This project seeks to explore and critically reflect on the politics of contemporary neoclassical realist (NCR) theorising in International Relations. In recent decades, realism has been repeatedly criticised by IR scholars for its conservative status quo bias, and its inability to cope with a changing, more progressive political and intellectual landscape.
As a political project it succumbs too easily to the temptation for “national interest first” policies, worryingly in sync with those demanded by present-day far-right populists. As a theoretical project it seems stuck in the past, forever unreflectively predicting, or indeed calling for, the return to an ahistorical “balance-of-power” politics. But even if academic thinking about IR theory development has largely moved away from the realist tradition, the political influence of realism seems to be enjoying a fully-fledged renaissance.
To many observers and policymakers, its continued relevance to world affairs has been underscored by recent events, such as the nationalist reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic or the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, new contributions abound that comment on these issues from realist standpoints, and laud the perennial relevance of realist analysis in, variously, admonishing policymakers’ and commentators’ supposedly idealistic naiveté of years past and present, as well as showing them and us a better way forward.
Underpinning this political influence, realism continues to be widely taught and cited. It is still often considered one of IR’s mainstream approaches for studying war, grand strategy, balances of power, and interstate competition. In light of these contradictory pressures away from and back towards realism, this project intends to explore the politics and processes of realist theorising in times of contestation and change. It does so by examining realism’s most popular contemporary variant – neoclassical realism.