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Neorealism—the Answer to the Cold World Era

Introduction

The abrupt ending to the Cold War generated debate among international relations

theorists. Before the war on terrorism, the Cold War era played a huge role in defining global

relations and American national security policy in the twentieth century. With continuous fear of

nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, the United States had to prepare for possible war through

weapons buildup. The two great powers play a balancing act and, as one power builds up their

weapons, the other will do the same. Overtime, the continuous build of weapons resulted in an

arms race between the United States and Soviet Union. Although liberalism and constructivism

focus on the positive, neorealism most clearly defines the nature of U.S. national security and

foreign policy decision-making during the Cold War era through balance of power and

hegemony.

Key Assumptions of Neorealism

Through balance of power and hegemony theory, neorealism explains the era of the Cold

War. As a result of global anarchy, the core of the balance of power theory holds that Western

political institutions are the “result of balancing to counter the Soviet threat, which provided the

incentive for Western countries to cooperate” (Deudney and Ikenberry, 1999, p. 179). Since

there is no international body governing all states, the international system will pursue a strategy

of balancing. Balance of power comes in many forms, such as unipolar, multipolar, and bipolar.

During the Cold War era, the international system operated in a bipolar configuration with the

United States and Soviet Union dominating (Gaddis, 1986, p. 101). Bipolarity provides stability,

predictability, and induces caution within the international system. Although balance of power
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cannot predict when the balancing of hegemony will occur, neorealist stress that balancing will

occur overtime (Waltz, 2000, p. 23).

With the provided motivation for Western states to cooperate with the United States and

as states observe threats against their security, they attempt to counterbalance the threat

internally, through weapons build up, and externally, through ad hoc. This form of Ad hoc

involves counterbalancing through alliances, in which multiple “states join together with other

states that fear for their security from threatening or powerful states” (Deudney and Ikenberry,

1999, p. 182). For instance, the main alliance that was created to counterbalance the Soviet threat

was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, more commonly known as NATO. At the core

assumptions, neorealism emphasizes “while threats may not be sufficient to produce alliances,

they are necessary” (Ratti, 2006, p. 83). NATO survived and balancing continued because the

Soviet Union existed and posed a threat to their members’ national security.

Furthermore, neorealism provides that hegemony is an explanation for cooperation and

helps define the Cold War era. In a world where political anarchy reigns, neorealism’s hegemony

theory highlights that the United States provided dominance and order in the West “by offering

incentives to other Western democracies to participate and that Western conflict will rise as

American Power declines” (Deudney and Ikenberry, 1999, p. 180). It was extremely important

for the United States to maintain power in the West because they balance Soviet threat for the

Western hemisphere. Both hegemony and balance of power theory provide stability and

predictability in the bipolar system of international relations during the Cold War. This

predictability helped keep the Cold War cold and prevented a massive nuclear war.

Weaknesses of Neorealism
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Although neorealism most clearly defines the Cold War era, it lacks certain arguments

that liberalism and constructivism emphasize. Neorealism fails to explain the abrupt and rather

peaceful end to the Cold War because it argues that states will put their national interests above

others and emphasizes that there are winners and losers in every scenario. However, there was no

winner or loser in the ending of the Cold War. In contrast to neorealism, liberalism highlights

cooperation and helps explain the ending of the Cold War more than neorealism. The Cold War

ended with cooperation without a massive nuclear war and neorealism fails the explain this

accommodating nature.

One of the main weaknesses of neorealism is that it only sees states as actors. However,

international organizations and individuals play a huge role in international relations. Liberalism

and constructivism include individuals, corporations, and international organizations all as actors

because they play a huge role in balancing power and in global relations. In order to counteract

Soviet threat, NATO was formed as a military alliance in 1949. This helped balance power

throughout international relations. As an attempt to grow their sphere of influence, the Soviet

Union led the effort of the Warsaw Pact in 1955 because it was a way to offset NATO. This is a

form of balancing alliances that neorealism overlooks. Neorealism fails to recognize the

importance of other actors in the international system that liberalism accentuates.

Synthesis Approach

Although there is not one international relations theory that completely defines the Cold

War era, neorealism most broadly encompasses most aspects of the Cold War era. However, a

synthesis approach of neorealism and liberalism would more clearly define national security

during the Cold War. The core assumptions that would be best involved in this synthesis

approach from neorealism are the theories of balance of power and hegemony. Balance of power
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will result in an arms race because, as one state builds up their weapons and resources as

protection, another may perceive that as a threat and begin to do the same. Nevertheless, the

most important aspect of liberalism that would best contribute to the synthesis approach is the

idea of cooperation and international organizations as a key actor. As more Western democracies

perceive the Soviet Union as a threat, the more they are willing to cooperate with the United

States. A synthesis of neorealism and liberalism would not overlook that the United States and its

allies created a strategic order in the Western hemisphere that created a threat to the Soviet

Union overtime (Deudney and Ikenberry, 1999, pp. 179-180). With a synthesized version of

liberalism and neorealism, it would provide a clearly defined reasoning for the abrupt ending to

the Cold War and the decision-making during the Cold War era.

Conclusion

While liberalism and constructivism have a more optimistic approach to the foreign

policy decision-making to the Cold War era, neorealism most clearly explains the decision-

making during the Cold War because of balance of power and hegemony theory. As neorealism

suggests, the continuous buildup of weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union resulted

in an arms race that never turned into a massive nuclear attack. They attempted to balance each

other’s power and expand their own spheres of influence in their hemispheres. Although

neorealism lacks the idea of cooperation that liberalism emphasizes, it most noticeably describes

the characteristics and personality of the Cold War era, especially when it comes to foreign

policy decision-making.
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Works Cited

Deudney, Daniel, and G. John Ikenberry. “The nature and sources of liberal international order.”

Review of International Studies, vol. 25, no. 2, 1999, pp. 179-196.

Gaddis, John Lewis. “The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in the Postwar International

System.” International Security, vol. 10, no. 4, spring 1986, pp. 99-142.

Ratti, Luca. “Post War NATO and International Relations Theory: The Case For Neo-Classical

Realism.” Journal of Transatlantic Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2006, pp. 81-110.

Waltz, Kenneth. “Structural Realism after the Cold War.” International Security, vol. 25, no. 1,

summer 2000, pp. 5-41.