What are the basic concepts of neorealism?
The basic tenets of neorealism enable the systematic approach to studying shifts in state behaviour. Six fundamental neorealist concepts are respectively introduced in this section; anarchy, structure, capability, the distribution of power, polarity and national interest. These concepts are evoked by many realist scholars of international relations (Buzan 1993; Herz 1950; Hanami 2003; Jervis 1997; Keohane 1986; Mearsheimer 2001; Oye 1986; Snyder 2002; Waltz 1979; Zakaria 1998), albeit with variations in their precise definitions.
The first two concepts; ‘anarchy’ and ‘structure’; are intertwined. The ‘structure’ of the international system is said to be ‘anarchic’. ‘Anarchy’ does not imply the presence of chaos and disorder. It simply refers to the absence of a world government (Waltz 1979, 88). With no overarching global authority that provides security and stability in international relations, world politics is not formally and hierarchically organized . International politics is structured by ‘anarchy’, in contrast to domestic politics that is structured by ‘hierarchy’. The international system is thus defined in terms of an anarchic international structure.
An ‘anarchic structure’ has two main implications. Firstly, every actor in the international system is responsible for looking after itself, rendering the international system a “self-help system”. This system is thus composed of self-regarding units, who primarily seek to survive . National states are the only entities in international relations that have the centralized legitimate authority to use force to look after themselves. Sovereign states are thus the constitutive units of the international system, and the primary actors in world politics. Therefore, the organizing principle of the international structure is ‘anarchy’, and this ‘structure’ is defined in terms of states. Secondly, states perpetually feel threatened by a potential attack from others. Where no one commands by virtue of authority, no one is obliged to obey (Waltz 1979, 88-93).
As each state constantly feels insecure, each needs to be capable of fending for itself. This leads to the third concept of ‘capability’. Capabilities are instrumental for states to ensure their survival. The survival aim encourages relative gains. A neorealist assessment of the ‘capability’ of a state is determined by five main criteria; its natural resource endowment, its demographic, economic, military and technological capacity. As each state achieves a different level of capability (which primarily serves its survival goal), states within the international system are differentiated via their level of capability. Neorealist scholars thus strive to paint a relational picture of the capabilities each state possesses at any given time. This is referred to as ‘relative capability’.
Because states are perpetually insecure, they perpetually wish to acquire capabilities. The grand paradox of international politics is thus born; the “security dilemma”. In striving to attain security from a potential attack, states are driven to acquire more and more capabilities in order to escape the impact of the capabilities of others. This renders the others more insecure and compels them to prepare for the worst. Since no one can ever feel entirely secure in such a world of competing units, competition ensues and the vicious circle of security and capability accumulation is on (Herz 1950, 36).
In the competition for security, states will achieve varying levels of capability. Thus, capabilities are distributed differently across the constitutive units of the system. Such an assessment of the ‘distribution of capabilities’ constitutes the fourth concept of neorealism. Countries’ ranking depends on how they score on all the aforementioned components of ‘relative capability’.
The notion of ‘polarity’ can be explained in light of the preceding concepts. The ‘polarity’ of the international system is determined by examining the ‘distribution of capabilities’ across units, at any given time. This approach enables the distinct typification of the nature of the international system. It is generally possible to distinguish between three types of polarity; unipolarity, bipolarity and multipolarity. Unipolarity prevails when a single state in the system is markedly superior, relative to all other states in terms of demographic, economic, military and technological capabilities. The current state of the international system can be described as unipolar; the United States maintains military, economic and technological primacy in the world. Bipolarity exists when these capabilities are mainly distributed amongst two prominent actors, much like the Cold War era when the US and the Soviet Union represented the two ‘poles’ of power . Multipolarity occurs when more than two actors possess nearly equal amounts of relative capability. Examples of multipolar structures can be seen in the periods following up to and lasting throughout the First and Second World Wars.
‘National interest’ is an elusive concept. In striving for security, states seek to expand their capabilities vis-à-vis rival states. Thus ensuring territorial, economic and military security constitutes the national interest calculus of a state. At the same time, the level of capability a state possesses vis-à-vis others, constrains or equips states to pursue such interests. In turn, the scope and ambition of a country’s interests are driven by its level of capability (Telhami 2003, 109). Therefore within a neorealist conceptual framework, national interests of states are best understood with reference to their relative capability ranking.