Squandered Opportunity: Neoclassical Realism and Iranian Foreign Policy

Squandered Opportunity: Neoclassical Realism and Iranian Foreign Policy

by Thomas Juneau


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804793056
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 05/06/2015
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Thomas Juneau is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

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Squandered Opportunity

Neoclassical Realism and Iranian Foreign Policy

By Thomas Juneau


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9508-1


Neoclassical Realism

Neoclassical realism is a strand within the realist paradigm devoted to the development of rich accounts of foreign policy. It situates the chief determinant of state behavior at the level of the international system by arguing that relative power shapes intentions. It adds that to obtain more specific explanations of foreign policy, one must open the black box of the state and incorporate domestic-level variables that act as filters between systemic pressures and policy choices.

This chapter proposes a framework for a new variant of neoclassical realism that it labels neoclassical realist strategic analysis. The resulting applications to foreign policy puzzles locate themselves closer to the border between theory and practice and are more directly useful to readers seeking to better understand current foreign policy problems. The chapter begins by reviewing neoclassical realist literature. The second section then introduces the variant, with the objective of better developing its internal logic.


The ascendency of structural realism launched by Kenneth Waltz's Theory of International Politics in 1979 pushed realist scholarship toward the production of highly parsimonious accounts of international politics. Structural realism is not a theory of foreign policy: its dependent variables are aspects of international politics such as wars and the recurrence of the formation of balances of power. Much of structural realism is therefore characterized by a high degree of indeterminacy with regard to foreign policy: it explains how structural pressures and incentives push and pull states in certain directions, but it does not, and neither does it aim to, hold as its central object of study states' external behavior. Moreover, most structural realist studies feature a high level of abstraction, with a built-in bias favoring parsimony and generalizability at the expense of accuracy and specificity. But to those who "consume" the work of academics—government officials, diplomats, members of the media or of the business community, NGOs, and the general public—this twin focus on international outcomes and generality leaves unanswered a key question: how to explain "why state X made a certain move last Tuesday" (Waltz, 1979, p. 121). An abstract explanation of the European balance of power in the nineteenth century does not satisfy the immediate need for explanations of current foreign policy choices with which practitioners deal on a daily basis.

Neoclassical realism emerged in the 1990s as an attempt to remedy structural realism's focus on broad outcomes of international politics. Despite some efforts at reaching higher levels of accuracy, however, neoclassical realism remains geared toward the production of high-level, historical foreign policy case studies. While these have made a significant contribution to realism, there is another direction that neoclassical realism can take: toward the production of more detailed case studies of current foreign policy puzzles. Before developing the internal logic of the strategic analysis variant, however, it is necessary to trace the evolution of neoclassical realism to better situate how and why the strategic analysis variant is relevant.


Gideon Rose argues that because structural realism is a theory of international politics, "much of the daily stuff of international relations is left to be accounted for by theories of foreign policy." Whereas theories of international politics take as their dependent variable patterns of outcomes of state interaction, theories of foreign policy "seek to explain what states try to achieve in the external realm and when they try to achieve it" (1998, p. 145). Such theories, according to Rose, have been neglected by realists. In response, neoclassical realism draws upon "the rigor and theoretical insights of the neorealism (or structural realism) of Kenneth N. Waltz, Robert Gilpin, and others without sacrificing the practical insights about foreign policy and the complexity of statecraft found in the classical realism of Hans J. Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, Arnold Wolfers, and others" (Taliaferro et al., 2009, p. 4). According to neoclassical realists,

the scope and ambition of a country's foreign policy is driven first and foremost by its place in the international system and specifically by its relative power. This is why they are realist. They argue further, however, that the impact of power on foreign policy is indirect and complex, because systemic pressures must be translated through intervening levels at the unit level. This is why they are neoclassical. (Rose, 1998, p. 145)

Neoclassical realism proposes a causal chain with three steps: the independent variable (the state's relative power), the intervening variable (the domestic-level "transmission belt," through which systemic pressures are filtered), and the dependent variable, or foreign policy. Neoclassical realists indeed are left wanting by the assumption that states are unitary actors, whereby systemic pressures are directly translated into actions. In the long term, behavior usually converges with predictions based on structural factors. In the short term, however, divergences are common and are accounted for by domestic-level factors. These intervening variables that "channel, mediate and (re)direct" systemic pressures (Schweller, 2004, p. 164) represent one of the main innovations of neoclassical realism. The results, neoclassical realists claim, are more accurate—though more restricted in scope and less parsimonious—accounts of state behavior.

A debate has emerged in recent years over whether neoclassical realism should be viewed as a theory of mistakes or a theory of foreign policy. Proponents of the first view start from the premise that states are free to "do any fool thing they care to, but they are likely to be rewarded for behaviour that is responsive to structural pressures and punished for behaviour that is not" (Waltz, 2003, p. 53). The system points states in the direction of an optimal foreign policy, yet in practice, states regularly deviate from this ideal, pushed in other directions by domestic pathologies (Snyder, 1991). Brian Rathbun (2008) has thus argued that neoclassical realism is a theory of mistakes: it explains how domestic factors distract from a baseline, optimal foreign policy as understood by structural realism. According to the Rathbunian approach, neorealism provides a theory of optimal foreign policy; neoclassical realism is a logical and necessary extension that supplements structural realism with a theory of actual foreign policy.

Some analysts then use the optimal version of foreign policy to make policy recommendations. Even if such proposals are not achievable, they serve as yardsticks against which to assess a state's actual foreign policy and as blueprints for policies that can strive for this optimal outcome. Christopher Layne (2006) illustrates this approach by arguing that U.S. foreign policy since the 1940s has been based on a grand strategy of extraregional hegemony, an approach he considers mistaken. In his view, the United States should rather adopt a strategy of offshore balancing. He explains this mistaken grand strategy, or the deviation from the structurally induced ideal, by the intervention of domestic factors specific to the United States that he labels the "Open Door": the set of Wilsonian and liberal beliefs in free markets, democracy, and freedom that permeate U.S. policy-making.

Another approach, consistent with Rose's view of neoclassical realism as foreign policy analysis and further detailed by Lobell, Ripsman, and Taliaferro (2009), contents itself with explaining foreign policy puzzles. The Rosian approach faults structural realism for being underspecified. It agrees that power is the prime determinant of foreign policy. This does not, however, explain why states make certain decisions and not others; rather, it identifies a range of possible choices. Rosian neoclassical realists therefore integrate domestic variables in their causal chain to increase accuracy and specificity to explain the residual variance between structural realism's broad predictions and actual state conduct. This view thus eschews any discussion of suboptimality and is not well equipped to provide policy recommendations.

These two approaches form a spectrum, ranging from the Rathbunian ideal-type to the Rosian opposite. In addition to the Rosian/Rathbunian continuum, neoclassical realism encompasses various points along a second spectrum, that of specificity/accuracy versus generalizability/parsimony. All neoclassical realist works have two functions, explanatory and nomothetic: to explain foreign policy events and to contribute to theory building by proposing and testing generalizable hypotheses. At the specificity end, case studies contribute to the development of more contingent, less parsimonious laws, while the explanatory function has greater weight. At the generalizable end, the nomothetic goalgains in salience, while the explanatory function loses in accuracy. At the specificity end, instead of seeking to explain "a small number of big and important things" (Waltz, 1986, p. 329), neoclassical realism seeks to explain a large number (n) of smaller things (t). Neoclassical realism is flexible with this balance: some case studies seek a larger nof smaller ts, while others pursue a smaller n of larger ts. Neoclassical realist strategic analysis positions itself in the shaded area in the top portion of Figure 1.1, seeking greater specificity and accuracy (larger n, smaller t) than what much of neoclassical realism has done so far. It can include any form of research along the Rosian-Rathbunian spectrum.


Power, according to realists, is the main driver of foreign policy; that capabilities shape intentions is a core belief of realism. Neoclassical realism believes, moreover, that the link between capabilities and intentions is a starting point and not a rigid causal relationship. The relation between capabilities and intentions has been central to realist thought throughout the ages. Thucydides best articulated it when he argued that "the powerful do as they can and the weak suffer what they must" (1972). The shift in relative power between Athens and Sparta constrained each city-state's margin of maneuver; domestic factors—factions, individuals, political culture—then further specified choices. Hans Morgenthau did the most to put the law at the center of modern realist thought. For him, the second principle of political realism—interests defined in terms of power—explains "the astounding continuity in foreign policy," regardless of motives or ideology (1993, p. 5). Morgenthau therefore posited that the amount of "power available determines the limits of foreign policy" (p. 159). For example, because Britain has never been able to produce more than a fraction of its required food, keeping strategic sea lanes open has historically been a key interest.

Power thus shapes a range of parameters for state behavior, the context within which foreign policy can occur. A state's relative power shapes the boundaries or range of possible external actions, the margin of maneuver within which the state can act on the international scene. Power, however, is a necessary but not sufficient condition; how, why, and when a state makes decisions within this range, which specific strategies and tools it adopts, and with which consequences, is explained by the intervention of domestic variables. These intervening variables shape what is done within those parameters, narrowing the space for state action from the possible to the actual.


The concept of power is "perhaps the most fundamental in the whole of political science: the political process is the shaping, distribution, and exercise of power" (Lasswell and Kaplan, 1950, p. 75). Yet despite power's centrality, its definition remains contested. Beyond its definition, its measurement, its impact on politics, and the impact of politics on it are also contentious.

In International Relations, realists are known as the theorists of power politics. For Thucydides, "what made war inevitable [between Athens and Sparta] was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta" (Book I, 23). The first half of this proposition—that shifts in relative power lead to war—has since been claimed by realists as a founding tenet of the paradigm. The three key elements of power, according to Thucydides, are military, economic, and territorial (I, 1–19).

Contemporary classical realists have maintained power at the center of their explanations of international politics. E. H. Carr's conceptualization of power in The Twenty Years' Crisis (2001) is ambiguous, however. He argued that power could be divided into three categories. Military power is supremely important, since "the ultima ratio of power in international relations is war" (p. 102). Economic power also matters, though only "through its association with the military instrument" (p. 105). "Power over opinion," or the art of persuasion, is the third component. Power for Carr is an instrument but also an end in itself: states fight wars for the sake of acquiring power relative to their rivals (p. 104). Yet Carr is not consistent in his use of the term. That power can be both a means and an end is not problematic, as it is defensible to argue that states use power assets to acquire more power. On most occasions, he discusses power as the possession of assets that allow a state to seek influence. In other instances, however, Carr views power as a relation. In particular, power over opinion seems to refer to the ability of states to change the "opinion" of others through the use of instruments such as propaganda (p. 120).

For Morgenthau, international politics, "like all politics, is a struggle for power" (1993, p. 29). He proposed a more systematic analysis, but, as with Carr, there is ambiguity with his use of the term. He defines power as "man's control over the minds and actions of other men" and as a "psychological relation between those who exercise it and those over whom it is exercised" (p. 30). Yet Morgenthau also equates power with the possession of assets (ch. 9). These include tangible and intangible resources: geography, natural resources, industrial capacity, military preparedness, population, national character, national morale, the quality of diplomacy, and the quality of government.

Waltz's Theory of International Politics (1979, p. 131) marked a watershed by establishing the dominance of structural realism. Intriguingly, Waltz spent little time explaining how he conceived of power. He equates power with the possession of fungible material resources, which he lists as population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability, and competence. On this basis, he argues that it is possible to obtain a rough ranking of states' power; power is "simply the combined capability of a state" (1990, p. 36). Mearsheimer, the figurehead of offensive realism, is more specific: he views power as the possession of relative material capabilities. He distinguishes potential power, based on size of population and level of wealth, from actual power. The key component of actual power is a state's land forces; air and sea power and nuclear weapons matter to the extent that they support armies (2001, pp. 55–137). Defensive realists, finally, argue that the offense-defense balance, the "relative ease of aggression and defence against aggression," has a large effect on international outcomes (Van Evera, 1998, fn. 1). The offense-defense balance, for Van Evera, is an aggregate of military technology and doctrine, geography, social structure, and diplomatic arrangements (1998, pp. 16–22; see also Jervis, 1978; Glaser and Kaufmann, 1998).

Neoclassical realism builds on this tradition of power analysis. Although neoclassical realists have not offered a fundamentally different way to understand the concept, they have made refinements that have contributed to a more nuanced understanding of power and therefore of foreign policy. Overall, neoclassical realists conceptualize power in terms of the possession of specific assets and as a means to realize outcomes.

One of the key contributions of neoclassical realism has been to refine the distinction between potential and actual power. Many structural realists acknowledge this distinction but few discuss it in detail. Mearsheimer, arguably the most prominent realist to make the distinction, identifies this as the difference between latent and actual power. However, he proposes only a brief discussion of the efficiency of the conversion of wealth into power (2001, pp. 79–81), referring to a mobilizing function that transforms latent into actual military power (p. 62). He also accepts that states have different rates of success in translating latent into effective power, acknowledging that this is a process that structural realism cannot explain systematically (pp. 9–10). Neoclassical realists identify this as an important oversight. Zakaria (1998), Schweller (2006), and Taliaferro (2006) argue that a country's state apparatus cannot be assumed to have automatic access to all the nation's capabilities. The power that can be brought to bear in the pursuit of foreign policy—state power—is thus a function of what the state can extract from society's total resources, or national power. For Zakaria, U.S. foreign policy before 1889 was one of "imperial understretch" because the executive "presided over a weak, divided and decentralized government that presented [it] with little usable power" (p. 55). It was only when changes in state-society relations increased usable power that the state was able to adopt and implement a more expansive foreign policy.


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Table of Contents

Figures and Tables viii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 Neoclassical Realism 17

2 From Power to Foreign Policy: The Causal Chain 35

3 Power 55

4 Domestic Pathologies 81

5 Iran's Policy in Iraq 104

6 Iran and the Arab-Israeli Conflict 139

7 Iran's Nuclear Program 169

Conclusion 203

Notes 231

Bibliography 242

Index 263

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