What distinguishes the Classical Realists of the mid-twentieth century from other Realist thinkers?

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Realism has been a broadly accepted dominant theory of international relations during the last 2500 years. It was the publications of ‘Politics Among Nations’ in 1948 by Hans Morgenthau, deeply valued study that introduced what later has become well-known as the classical realistic approach to international politics. However, in 1979 Kenneth Waltz with his book titled ‘Theory of International Politics’ attempted to rediscover a further scientific approach to realism, which presently is known as the theory of Neorealism in IR. For both realists, power is a main fundamental notion in political aspect. However, they are fairly compatible with each other. Morgenthau highlights the influence of human nature upon state behaviour, which seems to be very differing from the view of Waltz theory. With this in mind, this essay will primarily attempt to compare and outline the differences of the Classical theory of Morgenthau from the Neoclassical theory by Kenneth Waltz. To clearly demonstrate the differences between the ideas of the two theorists, the key differences in the essay will be presented under the framework of three individual, state and international system levels. (Jackson and Sørensen, 2013, p96)

Human Nature

Morgenthau as well as Waltz sees the international arena as a competitive stage where power is a primary weapon for the success. However, two realists have different understanding of power definition. For Morgenthau, the most urgent aspect of defining power is national character, morality, and government. He argues that, inclination for gaining more power is a direct characteristic of human nature. Following Morgenthau’s words that “the social world is but a projection of human nature onto the collective plane” (Morgenthau 1973: p7), has appeared to support the view that; an unchanging imperfect human nature which he describes as self-centred, is the cause of international wars and conflicts. However, Waltz responses and attempts to overcome on the classical realism of Morgenthau with his more scientific approach. Despite the fact that, Waltz as well as Morgenthau shares the notion of human nature as evil, he still considers that; human nature has no deciding importance in shaping world politics, supported by the claim that study of international politics on the bases of unit level is a wrong approach, international confrontations are rooted into the anarchic system. Thus, if international political changes were linked directly to the unit-level changes, then how can similar constant developments be explained while actors and their characters are constantly changing (Waltz 1979: p65). The study of the two theories on individual level would appear to suggest that; Waltz has criticised the philosophical claims about the Morgenthau’s account of human nature, while for Morgenthau human nature at the first stage is the main factor that is fuelling the world politics to struggle.


Another significant area of discrepancy between two theories is importance of the state notion and foreign policy. Therefore, the main question on this level of analysis would be, ‘how do either realists manipulate the image of state’. Morgenthau mainly explains it on the bases of his first image, and draws a connection between world politics and human nature. He argues that, the struggles on the international level for power are mainly collective reflection of animus dominandi, the human lust for power (Morgenthau 1973: p192). Given the fact that he sees men and women by nature to be political animals, Morgenthau notices the idea that their will is always aimed at gaining more power as they enjoy the fruits of its benefits. However, the desire for power does not only mean relative advantage but also a secure political location; free from the dangers of other dictatorships. Waltz has a completely different explanation on why do states struggle for power. Waltz believes that anarchic structure of international politics creates a conflicting and dangerous environment, where all states are forced to seek for survival, and because of that reason, gaining more power for states is a best way to guarantee survival. Therefore, the big changes in the system is occurred when great powers raise or fall their abilities to dominate. (Waltz 1979: P97). The strongest support for the Waltz neorealism theory would be the example of World War 2, where Germany started rising to match the allied powers. The difference on this level of analysis lies in the fact that; Waltz strictly disagrees with the notion that human nature could be a causation behind war, by reason that constant human nature fails to clarify the variation in world politics. (Jackson and Sørensen, 2013, p80).

International System

If the first stage of analysis were crucial for the classical realist theory, so is the third one definitely the most important for the neorealist approach. The explanation of international relations. In order to continue the analysis in ascending order, the perspectives of the Morgenthau’s classical realism are examined first. Morgenthau does not believe that the anarchy in international system is the first cause of power competition, but he sees anarchy as permissive force. According to him, the fact that there is not a central government, there are no boundaries on man’s desire, which is expressed in state behaviour to dominate others (Shimko, 2009). Thus, as long as the system remains anarchic, the human nature will always be eager to dominate the system. On the other hand, the neoclassical theory of Waltz, sees the issue of what determines the state behaviour in a completely different means. Waltz underlines the importance of the international system, and claims that system forces states to act in the way they do. Thus, his core argument would be that anarchic system defines the world politics. According to Waltz, the history has already been repeated many times and it will always be that way as long as system endures, because the system will always force states to act in similar ways when put into similar positions. In short, for Waltz; everything in the system either war or peace, is the outcome of the anarchy and states are simply the puzzles of the system. (Waltz, 1979: p53)



How significant are the differences?

All things considered, how significant are the differences between the two realism scholars, must be noted that, the noticeable disparities are obvious on all three levels of analysis. Even though both theorists share the notion per which the power remains priority in every case, the differences are fairly evident. Morgenthau locates most accounts of world politics on the individual level while the system remains mandatory for Waltz arguments, both theorists consider the importance of unit level factors. Morgenthau’s bottom-up approach adopts human nature as a starting point of his theory, while Waltz top-down approach takes the system as starting point and leisurely moves down without even significantly reaching the individual level. In addition to that, they strongly disagree on the concept of power. Also, either theory sees the causations of conflicts in different aspects; neoclassical realism by Waltz argues that conflicts in world politics will always happen as long as system remains anarchic and there is no higher authority above states, whereas Morgenthau claim that wars do not have much to do with anarchic system, but conflicts are direct consequences of imperfect human nature. As the essence of the human nature never changes, the essence of the international system does not change, either.



Jackson, R. and Sørensen, G. (2013). Introduction to international relations: Theories and approaches. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, P72-90.

Morgenthau, H. (1973) Politics Among Nations, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Waltz, K. (1979). Theory of International Politics. US: McGraw-Hill.

Shimko, K. (1992). Realism, neorealism, and American liberalism. Cambridge University Press, pp.281-301.


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