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Realism vs. Neo-Realism: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Published on January 15, 2024
Realism is a school of thought in international relations focusing on power and state interests, while neo-realism, or structural realism, emphasizes the influence of the international system's structure on state behavior.

Key Differences

Realism in international relations is grounded in the view that states act primarily in pursuit of their own power and security. Neo-realism, or structural realism, builds on this but emphasizes the role of the international system’s structure in influencing state behavior.
Realism focuses on state behavior driven by human nature and the desire for power. Neo-realism, meanwhile, looks at how the anarchic structure of the international system compels states to seek security and power.
Key realist thinkers include Thucydides and Hans Morgenthau, focusing on power dynamics and state interests. Neo-realism was developed by Kenneth Waltz, who shifted the focus to the international system's structure and its impact on state actions.
Realism suggests that states should prioritize national interest and power, often leading to a pessimistic view of international cooperation. Neo-realism, while also cautious about international cooperation, suggests that systemic factors like the balance of power can lead to predictable patterns of state behavior.
Realism has been criticized for its state-centric approach and pessimistic view of human nature. Neo-realism faces criticism for overlooking domestic factors and non-state actors in international relations.

Comparison Chart


Based on power politics and national interests
Emphasizes the international system's structure

Key Focus

Human nature, desire for power, state behavior
Anarchic international system, systemic constraints


Thucydides, Hans Morgenthau
Kenneth Waltz

Policy Implications

Advocates for national interest, skeptical of cooperation
Highlights balance of power, systemic stability


Pessimistic view of human nature, state-centric
Neglects domestic factors and non-state actors

Realism and Neo-Realism Definitions


A view in international relations prioritizing state power and interests.
Realism explains why states often compete rather than cooperate.


Emphasizes how the international system's structure affects state behavior.
In neo-realism, the power distribution among states dictates international relations.


Emphasizes state sovereignty and national security.
In realism, alliances are formed based on national interest, not ideology.


Sees states as unitary actors responding to external threats.
Neo-realism explains foreign policies as responses to systemic pressures.


Views international politics as a struggle for power.
Realism suggests military power is essential for state survival.


Focuses on the anarchic nature of the international system.
Neo-realism suggests the lack of a central authority leads to security dilemmas.


Pessimistic about the prospects of global peace and cooperation.
Realism argues that international organizations have limited influence.


Argues that international politics is governed by objective, structural laws.
Neo-realism suggests that superpowers' behavior is predictable based on system structure.


Focuses on the role of great powers in maintaining global order.
Realism views the United Nations as a forum for power politics.


Stresses the importance of the balance of power.
Neo-realism sees alliances as a response to imbalances in power.


An inclination toward literal truth and pragmatism.


The representation in art or literature of objects, actions, or social conditions as they actually are, without idealization or presentation in abstract form.


Who developed neo-realism?

Kenneth Waltz is credited with developing neo-realism.

What is neo-realism?

A theory focusing on the influence of the international system's structure on state behavior.

How do realism and neo-realism differ?

Realism focuses on state power and human nature, while neo-realism emphasizes the role of the international system.

What is realism in international relations?

A theory emphasizing state power and national interests in global politics.

Who are key realist thinkers?

Thucydides and Hans Morgenthau are notable realist thinkers.

What role do alliances play in realism?

Alliances in realism are formed based on national interests and power considerations.

Can neo-realism predict state behavior?

Neo-realism attempts to predict state behavior based on the international system's structure.

What does neo-realism say about power distribution?

Neo-realism emphasizes that power distribution among states affects international relations.

How does realism view human nature?

Realism often has a pessimistic view of human nature, focusing on self-interest and power.

What does realism say about international cooperation?

Realism is generally skeptical of international cooperation due to competing national interests.

How does neo-realism view global peace?

Neo-realism views global peace as challenging due to the anarchic nature of the international system.

Is the United Nations influential according to realism?

Realism views international organizations like the UN as limited by power politics.

Are non-state actors important in neo-realism?

Neo-realism primarily focuses on states, often overlooking non-state actors.

Can realism and neo-realism coexist in analysis?

Yes, they can be combined to provide a more comprehensive view of international relations.

Does neo-realism consider domestic politics?

Neo-realism often neglects domestic politics, focusing on international structures.

What is the main criticism of realism and neo-realism?

They are criticized for being state-centric and underestimating the role of international cooperation and norms.

How does realism interpret military power?

Realism considers military power essential for state survival and security.

What is a security dilemma in neo-realism?

A situation where actions by a state to increase its security cause insecurity in others.

Does realism support global governance?

Realism is generally skeptical about the effectiveness of global governance.

How do realism and neo-realism view alliances?

Both view alliances as strategic responses to power dynamics but with different underlying reasons.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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