How Realism Waltzed Off: Liberalism and Decisionmaking in Kenneth Waltz's Neorealism

Daniel Bessner, Nicolas Guilhot
Content Type
Journal Article
International Security
Issue Number
Publication Date
Fall 2015
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
Neorealism is one of the most influential theories of international relations, and its first theorist, Kenneth Waltz, a giant of the discipline. But why did Waltz move from a rather traditional form of classical realist political theory in the 1950s to neorealism in the 1970s? A possible answer is that Waltz's Theory of International Politics was his attempt to reconceive classical realism in a liberal form. Classical realism paid a great deal of attention to decisionmaking and statesmanship, and concomitantly asserted a nostalgic, anti-liberal political ideology. Neorealism, by contrast, dismissed the issue of foreign policymaking and decisionmaking. This shift reflected Waltz's desire to reconcile his acceptance of classical realism's tenets with his political commitment to liberalism. To do so, Waltz incorporated cybernetics and systems theory into Theory of International Politics, which allowed him to develop a theory of international relations no longer burdened with the problem of decisionmaking.
International Relations, Diplomacy, War, Grand Strategy, International Relations Theory
Political Geography
United States, Global Focus