This article aims at describing and analyzing the neo-realist theory with the focus on humanitarian aspects. In the first part of this article I will briefly present the theory of neo-realism in international relations and its major concepts and tenets. The second part of the paper will look into possible application of the given theory to humanitarian action. How humanitarianism could have been perceived in a neo-realist Cold War world and how it can be viewed in a rapidly changing post-Cold War world? What are the major implications of this theory for the humanitarian world? And how the neo-realist world influenced humanitarian action so far? The following questions will be addressed in the later parts of this article.

Theory overview

Neo-realism as a theoretical school in international relations has been first outlined by Kenneth Waltz in his book Theory of International Politics (1979). In essence neo-realism has been Waltz’s response to the famous Realism theory by Hans Morgentau (1948) and an attempt to update and modify the realist approach to international politics. The roots of realist thought rested on an assumption that the political order and the way states act on international arena are predicated by the human nature. Its main assumption derives from a human factor, i.e., human ambitions and aspiration driving the course of international politics.

Waltz, on the other hand, claimed that the current international system is an anarchic environment without any central power coordinating and regulating affairs among states. It is not a human nature but rather a systemic nature of the whole world that defines international politics. Each state is in a pursuit of personal gain and its actions on an international arena depend on its individual interests. In order to achieve its personal gains states may create alliances, but even within such alliances each state is only interested in achieving its own objectives. Anarchy of the international system is an order in itself. Concerned with its security and development each state is in constant competition with other states. Power is central in understanding the relations among states. Pursuit for power makes states to build up their arsenal, boost up economies and develop science and society. In a neo-realist world, the stronger the state, the less vulnerable it is on the international arena. Military and economic might are the major criteria for security and development, and achievement of these criteria is done by all possible means. War, in neo-realism, is inevitable. However, in a nuclear century, wars among the nuclear powers are unlikely to occur easily, since the states possessing nuclear weapons realize the consequences of such a war, and therefore, use nuclear arsenal as a means of deterrence and balance of powers.[1]

In a sense, neo-realism is a theory of balance, and the anarchy of international system, is an order rather than a condition of chaos. Balance of power is the only means to preserve peace:

“A state having too much power may scare other states into uniting against it and thus become less secure. A state having too little power may tempt other states to take advantage of it.”[2]

Neo-realism was born in a bipolar world, divided between the United States and the Soviet Union into two competing camps. According to Waltz, bipolar world was much safer for international peace than the multi-polar one. Both superpowers, although, competing and antagonizing each other, nevertheless, avoided the open ‘hot war’ by all means, anticipating that nuclear collision will damage both. Waltz, underlined the importance of bipolarity and nuclear deterrence: “Bipolarity offers a promise of peace; nuclear weapons reinforce the promise and make it a near guarantee.”[3] Noticeably, neo-realism is a theory of Cold-War, it works with the Cold War world, it is a theory of bipolarity, resting upon its fundamental claims that multi-polarity and unipolarity eventually lead to wars (World War I and World War II).

Neo-realism has endured multiple critiques and Waltz is ambiguous on the future of neo-realism in a unipolar world as he calls the current domination of the United States as the world’s only superpower. It has been argued that neo-realism has never stated the ‘reality’, i.e., states in the post-Cold War world have never pursued to maximize their security via military build up, instead most of the newly appeared states (after the collapse of Socialist bloc) are working to join international and regional organizations (European Union, NATO and World Trade Organization) rather than pursuing their optimal gains and competing with other states. Most of the developed democracies have long abandoned the development of defense policies and accumulation of arsenals.

Humanitarian action of the Cold War age

To the casual eye it may appear that the neo-realist world of anarchic international structure with every state pursuing its maximal interests could be of little help in analyzing humanitarian action. However, the signs of neo-realist behavior can be traced in humanitarian actions conducted by states and international organizations in the post-World War II Cold War era. Although there were no wars between the two main superpowers, as neo-realism explains, due to bipolar power balance and nuclear deterrence, there was no lack in wars among developing states, as well as intra-state conflicts. Most of armed conflicts took place on the Cold War battlefields, areas where the two superpowers of that age clashed indirectly in small peripheral proxy ‘hot’ wars. Expectedly, almost always either one of the warring sides, whether that was a conflict between two states or a state and a rebel group, had a direct or covert support of either of superpowers. Humanitarian interventions, in such conflicts were exacerbated by a necessity to interfere into an area of interest of either one of superpowers, the United States or the Soviet Union. Few were willing to do so.[4] Humanitarian crises largely had a life of their own: the majority of aid organizations entering proxy war areas had limited mandates. And some even had to work clandestinely, as it was the case with the Doctors without Borders (MSF) during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.[5] Hardly any state dared to intervene in superpowers’ area of influence in order to protect civilian population or alleviate humanitarian emergency. The Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-89) and the American war in Vietnam (1960-75) have both had multiple examples of human rights violations by the invading superpowers and humanitarian emergencies. However, no attempts were made by any sovereign state or international organization to intervene in force for the protection of civilian population.

It is not to say that there were no efforts to alleviate or stop armed conflicts during the Cold War era: there were scores of United Nations peacekeeping operations, primarily in Africa, but they all have been merely peacekeeping missions without any mandate to intervene into an armed conflict and even less so to violate the notion of sovereignty.[6] To be precise, such notion as an intervention to protect civilian population during an armed conflict was of little weight in the Cold War world. Most states on both sides of the Iron Curtain pursued their individual interests in international politics of the Cold War era. As a result a few were willing to commit their troops and finances, even as a part of the United Nations missions, unless a state had interests in the region.[7]

Interstate proxy wars in the Third World had little to do with the security and power enhancement of the state itself: they were largely wars for the sphere of influence between the two superpowers. Examples of such wars are the South African Border War of 1966-89 and the Ugandan-Tanzanian War (1978-79). Intrastate conflicts, on the other hand, can hardly find their place in neo-realist theory: the former is mostly an international relations theory. In contrast to classical realism theory, which tends to explain both domestic and international politics, neo-realism is a theory dealing with a state behavior on international political arena rather than intra-state politics.

In contrast to modern day state-conducted humanitarian action, which in most cases is not solely limited to service delivery, i.e., alleviation of physical needs of affected population, but also concerns human rights and freedoms, as well as advocacy and long-term development, state-run humanitarian action of the Cold War age had an air of selective service delivery. It often took a shape of development aid packages and assistance programs, which superpowers channeled to their ideological allies and ‘neutrals.’ Soviet system of loans and aid packages, initiated in the mid 1950s,[8] although not of purely humanitarian nature, was directed at development and support of ‘neutral’ regimes. International community was undoubtedly willing to assist conflict affected nations, but carefully avoided military interventions, on a scale of 1999 Kosovo campaign or 2011 Libya intervention, particularly if such an action could possibly serve as a provocation to either of superpowers. The Korean War (1950-53) was one of a few examples where superpowers and their allies were dangerously close to crossing the line of Cold War boundaries of intervention.

In the long run, state-sponsored humanitarianism of the Cold War era was largely based on individual interests of states and its scales often depended on spheres of influence and strength of alliances. In contrast to modern state humanitarian action with its strong emphasis on human rights and liberties, humanitarian action of the Cold War period could be considered as purely neo-realist. Responsibility to protect, a term widely accepted in our days, was mostly understood through the lens of arms race and superpower competition.

Modern humanitarianism

The end of Cold War and the collapse of socialist bloc drastically changed political environment of the world. In a ‘New World Order’, the old tenets of neo-realism began to lose their explanatory power. There was no longer bipolar competition and humanitarian interventions began in earnest. However, even in a post-Cold war world we can easily trace neo-realist behavior of states in their patterns of intervening in conflicts. Examples of self-interested and individualistic behavior of states in humanitarian interventions are plenty: genocide in Rwanda has seen little action from international community as few had any stakes in intervening into the conflict, unwillingness to persecute the Iraqi regime for using chemical weapons against Kurds in 1980s (as long as Saddam was an American ally). International community failed to intervene in the Darfur genocide at its early stages.[9] Nevertheless, an intervention took place in Kosovo, although the scales of two conflicts are incomparable.

Humanitarian actions became more frequent since the end of Cold War. Regardless of that, states’ behavior in modern humanitarian interventions remains dependent on the stakes and interests of individual participants. In contrast to the Cold War world, humanitarianism of today is more likely to resort on direct intervention, but the latter is still can be own-interest based. Protection of civilian population from human rights abuses or violent conflicts is used more and more in a context of foreign military interventions. However, as it used to be in the Cold War age, there are ‘attractive’ and less ‘attractive’ conflicts. Prolonged civil war and failed state in Somalia serves as an example of a typical quack-mire conflict for which few are willing to commit their resources and troops. The plight of civilian population in Somalia has failed to attract international attention in comparison to notorious piracy problem off the coast of Somalia (as well as in the Indian Ocean in general). Ethiopian and ensuing African Union (AU) interventions in Somalia have had little success in protecting civilian population affected by the conflict and the AU mission in Somalia receives only a limited support. Despite of the increasing awareness by the international community that the piracy problem is closely related to instability and failed-state problem in Somalia, neither individual Western states nor international organizations are willing to intervene in Somalia’s conflict.

However, the changes are also obvious. Responsibility to protect is more than just a notion in a modern humanitarian world and international community is ready and willing to engage in conflicts. The notion of sovereignty that previously loomed over the concept of humanitarian intervention and limited most of its missions of protecting civilians to a few peace-keeping units with a mandate of separating combatants rather than protecting the population, is no longer of primary concern.

The nature and mentality of neo-realist ideology in modern humanitarian world have been transformed. Nonetheless, in a nutshell neo-realism is far from extinction in international affairs and in humanitarian world. The superpowers of today, a.k.a. members of the UN Security Council, are still enjoying the status of privileged. The US invasion of Iraq in 2004 and human rights violations committed by invading forces, as well as Russia’s endless wars in Chechnya and the North Caucasus resulting in a great suffering of civilian population and the Chinese use of force in Tibet have all been beyond the ‘responsibility to protect.’

In contrast to the behavior of states, aid organizations have been more of ‘true’ humanitarians and mostly followed notions of neutrality, impartiality and independence. With the end of Cold War the above principles became even more valid and powerful in humanitarian work. With that in mind, neo-realist spirit is not easy noticeable in the work of humanitarian organizations. However, some facts still point to the presence of interest-based survivalist trends of aid groups. Similar to states, aid agencies are keen to focus on ‘attractive’ for donors’ crises, such as 2004 Tsunami, while often overlooking the ones, which are likely to be of lower interest for financial support, for instance armed conflicts in the North Caucasus. The end of humanitarian aid to North Caucasus, announced by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2007,[10] despite of ongoing armed conflict and thousands of IDPs in the region, can be assumed to have been influenced by Russia’s pressure. In a complex world of humanitarian politics it is at times difficult to spot and even more difficult to prove self-interested policies of aid organizations and individual states. Moreover, such actions can always be explained by a multitude of other than neo-realist factors and interpretations. To be precise, there is no perfect example of a neo-realist attitude in world politics and in humanitarian world.

It is dubious if Waltz ever intended his theory to survive beyond the Cold War era, and adaptations of neo-realism to the “New World Order” are often far from the original tenets of the theory. It is arguable if neo-realism can be regarded as one of the approaches to describe and analyze the modern humanitarian movement. Regardless of international system, i.e., bipolar, unipolar or multipolar, nation states will expectedly continue to act on their own national interests. They might come to assist a humanitarian crisis as a part of whatever alliance or union, but their very participation in that alliance will likely to be predicated by their national interests. It is not to say that impartial and neutral humanitarian assistance is totally out of place. On the other hand, there was and likely there will be humanitarian interventions and acts by the states based entirely on the need principle and with no strings attached. As neo-realism assumes, the main powers on international arena do not act based on altruist motivations and therefore, state-run humanitarian action is likely to remain largely interest dependent.

However, neo-realism had little effect on humanitarian assistance in natural disasters. Disaster relief and rehabilitation aid generally did not have political implications, even in the times of Cold War. This can be seen on an example of Spitak 1988 earthquake in Armenia, during which material and financial aid poured from every part of the world, including the United States, regardless of political ideology. In contrast to man-made crises, natural disasters have traditionally remained an area significantly distinct from humanitarian action in wars, conflicts and political violence. Not only short-term, but also non-violent humanitarian interventions in disaster areas can hardly be used as tool of foreign politics even during the fierce competition for influence between the two superpowers of the Cold War.


There might be other ways to describe humanitarian assistance from the neo-realist point of view. I do not exclude that there might be a multiplicity of variables in defining a particular humanitarian action from a neo-realist perspective and the theory has a broad range of dimensions that can be applied to both state and organizations’ behavior.

One of the main implications of neo-realism for humanitarian action is its explanatory base that can be utilized by humanitarian analysts to predict behavior of states or international organizations and in some cases aid agencies in international politics. Neo-realism is, first of all, an international relations theory and thus we can expect to get the most of it if applied to a macro-level state affairs analysis.

Application of neo-realist theory to humanitarian action brings us to a following set of conclusions:

First, humanitarian assistance conducted by individual states is often driven by self-interest. In spite of the transition from the Cold War’s cautious, limited and selective humanitarian interventions and assistance, the ‘New World Order’ humanitarianism is still far from being neutral and need-based. Modern humanitarian interventions are more likely to rely on military force to protect civilian population and are more focused on long-term development, post-conflict rehabilitation and reconciliation. Nevertheless, both individual states and international organizations remain selective in their choice of conflicts and cautious to intervene.

Second, aid agencies, rather than individual states, are expectedly more prone to conduct impartial and neutral humanitarian assistance. NGOs and international aid organizations can fall victims to individualistic behavior of powerful states and they too are often selective in their choice of crises in order to secure the donor and public interest and support. Unwittingly or not, aid agencies are easy to deviate from their path of impartial, neutral and independent aid delivery while being entangled in a web of international politics, which inevitably surround humanitarian action.

Third, neo-realist principles can hardly be found in natural disaster aid assistance. In contrast to man-made crises, natural disasters are unlikely to serve political interests of states and unlike conflicts cannot be used as tools in international politics.

The lessons that modern aid providers can learn from the theory of neo-realism is, first of all, its primary emphasis on self-interested and rational nature of politics and its major players: states, international organizations and corporations. Understanding the world of neo-realism can be an asset in successfully following principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence in humanitarian world.


[1] Waltz, K, Theory of International Politics, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.,1979, p.8-15.

[2] Waltz, K, Guest Essay- Neorealism – Confusions and Criticisms, Journal of Politics & Society, vol. 15, 2004, pp. 2-6, p. 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Yanacopulos, H., Hanlon, J 2008, Civil War, Civil Peace, James Currey, Oxford, Ohio University Press, Open University UK, Milton Keynes, p. 50.

[5] MSF in Afghanistan, at (retrieved on 01.05.2011).

[6] Yanacopulos, H., Hanlon, J 2008, Civil War, Civil Peace, James Currey, Oxford, Ohio University Press, Open University UK, Milton Keynes, p. 52.

[7] Ibid, p. 53.

[8] Reshetar, J., S. 1995, The Soviet Union and the Neutralist World, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science November 1965 vol. 362 no. 1 102-112.

[9] Grono, Nick 2006, Darfur: The International Community’s Failure to Protect, African Affairs, 30 Sept.

[10] Red Cross to end humanitarian aid to North Caucasus, Trend Analytical News Agency, 24.10.2007, at (retrieved on 01.05.2011).

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