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date: 20 January 2019

Summary and Keywords

Neoclassical realism offers insights into why particular foreign policy choices are made, and under what systemic conditions unit-level factors are likely to intervene between systemic stimuli and state behavior. Neoclassical realism brings a multilevel framework that combines both systemic incentives and mediating unit-level variables to arrive at conclusions about foreign policy choices in particular cases. It sets the relative distribution of capabilities in the international system as the independent variable and adds mediating variables at the unit level of analysis. Variables at the domestic level of analysis, such as the role of ideology, the foreign policy executive’s perceptions, resource extraction, and domestic institutions, add explanatory power to system-level approaches. Neoclassical realism accounts for state behavior in a way that a more parsimonious systems-level theory is unable to achieve.

But this rich theoretical framework also faces controversies and criticisms: Is neoclassical realism distinct from other theories and what is its added value? Neoclassical realism overlaps only to a small extent with alternative theoretical approaches. The domestic level of analysis dominates Foreign Policy Analysis (a subfield of International Relations). Unit-level variables suffice to explain state behavior in bottom-up approaches, and opening the structure of the international system for fundamental rethinking is central to constructivism. Neither explains the system-level conditions under which unit-level variables mediate between systemic stimuli and foreign policy. Neoclassical realism analyzes and explains a given foreign policy that more parsimonious or alternative theoretical approaches cannot.

Keywords: neoclassical realism, foreign policy, grand strategy, international system, structure, domestic politics, ideology, interest groups, resource extraction, state power

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