Realism – rehabilitated

The first post-Cold War decennium was characterized by optimism, hopes, values and views of the better and safer future, at least among Western countries.

General features

The collapse of Soviet Union moved the world system from the bipolarity to the new unipolarity, the US-led unipolar liberal world order. Even such idea like non-polarity was proposed for the future. Historian Francis Fukuyama wrote an article: End of History in the National Interest 1989 (which later was published in the form of the book: End of History and The Last Man, 1993). Fukuyama’s main themes were that after the Cold War, the ideological development is ending, market economy and democracy based on Western liberal values will become as global societal order. (6)

In 1993, as a reply to Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington wrote an article in Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993): Clash of Civilization. According to Huntington, the ideological confrontations may step aside but instead come cultural and religious value contradictions, which cause clashes between civilizations. There have been much discussions, both among scientists and cholars as well as in public media that the world has moved now from geopolitical and hard power world to soft power world.

Joseph Nye wrote the book 1990, where he designed the concept of “soft power”. The idea is to influence in the international relations with such tools as culture and values. In 2007, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank published a report “A smarter more secure America”. In this report Joseph Nye and Richard Armitage proposed “the US must move from eliciting fear and anger to inspiring optimism and hope”. As a tool, they offered “smartpower” by which US military and economic might can be complemented with greater investments in soft power.

In 2008, National Intelligence Council (NIC, an organ of CIA), published a report “Global Trends 2025”. Report is not forecasting but is based on scenario-typed designing of such factors which may have major influence on the development. According the report the unipolar moment of the US came and went, China, India, Russia and some other rising powers (like Turkey, Indonesia, Iran) will make a global multipolar world. The focus of the international politics moves from West to East.

 In the EU there has been a strong belief in soft power as well as thrust on multilateral world order based on the cooperation with UN and other international organizations. These ideas and beliefs seemed to function well in the deep unipolarity period (in 90’s and first years of 21st century) but the more years passed in the new millennium and the more various conflicts, crisis and terroristic events emerged, the emptier became the content of EU’s foreign policy and capability to tackle practical international problems. This impotence of EU has been finally culminating in the era of the US presidency Donald Trump since 2017.

Changes emerging

In late 90’s and on September 11th 2001 by the latest, the world began to see that radical Islamism (jihadism), new rising powers like China, India, “born again” Russia, Iran and other regional players emerged in the international theater. Critical examination of international events both in the 90’s and the first decennium of 21st century prove indisputably the extensive use of military power in international relations, especially by the unipolar US.

The national sovereign states, with sufficient economic and especially military power have again demonstrated and proved the basic facts of realism in theory and practice, especially since 2014. Great power competition in a new, turbo-charged form has become a “new normal” again. This development and state of international relations have been noticed by some prominent researchers and scholars, including Waltz himself, Mearsheimer and Walt during last ten years.

An interesting question revolves around the issue that Waltz does not specifically address in his 1979 book, namely what happens in an anarchic world under unipolarity. The world became unipolar because the US commands aggregate material resources and military capabilities that no other state is close matching. To what extent the US seeks to exert its influence around the world critically depends on its grand strategy. According to Waltz, power shapes interests – the more power, the more extensive the interests. The US behaves like a hegemon because it has power to behave like a hegemon. If power is present, it will be used.

Waltz and neorealism

Neorealists and Waltz himself would make two points about such a situation, both of which have to do with the danger of unchecked power.

Firstly, it matters what the US actually does in such unprecedented circumstances because the temptation to do a lot is obviously nearby when other superpower disappeared. It means increasing the influence of the US in all key areas and issues around the globe and attempting to institutionalize that world order where the US itself is the key designer.

The second danger of unipole’s unchecked power, according to neorealists, is the response of other major states in the system. In the 90s Waltz anticipated that balancing would soon occur on a major scale and remove the anomaly in the system (as Waltz called the unipolarity). He was wrong. However, the overall evidence indicates the absence of great power balancing throughout the first 15 years (1990-2005).

Perhaps the most convincing explanation of why this non-balancing has characterized the unipolar period centers on the argument that US power has been so overwhelming that balancing is largely rendered ineffective or even impossible and indeed quite risky considering that it might lead to serious confrontation with unipole when no other state can expect to pose a real military challenge against it.

John Mearsheimer

The disappearance of the constraints imposed by Cold War bipolarity misled the United States of trying to reshape the world to conform to America’s domestic political creed of liberalism. According to Mearsheimer’s latest book (the Great Delusion, Liberal Dreams and International Realities, 2018):

The situation of liberal hegemony is most likely to arise in a unipolar world, where the single great power does not have to worry about being attacked by another great power since there is none. Then the liberal sole pole will almost always abandon realism and adopt a liberal foreign policy. Liberal states have a crusader mentality hardwired into them that is hard to maintain.

This has led the United States (the only liberal superpower in history) to adopt a strategy of liberal hegemony, “in which a state aims to turn as many countries as possible into liberal democracies like itself while also promoting an open international economy and building international institutions.” Mearsheimer predicts that “liberal hegemony will not achieve its goals and its failure will inevitably come with huge costs.”

The chief barrier to the realization of the dream of a global society of liberal democracies is nationalism, “a particularist ideology from top to bottom.” Consequently, “nationalism and realism almost always trump liberalism.” In recognition of this fact, Mearsheimer argues, the United States should abandon its post-Cold War grand strategy of liberal hegemony in favor of a less interventionist strategy of “restraint.”


Nonetheless, Waltz and other neorealists seem to be right in the long run. They got timing slightly wrong, real balancing did occur neither on any significant scale in the 90s nor in early 2000s. The picture began to change in late 2000s and the real change process has accelerated in 2010s, when active hard balancing was occurring again.

It seems obvious that neorealists have been right all the time, the question is only on the time lag, when the international system is adjusting from unipolarity back to bipolarity or multipolarity… or some other polarity.