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date: 22 November 2019

Realism in Foreign Policy Analysis

Summary and Keywords

Realists explain foreign policy in terms of power politics. They disagree on the exact meaning of power and on how and to what extent politics is likely to influence policy. But they all find that power has a strong materialist component and that the influence of domestic politics on foreign policy is likely to vary with security challenges stemming from the external environment. The relative size of a state’s material resources is likely to influence its ability to set agendas and influence specific decisions and outcomes in international affairs. And the nature of the strategic environment, most importantly whether the security and survival of the state is under immediate threat, is likely to influence the relative weight of domestic influences on foreign policy. In sum, great powers enjoy a bigger external action space in their foreign policies than weaker states, and secure states enjoy a bigger external action space in their foreign policies than insecure states.

Realism is a top-down approach to explaining foreign policy. Realists begin from the anarchic structure of the international system. They argue that the absence of a legitimate monopoly of power in the international system create a strong incentive for states to focus on survival as their primary goal and self-help as the most important means to achieving this goal. However, “survival” and “self-help” may take many forms. These forms are shaped by mechanisms of socialization and competition in the international system and systemic incentives are filtered through the perceptions of foreign policy decision makers and domestic institutions enabling and restraining the ability of decision makers to respond to external incentives. Neoclassical realists combine these factors in order to explain specific foreign policies. Offensive realists and defensive realists focus on the effects of structure on foreign policy, but with contrasting assumptions about the typical behavior of states: defensive realists expect states to pursue balancing policies, whereas offensive realists argue that only by creating an imbalance of power in its own favor will a state be able to maximize its security.

In addition to being an analytical approach for explaining foreign policy, realists often serve as foreign policy advisors or act in the function of public intellectuals problematizing and criticizing foreign policy. This illustrates the potential for realism as an analytical, problem-solving and critical approach to foreign policy analysis. However, it also shows the strains within realism between ambitions of creating general theories, explaining particular foreign policies, and advising on how to make prudent foreign policy decisions.

Keywords: foreign policy, power politics, neoclassical realism, structural realism, offensive realism, defensive realism


Realists explain foreign policy in terms of power politics. By itself, power politics does not make foreign policy different from other policy areas. Realists would tend to agree with Harold Lasswell that politics is fundamentally a struggle on who gets what, when, and how (Lasswell, 1950) and that struggle for power among rival groups is a fundamental and endemic feature of human life (Gilpin, 1996, p. 6). However, realists argue that the conditions for power politics are different in international politics and therefore also in the conduct of foreign policy from domestic politics; this is because of the absence of a legitimate monopoly of violence. As noted by Joseph Grieco: “States recognize that in anarchy there is no overarching authority to prevent others from using violence, or the threat of violence, to dominate or destroy them. This is in fact the core insight of realism concerning international politics” (Grieco, 1990, p. 38). Or in the words of John Mearsheimer: “Because other states are potential threats, and because there is no higher authority to come to their rescue when they dial 9-1-1, states cannot depend on others for their own security” (Mearsheimer, 2014, p. 33).

The absence of a central authority that could protect states against each other leads every state to focus primarily on its own security and survival, and, in particular, how it might best protect itself from the attack of other states. When every state ultimately depends on itself to take care of its own security, it worries about its relative power vis-a-vis other states. Since there is no overarching authority to prevent states from taking advantage of each other, and since states cannot be sure about one another’s future intentions, they tend to base their foreign policy on power calculations rather than ideational factors. Simply put, they cannot afford to base their foreign policy on ideology or culture: this would put their survival at risk.

For this reason, realism is a top-down approach for understanding foreign policy. If we are to explain foreign policy, we need to understand the international conditions for foreign policy making. Thus, the balance of power may serve as a starting point for analyzing foreign policy as we gradually move down the “explanatory ladder” adding complexity and reducing parsimony (Mouritzen & Wivel, 2012, pp. 24–26). For this reason, realist foreign policy analysis is a contrast to what we conventionally understand as the field of foreign policy analysis, which has been concerned with state-level and human decision making (Hudson, 2008; Rynning & Guzzini, 2001) and may therefore be seen as closely related to the study of public policy (Carlsnaes, 2002). Graham Allison’s iconic study of the Cuban missile crisis—used in universities across the world to teach foreign policy—is arguably a direct challenge to a realist understanding of foreign policy pointing out how organizational processes and governmental politics rather than the rational response of foreign policy decision makers to external threats determine the course of foreign policy (Allison, 1969).

There seems to be a built-in contradiction in the realist view of foreign policy. On the one hand, realists tend to view foreign policy as extremely important, as it is intrinsically linked to the security and survival of the state. Thus, bad foreign policy choices may have fatal consequences not only for the foreign policy decision maker but for the state he or she represents and its citizens. Then again, the scope for foreign policy action is limited in a realist world. The international realm is characterized by “recurrence” and “repetition” (Wight, 1960), and engaging with this realm is a “ruthless and dangerous business, and it is likely to remain that way” (Mearshemer, 2014, p. 2). Power politics prevail, and a state attempting to base its own foreign policy on any other type of calculations is likely to be punished. Thus, the foreign policy decision maker is left to decipher the signals from international politics in order to defend the interests of the state rather than pursue the greater good.

To the realist this is not a contradiction built into realist thinking about foreign policy but a consequence of the nature of international relations. Intentions do not always correspond with outcomes in an anarchic world, where there is plenty of room for misperception and the abuse of power (Spirtas, 1996). The external constraints on the individual state’s foreign policy action space do not reduce foreign policymaking to a “technical” issue of reading the international power structure correctly. In contrast, whereas structural realists run the risk of a somewhat mechanical analysis of the policy consequences of variations in power distribution in the anarchic international system, classical realists and increasingly neoclassical realists acknowledge the imperfect and sometimes intangible complexity of navigating a world of limited information, inadequate resources, and imperfect moral choices that is the everyday life of the foreign policy decision maker.

The rest of this article explores and explains realism in foreign policy analysis in two steps. First, the article explores the history of realist thinking on foreign policy over the course of history. The aim is to identify a number of recurrent themes in realist engagement (practical and analytical) with foreign policy and identify shared characteristics in how realists think about foreign policy. Secondly, the logic of realism is explored. What do different types of realism tell us about foreign policy? What are the opportunities for explaining foreign policy by use of the theoretical tools offered by realism? What are the challenges to these ways of understanding foreign policy, and which analytical strategies may realists use to enhance their understanding of foreign policy?

Exploring the History of Realism in Foreign Policy

The history of realism is also a history of analyzing, critiquing, and advising foreign policy. Viewed as a “philosophical position” about how the struggle for power among rival groups is a “fundamental condition for human existence,” realist thinking about foreign policy spans 2,500 years (Gilpin, 1996, p. 6). Understood in this way, the group of realist foreign policy thinkers is highly diverse and includes historians, policymakers, and political thinkers. Prominent members of this group include Thucydides, Thomas Hobbes, Niccoló Machiavelli, Benedict de Spinoza, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Otto von Bismarck, Max Weber, Theodore Roosevelt, E. H. Carr, Reinhold Niebuhr, Winston Churchill, George F. Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, Raymond Aron, Stanley Hoffmann, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Kenneth Waltz, Robert Gilpin, Samuel Huntington, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen M. Walt. Although it is impossible to do justice to these scholars and practitioners as individual thinkers and doers, it is possible to distill from the rich tradition of realism a number of recurrent themes and challenges.

Collective Selfishness and the Politics of Necessity

The conventional starting point of the realist canon is a vivid (but unfinished) account of The Peloponnesian War by Greek historian and military strategist Thucydides, arguing that “the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable” (Thucydides, 431 bc, 1.23). In the work of Thucydides can be found some of the enduring characteristics of realist foreign policy analysis: a concern with power politics and how it influences decisions on war and peace, a writing style attempting to unpack the factual development of events, and a focus on foreign policy decision makers.

Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince is another pre-20th-century signpost of realist foreign policy analysis. The short book has been widely marketed as the bible of realpolitik, and over the past centuries “Machiavellian” has become synonymous with cunning but amoral statecraft. First published in 1532 and based on Machiavelli’s own experience as a senior civil servant during the era of the Florentine Republic, the book proved a direct challenge to the dominant faith-based scholastic and Catholic idealism of the time. Machiavelli justified the use of amoral and immoral means to achieve the goals of the prince (e.g., glory and survival), and he argued that statecraft, including the acknowledgement that in international politics you cannot rely on anyone but yourself, is decisive for state success (Machiavelli, 1961). In that sense, The Prince is as much an exercise in political theory as it is a work on foreign policymaking and diplomacy. It professes a philosophy of realism as a “collective selfishness” of necessity (Strauss, 1978, p. 10). Self-perseverance is a goal worth pursuing for its own sake, because it serves as the necessary foundation for pursuing any other goals. However, in order to pursue this substantive goal in foreign policy, the decision maker must pursue a processual goal: prudence—that is, governing by use of reason (Machiavelli, 1961, chapters 20–26). Thus, the good (foreign) policymaker is the anti-idealist attempting to view the world as it is in order to rationally and cool-headedly employ the means necessary to preserve the political community he is the leader of.

Machiavelli’s experience was with an early development of the European states system. However, from the 19th century as the modern European states system was taking form and expanding so did the practice and thinking behind realpolitik as a both a descriptive and prescriptive theory symbolized by the minister-president of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck epitomized the practice and thinking about realism during this historical era through his infamous statement that the big questions of the time would be decided by “iron and blood,” not “speeches and majority resolutions” (Bismarck, 1862). Bismarck’s statement was a critique of the liberal optimism of the democratic revolutions, which had swept across Europe in the mid-19th century. However, it was closely affiliated with the assertion by his fellow Prussian and a veteran general of the Napoleonic wars, Carl von Clausewitz, who a few years earlier had stressed the close relationship between foreign policy and military power in On War: war was a continuation of politics by other means (Clausewitz, 1976).

Realism as Road to Peace and Stability

If Bismarckian realism was a reaction against the liberal revolutions of the mid-19th century then 20th-century realist thinking about foreign policy may be understood as the reaction against the reaction. Realists such as E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau continued to grapple with the challenge of understanding the world “as it is” and acknowledging the limitations of foreign policy action. However, in the context of the two world wars followed by the Cold War, they were concerned to avoid the trap of disillusionment and inaction. As noted by E. H. Carr, “Every solution of the problem of political change, whether national or international, must be based on a compromise between morality and power” (Carr, 1981, p. 192). Moreover, to understand foreign policy, we must acknowledge the insights of the expert as well as those of the bureaucrat: “The former trained to think mainly on a priori lines, the latter empirically.” According to Carr, theory and practice are interdependent, and utopia and reality should be combined in order to understand the world and the opportunities and challenges that we all face (Carr, 1981, p. 14). To Hans Morgenthau, these opportunities and challenges were essentially political in nature, and the prudent response was a contextualized choice of the lesser evil (Morgenthau, 1946). The limited action space left the political decision makers to navigate according to context and capability (Molloy, 2009). Thus, Morgenthau argued that realists must consider “prudence—the weighing of the consequences of alternative political actions—to be the supreme virtue in international politics” (Morgenthau, 1967, p. 10).

One of the most influential post–Second World War realists, diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, inspired the Truman Doctrine and U.S. Cold War containment policy through his “Long Telegram” from Moscow, where he served as a U.S. diplomat. Also important was his subsequent 1947 Foreign Affairs article (under the pseudonym “X”) on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” arguing that Soviet policies were expansionist and needed to be contained (Kennan, 1945, 1947). In the following decades, Kennan continued to influence the debate on U.S. foreign policy, initially as a civil servant in the State Department and U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, but then subsequently as a scholar and vocal critic of policies he saw as overly ideologized, utopian, and legalistic. Foreign policy, in Kennan’s view, too often fell victim to the fads of public opinion, leading political decision makers to respond inadequately to the realities of international politics (Kennan, 1984).

Thomas Schelling, a Nobel-winning economist, and another veteran of the Truman administration, came to influence both international relations game theory and realism through his work on nuclear deterrence, which showed that the United States and the Soviet Union had a fundamental interest in avoiding nuclear war during the Cold War (Schelling, 1960). Schelling’s work had a profound influence on U.S. foreign policy, in particular during the Kennedy administration and more generally in the 1960s and 1970s. He is given credit for the idea of the “red telephone,” a direct connection between the Kremlin and the White House to be used to diffuse crises and reduce the risk of nuclear superpower war. In addition, Schelling was one of the founding fathers of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, successfully creating a hub for the education of public servants by some of the world’s finest public policy and diplomacy scholars.

Henry Kissinger, a third Cold War realist, served as the national security advisor and secretary of state during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Kissinger played a decisive role in U.S. Cold War foreign policy in the 1970s, having a hand in such developments as détente with the Soviet Union, closer relations with China, and the end of the Vietnam War. These policies were grounded in Kissinger’s aim to maximize U.S. national interest from a pragmatic realist and nonideological position, leading him not only to rapprochement with Communist states openly opposed to the liberal democracy of the United States but also to support the political leaderships of South Africa (thereby supporting continued apartheid rule in South Africa while actively working for the end of white minority rule in Rhodesia) and Pakistan, despite their regime’s massive violations of human rights. He also supported CIA involvement in Chile, working against the democratically elected government of pro-Cuban Salvador Allende, because he thought it was in the U.S. interest. While Kennan was a historian and Schelling was an economist, Kissinger was a political scientist with a PhD from Harvard University on 19th-century European diplomacy (Kissinger, 1957).

Recurrent Themes and Developments in Realist Foreign Policy Thinking

This brief history of realist thinking and practice of foreign policy illustrates how realism has been used as the point of departure for analysis, conduct, and advice, as well as a critique of foreign policy. It allows for identification of five recurrent concerns in realist engagements with foreign policy.

First, realists share an “emphasis on self-interest” (Donnelly, 2000, p. 56) but derive many different predictions and prescriptions about foreign policy behavior from this assumption. Over the centuries, the focus of the prescriptions seems to have shifted from a primary concern with winning wars to a primary concern with avoiding wars: this partly reflects that post-1918 realists are all part of a more self-conscious “discipline of international relations,” which was founded in the immediate aftermath of the First World War with the first chair in international relations at Aberystwyth University in Wales named in honor of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in order to avoid the horrors of the war.

Second, realists emphasize the importance of international conditions for national foreign policymaking. It is a top-down approach for understanding foreign policy and claims that to understand foreign policy, one must begin with an understanding of the most fundamental characteristics of the international realm. Whereas scholars may use different theories to understand different political systems across the international system and over the course of history, international relations is the “realm of recurrence and repetition” (Wight, 1960, p. 43). In that sense, realism claims to hold a “timeless wisdom” (Buzan, 1996): international anarchy and power politics will remain inescapable features of international relations, because any policymaker who refuses to obey the self-help logic of anarchy runs the risk of endangering the security or even survival of the state he or she represents.

Third, from this follows a strong universalist claim about the nature of foreign policy and our ability to use realism as a tool to understand it: A realist starting point may be employed to understand, advise, conduct, and criticize foreign policy across time and space. Thus, realism has been used as an analytical framework for understanding the foreign policy of, for example, Communist states such as the Soviet Union or China during the Cold War (Wohlforth, 1993; Christensen, 1996), the great powers in the 19th century (Kissinger, 1957), the great powers in the interwar period (Brawley, 2009; Taliaferro, Ripsman, & Lobell, 2012), contemporary Russia (Götz, 2015; Mearsheimer, 2014), contemporary China (Schweller & Pu, 2011; Sørensen, 2013), the United States in any historical period since independence (Thies, 2010; Dueck, 2009; Zakaria, 1998), as well as Third World states (Ayoob, 2002; David, 1991), European states (Rosato, 2011; Toje, 2011, Wivel, 2008), Latin American states (Neto & Malamud, 2015) and Asian states (Cha, 2000).

Fourth, the realist focus on maximizing (collective) self-interest in a conflictual and potentially dangerous international environment means that ideas and ideals are often viewed as “noise” interrupting and distorting the prudent pursuit of foreign policy. The anti-ideological raison d’etre of Machiavelli is echoed by modern realists in the criticism of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam by Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz (Rafshoon, 2001; Humphreys, 2013), and more recently, when “almost all realists in the United States—except for Henry Kissinger—opposed the war against Iraq” in 2003 (Mearsheimer, 2005). These critiques levied against U.S. administrations in the 20th and 21st centuries are based on realist assessments that the foreign policy decision makers engaged the country in conflicts to defeat Communism (Vietnam) or the spread liberal democracy (Iraq) in a way that was inconsistent with (or even detrimental to) U.S. security interests. Realists were also critical of the continuance of U.S. military interventions during the Obama administration 2009–2017, which were viewed as unnecessary overstretch policies detrimental to U.S. interests (Walt, 2016). Over time there seems to have been a long-term trend from realists acting mainly as advisors to foreign policymakers to realists acting increasingly as critics of foreign policy. Why is this? One reason, pointed out by George Kennan, is the democratization—or less positively—the politicization of foreign policy. Even at the height of the Cold War public opinion played an increasingly significant role in foreign policymaking. After the end of the Cold War, the relaxing of structural constraints gave many states, in particular in Europe and North America, the opportunity to pursue a foreign policy that was more directed by choice and domestic politics than necessity, which moved mainstream foreign policy further away from the realist axiom of prudently pursuing the national interest (although this trend seems to have reversed since the mid-2000s as a consequence of a more offensive Russian foreign policy and continued conflict in the Middle East).

Finally, as pointed out by Barry Buzan, realism offers an ideologically pluralist approach to understanding international relations (Buzan, 1996). Realist foreign policy is not bound by ideology. It provides a method rather than a route to a substantive end goal (e.g., liberal democracy or the abandonment of capitalism). Seeking to distance themselves (with varying degrees of success) from specific ideas (religious or secular) about how the world ought to be, realists claim to see the world as it really is. Whether or not we agree on how successful an approach it is, realism does provide an intersectional meeting point for different ideologies (e.g., a conservative such as Henry Kissinger, a liberal such as Stephen Walt, and a Marxist such as E. H. Carr are all realists). However, while ideologically pluralist, realism is not necessarily ideologically or culturally neutral. The logic of realpolitik is closely tied to the development of the European states system. Consequentially, most realist analyses of international relations are tied to an unselfconscious acceptance of the nation-state as the “natural” unit for domestic and foreign policymaking and territorial military conflict as a tool of statecraft. By emphasizing the recurring patterns of international relations over the centuries, realism leaves only limited room for foreign policies aiming to transform or transcend international relations (Gilpin, 1981, p. 209). For this reason, the realist analysis of foreign policy and the realist conduct of foreign policy run a high risk of being stuck in what Robert Cox termed problem solving: “It takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships and the institutions into which they are organized, as the given framework for action” (Cox, 1986, p. 208).

Exploring the Logic of Realism in Foreign Policy

All realists are concerned with foreign policy, but not all realists include a foreign policy dimension in their theory. Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics is the most influential realist work over the past fifty years. Waltz’s book is a self-conscious study of international politics, not foreign policy. Waltz regards the two domains as separate spheres of policymaking with different dynamics. One reason for this is Waltz’s particular view of foreign policy. Whereas most realists equate foreign policy with the external behavior of states, Kenneth Waltz understands foreign policy analysis as linked to the analysis of state goals (Waltz, 1996). Although some analysts agree with Waltz that structural realist claims about foreign policy are too indeterminate to stand alone in explanations of foreign policy (Ripsman, Taliaferro, & Lobell, 2016; Schweller, 2003), others find that the ability of structural realism to explain foreign policy is an empirical question (Elman, 1996; Mouritzen & Wivel, 2012).

Realists understand international politics as a struggle for power in international anarchy. This understanding of the international realm has important consequences for how they understand foreign policy. Most importantly, realists tend to understand foreign policy in terms of self-help policies aimed at maximizing national security. Most realist analyses of foreign policy start from a structural realist understanding of the international system (Rathbun, 2008), but they not only vary in how they combine different levels of explanation but also in how they combine their starting point in material power capabilities with ideational factors (e.g., Mouritzen, 2017; Ripsman, Taliaferro, & Lobell, 2016). Therefore, the following discussion proceeds in two main steps. Firstly, there is the most parsimonious structural realist logics of foreign policy, focusing (almost) exclusively on incentives for particular foreign policies created by anarchy and polarity. From there the discussion moves to a discussion of how neoclassical realists seek to analyze the transmission of these systemic logics and incentives into foreign policy through a transmission belt of domestic political factors.

Structural Realism: Offensive and Defensive Logics of Security and Survival

Structural realists aim to tell us a few important things about international relations. Their theories allow us to make assumptions about the behavior of states and the outcome of international politics. But what do they say about foreign policy? According to Kenneth Waltz, “In itself a structure does not lead to one outcome rather than another. Structure affects behavior within a system but does so indirectly” (Waltz, 1979, p. 74). Therefore, his theory “does not tell us why state X made a certain move last Tuesday” (Waltz, 1979, p. 121). In order to explain foreign policy, we must combine structural realism with theories about the internal structures of states (Waltz, 1979, p. 122; Waltz, 1996). Thus, structural realism tells us little about specific foreign policies: “What it does explain are the constraints that confine all states. The clear perception of constraints provides many clues to the expected reactions of states, but by itself the theory cannot explain those reactions” (Waltz, 1979, p. 122). Yet Beach notes that “the core argument of structural realist theories is that the anarchical and conflictual international system pushes states to adopt survival as their most basic foreign policy goal” (Beach, 2012, p. 34)

How does this basic foreign policy goal translate in to foreign policy behavior? Realists offer two contrasting logics. Defensive realists argue that the typical foreign policy behavior of states in international anarchy is “defensive positionalist”: that is, states seek to preserve their position in the international system but renounce the chance of expansion (Grieco, 1990; p. 10). Expansion is viewed as counterproductive to survival because other states will respond by forming defensive alliances against the expanding state, thereby endangering the international position and ultimately the security and survival of that state. Defensive realists believe that balancing power is the predominant type of foreign policy behavior because it is the safest route to security in anarchic system (Waltz, 1979, p. 121). Whether or not this is the case empirically remains debatable with critics pointing to examples of international systems that may not be characterized as anarchic (and therefore the conditions for balancing were not present) or arguing that even in anarchy there is no clear tendency to balance (Little, 2007; May, Rosecrance, & Steiner, 2010; Schroeder, 1994; Schweller, 1998; Watson, 1992). Others have argued that balancing is increasingly “soft,” in the sense that it is conducted by diplomatic and institutional means rather than military means (He, 2015; Pape, 2005; Paul, 2005; Saltzman, 2012).

To structural realists, anarchy is the root cause of conflict, and to defensive structural realists wars are typically the unintended consequence of the actions of states aiming to secure their own survival in the international anarchy. Therefore, in the defensive realist logic, grappling effectively with the security dilemma is at the core of any state’s foreign policy. Balancing is an imperfect way of ameliorating the security dilemma, which defensive realists see as the main cause of conflict in international anarchy (Glaser, 1997; Jervis, 1978). There is a strong affiliation with Schelling’s work to create methods of communication and signaling to avoid unintended superpower war discussed above, but Kenneth Waltz emphasizes how the specific dangers vary with type of international system. In multipolar systems, it is difficult to discern the power and intensions of other states and dangerous misperceptions of intentions and miscalculations of power lead to war, but in bipolar systems the simplicity of the conflict between two great powers reduces the dangers of miscalculation and misperception, whereas the risk of overreaction increases (Waltz, 1979, pp. 171–172). The most direct (and controversial) foreign policy advice coming out of defensive structural realism is that the controlled spread of nuclear weapons is making balancing more credible by making the costs of war potentially unbearable and thereby ameliorates the security dilemma and reduces the likelihood of military conflict (Waltz, 1981).

Balance of threat theory allows for a more fine-grained defensive realist analysis of foreign policy (Walt, 1987, 1996). Like structural realist balance of power theory, balance of threat theory argues that the strategic choices of states are mainly conditioned upon the uncertainty about the capabilities and intentions of other actors created by the anarchic structure of the international system. However, as argued by Stephen Walt, the balance of power tells us little about the likely foreign policy behavior of states since the “power of other states can be either a liability or an asset, depending on where it is located, what it can do, and how it is used” (Walt, 1987, p. viii). Therefore, we need to add perception of intent, the offense-defense balance, and geographic proximity to relative material power in order to understand the threat calculations of states. Balance of threat theory may be regarded as a rival theory of Waltz’s neorealist balance of power theory with more explanatory power (Walt, 1987), as a defensive realist foreign policy model building on the insights of balance of power theory (Waltz, 1997) or as turning the logic of structural realism upside down by arguing that “intention, not power, is crucial” (Walt, 1987, p. 26; Mouritzen, 1997)

In contrast to defensive realist logic, offensive realists argue that the anarchic self-help system creates strong incentives for expansion: “Apprehensive about the ultimate intentions of other states, and aware that they operate in a self-help system, states quickly understand that the best way to ensure their survival is to be the most powerful state in the system” (Mearsheimer, 2014, p. 33). Therefore, all states are revisionist states. States want to maximize their capabilities because this maximizes their chance of withstanding an attack from other states. Since all states possess offensive capabilities, and all states want to expand at the same time, no state can feel secure unless it achieves a hegemonic position in the international system. While defensive realists posit that states achieve security by creating a balance of power, offensive realists posit that states achieve security by creating an imbalance of power to their own advantage (Layne, 1998). Typically, this imbalance of power can only be translated into political hegemony in the region, where the great power is geographically located, because of the costs and difficulties of winning wars on other continents. This does not leave states with military expansion as the only strategic option as states tend to choose between—and combine—a range of different diplomatic tools such as blackmailing (threatening a rival to make concessions), blood-letting and bait-and-bleed strategies (keeping a rival in costly protracted conflicts), or using balancing and buck-passing for keeping rivals in check (Mearsheimer, 2014, pp. 147–162; Toft, 2005, pp. 385–386).

What is the Contribution of Structural Realism?

Defensive and offensive realism are both based on a structural realist logic of anarchy leading states to focus on their security and survival in an international self-help system, but they present mirror images of the typical foreign policies of states within that system. They provide us only with very blunt tools for analyzing the foreign policy of individual countries and are concerned only with the structural incentives for this policy. To be sure, structural incentives sometimes dominate foreign policy, but the occasions are rare and limited to short, but important, periods of time in a state’s history when there is a clear and present danger to national security. Thus, as in the case of international politics in general, structural realists tell us a “small number of big and important things” about foreign policy (Waltz, 1986, p. 329).

This does not mean that structural realism is without merit if we want to understand foreign policy. First, pointing to the importance of structural incentives as drivers of foreign policy contrasts with most studies on national foreign policy around the world, which tend to focus on the specificities of national foreign policymaking and the “uniqueness” of the state studied. Most countries have national communities of foreign policy experts—academics and practitioners—with expertise in the specific traditions, procedures, and challenges of their own country and often publishing analyses in their own language on how this affects the grand strategies and individual foreign policy decisions in this particular country. Thus, a focus on the effects of international structure on national foreign policy provides an important corrective to—or at least problematization of—national narratives about the specificities and uniqueness of national foreign policy. Used in this way, realism may be viewed as a critical foreign policy theory, raising important questions about almost any country’s self-perception of foreign policy. Thus, structural realism “can aid in the mental experiments that lie at the core of foreign policy analysis” by providing a heuristic tool for critically examining the taken-for-granted beliefs about foreign policy held by foreign policy elites and experts (Wohlforth, 2008, p. 46).

Second, structural realism may be used as a starting point for more comprehensive analyses of foreign policy incorporating domestic-level variables (Mouritzen & Wivel, 2012; Rathbun, 2008; Sterling–Folker, 1997). This is characteristic of neoclassical realism, which has developed as the closest thing we have to a realist foreign policy theory since the end of the Cold War (Ripsman, Taliaferro, & Lobell, 2016; Rose, 1998).

Neoclassical Realism: Translating Power into Policy

A purely structural view of foreign policy leaves us with important blind spots not only with regard to the national peculiarities of individual states but also with regard to more systematic differences between states over time and space. Anarchy and polarity may be master variables in the realist analysis, but they present us only with a general “ceteris paribus-understanding” of foreign policy. Since the Westphalian Peace in 1648, which is conventionally viewed as the birth of the modern states system, the conditions for foreign policymaking have changed in important ways related to the increasing “interaction capacity” of the international system (Buzan, 1993).

Recognizing the indeterminant nature of structural and systemic incentives, neoclassical realists posit that “anarchy is a permissive condition rather than an independent causal force” (Walt, 2002, p. 211). Therefore, they incorporate systemic process variables such as interaction capacity and domestic-level intervening variables such as strategic culture, the images and perceptions of foreign policy decision makers, domestic institutions, and state-society relations to explain the external behavior of states (Ripsman, Taliaferro, & Lobell 2016, pp. 52–57; 59–79). There is “no smoothly functioning mechanical transmission belt” from structural incentives to foreign policy and “the translation of capabilities into national behavior is often rough and capricious over the short and medium term” (Rose, 1998, p. 158).

By tracing this transmission between power and foreign policy, neoclassical realists have been able to explain anomalous cases deviating from structural realist expectations and to construct fully fledged foreign policy explanations filling out the void left by the general structuralist explanations as well as exploring the connection between international politics and foreign policy (Ripsman, Taliaferro, & Lobell, 2016, pp. 26–31). As summarized by Randall Schweller, neoclassical realists “emphasize problem-focused research that (1) seeks to clarify and extent the logic of basic (classical and structural) realist propositions, (2) employs the case-study method to test general theories, explain cases and generate hypotheses, (3) incorporates first, second and third image variables, (4) addresses important questions about foreign policy and national behaviour, and (5) has produced a body of cumulative knowledge” (Schweller, 2003, p. 317). Most recently, neoclassical realism has taken one step further in developing a theory of both foreign policy and international politics. It has specified the relationship between the nature and clarity of the international environment and the likely influence of specific domestic factors on national foreign policy (Ripsman, Taliaferro, & Lobell, 2016). In order to trace explanations of foreign policy and the relationship between international developments and foreign policy, neoclassical realism “straddles diplomatic history and international relations theory” (Schweller, 2003, p. 344).

Neoclassical realism seeks “to identify the appropriate intervening variables that can imbue realism’s structural variant with a greater explanatory richness” (Kitchen, 2010, p. 118). One important achievement is to bring the state back in to realist foreign policy analysis (Lobell, Ripsman, & Taliaferro, 2009). This may be done by focusing on, for example, institutional balances between the foreign policy executive and legislature (Zakaria, 1998) or between foreign policy executives and key societal supporters (Lobell, 2009) or by exploring how the incentives stemming from international anarchy are translated into foreign policy through ideational factors related to grand strategy, tribalism, or the historically contingent identity of the state (Kitchen, 2010; Sterling-Folker, 2009; Wivel, 2013). In this understanding, the international system provides “states with information about the costs and benefits of particular courses of action, but how that information is processed and weighed depends on the way states understand the world, their preferences, their ideas and their ethics” (Kitchen, 2010, p. 143). More recently, neoclassical realists have sought to theorize the systemic structural modifiers that affect the clarity and permissiveness of strategic environments, including “geography, the rates of technological diffusion and the offense defense balance in military technologies” (Ripsman, Taliaferro, & Lobell, 2016, p. 40). These variables add to the explanatory power of neoclassical realism but also to the complexity of the approach.

The Challenges of Neoclassical Realist Foreign Policy Analysis—and the Strategies to Meet Them

As pointed out by critics, this kind of foreign policy analysis risks walking into an “identity dilemma” between either distinctly realist but indeterminate explanations or more comprehensive and precise but indistinctive explanations (Guzzini, 2004), where “variation in other exogenous influences on state behaviour—state preferences, beliefs, and international institutions—… trump the direct and indirect effects of material power” (Legro & Moravcsik, 1999, p. 6; see, for example, Vasquez, 1997). More importantly, the inclusion of different explanatory factors at different levels and different stages of the foreign policy decision-making process may allow for a rather messy analysis—with factors having different weight and potentially contradictory effects at different stages of foreign policymaking (Tang, 2009, p. 801).

On the one hand, this may be interpreted as an acknowledgement of the complexity inherent in international politics and foreign policy and emphasized by classical realists. Neoclassical realism, thus understood, is a return to a “problem focused” rather than “pattern focused” realism and a realism more about understanding the context than making general predictions about foreign policy (Barkin, 2009). As noted by Morgenthau in Politics among Nations, “The first lesson the student of international politics must learn and never forget is that the complexities of international affairs make simple solutions and trustworthy prophesies impossible. Here the scholar and the charlatan part company. Knowledge of the forces that determine politics among nations, and of the ways by which their political relations unfold, reveals the ambiguity of the facts of international politics” (Morgenthau, 1967, p. 19). To the classical realist, exploring the intricate connections between systemic, national, and individual levels was a necessary route to understanding war, peace, and foreign policy. The inseparability of foreign policy and international politics was a given that served as a point of departure for this understanding (see, for example, Rynning & Ringsmose, 2008). This is also the argument of neoclassical realists pointing out that the bulk of foreign policy and international politics is determined by neither domestic nor structural factors (Ripsman, Taliaferro, & Lobell, 2016, p. 5).

On the other hand, at least two challenges follow from this ambition (Wivel, 2005). First, how can structural factors be combined with other variables without ending up with an ad hoc argument? Second, how can emphasis on the continued importance of objective, materialist factors be combined with the observation that these factors are interpreted and perceived by human beings making foreign policy? Neoclassical realists may employ three different analytical strategies to meet these challenges.

The first strategy provides an explanatory ladder that makes it possible to move from parsimonious assumptions about anarchy and polarity—over intervening systemic variables such as interaction capacity and geopolitics—to domestic politics (Mouritzen & Wivel, 2012; Wivel, 2005). Analyzing foreign policy offers no clear-cut, either/or choice between parsimony and contextual subtlety, but in order “to achieve a more finely tuned understanding of how resources affect behaviour in particular situations, one needs to specify the policy-contingency framework more precisely. The domain of the theory is narrowed to achieve greater precision” (Keohane, 1986, p. 188; see, for example, Schweller, 2003, p. 336, 346). Consequently, the realist foreign policy analysis proceeds in stages and gradually adds complexity. As we move down this analytical ladder we move from the general conditions for foreign policymaking in anarchy (i.e., the international system is a self-help system creating a strong incentive for foreign policies aiming at security and survival) to more specific conditions relevant only for a select group of states (e.g., geographical proximity to Russia) to state-specific conditions unique to the state being analyzed (e.g., specific lessons of history from victories or defeats in wars). Each step gets further away from the general theory of purely structural realism and closer to specific foreign policy explanations. There can be no a priori determination where a satisfactory explanation on the ladder is achieved, as this is an empirical question.

The second strategy aims at amalgamation. Structural incentives explain the similarity of states but not why they differ (Waltz, 1979, p. 88), “Yet the impact of domestic process explains why the choices in response to the environment are not identical,” and foreign policy is what happens in the “amalgamation” between systemic effects and individual state responses by incorporating discursive identity construction into the explanation (Sterling–Folker, 1997, p. 21). Material structures remain the starting point, but state responses to the challenges, opportunities and incentives following from these structures depend on the combination of the state’s relative capabilities (determining what the state can do) and the discursive construction of national identity (determining what the state would like to do) (Wivel, 2013). This amalgamation may be understood as embedded in social understanding of “self” and “other” constructed and reconstructed in relation to other groups (Sterling-Folker, 2009). So whereas the first analytical strategy is one of stages, and one could in principle stop after the first stage if the purely systemic explanation is adequate, the amalgamative strategy posits that the different analytical stages only makes sense with regard to understanding foreign policy when they are analyzed together. Foreign policy expresses the interaction between “self” and “other” in international anarchy and the differentiation of “self” (the foreign policy elite and sometimes the electorate) from “other” (foreign countries). The amalgamative strategy may be combined with the explanatory ladder suggested above by proceeding toward amalgamation in stages by ordering the assumptions along interrelated explanatory levels and gradually supplementing with additional assumptions (Mouritzen, 2017, p. 636).

The third strategy provides a bridge or meeting point between different levels. Building on the literature of state socialization in international relations, it is possible to view the transmission belt between the systemic incentives and foreign policy as constituted by foreign policy roles (Thies, 2010, 2017). These roles are understood as “repertoires of behaviour, inferred from other expectations and one’s own conceptions, selected at least partly as responses to cues and demands” (Walker, 1992, p. 23; see, for example, Holsti, 1970, pp. 260–270). By exploring how foreign policy decision makers define themselves and the state they represent in an interplay with the expectations they face from other states as well as from domestic society (e.g., the good ally, the liberal hegemon, or the representative of the oppressed and marginalized) and how the costs and benefits of taking on this role shapes specific foreign policy decisions as well as grand strategies of states, neoclassical realists can explore the complex mix of change and continuity in state foreign policy.

To be sure, none of these strategies will by themselves meet all challenges of neoclassical realist explanations of foreign policy. There still seems to be a bias in the literature toward selecting cases on international conflicts rather than cases on international cooperation (and as a consequence to focus on security policy rather than economic statecraft) and to explore cases that illustrate the usefulness of neoclassical realism rather than challenging the perspective by testing it on hard cases (Tang, 2009). Also, neoclassical realism tends to be better at understanding big decisions of state leaders than any of the day-to-day foreign policy decisions made by officials and politicians at various levels in the diplomatic services and bureaucracies of states. Furthermore, neoclassical realism shares with structural realism a bias in favor of focusing on great powers rather than the small powers that make up the vast majority of states in international relations. This bias is understandable in studies of international relations in general, as realists will expect the great powers to be the agenda setters internationally and therefore the main drivers of war, peace, and change. However, in the case of foreign policy analysis, it is exactly the relative weakness of small powers—making them susceptible to the forces of anarchy at the same time as their foreign policy elites seek to navigate these forces—that makes them data rich cases on both the effects of the international environment and the attempt at pushback from domestic societies (Pedi, 2016).


Realist foreign policy analysis is characterized by an engagement with foreign policy practice as well as a strong commitment to theoretical development. Rather than viewing the dual ambition of real-life relevance and theoretical development as a potential challenge to the realist perspective, realists tend to view this duality as necessary, good, and an important raison d’etre not only for realism but for the study of international relations and foreign policy in general (Mearsheimer & Walt, 2013).

Realist foreign policy analysis is at the same time characterized by enduring analytical dilemmas and important conceptual and theoretical progress over the past decades that have resulted in a large and growing number of empirical studies of foreign policy from a realist starting point. This literature is rich and focuses on a wide range of thematics and cases from around the world, but two issues seem to have received comparatively little attention. First, most realists continue to eschew questions related to the increasing institutional complexity of the international realm where “the proliferation of international agreements multiplies the number of actors and rules relevant for any given decision of international cooperation” (Alter & Meunier, 2009, p. 13). How is this complexity affecting the goals and means of foreign policy decision makers when viewed through the realist lens? What are the prospects for great powers and small powers, industrialized states, and states in the Third World to maximize national interests in an anarchic system with many overlapping international institutions? Second, the election of Donald J. Trump as the president of the United States and the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union following a referendum on the issue have alerted foreign policy elites to the direct and indirect influence of the electorate on foreign policy. What is the realist contribution to understanding the relation between elite and population? How do deeply embedded national economic and ideational structures and the transformation of these structures affect foreign policy and the ability of foreign policy decision makers to respond to systemic incentives?

This article has shown how realism provides us with a top-down approach for understanding the foreign policy of states in international anarchy and discussed how realists have grappled with the translation of systemic incentives into foreign policy. As noted previously, realists have emphasized collective self-interest as both an observation on how foreign policy is made and as a normative starting point for a prudent foreign policy. However, as societies are becoming increasingly globalized and multicultural, identifying the collective self-interest is becoming increasingly complex (Hill, 2013). Thus, one important future task for realist scholars and practitioners concerned with foreign policy will be to discuss the meaning of and conditions for foreign policy prudency in a globalized world.


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