What assumptions about international politics are shared by neo-liberals and neo-realists? What are the significant differences between these two theories?
In the International Relations mainstream debate between neo-liberals and neo-realists, many of their key assumptions in epistemological term overlap with each others’ including assumptions about anarchy and the role of the state, but the neos differ quite significantly in the interpretive perspectives, especially in viewing globalization and “complex interdependence.”
As Robert Cox suggested, neo-liberalism and neo-realism are both “problem-solving theories”, apparently differentiated from “critical theory” which questions the process of theorizing or system itself. This means that the neo-neo debate (an intra-paradigm one) is not about challenging the established structure of international relations, but about solving the problems deriving from the structure (or regime) while maintaining the status quo. Unlike traditional liberals, neo-liberals actually agree that the structure of international system is by nature anarchic, and acknowledge the state as an important actor of IR that behaves rationally—in other words, seeks to maximize the value (or profit) egoistically. One might say that these kinds of “shared assumptions” brought the neos together in the so-called neo-neo synthesis. They perceive the world quite similarly; they just have different answers.
Then, what is the major difference between the neos? Neoliberals accept the concept of anarchy, and agree that the anarchic structure shapes the self-help behavior of a state in international relations, resulting in harsh conditions for the cooperation. But unlike neo-realists who expect competitive and conflictive outcomes between these relative-gain-sensitive states, neo-liberals assume that the states will be able to cooperate with each other or even shift loyalty and resources to institutions if seen as mutually beneficial, seeking “absolute gains”. The neos respectively emphasize different aspects of international politics. Neo-realists argue that anarchy forces states to be preoccupied with relative power, security, and survival in a competitive international system, while neo-liberals are concerned with non-military subjects such as international political economy, environmental issues and human security. Accordingly, neo-realists emphasize the capabilities (mostly hard power) of the state, while neo-liberals say the intentions and preferences of the state are more important factors.
Even though both neos agree on the role of the state as a “major actor” in international politics, neo-realists tend to cling on to the idea more tightly. With the course of globalization and rise of non-governmental IR actors, neo-liberals believe that the formerly unchallenged supreme status of the state as an IR actor is being threatened. In a globalized world, neo-liberals say, international politics does not simply deal with ‘inter-national’ relations, but also deals with the “complex interdependence” between states, transnational corporations, NGOs, international organizations, etc. Neo-liberal Institutionalists such as Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye argues that this complex interdependence between states and other non-governmental actors create an opportunity for global governance with multilateral channels and institutions; globalization for them is a good thing, since it not only increases the interconnectivity between governments, but also strengthens the linkages between national governments and non-governmental actors.
On the other hand, neo-realists are quite skeptical on the improvement in international cooperation whether intergovernmental or not, because they believe that egoistic, relative-power-seeking states would not yield any kind of sovereign rights willingly for the sake of cooperation. Neo-realists do acknowledge that globalization has brought about complex interdependence in world politics. But while neo-liberals argue that complex interdependence show in the form of “sensitivity interdependence” rather than “vulnerability interdependence”, neo-realists claim that it is in fact other way around. They believe that interdependence between actors does not lead to coordination, but only arouses security dilemma. Globalization for neo-realists means a whole new phase of security challenge resulted from uneven development, inequality and regional conflict. In addition, since neo-realists assume the bipolar hegemony to be the most stable political structure, unilateral globalization—or as some may call “Americanization”—leads inevitably to conflicts.