Free Structural Realism (Neorealism) Essay Sample

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Power, Theory, System, War, Realism, Relationships, International Relations, China

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2020/12/09

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Structural Realism, a reformulated version of Morgenthau’s realist theory explains how the architecture of the international system makes states pursue power for their survival and protection. The theory states that states crave power to protect themselves from external threat and ultimately survive but there is a division among structural theorists about how much power a state needs. Defensive realist theorists like Kenneth Waltz opine that states should not maximize their power as the system will punish them but offensive realist theories state that it makes good strategic sense for states to purse ultimate power and if possible they should pursue hegemony. The theory has its advantages and disadvantages. It is a strong theory as 1) it recognizes all countries as equals with the capacity to become a hegemon when needed, 2) The lack of a central authority or power that can exert force on weaker countries also means that countries are able to sign treaties and enter into other agreements which would mutually benefit everyone. 3) Since it does not recognize regimes and cultural differences, a nation can be powerful in spite of a regime change as long as it is intrinsically powerful. 4) This theory includes and international as well as an individual level analysis of power and recognizes the difficulty in measuring the appropriate amount of power. The theory is not without its weaknesses either. Weaknesses involve not 1) recognizing the importance of international organizations, regarding coalitions as inconsequential, 2) inability to explain changes in the international system, 3) not including soft skill powers of a country as a bargaining chip and finally 4) relying exclusively on structural arguments to explain international relations and politics.

Strengths of Structural Realism

The theory is based on the assumption that the international system is an anarchy. Anarchy not in the sense of disorder and chaos but in a sense that there is no central authority or hegemon that has all the power. The anarchy in the system leads to hierarchy where states depending on the amount of power they wield will be ordered. There is no ultimate arbiter that is above that of the state and the states have the ultimate power. Defensive theorists argue that a state cannot have too much power as it will lead to attacks and a balancing system from other states. They give the examples of Napoleonic France and both the Imperial and Nazi Germany which were defeated by alliances within Europe when they tried to rule over entire Europe. According to them Bismarck’s genius lay in the fact that he realized that an all too powerful Germany was not good. But offensive realists counter their argument by saying that a state becoming a hegemon is enough for it to balance out the other states. They give the example of the US in a unipolar world.
The theory also positions all states as equals in the sense that every state has the military capability to inflict damage on its neighbor. It gives cause for every state to be dubious about the intentions of other states. The capability to attack its neighbors is different from one state to another and it can change from time to time. States just have to be powerful on their own right. It is enough for states to have a powerful military, a strong industry, a youthful population and a favorable balance of trade. This theory does not concern itself with the regimes of the concerned states. This means that a state can be powerful in spite of a regime change and it does not really matter if the state is a democracy or if it is a dictatorship. However it also must be acknowledged that domestic constraints can change how a state acts. There are instances of how states had acted foolishly based on popular demands of the people such as Nazi Germany and Japan during the World Wars. Power then resides wholly on the state and not in an individual.
Structural theorists also admit that there is a difficulty in measuring exactly how much power a state needs to be a hegemon. By admitting to not knowing, they leave room for maneuvering – a state can be a hegemon according to offensive realists or be powerful enough to maintain the status quo as the defensive relists maintain. Neorealist theorists analyze the power play at an international level as well as the national level. They can explain the power relationships between the different states at any given point of time and also explain the power dynamics of an individual state. This helps them explain the international system and international relations better than most of the other international relations theories. Structural realists, both defensive and offensive realists both however agree on point- a state’s ultimate power or the fact that it is a regional hegemon or a global hegemon does not matter as long as other states have nuclear capability or the capability to retaliate with damaging consequences.
The pursuing of power by different states in this case only creates a balance of power or a forced peace. The relations between China and the US can be explained succinctly with the structural theory. The US is the most powerful country but China is close on its heels. Even if the US views China as a threat, it cannot do much other than form allies with China’s neighbors. China also cannot be aggressive with the US looming large in its backyard. It can choose to behave rationally and form alliances with its neighbors. Thus there remains a balance of power and no major war between the economic and military giants just as the defensive neorealist prediction. But offensive neorealist theorists predict that China may have regional hegemonic tendencies given its assertiveness in the pacific region in the dispute over Senkaku/Diayu islands with Japan. According to the two schools of structural realism, the rise of China as a regional hegemon can be peaceful or it can cause problems for the world system. China can be a powerful regional hegemon like the US in the last century or its need for a regional hegemon status can create wars and tension in the South Asian region.

Weaknesses of Structural realism

Structural theories completely ignore the role of international organizations or downplay their importance in international relations. For them state is the primary actor and international serve only a cosmetic purpose. Although the international organizations do not have binding powers over individual states, the veto power that each member nations hold in organizations like the security council make it possible from countries unilaterally acting out their wishes. Sometimes these organizations act as the last refuge in checking the power of a state. Without veto powers a powerful state can wage a war and other countries would not be able to do anything about it. Coalitions among countries is also important and not inconsequential as the structural realists say. Military coalitions such as the NATO, Warsaw pact and economic coalitions such as EU, ASEAN and OPEC have been successful even though states pursue their individual power status. These coalitions ensured that states could rely on another state or states to safeguard its position or be protected in case of an eternal threat.
Structural theorists are sometimes at a loss to explain changes in the domestic policies and international system. Opponents of structural realists state that focusing on static indicators is a wrong way to look at international relations. Looking at the number of great powers and how much power they have can have disastrous effects and not take into account changes in other states. This happened twice, once before the WWI and once before WWII. In both cases it was Germany that looked at Russia and Soviet Union as a threat and started a war. The war results in devastation for not only Russia but also other countries as it turned into a central war. They admit that the assertions made by a state cannot always be taken for granted. Since power and the acquisition of power and the hegemon status plays such an important role, these theorists are unable to explain when changes happen and no country wants to play the role of a hegemon. Soft skills are also something that the realists ignore and it is exactly what gives a country like Norway an important place in the international political system.
Realist theories also argue that structural logic can explain the behavior of a state in international relations. But the truth remains that state behavior can only be partially explained by logic and structural theorists. Sometimes states act without logic and might engage in an illogical act without any provocation. Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and France engages in foolish wars that nearly decimated their country and their population with retaliatory attacks being more powerful than their offensive. In this case, structural theorists cannot explain how the states acted or how much of a role foreign policy played in it. If foreign policy were taken into consideration it would no longer be a neorealist theory and this shows the weakness of the theory in explaining state acts that have no rational behind them. And as structural realists argue, security is not always the sole reason for states to go to war. Ideologies, nationalism and economic concerns too can be the reason behind wars as in the case of Bismarck’s war against Austria, France and Denmark. Bismarck prime concern was not security but rather the unification=ion of Germany.


While structural realism as a theory is successful in explaining the behavior of a state to a certain extent and is right in saying that the international system is shaped by the constant fight for power and survival, it does not completely explain some irrational behaviors of states. Although the states ultimately determine its course of actions, the role of international organizations cannot also be completely ignored as they play a vital role in checking the abuse of power by a country or countries. Structural realism is at times a narrow theory that believes in the need for a state to be stronger than others to be powerful and safe. It cannot explain the states which do not fall under this category. Although it explains events in international relations to a certain extents, it is neither a complete theory nor the only theory that can explain everything successfully. The weaknesses far outweigh its strengths as am international relations and political theory.

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