Realism, the oldest and most prominent theoretical paradigm in international relations, is in trouble. The problem is not lack of interest. Realism remains the primary or alternative theory in virtually every major book and article addressing general theories of world politics, particularly in security affairs. Controversies between neorealism and its critics continue to dominate international relations theory debates. Nor is the problem realism’s purported inability to make point predictions. Many specific realist theories are testable, and there remains much global conflict about which realism offers powerful insights. Nor is the problem the lack of empirical support for simple realist predictions, such as recurrent balancing; or the absence of plausible realist explanations of certain salient phenomena, such as the Cold War, the “end of history,” or systemic change in general. Research programs advance, after all, by the refinement and improvement of previous theories to account for anomalies. There can be little doubt that realist theories rightfully retain a salient position in international relations theory.

The central problem is instead that the theoretical core of the realist approach has been undermined by its own defenders--in particular so-called defensive and neoclassical realists--who seek to address anomalies by recasting realism in forms that are theoretically less determinate, less coherent, and less distinctive to realism.

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1999

Publisher Statement

Copyright © 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This article first appeared in International Security 24: 1 (Fall, 1999), 5-55.

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