The realist international relations theory stipulates that a competitive self-interest is the main driving force of world politics. The theory is based on premises that the international political system is anarchic. States are the most important players in world politics and they tend to seek self-interest and survival is the major concern of all states. It has been theorized that “nations dwell in perpetual anarchy for no central authority imposes limits on the pursuit of sovereign interests” (Oye, 1). Anarchy stems from the fact that there is no common or central government in world politics (Axelrod and Keohane, 226). The realist international relations theory underwent significant change during the cold war period. The changes made it possible for states to achieve cooperation under anarchy.
The dramatic events of the cold war period led to the emergence of a new era in international relationships. The new era in international relations was characterized by long-term peace, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its role as a superpower, and increased harmony in the international system (Kennedy-Pipe, 741). The realist international relations theory changed because the fear of anarchy and its consequences encouraged key state actors to modify their behaviour. The United States and the Soviet Union had to make unilateral concessions to facilitate cooperation even though they were adversaries.
Before the cold war, there was a multi-polar power system characterized by the dominance of various European countries. The multi-polar European dominated system bred hostile international relations as European powers waged war on each other to seek and assert a supremacy. After the Second World War, the cold war began. During the cold war period, international relations transitioned from a multi-polar and became bipolar as the United States and the Soviet Union controlled the majority of the international cultural, military, and economic influence. The bi-polar relationship between the two superpowers made them engage each other in give-and-take compromises to safeguard their interests (Waltz, 8). The peaceful ending of the cold war contradicted the expectations of classic realism. A new international order that was radically different from the one that preceded the cold war was established.
What are the central theoretical differences between early realism and neo-realism?
There are various theoretical differences between early (classic) realism and neorealism. Early realism was conceptualized by scholars such as Thucydides and Hans Morgenthau while neorealism was conceptualized by Kenneth Waltz. The main theoretical difference between the two theories is their views of the sources of conflicts in international relations. Classical realism focuses on the unchanging and self-interested human nature, which makes states competitive, power-seeking and self-interested units. Neo-realism, on the other hand, stipulates that anarchy is the main cause of international conflicts (Kennedy-Pipe, 741). According to neorealism, the lack of a central authority in international relation causes individual states to seek their own power in a self-help system.
The second difference is that, in early realism, the state is viewed as being ontologically superior to the international system, while in neorealism the state has more space to exercise agency in international relations. Under classical realism, the state engages in competition for survival purposes by seeking to become a dominant power. Under classical realism, international relations are characterized by constant antagonism. States use their own power to maintain or break relations with other states. The level of influence a state has over other states determines its prosperity and security. For instance, neorealists consider the United States to be a unipolar power due to its vast economic, political, and cultural influence over other states (Waltz, 10).
The third difference is that classical realism distinguishes between revisionist powers and status-quo powers while neorealism views states as rational unitary actors. The fourth difference is that classical realism confines its analysis of international relations to subjective evaluations, while neo-realism constructs a more scientific and rigorous study of international politics. Lastly, early realism emphasizes the importance of traditional military power while neo-realism emphasizes the combined military, economic, and cultural influences and capabilities of a state. Neo-realism opines that to safeguard state security; states must constantly prepare for conflict through military and economic build-up.
Which theory best explains the relative peace of the cold war? Why?
The relative peace of the cold war period is best explained by the neorealism theory. The fundamental goal of every state in an anarchical international system is survival and security. The Second World War led to the cessation of the old multi-polar world and to the emergence of a new bipolar world dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union as the superpowers of the world. The old powers of Europe, such as France, Great Britain, and Germany could no longer exercise power (Axelrod and Keohane, 230). The European powers were weakened militarily and economically. They could not wage wars against each other since they could not view each other as competitors or threats.
During the cold war, peace in the world depended on the relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. Waltz argues that peace was maintained during the cold war because both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed nuclear weapons (Waltz, 29). Both states were keen to avoid nuclear war. Since in an anarchic system, states must maximize their security, nuclear deterrence helped to maintain relative peace between the two nuclear powers. If one of the countries launched a nuclear attack, the other one would have launched a counterattack resulting in the mutual destruction of both countries. The neorealism principle of balance of power led to relative peace as the power of the United States was balanced by the power of the Soviet Union and vice versa.
Axelrod, Robert and Keohane, Robert. “Achieving Cooperation Under Anarchy: Strategies and Institutions”. World Politics 38, 1 (Oct. 1985): 226-254.
Kennedy-Pipe, Caroline. “International History and International Relations Theory: A Dialogue Beyond the Cold War”. International Affairs 76, 4 (2000): 741-754.
Oye, Kenneth. “Explaining Cooperation Under Anarchy: Hypotheses and Strategies”. World Politics 38, 1 (Oct. 1985): 1-24.
Waltz, Kenneth. “Structural Realism After the Cold War”. International Security 25, 1 (2000): 5-41.