Neoclassical Realism

A book using neoclassical realism to explain foreign policy.

Theoretically, my work begins from a realist perspective on international relations. I explore how and why states respond to incentives stemmning from the anarchic structure of the international system and their geopolitical environment.

I self-identify as a neoclassical realist, but I have a long time interest in the realist tradition (Thukydides and onwards) and the challenges and opportunities of structural realism.

Some of my work discusses how realism can be used as a framework for understanding foreign policy. In Realism in Foreign Policy Analysis (Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, 2017), I unpack the realist perspective on foreign policy and provide an overview of how realists have engaged with foreign policy in theory and practive through history.

The Challenges and Opportunities of Neoclassical Realism

In other work, I zoom in on neoclassical realism and the challenges stemming from combining assumptions on materialist structural forces with the observation the foreign policy is made by human beings impacted by various cognitive, emotional and cultural factors.

In Explaining why state X made a certain move last tuesday: the promise and limitations of realist foreign policy analysis (Journal of International Relations and Development, 2005), I discuss what realist foreign policy analysis can and cannot do. I argue that realist foreign policy analysis, neoclassical realism in particular, faces two challenges. The first challenge is to combine structural factors with other variables without ending up with a collection of ad hoc arguments. The second challenge is to combine the realist emphasis on the continued importance of materialist factors with the observation that these factors are interpreted and perceived — not objectively measured — by human beings making foreign policy.

Using Neoclassical Realism in Foreign Policy Analysis

I apply neoclassical realism in my analytical and empirical work. In Punching above their weight, but why? Explaining Denmark and Estonia in the transatlantic relationship, Matthew Crandall and I use neoclassical realisme to argue that material (Estonia) and ontological (Denmark) security concerns explain why the two countries are super-atlanticist (Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 2019). In From peacemaker to warmonger? Explaining Denmark’s great power politics (Swiss Political Science Review, 2005), I show how a liberal-egalitarian political culture has been decisive in translating systemic incentives into foreign policy in Denmark.

In Explaining Foreign Policy: International Diplomacy and the Russo-Georgian War (Lynne Rienner, 2012), Hans Mouritzen and I construct a three-level neoclassical realist model for explaining foreign policy. We argue that geopolitics is a missing link in most neoclassical realist analysis and theorizing. Foreign policy is as much a response to geopolitical as to systemic incentives. Consequently, we present a model for analyzing how the interplay in systemic, geopolitical and domestic factors produce foreign policy. You can read the book’s introductory chapter here.

Structural Realism

I have a long time interest in structural realism. In When Martians Go to Venus: Structural Realism in Europe (2021), I discuss pre-structural (English School), structural, and post-structural (Copenhagen School) realism. In an earlier piece, The politics of international theory: Reading Waltz 1979 as a classic, I argue that rather than an analytical framework, Waltz’s neorealist theory is now read and used as a ‘classic’, cited by many, but read and used by few.

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