What is Contemporary Realism or Neo-realism ?

Contemporary Realism, also called Neo-realism and Structural Realism, is a more recent standard of realism that developed during the 1980s under the influence of Kenneth Waltz. While Neo-realists continue to acknowledge the central importance of power, they tend to explain events in terms of the structure of the international system rather than the goals and make-up of individual states.

The structure of the international system, for the neo-realists, is a major determinant of state behavior. It is through an analysis of the different structures of the international system- defined in terms of ordering principles, the functional differentiation of the Units, and distributions of capabilities-that the neo-realists tend to explain the varying patterns of world politics. This, they believe, cannot be explained simply in terms of the interests and policies of individual countries.

Unlike the classical Realists who trace the cause of war to the innate human nature, the Neo-realists tend to explain international conflict within the framework of the anarchic structure of the international system. This basically means that there is no overarching central authority to enforce rules and norms or protect the interests of the larger global community. In other words, it is not so much the innate human nature as the anarchical system, which nurtures fear, jealousy, suspicion, and insecurity in the international system.

The structural Realists insist that conflict can emerge even if the actors have benevolent intent towards each other. This form of structural Realism is most often associated with Kenneth Waltz’s landmark book; Theory of International politics (1979).Waltz’s Structural Realism has had a major impact on scholars in international relations. Waltz’s popularity as a structural Realist emanates from his ringing assertion that the structure of the international system decisively shapes the behavior of the states. According to Waltz, anarchy prevents states from entering into co-operative agreements to end the state of war.


The condition of anarchy-absence of a “higher power” over and above the sovereign nation-states to ensure peace among them-is often viewed as synonymous to a state of war. By the state of war, structural Realists do not intend to convey the impression that large-scale war is a daily occurrence in international politics.

Rather, the possibility that a particular state may resort to force indicates that the outbreak of war is always a likely scenario in an anarchical environment. Put differently, the structure of the international system can drive states to war even if state leaders desire peace. Structural Realists insist that the form of a state, for example a democracy or a totalitarian state, or the personality of the leader is less important in accounting for the phenomena of war than the fact of the leader is less important in accounting for the phenomena of war than the fact that action takes place within the context of an anarchical realm.

However, Kenneth Waltz’s theory of Structural Realism is not the only version of Neo-realism. A second group of contemporary Realists, prominent among whom is Joseph Grieco, have integrated Waltz’s ideas with the ideas of more traditional Realists such as Hans Morgenthau, Raymond Aron, Stanley Hoffmann, and Robert Gilpin to construct a contemporary or modern Realist profile.


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Grieco represents a group of Neo-realists or modern Realists who are critical of neo-liberal institutionalists who claim states are mainly interested in absolute gains. Grieco claims that all states are interested in both absolute and relative gains and in the question of how such gains are distributed in the international system. Such Neo-relists, however, identify two barriers to international cooperation, fear of those who might not follow the rules and the relative gains of others.

There is yet another version, the third version of Neo-realism, which is increasingly becoming popular as security studies. This form of Neo-realism is further divided into two sub-groups-offensive Neo-realism and defensive Neo-realism. While offensive Neo-realists emphasize the importance of relative power, the defensive Neo-realists are often confused with neo-liberal institutionalists, a branch of liberalism.

Like traditional Realists, the offensive Neo-realists believe that conflict is inevitable in the international system and leaders must always be wary of expansionary powers. The defensive Neo-realists, on the other hand, recognize the cost of war and argue that it invariably results from irrational forces in a society. Moreover, they argue that it is the presence of the expansionary forces in the international system, always willing to use force, which makes it impossible to co-exist in a world without weapons. They do, however, concede that co-operation can take place but is likely to be successful only among the friendly states.

However, all this has evoked strong reactions from a number of scholars. Several critics point out that contemporary Realist like Waltz who construct a Realist theory without relaying on an assumption about human nature tend to assume that states are competitive and egoistic entities. Moreover, in the work of contemporary structural Realists, these traits appear to be prior to the interactions of states as through they existed before the game of power politics began.

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