Neoclassical Realism


By Michael Mayer


Neoclassical realism naturally gives pride of place to the material distribution of power in the international system as the principle source of explanatory power for long-term foreign policy outcomes. As a branch from the realist IR theoretical tree, neoclassical realism shares nearly all the core assumptions of realist theory. States are the principle actors in an international system marked by a lack of any global authority, thus global politics is characterized by a condition of anarchy.

Within this system, states seek to ensure their own survival through the pursuit of power, which realists generally measure in terms of a state’s material capabilities. While various branches of realist theory make different causal claims about why states pursue power, neoclassical realists generally seem to accept some form of the “security dilemma”, which maintains that acquiring power to ensure state survival causes concern in other states that are then motivated to increase their power base, a pattern which causes a circular upward spiral. In effect, as one state increases its security, it decreases the security of other states. In realist theory, including neoclassical, relative power relationships are therefore of crucial importance.[1]

Conversely, one “core” realist assumption does not seem to be present in most neoclassical realist theory: that of states acting as unitary rational actors. While some neoclassical realists might find this rationality assumption consistent with their theoretical models, others seem to conveniently ignore this important component of realist theory. For neoclassical realists such as Brian Rathbun, a domestic intervening variable simply explains variance in outcomes that do not adhere to the predictions of structural realism. The decision making processes in states that otherwise would occur rationally and in accordance to the precepts of structural realism are influenced negatively by domestic factors, and act contrary to the demands of the international system.

In this way, some view neoclassical realism as a “theory of mistakes”.[2]  Randall Schweller in particular views neoclassical realism this way, arguing that states rarely balance each other as structural realism predicts precisely because “states rarely conform to realism’s assumptions of units as coherent actors. The closer the policymaking process and actual state-societal relations approximate a unitary actor, the more accurate realism’s predictions”.[3] This constitutes perhaps the weakest form of neoclassical realism and that with the closest ties to structural realism. Scholars such as Schweller, Rathbun and Colin Dueck fall into this category – they retain the aspirations of general theory, while others might accurately be placed within the realm of middle range theory, to be discussed below.

Domestic variables: interpretations and processes

Other neoclassical realists break more decisively with structural realism with the inclusion of domestic factors as part of the causal chain in their analyses. Aaron Friedberg captured this quite succinctly by observing that “structural considerations provide a useful point from which to begin analysis of international politics rather than a place at which to end it”.[4] In a seminal 1998 article, Gideon Rose laid out the framework for neoclassical realism, paying particular attention to two groups of domestic factors that might influence state behavior: decision maker’s perspectives and domestic decision making processes.

While the international system exerts pressures and creates incentives for states, these elements are observed, interpreted and acted upon by “flesh and blood officials” rather than automated black boxes. Friedberg questioned structural realism’s assumption that “assessment [of relative power] through rational calculation plays the part of a reliable but invisible transmission belt connecting objective [material] change to adaptive behavior”. Rose writes of how systemic factors instead must be “filtered”; neoclassical realists believe that the idea of a “smoothly functioning mechanical transmission belt is inaccurate and misleading”. In analyzing the foreign policy of the Bush administration, Jonathan Monten argues that “under conditions of incomplete information, the strategies actors select to achieve their preferences depend on the expectations, or causal beliefs, about the effects of their actions.” He goes on to argue that

The international political environment presents leading states with competing, cross-cutting incentives and opportunities; grand strategic beliefs determine which set of international incentives policymakers perceive and respond to, and suggest why actors with different beliefs may respond to the same international conditions differently. Policy ideas, often associated with logics of appropriateness, determine which consequentialist logic…will be operative in explaining political choice.[5]

On this point, Rathbun draws a distinction between cognitivism and constructivism. Neoclassical realists maintain that cognitive challenges in understanding and interpreting power relationships: states act according to their “perceptions of power rather than the true distribution. This is not because social reality has no meaning absent norms and identities but because power calculation is a complicated business” (Rathbun 2008:316).

The other broad group of internal factors important to neoclassical realists, according to Rose, includes domestic political structures and decision making processes. A state may harbor the sources of material power, he argued, but an “international power analysis must take into account the ability of governments to extract and direct the resources of their societies” (Rose 1998:161). Much as structural realists see a sort of conveyor belt linking structural conditions directly to foreign policy outcomes, neoclassical realists see another type of belt: one where “complex domestic political processes act as transmission belts that channel, mediate, and (re)direct policy outputs in response to external forces (primarily, changes in relative power)” (Schweller 2006:6).

Schweller identified four unit-level factors that influence a state’s foreign policy outcomes. First, the level of elite consensus on “preferences and perceptions of the external environment” is crucial, especially regarding threat analysis. Second, the nature of those specific influential elites who actually matter in the decision making process also affects policy outcomes. Third, Schweller argues that outcomes can be linked to the “domestic political risks associated with certain foreign policy choices”. Lastly, the “risk-taking propensities of national elites” can also influence foreign policy outcomes (Schweller 2006:46). These factors are closely related to internal political structures that causally connect elites’ understanding of the system to actual policy outcomes, and for the US may include policy making structures such as the National Security Council, the Policy Planning offices within the Departments of State and Defense, Congressional committee structures and voting procedures, public electoral processes and pressures, and the role of public opinion in shaping foreign policy.

Colin Dueck, in his neoclassical realist analysis of US grand strategy, paid particular attention to Schweller’s final two categories and linked them to a discussion of US strategic culture. For Dueck, American strategic culture has two main ingredients he has labeled “liberalism” and “limited liability”. As he described it, the classic liberal creed has long historical roots and “emphasizes individual freedom, equality of right, majority rule, progress, enterprise, the rule of law, and the strict limits of the state” (Dueck 2006: 21).[6]

The promotion of these ideals within the international system has always played an integral role in US strategy, but the means by which liberalism is promoted has varied between active crusading abroad and detached promote-through-example tactics. The other ingredient in US strategic culture, according to Dueck, is a “culturally shaped preference for avoiding costs and commitments”, especially in relation to normally ambitious US strategic goals (ibid:26). In line with Schweller, Dueck views these cultural factors as a supplement to realism for understanding “deviations from balancing behavior”, but since this presumes an “appropriate or expected response to international conditions, it is only within a realist framework that such explanations make any sense” (ibid:20).

Neoclassical realism and midrange theory

Gideon Rose, reflecting on the place of neoclassical realism in relation to more established structural realist theory, employs a distinction made by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Realism is a hedgehog, he argues, because it knows one big thing: that system level forces and relative power shape the behaviour of states, an undoubtedly important insight. Limiting analyses just to the systemic level, however, makes “explaining most of what happens in international relations” quite difficult. Neoclassical realism, on the other hand, may be seen as a fox who knows many small things. By sacrificing the sweeping generalizations of system level theory, neoclassical realists are ‘in the trenches’ of policy formation at the unit level, examining the causal connections that translate systemic power relations to foreign policy outcomes.

But is this an IR theory at all? Neoclassical realism appears to provide an easy answer for when structural realism gets it wrong. In searching for reasons why states fail to conform to its predictions, realists can simply point to domestic factors to explain variance. In this manner, neoclassical realism is non-falsifiable in a Popperian sense: the theory can account for any possible foreign policy outcome. But does the ability to make any precise predictions in the way structural realism can, actually matter? Supporters, as Rose points out, might concede the point, but set their ambitions lower by arguing that “its very looseness…makes it a useful framework for carrying out the kind of midrange theorizing that is so often the best social science can hope for” (Rose 1998: 168).

[1] For two summaries of realism, see John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 2001, pp. 17-24. and Chistopher Layne. The Peace of Illusions (Ithica: Cornell Press, 2006), p.15-17.

[2] Brian Rathbun (2008). “A Rose by any other Name: Neoclassical Realism as the Logical and Necessary Extension of Structural Realism”, Security Studies, nr 17 (294-321).

[3] Randall Schweller (2006). Unanswered Threats: Political Constraints on the Balance of Power. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[4] Gideon Rose (1998). “Neoclassical Realism and theories of Foreign Policy”, World Politics 51, pp. 144-72.

[5] Jonathan Monten (2007). “Primacy and Grand Strategic Beliefs in US Unilateralism”, Global   Governance 13 119-138

[6] Colin Dueck (2006). Reluctant Crusaders. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.