Neo-Realism and Neo-Liberal Institutionalism as International Relations Theories

The debate between neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism has been dominating the IR debate for quite some time now. Some of the issues of contention between the two schools of thought include; international cooperation, anarchy, priority of state goals among other issues. Neorealism as a school of thought aims at separating internal state factors of the international political system from the external. The theory primarily focuses on the effects of the structure of the international system as a means of explaining the outcomes of international politics. It focuses on the structure of the system, analyzing the variations within these systems and how they affect international cooperation (Jackson " Sørensen, 2016). Neo-liberal institutionalist on the other hand, recognize that the international system is characterized by some form of “anarchy” however, unlike neorealist the school of thought emphasized on interdependence especially economic interdependence which scholars argue that it is responsible for shaping international politics. Basically, neo-liberal institutionalists argue that the co-operation between nations is possible though it acknowledges the fact that interests of particular states come first.

Neorealism and neoliberalism remain the most influential IR theories in the quest to understand international cooperation. Neo-liberal institutionalists argue that international cooperation is achievable through anarchy and that certain models of interactions between states are also vital in evaluating international cooperation (Kaufman, 2013). It emphasizes on the role that interdependency between states plays in the understanding of international cooperation. Neo-realism school of thought on the other hand agrees to the fact that international cooperation if possible though it differs with neo-liberal institutionalist as the argue that it is difficult to attain international cooperation as this is more dependent on the governments of different states. From a historical perspective, the school of thought began gaining ground in late 1970’s as captured in Waltz Theory of International politics in 1979 which highlighted on the need for neo-realists to focus on state relations as well as the preoccupation with anarchy and with power. It is during this period that the idea of structure came about with Waltz responsible for the development of the idea that international systems are comprised of a structure and interacting units. According to the scholar, structures are defined according to the principle by which a system is ordered, through specifications of functions of differentiated units as well as the distribution of different capacities across units (Kegley, 2004).  An historical example of evaluating the practicality of neo-realism was reflected during the Second World War which had changed the structure of international politics in terms of the distribution of power with old great powers of Europe such as Germany, Great Britain and France structurally constrained by the shifts of balance of power during the war (Schieder " Spindler, 2014).

An evaluation of the practicality of Neo-liberal institutionalism as an IR theory on the other hand reveals that the school of thought was based on the assumption that states play a vital role in international relations as well as the emphasis on the role of power. Borrowing from this school of thought therefore, we develop the understanding on international cooperation based on the ideology that the relationships of power and dependence in world politics will therefore be important determinants that characterize international regimes. In this case therefore, Neo-liberal institutionalist argue that international cooperation relies on the relationships of power between states and the dependence of these states in world politics in order for it to be successful. Although like neo-idealists, neo-liberal institutionalist lay emphasis on the significance of state powers, it lays more emphasis on the economic interdependence among states. The central argument being raised with regards to this school of thought is that international cooperation may be a rational strategy by states based on their own national interests. However, Institutionalist argue that although such self-interests by states tend to undermine, if coercive power is used and certain rules, norms and practices set, the uncertainties between states can be overcome hence fostering international cooperation. A good historical example is the economic slump in Japan in 1990 which had an impact on the economies of countries across Latin America (Viner, 2016). This was an indication of the interconnectedness and interdependence of states thus demanding for international institutions to ensure fair economic interdependence. This according to institutionalist could be linked with globalization and innovation in technology that have ensured that the world is interconnected not only politically but also economically (Weber, 2013).

In a nutshell, as much as the ideologies raised in the two school of thoughts of neo-realism and neo-liberalism as IR theories, they both aid in the development of a deeper understanding on international cooperation. On one side of the thoughts is the neo-realist ideology that emphasizes on state power and the separation of internal factors from the external factors by analyzing the variations and how they affect the interacting units while focusing on the actions and interactions between states. Whereas on the other hand, neo-liberalism laying emphasis on the environmental and economic issues facing international systems as well as the recognition that hierarchy exists within international politics.


Jackson, R. H., " Sørensen, G. (2016). Introduction to international relations: Theories and approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kaufman, J. P. (2013). Introduction to international relations: Theory and practice.

Kegley, C. W. (2004). Controversies in international relations theory: Realism and the neoliberal challenge. Beijing: Peking University Press.

Schieder, S., " Spindler, M. (2014). Theories of international relations. New York: Routledge.

Viner, J. (2016). Studies in the Theory of International Trade. London: Taylor and Francis.

Weber, C. (2013). International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

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