Realist and Neo-Realist International Relations

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The dominant approach in international relations theory for virtually the past two millennia, from Thucydides to Machiavelli to Morgenthau, has been Realism, also known as Political Realism. Realists come in many stripes. Most notably, they divide between Classical Realists and Contemporary Structural Realists or Non-realists.


The state, for Realism, is a power-maximizer in a self-help environment where no one can be trusted and violence is endemic. Non-Realist IR theory is invariably also anti-Realist. It never ignores Realism, but always incorporates a critique of that paradigm to position itself intellectually. This is because Realism is about the state. Since we cannot evade the state, which is everywhere and all around us and the centre-piece of our political cosmology, neither can IR theory evade Realism.
Empirical "tests" may show that certain events in the world are (not in) consistent with the hard core of a realist research program. But that does not provide support in any strong sense of that term for choosing realism over some competing paradigm. Many events that are explained by one realist theory are also inconsistent with at least one other no less authentic realist theory. For instance, if balancing and bandwagoning exhaust the possible aligning bahaviours of states, as Waltz (1979) suggests they do, and if good realist theories predict each, as they do, then any piece of evidence simultaneously confirm and contradicts "realism".
Labs provide an extreme example of the perspective when he presents offensive (rather than defensive) realism as "the best realist theo ...
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