feature of neo-realism is that it focuses on the structure of the system rather than on unit-level explanations. Whereas classical realism would provide bottom-up interpretation of a phenomenon, neo-realists instead focus on the functioning of the whole system’s structure and the constraints it presents to actors. A second major difference refers to their view about power. Classical realists consider power an end to itself (Morgenthau), whereas neo-realists will interpret power in a broader sense. For them, power can be best defined as the combined capabilities of a given state. A third difference is how each of the two camps understands the way states react to the condition of anarchy. “To realists, anarchy is a condition of the system… In contrast, neo-realists suggest that anarchy ‘defines the system’” (Lamy 2004: 209).

Liberals and neo-realists differ on their views about the limitations of classical realism. Neo-realists consider a more limited set of limitations and intend to address those by updating the theory, thus creating a more modern or contemporary realist profile (Lamy 2004: 208). Liberals and others (social constructivists, post-modernists, etc), on the other hand, have a broader set of criticism and consider realism altogether as being inextricably flawed. Neo-realists claim having addressed the limitations of classic realism, whereas liberals reject that claim.
Hence, whether or not neo-realism has addressed the limitations of classical realism depends on the paradigm we assume: neo-liberal or neo-realist. For neo-realists, neo-realism has satisfactorily addressed realism’s limitations, albeit not in a complete manner. Neo-liberals will dispute that claim affirming that both neo-realism and classical realism are limited because they do not account for change in the international system and because they still cannot take into account variables such as political, social and economic processes.

5. Conclusion
Without doubt, as Lamy puts it, “(neo-realism) offer researchers some powerful explanation of state behavior” (Lamy 2004: 220). However, he accepts that “recently, neo-realist scholars were criticized for their inability to explain the end of the cold war and other major transformations in the international system. Neo-realists minimize the importance of culture, traditions, and identity – all factors that shaped the emergence of new communities that helped transform the Soviet Empire” (Lamy 2004: 221). In fact, as Keohane points out, neo-realism remains fragile in explaining change in the international system and the role played in it by domestic factors, ideology, institutions, and social, political and economic processes.
In this sense, we could state that although neo-realism has addressed some limitations of traditional realism, it has not addressed them all.

In fact, as Grieco concedes, although neo-realism has addressed some important issues of classical realism, it remains fragile and in need of further development in order to account for important changes such as the end of the cold war and the emergence of a unified Europe (Grieco 1997: 191). Grieco asserts, furthermore, that: “…there are important unresolved questions within the core of realist international theory… Realism may be a helpful approach to the study of world politics, but it has several problems, and it has certainly not yet reached intellectual closure” (Grieco 1997: 191).

6. Bibliography
1- Dunne, T. and Schmidt, B.C. (2004), ‘Realism’, in Baylis, J. and Smith, S. The Globalization of World Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
2- Grieco, J. M. (1997), ‘Realist international theory and the study of world politics’, in Doyle, M.W. and Ikenberry, G. J. New Thinking in International Relations Theory (Boulder Colorado: Westview Press).
3- Kaufman, D. J., Parker, J.M., Howel, P.V., Doty, G.R. (1998), Understanding International Relations, The Value of Alternative Lenses (USA: Custom Publishing).
4- Lamy, S. (2004), ‘Contemporary Mainstream Approaches: Neo-realism and Neo-liberalism’, in Baylis, J. and Smith, S. The Globalization of World Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

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