Neorealism is the dominant theory of international relations in 2002. International relations theory is the study of how states behave, and an attempt to explain their behaviour. It may also try to predict state behaviour in the future.

There are several fundamental principles which characterise scholars of the neorealist school.

The Ordering Principle

The ordering principle can be divided up into two types; anarchical and hierarchical. Domestic political structures (those found within countries) are characterised as hierarchical, because individuals or organisations specialise in a cooperative division of labour.

For example, some organisations might produce food, some might provide entertainment, some might provide medical services. Because of this specialisation, each unit becomes dependent on the others for survival. Hence, each unit has it's own place in the hierarchy of order. However, such harmony and interdependence is only possible because the state (practically this means the government) has solved the problem of basic security.

In the international realm, there is no higher authority than that of states. Hence, each state must take care of it's own interests and they cannot specialise in one area. This leads to states becoming independent of each other; hence they are very similar in the services that they provide.

The key to understanding the ordering principle is to think of the international realm as a place of necessity, conflict and violence; where there is no older brother looking down to make sure things are ok.

Differentiation of the Units

In the domestic arena, units (individuals or organisations) are different because they provide different functions to society. In the international arena, states are very similar in that they are all:

  • sovereign within their jurisdiction
  • composed of a centralised political system
  • possessed of a monopoly on violence withing their jurisdiction
  • not subject to a higher authority

A useful metaphor to imagine the international realm is to picture a pool table. Each ball on the pool table is similar, and the balls constantly clash together on a level playing field. Similarly, in international relations, neorealists hold that that the internal constitution of states is not important, as they all practically provide the same services, and they are constantly in conflict with each other.

Distribution of capabilities

States are functionally alike; however they all have different capabilities in terms of power. Several neorealists differentiate between several different levels of states; those who are powerful enough to influence the decisions of other states and those who are weak and must follow the decisions of more powerful states.

You might imagine powerful states as those who careen wildly around a pool table, and weak states as those who sit just in front of the pockets, waiting to be knocked in.

Modes of state behaviour

Given that the world is composed of states in the above configuration, we can be excused for asking what will the behaviour of states be? How may states attempt to survive in an anarchical world of necessity and violence?

The neorealist Kenneth Waltz theorises that states will pursure two adaptive methods to ensure survival:

  • Adaptation through emulation
  • Adaptation through balancing

In adaptation through emulation, due to the fact that states are differentiated by the power that they have, weaker states will attempt to emulate more powerful states. You might imagine this as a sort of "keeping up with the Joneses" of international relations.

A good example of this is the way that, in the late twentiesth century, many states have moved from socialist philosophies back towards capitalist and neoliberal philosophy, following the most powerful state in the world, the United States of America.

Adaptation through balancing means that weaker states will attempt to survive by temporarily allying with other weaker states. This will allow them to stand up to stronger states which would have otherwise completely dominated them. This alliance is however only temporary and driven by momentary expedience; in the long term all alliances will decay due to the violent nature of the international realm.

A good example of balancing is the way that European nations are currently allying together to form the European Union. This allows them, as a group, to stand up to the world's most powerful nation, the United States of America. The EU has defied the USA on several matters recently, notably genetically modified food.

To infinity and beyond

Neorealists theorise that this situation will continue indefinitely. As states pursue adaptation through emulation and balancing, they reduce the power gap between powerful and weak nations. When this happens, no nation has the potential to become powerful enough to completely dominate the world; as the other nations will not let the situation happen.

Hence, the international realm will continually be a place of violence, necessity and jockeying for position between the world's states.


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