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Classical and Structural Realism Compare and Contrast Essay

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Updated: Jan 3rd, 2020

One of the main challenges of assessing the actual significance of a particular development in the domain of international relations (IR) has to do with the abundance of many different theories of IR, which provide their own unique insights into the inquired subject matter. Therefore, it is crucially important for political scientists to be aware of what accounts for the qualitative aspects of these theories, and of what makes their practical deployment circumstantially appropriate.

Probably the most notable among the theories of IR are Realism and Post-structuralism. The logic behind this suggestion is that; whereas, Realism is undeniably the most ‘long-lasting’ and academically refined of these theories, Poststructuralism does appear to be the most unconventional of them, which in turn is often taken as the indication of this particular theory’s consistency with the discourse of post-modernity.

In this paper, I will compare/contrast the main conceptual provisions of the earlier mentioned theories, while promoting the idea that, even though some of the Post-structuralist assumptions about the actual nature of politics are indeed rather insightful, it is specifically the Realist outlook on the deployment of power in IR, which should be considered the ultimately legitimate one.

As the theory of IR, Realism is based upon three major conceptual premises:

  1. States are the only legitimate subjects of international relations. As Jervis (1998) noted, “Realism has many versions, but the assumptions that states can be considered the main actors and that they focus in the first instance on their own security are central to most” (p. 980). In its turn, this implies that dynamics in the world’s geopolitical arena should be seen reflective of the sporadic interflow of energetic potentials between the countries.
  2. As a system, the domain of IR exists in the state of never-ending anarchy. This Realist postulate refers to the absence of any higher authority in the world of international politics, capable of settling disputes between the nation-states.
  3. While adopting one or another geopolitical stance, the countries are primarily driven by the considerations of self-interest. Consequently, this presupposes that they exist in the state of fierce competition with each other for territory and natural resources.

The latter provision implies that the actual purpose of just about country’s existence is solely concerned with political/economic expansion, maintenance of political stability within, and destabilization of competing states. Partially, this explains the logic behind the Realist practice of applying the ancient principle of Cui bono (to whose benefit?), when it comes to defining the significance of a particular political development.

Realists believe that this type of developments is innately interest-driven. Essentially the same can be said about Realists’ insistence that it is inappropriate assessing political developments in terms of being ‘ethical’ or ‘unethical’ – in the ‘Realist’ world, the appropriateness/inappropriateness of one or another course of geopolitical action, undertaken by a particular country, is assessed through the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ principle.

The above-mentioned helps to explain the particulars of the Realist conceptualisation of power in IR, as such that ‘comes out of the gun’s barrel’, on the one hand, and serves as the main indication of the affiliated country’s varying measure of ‘evolutionary fitness’, on the other.

Thus, it is not only that Realism recognises power, as the instrument of geopolitics, but it also promotes the idea that the foremost objective of just about any nation-state is to continue becoming ever more empowered, in the social, economic, and military senses of this word.

Defining the conceptual essence of Post-structuralism represents a rather difficult task. One of the reasons for this is that, due to having emerged as the response to structuralism (the theory concerned with emphasising the phenomenological/semiotic aspects of international relations); Post-structuralism opposes many of the long-established conventions of IR, as something that has a value of its own. As Sayin and Ates (2012) noted,

Poststructuralism is not a freestanding discipline and occurs inside a large context of social thinking. Poststructuralism seeks to unsettle the things established, and by its own specific methods and ways, it tries to make re-reading on a lot of things about the social life, the state, and international relations (p. 13).

Moreover, there are no universally recognised criteria for defining the conceptual essence of Post-structuralism, “Post-structuralism itself is hard to define; thus, there appear to be many post-structuralisms, each accompanied by its own particular set of theoretical and empirical concerns” (Murdoch 2005, p. 2). Nevertheless, it is still possible to outline some of this theory’s most fundamental tenets.

For example, Post-structuralists insist that the functioning of just about any social/geopolitical entity is the subject to systemic analysis, which in turn presupposes that within the domain of international relations, there are no ‘independent’ and ‘dependent’ variables – all the variables are ‘interdependent’ (Edkins 1999). The discursive implication of this is quite clear – the quality of the relationship between the integral elements within a particular political system, defines this system’s structural subtleties more than anything else does.

Another notable characteristic of Post-structuralism is that its proponents make a deliberate point in refusing to assess the political developments in the world within some rigidly constructed theoretical framework. According to Merlingen (2013), “The central commitment that makes post-structuralists‘ post’ is their rejection of the scientific aspirations of structuralism… Poststructuralists mistrust all systematisers and systematisations” (par. 11).

The reason for this is that, according to the proponents of Post-structuralism, just about every positivist theory of IR is based upon the unverified sets of axioms, which serve the purpose of helping the rich and powerful to justify the continuation of their hegemonic dominance.

Post-structuralists are also known for their claim that, even though the currently dominant socio-cultural discourse (post-modernity) does define the innate quality of the on-going developments in the arena of international politics, it does not predetermine these developments’ eventual outcome. In its turn, this naturally prompts the proponents of Post-structuralism to assume that the continuation of counter-cultural discourses is the necessary precondition for humanity to remain on the path of a continual advancement.

As a result, Post-structuralists deny objectivity to just about any positivist notion in the field of IR, especially if it appears to serve the purpose legitimising the currently prevalent hegemonic discourse, “They (Post-structuralists) remain opposed to the essentialist individualism typical of liberalism and sceptical of its political corollaries such as international human rights policies” (Merlingen 2013, par. 13).

Moreover, Post-structuralists also believe that the very notion of ‘statehood’, in the traditional sense of this word, has grown hopelessly outdated. Such their belief is based upon the assumption that the exponential progress in the field of IT naturally results in more and more people becoming increasingly aware of the oppressive nature of the conventional forms of political governance, closely affiliated with the notion in question.

Hence, the Post-structuralist conceptualisation of power, as something extrapolated by the IR-subject’s ability to challenge the soundness of the mainstream discourses on the issues of socio-political and economic importance (Weldes 2000).

Because information technologies continue to advance rather rapidly, this increases the competitiveness of the power-aspiring non-state actors in the domain of international relations. What it means is that it is only the matter of time before the concept of ‘statehood’ ceases to be reflective of people’s unconscious anxieties, in regards to the notion of ‘national borders’.

Therefore, while referring to power, Post-structuralists, in fact, refer to the potential capacity of many counter-cultural discourses to attain the mainstream status, which in turn must result in disrupting the geopolitical balance of on this planet.

As it was implied in the Introduction, the Realist account of power in world politics is in many respects superior to the Post-structuralist one – despite the sophisticate sounding of the latter. The fact that there is too much complexity to the Post-structuralist conceptualisations of power/IR is exactly what undermines the overall validity of Post-structuralism.

The reason for this is that it makes this theory quite inconsistent with the so-called principle of Occam’s Razor – there is no need to resort to the complex (phenomenological) explanations of a particular phenomenon, for as long as many of the simplistic (positivist) ones are available (Riesch 2010). Predictably enough, this has a negative effect on the theory’s ability to represent any practical value.

For example, when assessed within the discursive framework of Post-structuralism, the fact that the realities of a contemporary living in the West appear ever more affected by the emergence and subsequent proliferation of different social movements (such as the one concerned with the protection of animal rights, for example), indicates that the forms of governance (power) in today’s world become ever more ‘subnational’ and ‘transnational’.

In its turn, this can be interpreted as something that confirms the validity of the Post-structuralist idea that, as time goes on, the factor of ethics influences the IR-dynamics to an ever further extent. As Walker (1993) pointed out,

A ‘busier’ intersection (between ethics and IR) is no indication of an escape from the routines through which attempts to speak of ethics are either marginalised or trivialised. These routines emerge from the way claims about ethical possibility are already constitutive of theories of international relations (p. 79).

This, of course, implies that exercising power in the domain of IR very often means creating public discourses, “The political governance of modern society requires a range of actors, practices and discourses to be mobilized across diverse socio-spatial domains. Political forces can only govern by influencing or co-opting domains in civil society that they do not directly control” (Murdoch 2005, p. 43).

In this respect, the continual proliferation of the so-called non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will appear to be yet additional indication that, as time goes on, the sub-national agents of quasi-governmental authority become ever more empowered, in the sense of being able to exert much influence on the process of governmental decision-making.

As it can be seen above, the Post-structuralist account of power in IR, which stresses out the quasi-sovereign status of social movements/NGOs, is indeed logically sound. Yet, it is much too ‘excessive’, in the ontological sense of this word.

After all, the Realist theory of IR provides us with the much simpler straight-down-to–the-point explanation, as to the actual significance of social movements/NGOs – they are nothing but the instruments that help to advance the geopolitical expansion-agenda of the world’s most powerful countries while allowing the latter to remain within the boundaries of the international law.

The validity of this statement can be illustrated, in regards to the fact that, as of recent, many high-ranking officials from the U.S. Department of State do not even try to make any secret of keeping most of the world’s best-known NGOs on a payroll. Because NGOs ‘know no borders’, this makes it utterly convenient for the U.S. to use them, when it comes to overthrowing the ‘non-cooperative’ governments in other countries.

The Ukraine’s ‘democratic’ revolutions of 2004 and 2014, which served the geopolitical interests of the U.S., exemplify the soundness of this suggestion perfectly well, because there is plenty of evidence now that it was namely due to the activities of ‘independent’ NGOs in this country that the mentioned upheavals did take place (Wilson 2006). This, of course, shows that contrary to the Post-structuralist point of view, there is nothing too illusive/phenomenological about the deployment of power.

The superiority of the Realist conceptualisation of power can also be illustrated, in regards to the fact that, as opposed to what it appears to be the case with the Post-structuralist one, it correlates well with the cause-effect principle of dialectical reasoning, which in turn defines the workings of the surrounding social and natural environment.

The logic behind this suggestion is perfectly apparent – Realists assume that there is always an interest-driven motive to just about every development in the world of international and domestic politics. In its turn, this empowers Realists rather substantially, within the context of how they go about defining the factual significance of historical events.

For example, according to such well-known proponents of Post-structuralism as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, the revolutionary events of 1968 in Paris signified the beginning of the era when people’s existential aspirations have a direct effect of the practically deployed methods of governing, to which these people are subjected (Paipais 2015).

Nevertheless, even if we assume that the mentioned idea is indeed thoroughly valid; it can still hardly be referred to as such that pinpoints the main triggering-factor behind the events in question. In this regard, the Realist theory of IR is much different. Instead of speculating about what were the phenomenological causes of the mentioned events, it seeks to identify the potential beneficiary.

Given the fact that the French ‘revolution’ of 1968 occurred in the aftermath of the government’s decision to cancel the country’s NATO-membership, and to demand from the Federal Reserve to convert France’s reserves of USD into gold, this task will not prove particularly challenging (Martin 2013).

Thus, there can be only a few doubts as to the fact that the Realist take on the deployment of power is not only fully consistent with the principle of Occam’s Razor, but it is also much more practically useful, as compared to that of Post-structuralists. This could not be otherwise – being essentially phenomenological, the Post-structuralist theory of IR is quite incapable of recognizing the qualitative patterns within the domain of geopolitics.

After all, admitting that it is indeed possible to distinguish these patterns, would contradict this theory’s main premise that there is just too much uncertainty in the world of politics, and that it is rather impossible to predict the quintessential quality of political developments in the future. Yet, while deprived of such ability, just about any sociological theory can no longer be referred in terms of ‘theory’ per se.

The legitimacy of this suggestion is especially apparent nowadays when due to the continual popularisation of the discourse of relativity, more and more people grow increasingly aware that there can be no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ scientific theories, but only the useful and useless ones.

Even though Realists are often accused of applying an utterly simplistic approach, when it comes to addressing the IR-related issues, there can be only a few doubts that such their approach is thoroughly systemic, which in turn means that Realism continues to represent much value, as a discursively sound theory of IR.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Post-structuralism – due to its lack of methodological systemeness, this specific theory of IR promotes a number of clearly misleading assumptions, as to the origins of power in the arena of international relations. The most notable of them has to do with the Post-structuralist belief that in the near future, nation-states will cease to be considered the only legitimate subjects of the international law.

However, as it was shown earlier in regards to the Realist conceptualisation of the actual role of social movements/NGOs in the world of politics, this belief can be hardly considered very insightful. After all, the recent geopolitical developments, concerned with the rise of Russia and China as the West’s most powerful rivals, suggest that it is much too early to put away with the conventional outlook on what the notion of ‘statehood’ stands for.

If this was not the case, the on-going confrontation between the U.S. and Russia would not be marked by the calls (on both sides) to strengthen the sense of ‘national solidarity’ in citizens. We would also not be witnessing the process of both countries being gradually turned into nothing short of the ideological dictatorships – despite the fact the U.S. and Russia adhere to the democratic principles of governance.

Yet, this is exactly what is happening today – contrary to the Post-structuralist insistence that the role of officially endorsed ideologies (as the sources of power) in IR is rather neglectful, “Poststructuralism was the first theoretical movement to reject the entire notion of ideology, viewing it as totalistic, essentialist and methodologically and theoretically obsolete” (Malesevic & MacKenzie 2002, p. 87).

This, of course, undermines the discursive soundness of Post-structuralism even further, as a theory that does not take into account the most recent IR-related developments.

Apparently, the Post-structuralist outlook on the deployment of power in world politics could only make sense during the 20th century’s nineties, when Fukuyama’s idea of the ‘end of history’ (due to the ‘depletion of meaning’) was at the peak of its popularity. Nowadays, however, this outlook can be deemed neither insightful nor practically valuable – something that calls for its eventual delegitimation.

The same cannot be said about the Realist conceptualisation of power in the domain of IR – despite its extensive historical legacy, the theory of Realism continues to provide many valuable clues, as to what are the actual driving forces behind the currently observable dynamics in the world of politics. This once again substantiates the validity of the paper’s initial thesis, in regards to the discussed subject matter.

As it was shown earlier, there is indeed much rationale in singling out specifically the Realist account of power in IR, as the most conceptually and methodologically sound one. In its turn, this implies that the alternative theories of IP (such as Constructivist, Structuralist, Post-structuralist, etc.) can be discussed in terms of ‘discursive decoys’.

That is, their actual role may be concerned with diverting people’s attention from the fact that, just as it used to be the case hundreds and even thousands of years ago, the political developments in the world continue to remain interest-driven/state-sponsored (Realist). Even though this conclusion does appear rather speculative, it is certainly not irrational.

It is also fully appropriate to conclude that the analytical insights contained in this paper, imply that it is only the matter of time, before the Post-structuralist perspective on power in politics will be deprived of the remains of its former legitimacy. That is, unless this planet turns ‘unipolar’ again, in the geopolitical sense of this word. Such a scenario, however, is rather unlikely.

I believe that the provided concluding remarks correlate well with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, there is indeed a good reason to think that, in terms of its ability to serve as a practical asset in the field of IR, the theory of Realism even today remains largely unsurpassable. This will continue to be the case into the future.


Edkins, J. 1999, Poststructuralism and international relations: bringing the political back in, Boulder, Lynne Rienner.

Jervis, R. 1998, ‘Realism in the study of world politics’, International Organization, vol. 52, no. 4, pp. 971-991.

Malesevic, S. & MacKenzie, I. 2002, Ideology after Poststructuralism: experiences of identity in a globalising world, Pluto Press, London.

Martin, G. 2013, General de Gaulle’s Cold War: challenging American hegemony, 1963-68., Berghahn Books, New York.

Merlingen, M. 2013, What about its relationship to historical Materialism? E-International Relations. Web.

Murdoch, J. 2005, Post-structuralist geography: a guide to relational space, SAGE Publications Inc., London.

Paipais, V. 2015, ‘Ethics and politics after post-structuralism: Levinas, Derrida, Nancy’, Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 216-219.

Riesch, H. 2010, ‘Simple or simplistic? Scientists’ views on Occam’s Razor’, Theoria, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 75-90.

Sayin, Y. & Ates, D. 2012, ‘Poststructuralism and the analysis of international relations’, Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 12-25.

Weldes, J. 2000, ‘Poststructuralism and international relations: bringing the political back in / Navigating modernity: Postcolonialism, identity, and international relations”, The American Political Science Review, vol. 94, no. 3, pp. 764-765.

Wilson, A. 2006, ‘Ukraine’s orange revolution, NGOs and the role of the West’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 21-32.

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