This article anchors neoclassical realism (NCR) as a solid theoretical framework which departs from Wendtian constructivism, Moravcsik's liberal theory, and Putnam's two‐level game liberalism. NCR moves away from these other approaches by bridging three divides: the spatial (domestic–international), the cognitive (matter‐ideas), and the temporal (present–future). What matters is not what states have to do because the structure compels them so (as Waltz and Wendt would want us to believe). Looking at what domestic interest groups want states to do (as Moravcsik and Putnam suggest) is also unsatisfactory. Rather, what can states do to represent domestic economic interests within the predefined geopolitical context? The argument here is that a version of geopolitical structure is external to the state and binds. However, a perceptual layer at the level of state policymaker affects the operationalization of that structure. Domestic economic forces make themselves felt through state‐level policymakers, but only within the predefined context of binding structural factors that constrain. The findings from this study are vastly different from previous studies, suggesting that NCR's triple bridging identity distinguishes it from other IR theories.
Realism has long been criticized by global IR, but the former can contribute to the latter and thereby improve explanations of international relations. Global IR criticizes that realism supposedly applies universally, sidelines non-Western perspectives, and misunderstands much of foreign policy, grand strategy, and international affairs. Reviewing global IR’s case against realism, however, exposes avenues for realism to complement global IR. Realism can contribute to a more global understanding of international relations through its most recent variant: neoclassical realism (NCR). This newest realism allows for contextualization and historicization of drivers of state behavior. It can embrace and has already been engaging global questions and cases; global thought and concepts; and global perspectives and scholarship. Mapping 149 NCR publications produced by 96 scholars reveals a slow shift in knowledge production away from North America toward Europe and to a lesser extent Asia and Africa. Creative research designs and scholarly collaboration can put realism in fruitful conversation with global IR. This has implications for theory building and inclusive knowledge production in realism, global IR, and the wider discipline. Only when we discover new avenues for realists to travel can they contribute to a more global IR. In turn, when global IR scholars engage realism, they may be better able to address the Western versus non-Western dichotomies they challenge.
This forum presents a snapshot of the current state of neoclassical realist theorizing. Its contributors are self-identified neoclassical realists who delineate their version of neoclassical realism (NCR), its scope, object of analysis, and theoretical contribution. From the standpoint of NCR, they contribute to and reflect on the “end of IR theory” debate. NCR has come under criticism for its supposed lack of theoretical structure and alleged disregard for paradigmatic boundaries. This raises questions as to the nature of this (theoretical) beast. Is NCR a midrange, progressive research program? Can it formulate a grand theory informed by metatheoretical assumptions? Is it a reformulation of neorealism or classical realism or an eclectic mix of different paradigms? The forum contributors argue that NCR, in different variants, holds considerable promise to investigate foreign policy, grand strategy and international politics. They interrogate the interaction of international and domestic politics and consider normative implications as well as the sources and cases of NCR beyond the West. In so doing, they speak to theorizing and the utility of the theoretical enterprise in IR more generally.
Neoclassical realism offers insights into why particular foreign policy choices are made, and under what systemic conditions unit-level factors are likely to intervene between systemic stimuli and state behavior. Neoclassical realism brings a multilevel framework that combines both systemic incentives and mediating unit-level variables to arrive at conclusions about foreign policy choices in particular cases. It sets the relative distribution of capabilities in the international system as the independent variable and adds mediating variables at the unit level of analysis. Variables at the domestic level of analysis, such as the role of ideology, the foreign policy executive’s perceptions, resource extraction, and domestic institutions, add explanatory power to system-level approaches. Neoclassical realism accounts for state behavior in a way that a more parsimonious systems-level theory is unable to achieve. But this rich theoretical framework also faces controversies and criticisms: Is neoclassical realism distinct from other theories and what is its added value? Neoclassical realism overlaps only to a small extent with alternative theoretical approaches. The domestic level of analysis dominates Foreign Policy Analysis (a subfield of International Relations). Unit-level variables suffice to explain state behavior in bottom-up approaches, and opening the structure of the international system for fundamental rethinking is central to constructivism. Neither explains the system-level conditions under which unit-level variables mediate between systemic stimuli and foreign policy. Neoclassical realism analyzes and explains a given foreign policy that more parsimonious or alternative theoretical approaches cannot.
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