The influence of Neorealism on US foreign policy

The return of the idea of a balance of power

Neorealist theory is the simplest way to understand how countries interact. It’s like the basic starting point for studying how nations relate to each other. Almost every other theory in international relations refers back to neorealism to explain their ideas. Realism, which is the oldest way of thinking about international politics, goes way back to the time of Thucydides. But when we talk about realism in this context, we mean it as a theoretical part of international relations, not a philosophy of science.

It is important to distinguish between general realist thinking and neorealist theory, especially since we are focusing on this theory. Neorealism is crucial because it shapes how we build theories and explain things in international relations. These theories play a big role in guiding the actions of countries, especially the USA, in different periods like after World War II, during the Cold War and now with emerging powers like China.

In the past, figures like Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger shaped American foreign policy based on realist ideas. Neorealism, developed later as a critique of early realism, has also been a significant influence, especially in the USA. Many discussions about US foreign policy, like the shift from multilateralism to unilateralism in the 1990s, can be understood better by considering neorealist views. Neorealist perspectives are not just theoretical; they help us grasp the thinking behind a lot of today’s global politics.

The difference between realist thinking and neorealist theory is a good way to understand neorealist theory. Realist thinking, focusing on “political power” and the “national interest,” was central in international relations (IR) after World War II, especially during the Cold War. However, studies on International Organizations and conflict also played a significant role in IR since the 1950s. Realism dominated IR until the late 1950s and 1960s, when there was a shift towards more fundamental research.

Comparative studies, using systematic comparison to explain international relations since the 1950s, and the application of game theory to Political Sciences/IR, especially since the 1960s, aimed to find scientific explanations for international relations. In the USA, decision-making approaches to IR became dominant, focusing on foreign policy studies in the early 1960s.

Kenneth Waltz argued against theories focusing on foreign policy, claiming a lack of a genuine international political theory in the discipline. He proposed a system-level theory of IR, developing it in the 1950s and formalizing it in his 1979 book “Theory of International Politics.” Waltz believed that international conflict lies at the systemic level, not in individual or state behavior. He aimed to create a general theory that could explain recurrent patterns in international politics, particularly cycles of war and peace and the formation of balances of power among great powers.

Neorealist theory strongly recommends that major powers actively manage international affairs to maintain stability. In this kind of world, the lack of a central authority and the constant cycle of war and peace are seen as ongoing features, and the security dilemma, where actions to increase security can unintentionally lead to conflict, is considered unsolvable. In essence, international politics, according to neorealism, is a continuous cycle of war and peace driven by the idea of balancing power.

Waltz’s quest for the right theory of international politics set the stage for the development of neorealist theory as a system theory. Neorealism, evolving into a balance of power theory, clarifies the implications of the system-level theory for real-world international politics. The Cold War’s bipolar system was the setting when the Theory of International Politics was written. Waltz thought the Cold War was surprisingly stable, even though the superpowers had tense moments.

Neorealist theory focuses on how the shift from a multipolar world before 1945 to a bipolar one during the Cold War, and later to a new system after the Cold War, affects the chances of peace and stability. The theory also needs to be understood in the context of the declining power of the U.S. compared to the economic growth of Europe and Japan after the 1970s.

According to the neorealist idea, in a world without a central authority, countries are kind of pushed to make sure they are safe. What happens to a country depends on how it reacts to other countries. This is why we see countries trying to have strong armies, competing, and copying each other in military technology. The main goal for countries is not just to have the most power but to balance power with others and keep their position in the world.

In this system, where power is spread out among countries, they act in a way that tries to find a balance of power. They might do this by building up their military or making alliances with other countries. This idea mostly applies to the big, powerful countries. Neorealism focuses on these powerful countries because they have the most impact on how things work internationally.

Less powerful countries usually join the weaker side in conflicts, not because they want to be the strongest, but because they want to balance power. If they wanted to be the strongest, they would join the stronger side. This approach is based on the belief that in international politics, the structure of the system pushes countries to follow a practical and realistic approach.

The system encourages countries to adopt a practical approach called “Realpolitik,” where the methods and reasons for foreign policy are influenced by the system’s structure. This structural influence explains why certain methods are used repeatedly despite differences in leaders and countries. The idea is that the structure of the international system guides a certain type of politics where a country’s interests are the main reason for its actions. The success of a country, defined as preserving and strengthening itself, is the ultimate test of its policies.

A balance-of-power theory, which builds on system theory, predicts that countries will behave in ways that lead to balances of power. The dynamics of the system limit the freedom of individual countries, making their behavior and the outcomes more predictable. In summary, neorealist theory looks at international structures based on the distribution of power among major political players. Under the structural constraints of international politics, countries tend to act in a way that aims for a balance of power. This balance is the result of countries’ actions and interactions, shaped by the constraints of the system. The theory predicts a strong tendency toward balance in the system, with balances being disrupted and restored over time. The theory aims to explain certain aspects of a country’s foreign policy in the context of international conditions.

Neorealist theory aims to explain and predict why wars and conflicts happen, as well as when there is peace and stability in the world. The focus is on understanding the conditions that lead to peace. According to the theory, following a balance-of-power approach in politics is recommended for achieving this goal. In simple terms, neorealism suggests that peace means no major wars or conflicts, and this is achieved through a balance of power among countries.

In the absence of a strong authority to regulate international relations (called anarchy), the theory suggests that larger countries should have some control to maintain peace. According to Waltz, who developed this theory, the key in international politics is to have control, not strict regulation, and to prevent conflicts rather than just coordinate responses. Waltz believes that using the threat of force is crucial in preventing the use of force in international politics. In a world without a central authority, powerful states can handle changes that might cause problems because of their strength.

Neorealist theory strongly recommends that major powers actively manage international affairs to maintain stability. In this kind of world, the lack of a central authority and the constant cycle of war and peace are seen as ongoing features, and the security dilemma, where actions to increase security can unintentionally lead to conflict, is considered unsolvable. In essence, international politics, according to neorealism, is a continuous cycle of war and peace driven by the idea of balancing power.

Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer
Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer
The writer has a PhD in Political Science and can be reached at [email protected]

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