Neoclassical Realism and Today’s Russia
No. 3 2012 July/September
Tatiana A. Romanova

PhD in Political Science
St. Petersburg University, Russia
Department of European Studies
Associate Professor;
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg, Russia
Department of International Relations
Associate Professor


ORCHID: 0000-0002-5199-0003
SPIN-RSCI: 8791-1970
ResearcherID: J-6397-2013
Scopus AuthorID: 24779959300


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: + 7 812 363 6435 (Ex. 6175)
Address: 1/3 Smolnogo Str., St. Petersburg 193060, Russia

The article is partly based on the chapter contributed, in cooperation with Elena Pavlova, to the book Neo-Classical Realism in Europe: Bringing Power Back In, Manchester University Press, 2012.


“There is nothing so practical as a good theory”
Kurt Lewin

I felt quite perplexed in 2009 when I was asked to contribute a chapter on Russia to a monograph analyzing the problems of neo-classical realism in Europe. Russian research employing this method was practically non-existent since Russian foreign policy practice did not offer any incentives for such an approach. Eventually, I wrote the chapter with a colleague of mine, yet if we were offered the job today, our analysis would be much more comprehensive and captivating. Russia’s rapidly changing domestic scene has had a direct impact on its foreign policy.

My objective in this article is to outline a theoretical context for a relatively new discussion. Initially, I will formulate the main provisions of neoclassical realism, then I will briefly review the neoclassical view of Russian foreign policy that we presented three years ago. Finally, I will look at how the ongoing transformations – some of which are clearly visible while others are hardly noticeable – may influence the conception and practical realization of Russian foreign policy.


In 1998, Gideon Rose introduced the term ‘neoclassical realism’ in a summary review of five English-language monographs that traced a new approach to studying international relations. On the one hand, this approach continued the tradition of neo-realism, highlighting new systemic and structural challenges, and the conviction that these two aspects determine a country’s behavior in the world today. On the other hand, contributors of all five books believe – to a different degree – that the behavior of national governments on the international stage is not a simple predetermined reaction to external events. It is important to take into account internal circumstances and the interests of national players. This approach implied a return to some provisions of classical realism, specifically to the idea concerning internal motivations for the behavior of states (interpreted by the patriarchs of that school of thought as the struggle for power).

A broad definition of neoclassical realism would describe it as the search for an answer to why the pressures of global and regional factors produce a certain type of foreign policy. In other words, neoclassical realism studies “the transmission belt” of foreign policy. This approach does not imply a revision of neo-realism, however, as it continues to view the pressure of the global environment and systemic factors as the crucial elements influencing the activity of countries (This is especially true in the context of rapid globalization and of the drastically shrinking predictability of global changes.) At the same time, neoclassical realism poses the question why states with similar parameters and acting under the same external conditions display different conduct in the international arena. The answer includes domestic policy, different interests, how state institutions work together (as a system of institutions with a monopoly over the use of force) and with society, and the way some phenomena are perceived.

The “content” of the state is not relevant for neo-realism. To use a famous metaphor of the international relations’ theory, the state is a “billiard ball” moving along a trajectory that depends exclusively on external impact, not on its internal structure or the material of which the ball is made. Neoclassical realism admits that the ball moves by other means than the impact of external forces alone; internal dynamics adjusts the ball’s movements. Neoclassical realism studies this dynamics. Indeed, Rose and his followers, such as Steven Lobell, Norrin Ripsman, and Tufts Geoffrey Tagliaferro, view neoclassical realism as a theory of foreign policy. In 2006, Randall Schweller suggested calling neoclassical realism “a theory of errors,” which aims to explain why systemic pressure is deflected and subsequently leads to contradictions or delayed reactions in a country’s foreign policy.

According to neoclassical realism, the dominance of systemic factors over internal ones suggests that the properties of the “billiard ball” will affect the tactics of a state’s actions, but not its strategy. This is fairly obvious in the short and medium term, but not in the long term.

The influence of certain internal political factors may increase under pressure from the global system and globalization. For instance, competition between countries is developing not only along the hard power line, but also in the soft power domain – in the economic and, more importantly, ideological sphere. Consequently, a country’s capability (above all as represented by its executive power) to compete globally in these sectors will depend on the quality of its relation with the national business community and civic society at large. 

From the epistemological viewpoint, the dominance of systemic factors over domestic factors sets neoclassical realism apart from liberalism, which stipulates that domestic policy predetermines foreign policy. Neoclassical realism can be seen as the midpoint between the traditions of realism, on the one hand, and liberalism, neo-institutionalism and constructivism, on the other hand. It is the application of the methodology of the two latter trends in studying the content of the “billiard ball” that makes the new trend neoclassical.

Thus, neoclassical realism traditionally singles out three constituent elements:

  •  The independent variable (the external environment, the system),
  •  The intervening variable (the entire set of factors inside a nation-state – institutions, the relationship between state and society, public perception, and ideology),
  •  The dependent variable (foreign policy).

Yet neoclassical realism mainly focuses on the transitional zone, on how the intervening variable determines the dependent one (For neoclassical realism, the pressure of systemic factors is not the main subject for analysis, while it is central for neo-realism).

At least two factors determine the interrelations among the variables:

First, those who make decisions do not always act rationally, although the bulk of realistic paradigms proceed from precisely this assumption. There is never enough information about an issue. Consequently, decision-makers have to rely on available data, while guessing about the rest. Importantly, politicians and executives rely on personal experience, knowledge, and conceptions in order to differentiate between what is “correct” and what is real, to determine the relationship between public knowledge and secret information, and to understand the world in general. This makes constructivism so important for neoclassical realism.

Second, neoclassical realism is rooted in the ideas of Max Weber and his disciples, who posit that the state is not a uniform and a priori harmonious mechanism. This implies the availability of a system of institutions (mostly represented by executive power) and (civic) society. Institutions that function smoothly and close interaction between the state and society determine a country’s power and the level of trust in a country’s declarations and actions on the international stage.

Civil society of a country may be active or passive, consolidated or split along political, economic, religious, ethnic, and other lines. The differentiation of society as such is only part of the story. Another important factor is the degree of social consolidation, which in turn is determined by agreement about the legitimacy of the incumbent government and by the presence of a national ideology accepted by the majority of the citizens.

The degree of accord among the economic, political, and religious elites over national ideology is even more significant in today’s world. A well-functioning and attractive state model secures a place for a country in the global competition of values. On the other hand, a model facing constant challenges from domestic forces not only undermines a country’s foreign policy, but also makes it a less convincing power or partner in the world.

Moreover, each country has a system of institutions and agencies. The degree of institutionalization is indicative of the level of development of the state and society. Each state institution performs a definite function, but in its actions the institution is also guided by its own logic and ideas about reality and appropriate behavior. Some institutions’ objectives may be congruent to the effective bureaucratic system and are therefore easily implemented, while others may stand in opposition to it, therefore there may be obstacles in implementing these objectives (very often quite irrational ones).

This second factor that determines interaction between the state and society, and the set of state institutions, requires a neo-institutional analysis, application of the theory of elites, and other political science theories. The key idea here suggests that the mere presence of power is not sufficient; one must mobilize it (or ‘extract’ it, to use the terminology of neoclassical realism). The ability to retrieve power is proportionate to the quality of the relationship between the state and society, and to the efficiency of the bureaucratic machine.

Finally, democratization complicates the second factor. However, it is not the political regime that really matters here but the existence of veto-players and their propensity to use their weight to block certain decisions. Also important is the degree of consolidation between the state and society. In other words, neoclassical realism becomes relevant the moment when the “L’etat c’est moi” (“I am the state”) principle is dropped. The more sophisticated interaction is within a country, the more sophisticated and unpredictable the functioning of the “power belt” is. The results may be consolidated democratic nation states (if these countries are united by consensus and national ideology) or strict totalitarian and authoritarian countries, depending on the viewpoint of various competing elite groups.



The Theory’s Thorny Path

International relations theory has encountered numerous problems in Russia. The emergence of this science in the West in the 1940s coincided with a period when Soviet life was strictly ideologized and the Communist paradigm was the only possibility. A taboo on alternative concepts meant that the empirical research of international relations was the dominant method of study. This could not but affect post-Soviet science, too. Moreover, Russians were not very interested in international relations theory because the transformation of humanitarian knowledge in Russia began with a revision of history, and with attempts to understand what had actually happened. This naturally increased the scrutiny of international relations from the historical standpoint rather than from a philosophic stance, in which international relations theory is rooted.

According to a wise observation by Andrei and Pavel Tsygankov, the 1990s were characterized by three trends in Russia: the introduction of pluralism in the science of international relations, Westernization, and simultaneous isolation. The first implied a renunciation of Marxism as the only infallible paradigm; the second came as an attempt to transplant Western concepts to Russian soil; and the third one was actually a reaction to rapid Westernization. With the rare exception, the study of international relations in Russia was based upon what was created in the West. It is not accidental that Alexei Bogaturov summed up the essence of the first decade of post-Soviet history as “a period of assimilation.”

The only paradigm that took firm root in Russia was (neo-)realism. There are a mere handful of representatives from the liberal, constructivist, or post-structural schools in Russia. Even now experts who teach international relations at leading Russian universities tell their students that there is only one approach, i.e. neo-realism. The rest is evil and is not meaningful for science.

Neo-realism is popular in Russia for several reasons: First, Russia has a traditionally strong central state power – strong to the detriment of sub-national (regional) agencies of power, business, political parties, and non-governmental organizations as channels for civil society to expresses its opinion. This limits the development of liberalism and the formation of trans-governmental relationships in Russia. As a result, neo-realism is the dominant paradigm, because it pairs the state with current and well-known interests. Actual practice has not contradicted this situation until quite recently.

Secondly, primitive (neo-)realism underlies the bulk of Russia’s state foreign policy documents. National interests serve as instruments to legitimize the country’s actions, and consolidate public opinion and the elite in support of the state’s actions on the international stage. Moreover, putting national interests above values has become the norm for Russia’s behavior in the world as a response to ideological competition from the West. Emphasizing empirical research, which is so characteristic of Russian international relations theory, only magnifies the impact of the ideas underpinning today’s practice.

In these conditions, it has been difficult for neoclassical realism to take root in Russia. Most authors have either ignored the concept altogether or analyzed it as a branch of contemporary neo-realism, without scrutinizing the specifics of the new stage in the development of the realism paradigm. This can be explained, above all, by the unpreparedness of these scholars to accept the sophisticated nature of neoclassical realism. On the other hand, the realities of Russian foreign policy have not helped its development either.

A Not-So-Simple Practice

Neoclassical realism discerns two reasons that complicate interactions: the first is incomplete information, the politicians’ and other decision-makers’ deficient rationality, and propensity to rely on their own ideas about what is right and wrong as well as on the paradigms with which they were raised. The second is a complex relationship between the state and society, and the influence of institutions and various interest groups on foreign policy.

The contemporary Russian political system, however, is different from most other systems in that it de-facto revolves around one main factor – the supreme position of the head of state. This is far from a novel phenomenon. In essence, this is an authentic Russian creed in the Tsar the Father and the importance of vesting him with absolute authority. Dmitry Trenin and Bobo Lo, who in 2005 analyzed how foreign policy decisions are made in Russia, offer a graphic picture of how the Politburo came to replace imperial power in foreign policy (and in many other spheres) and how the presidential administration (the Kremlin) later took the reins of power from the Politburo. As Trenin and Lo point out, the situation was facilitated by the fact that foreign policy in Russia has always been regarded as some kind of “royal cause” that falls into the president’s sphere of competence.

Until recently, the state in modern Russia has been separate from society (at least in the sphere of foreign policy). Russians’ confidence in Vladimir Putin was unprecedented by world standards and gave him a de facto carte blanche in his first two terms as president.

Also, for a long time there was another factor that influenced Russia’s foreign-policy decisions – the willingness of the state to achieve a national consensus that would embrace everyone and would not divide society into ardent patriots and those who have “to kill the little rodents within themselves.” Under these conditions executive power was quite comfortable and a balance of forces was established among the elites (the business community, the conservatives, and the liberals). As a consequence, executive power had relative freedom of action in foreign policy.

It would be wrong to say that there was no confrontation in the country. Of course, the sectors of the economy tied to mineral resources competed with other sectors. This latter group was initially represented by the nuclear power industry. As the modernization agenda gained momentum, the nuclear industry was joined by separate (albeit not too many) enterprises from other economic sectors. Tensions among institutions were smoldering too. For instance, the conservative Foreign Ministry was opposed to the liberal Economic Development and Trade Ministry on European issues. Russia’s upper echelons disagreed over the country’s position in the UN Security Council regarding the enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libya.

Yet these were rare instances. In essence, the rigid system of state power with a low level of autonomy and delegation of powers, consensus in society regarding the political regime, and little political activity among the people narrowed the subject for study in the framework of neoclassical realism. The link between the global environment and Russia’s foreign policy was unpretentious and practically straightforward.

In this context the only subject attractive for neoclassical realism studies was the filters, introduced by two sets of competing ideas. The first one deals with the problems of identity; or more precisely, with Russia’s self-identification as a European/Western nation or as a unique Eurasian civilization. This issue, as is well known, highlighted the need to decide whether Russia should work to catch up with the West, or whether it should develop as an independent entity. The second set of ideas involves the choice of objectives critical for Russia’s foreign policy: hard power security or economic benefits and soft power security (financial, ecological, etc.). In the former case, the state should focus on maintaining military power and developing its defense capability. In the latter, it should create a lucrative business environment and promote national business abroad.

The objectives laid out by both sets of ideas are not antagonistic. Moscow wants to prove its European identity on the basis of history, while at the same time claiming its specificity and creating a special status in Eurasia. Quite remarkable in this connection is the discourse used by Russian politicians, which takes on a European tone in the Old World and a Eurasian tone in the most populated part of the world. Equally, increasing the level of military security does not rule out protecting the interests of national business abroad. The question is what spheres should be priority ones and enjoy preferential use of limited resources.

Furthermore, each priority is not at all unambiguous. If one takes hard power security, one has to decide what exact forces should be supported – the Armed Forces or security services? There is even less certainty about business, which includes industries producing raw materials, innovative technologies, the traditionally helpless agriculture, and the defense industry that has always enjoyed a special status.

Nonetheless, by singling out two groups of ideas in our research three years ago we sought to pinpoint the filters and the intervening ideological variables that transformed pressure from the system of international relations to Russian foreign policy. It was through this prism that we examined the problem of polarity/entropy of power, national interests and the establishment of coalitions of balance. We showed that issues of polarity/entropy of power were influenced by both national identity and motivation discourses. In the case of national interests, the motivation filter was crucial, while identity became the main intervening variable in constructing coalitions of balance.

Our analysis also proved that neoclassical realism had a limited potential for decoding practical experience. Without an independent civic society interested in discussing foreign policy issues and given weak and controllable social institutions that have no tangible rights or responsibility, applying neoclassical realism to Russian realities boiled down to an analysis of the role that ideas played in Russian foreign policy. It is true that one could speak about instrumental ideas (i.e. the realistic application of ideas) and socializing ideas, that is, the impact they have on decision-makers. Yet the subject of neoclassical realism remained artificially limited in Russia.

The events that have unfolded in Russia since autumn 2011 are obviously changing the domestic political scene and will certainly alter the character of Russian foreign policy, albeit in the more distant future. These changes can be seen in discussions and, to a lesser extent, in everyday debate. Additionally, more sophisticated research instruments are needed, and  neoclassical realism matches the objective. Therefore, let us look at the details of the process.



Towards Diversified Practices?

Why are the events taking place in Russia today interesting for neoclassical realism? First of all, we are witnessing a gradual de facto renunciation of the “L’etat c’est mois” principle. Peculiar processes are taking place in Russian society and Russians are increasingly unwilling to accept all the decisions made by the president. Declining public support for the state questions its autonomy, including in the sphere of foreign policy. Politically active Russians are still in the minority, but about half of the country silently supports the protestors. The situation is further aggravated by the visible reluctance of the authorities to consolidate society; by attempts of executive power to rally support among the inactive majority, and to ostracize and lambast those who take part in opposition rallies.

State institutions, especially the executive branch of power, which are central for neoclassical analysis, are losing their legitimacy (let us not forget that legitimacy is not identical to lawfulness, since it denotes people’s perception of phenomena as right and fair, rather than the legal accuracy of one or another act). The result is that it is harder for the state to mobilize society in order to uphold its own view of foreign policy and to retrieve resources, which gives meaning to the power of the state in today’s world. The state’s reaction to outside challenges is becoming increasingly slower and inefficient.

The problem is further aggravated by the lack of a commonly accepted national ideology that would tie the state and society together. The case in hand is not just viewing ideas in the constructivist way as instruments of socialization, but also the realistic perception of ideas as instruments to mobilize society in support of a foreign policy initiative.

A state’s potential for mobilization increases in the case of a tangible outside threat, and that is why the exaggeration of an outside threat may be instrumental, albeit in the short term, for boosting the potential for mobilization. Yet if the problem is to be tackled in the long term, the only way to tap its solution is to reestablish a consensus among the elites, build new relations between the state and society, increase the legitimacy of state power, and create a national ideology shared by the majority of the country.

Actions by representatives from all political parties are of critical importance in this sense and there should be more than a mere consensus. Politicians should share a basic number of common values, such as trust in the provisions of the constitution and a desire to translate them into practice. The only idea that makes up the political spectrum today is the attitude towards the existing system or, rather, towards the personalities who make up the system. Part of society demands that these leaders be replaced and the other part demands that they be kept, but neither position facilitates a meaningful elaboration of accord between the state and society.

The Russian Orthodox Church has taken on the role of another important actor that may have a say in establishing the ideological foundations of a new Russia. What we really need in this situation is to avoid excesses. We should remember that Russia is a multi-confessional country. Another deterring factor is the apprehension that the Russian Orthodox Church will become too strong vis-à-vis executive power if it plays the key role in molding a new shared ideological foundation for the state and society.

Second, recent events have shown that the decision-making process has become more sophisticated. Advancing pluralism in society and increasing social activity will reinforce national institutional foundations, which will ensure the balance between various preferences. Democratic institutions and a clear division of power between them, stipulated by the constitution, will put restrictions on authoritarian tendencies and lay the foundation for a new public consensus. In turn, this means the decision-making process will become more sophisticated and, consequently, a more intricate mechanism for formulating foreign policy will have to emerge.

Third, there is an increasing differentiation in the sphere of business interests. Industries that produce raw materials are still significant. This refers particularly to the oil and gas sector where a new phase of consolidation has begun. Simultaneously, other industries whose status was elevated by President Dmitry Medvedev’s modernization agenda are moving to the forefront. Considering the strengthening of this policy course (including plans for the transformation of the Commission for the Modernization and Technological Development of the Economy into a council that reports to the president), these industries (energy efficiency technologies, the nuclear power industry, telecommunications, aerospace, and medicine) will receive assistance and privileged positions in the future. Small and mid-sized businesses and the farming sector are also lobbying for their interests, especially in the wake of Russia’s accession to the WTO. To sum up, the degree of pluralism is growing in this sphere as well.

Along with this, competition among various types of business will increase, since Russia promotes economic pragmatism as it seeks to participate in the global contest of values. Moscow’s concept of modernization that emphasizes technological innovation over political reform is quite illustrative in this sense (a debate on this issue is unfolding between the EU and Russia).

In summary, the aforementioned three theses make the formulation of Russian foreign policy a more difficult process. In other words, the second component of neoclassical realism research (a sophisticated interaction between the state and society, and complex institutional structures) is taking shape de facto. The essence of the mechanism transforming external impulses into diplomatic reality will be changing right before our eyes.

The ideological component is also changing. Executive power is losing its monopoly on determining the essence of events and national interests. So far this process has only involved domestic policy, and has taken the form of street protests and debate in the State Duma over certain bills. Yet this trend will inevitably spread to a discussion of Russia’s positions in the world, even more so that the normalization of political activity cannot be divided into foreign and domestic.

Is it possible to maintain economic cooperation with a country where large numbers of people are being arrested? Should economic interests or political priorities be placed at the top of the list? Should someone intervene in the domestic affairs of a sovereign country if human rights are being violated regularly? What will the consequences be of this decision for Russia and its neighboring countries? What businesses should be supported and how? The list of questions is open-ended and all of them will gradually involve a large number of people, not just the elite groups.

Similarly, an orientation towards Europe, the Eurasian Union, Asia, or the U.S. has a material and an ideological dimension. What matters is whether priority is given to economic or political rights, on the one hand, or to modernization manifested in technological innovation or the democratization of society, on the other.

In other words, the differentiation of society and its increased activity creates a pluralism of ideas and a growth of competition in the marketplace of ideas. It also has an immediate impact on the processes occurring in the state and in transforming systemic pressures into foreign policy (in Russia in this case). During the process the decisions made become increasingly unpredictable.

There is another consequence to the current increased civil activity of Russian society and the growing interest of the elites in articulating their demands; the lack of a commonly shared ideology makes it impossible for Russia to compete effectively in the marketplace of ideas. The lack of consensus deprives Russia of an instrument that is in the highest demand in today’s world. The problem is partly offset by disarray and puzzlement among Russia’s partners and/or competitors, and by the fact their ideologies do not deserve much trust either.

Thus, current events have made Russia a much more interesting subject for research about its foreign policy than it was only a year ago. The ideological component has become more complex, while the relationship between state and society, and the entire system of institutions have become more sophisticated. This empiric reality stimulates the demand for neoclassical realism.


The editors of the book on neoclassical realism in Europe, which I mentioned at the beginning of this article, proclaimed a return of realism to Europe (albeit in the form of neoclassical realism). They explain this by the multipolar world and believe that its properties can ostensibly be analyzed only with the aid of the oldest theory of international relations. I would add that one more reason for this renaissance is the growing chaos and unpredictability of the global environment. The return of realism to Europe means that focusing on the state and actors in general (in the framework of neo-institutionalism, constructivism, and discourse analysis) will be augmented with an analysis of the international environment and its systemic impact.

The arrival of neoclassical realism in the U.S., initially diagnosed by Gideon Rose, was of a fundamentally different nature. There it signaled a “return of the state” – with its ideological and structural elements, and the relationship between the state and society – to the sphere of international relations. The Americans analyze systemic factors all the time.

Russia resembles the New World in this sense. Realism came to Russia – albeit in a primitive form – a long time ago, while the arrival of neoclassical realism is a result of internal political realities: the ramification of relations between the state and society, an increase in the heterogeneity of the latter, demands to develop institutions, and the intensification of ideological competition.

In the U.S., neoclassical realism arose due to theoretical need, not because of empirics. The U.S. and Russia alike will have to pay more attention to institutional aspects, identity problems, and the role of ideas in the analysis of foreign policy. There is no question that this will be a thorny path.

One can even mention a return of Russian research in international relations to the European track if, of course, the journey ends with the assimilation of neo-institutional and constructivist paradigms and the appropriate instruments for analysis. In any case, the complications of reality will also demand improvements to the field of international relations and analysis of foreign policy decision-making in Russia.