Neo-Realism and Neo-Liberalism in Global Politics: Towards Assessing the Intellectual Siblings

  • Martin Abimbola Ogunbanjo Adonai University, Cotonou, Republic of Benin


In international relations (IR) there are many perspectives or ways of looking at a phenomenon. Realism, Liberalism, Marxism, Behaviouralism are some of the major perspectives in international relations (IR). And in this perspective it also has derivatives that can be said to perfect previous perspectives. This is because the phenomenon of international relations (IR) is increasingly diverse and needs new perspectives that are able to provide choices for scholars to view the phenomenon. Perspectives that experience these derivatives are neo-realism which is a derivative of realism and neo-liberalism derived from liberalism. This paper reviews the core assumptions of neo-realism and neo-liberalism and explores the debate between these intellectual siblings that have dominated mainstream academic scholarship in international relations (IR). It emphasizes that in light of the demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent withdrawal of Soviet forces from Central Europe, the debate between neo-realism and neo-liberal institutionalism has taken on a new relevance. Realism and neo-realism, and to some extent neo-liberalism, have also had a profound impact on US foreign policy. Neo-realists dominate the world of security studies and neo-liberals focus on political economy and more recently on issues like human rights and the environment. These theories do not offer starkly contrasting images of the world. Neo-realists state that they are concerned with issues of survival. They claim that neo-liberals are too optimistic about the possibilities for cooperation among states. Neo-liberals counter with claims that all states have mutual interests and can gain from cooperation. Both are normative theories of a sort, biased towards the state, the capitalist market, and the status quo. The processes of globalization have forced neo-realists and neo-liberals to consider similar issues and address new challenges to international order. This paper discusses the various versions of neo-liberalism and neo-realism and asks the reader to consider how theory shapes our image of the world. Each theory represents an attempt by scholars to offer a better explanation for the behaviour of states and describe the nature of international politics. Similarly, the more policy-relevant versions of these theories prescribe competing policy agendas. This paper reviews three versions of neo-realism: Waltz’s structural Realism; Grieco’s neo-realism or modern Realism, with its focus on absolute and relative gains; and what security scholars call offensive and defensive Realism or neo-realism. It considers Waltz’s argument that neo-realism is not only different from realism but an advance upon it. It compares neo-realist arguments about the stability of the bipolar world with some recent analyses of the changing nature of state structures and emerging patterns of closer co-operation. The argument of this paper is that neo-realism underestimates the extent to which state structures are changing in the industrialized parts of the world. It further highlights three respects in which neo-realism is being superseded by critical theories of international relations (IR) which, it is argued, contain a superior account of the relationship between the units and the international system, a deeper grasp of the significance of the cultural dimensions of world politics and a clearer recognition that the main challenge of the post-bipolar world is to create new forms of political community This paper also reviews the assumptions of neo-liberal and neo-liberal institutionalist perspectives. It later focuses on the ‘neo-neo-debate’. This is a debate that many US scholars think is the most important intellectual issue in international relations (IR) today. Many other scholars see it as not much of a debate at all. It is a debate about refining common assumptions and about the future role and effectiveness of international institutions and the possibilities of cooperation. However, it is not a debate between mainstream and critical perspectives. It is a debate between ‘rule-makers’ and it leaves out the voices on the margins or the ‘rule-takers’. This paper undertakes a review on how neo-realists and neo-liberal thinkers react to the processes of globalization. It concludes with a suggestion that we are only seeing part of the world if we limit our studies to the neo perspectives and the neo-neo debate.

Keywords: Neo-Realism, Neo-Liberalism, Critical Theory, Global Politics, Globalization, Neo-Neo Debate, International Relations, Bipolarity, Political Community

How to Cite
OGUNBANJO, Martin Abimbola. Neo-Realism and Neo-Liberalism in Global Politics: Towards Assessing the Intellectual Siblings. KIU Journal of Social Sciences, [S.l.], v. 7, n. 2, p. 57-76, july 2021. ISSN 2519-0474. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 21 sep. 2021.