Dueling realisms

TitleDueling realisms
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsBrooks, SG

International relations scholars have tended to focus on realism's common features rather than exploring potential differences. Realists do share certain assumptions and are often treated as a group, btu such a broad grouping obscures systematic divisions within realist theory. Recently some analysts have argued that it is necessary to differentiate within realism. 

In this article I argue that realism can be split into two competing brances by revealing latent divisions regarding a series of assumptions about state behavior.

1. First branch is Kenneth Waltz's well-known neorealist theory

2. "Postclassical realism" has yet to be delineated as a major alternative but corresponds with a number of realist analyses that cohere with one another and are imcompatible with Waltzian neorealism.


  • system focus
  • state-centric
  • view international politics as inherently competitive
  • emphasize material factors over nonmaterial such as ideas and institutions
  • assume states are egoistic actors that pursue self help. 

Three differentiate these two branches of realism:

  • Possibility/Probability: whether states are conditioned by the mere possibility of conflict or, alternatively, make decisions based on the probability of agression. Neorealism holds that possibility of conflict shapes actions of states, who are seen as always adopting a worst-case perspective. Postclassical realism assumes states make decisions based on assessments of probabilities regarding security threats. 
  • Discount rate: neorealism's emphasis on the possibility of conflict reflects the view that actors heavily discount the future, favoring short-term military preparedness over longer-term objectives when they are in conflict. In contrast, postclassical realism does not regard long-term objectives as always subordinate to short-term security requirements; here, states often make intertemporal trade-offs. 
  • State preferences: common realist assumptions underspecify state preferences. All agree that defending the state from military threats take first priority, but they disagree about the degree to which states favor immediate military preparedness over economic capacity. Neorealism-military preparedness always trumps economic capacity if the two confclit. Postclassical realism->rational policymakers may trade off a degree of military preparedness if the potential net gains in economic capacity are substantial relative to the probability of security losses.