Mistaking Realism for Idealism

This academic year, I’ve been wondering why IR students frequently develop the mistaken belief that they are realists (in the IR theory sense). I say mistaken belief because I think that some of them are not actually realists at all, and if they understood realism as an IR theory and political tradition better they would realise this too. There are clearly students who really are realists, who grasp the theory and believe that it provides a good account of what goes on in world politics – and fair enough. But a sizeable number of students seem to suffer from a sort of false consciousness in which they mistake their own views for the realist perspective.

Previously on the blog, I’ve described neo-realism as a squatter in IR theory textbooks and introductory courses – occupying the role of the power-politics theory of IR even though it is not a very good theory of power-politics. Some theory of power-politics probably needs to be part of the debate in any academic discussion of international relations, and so neo-realism gets undue limelight because it is so familiar and so well-sedimented in teaching materials.  Some students latch onto neo-realism because it is the only theory of power-politics they are familiar with. The evidence for this is that such students tend to think that every power-political explanation is a neo-realist explanation (in fairness neo-realists have often tried to claim this, which led to accusations that neo-realism was a degenerating research programme) and that these students become confused when they are introduced to alternative theories such as Marxism that make very similar claims about the self-aggrandising nature of states.

I don’t think that this is the only reason why students think they are realists or neo-realists even when they might not be. This is because that I don’t think it’s just the specific claims about the operation of the balance of power, for example, that they would disagree with – but the underlying outlook and the normative and explanatory core at the heart of most realist perspectives. What students sometimes miss, I think, is that realism provides an endorsement rather than just a description of the use of power politics. To condemn a state’s behaviour as narrowly self-interested and power-seeking is to depart from a conventional realist perspective (although to condemn it as reckless is not). Realism doesn’t offer a critique of power politics: ruthless behavior is rational and necessary, given the way that the international system is organised.

It’s my hunch that a lot of students that think themselves realists are actually the opposite, they are outraged by the selfish use of power politics by major states – and again, this is an entirely reasonably position to hold. But mainstream IR realism doesn’t provide any foundations for this outrage, it offers a shrug and the insistence that this is the way that things have always been and always will be.

This conflation of realism and its opposite, idealism, is also why Noam Chomsky retains appeal and why he crops up to support ‘realist’ arguments in essays. Like many people encountering debates on international relations for the first time, he assumes that there is a robust framework of rights and duties beyond the state, and that self-aggrandisement is the product of the malfeasance of particular actors. Although Chomsky’s perspective anticipates that important states will act in a self-aggrandising power-political fashion, it is utterly different from mainstream IR realism in how it conceives of the international system. There’s not nothing in Chomsky’s viewpoint, just as there is something of value in some neo-realist arguments, but it’s a limited and reductionist perspective.

It’s not a Marxist or a critical materialist perspective either, as these perspectives reject the idea that the international system is governed by a set of universalistic legal principles that for some reason particular states keep trampling over. Rather, they hold that the rules are fixed from the very outset.

That Chomsky is unable to grasp this argument was revealed in a little spat with Matthew Yglesias from a few years ago that I missed at the time. Yglesias argued that many dubious actions of the US and other greater powers comply with international law, but that this is no great endorsement as these powers get to decide what international law is in the first place. Chomsky accused Yglesias of endorsing law-breaking by the US, to which Yglesias replied that Chomsky had missed the point and that the issue is that the deck is stacked – the US and others make the laws through the Security Council and through other means. Somewhat heroically, Chomsky misunderstood and misrepresented Yglesias again, presenting him as offering an endorsement of American law breaking. The fundamental problem is that Chomsky imagines that international law, and other norms and rules governing international relations, comply with what Chomsky would wish them to be. As Yglesias states, very clearly:

International law, as it exists, was not written by pacifists, political radicals, or grassroots communities in small or weak states. It was, rather, written by political elites who are not committed to pacifism or radical politics via a process in which militarily strong states have disproportionate weight. Therefore, people who are committed to pacifism or radical politics shouldn’t be surprised to find that the existing body of international law often fails to support their policy ideas.

Yglesias’s position is much closer to a critical perspective, but because it doesn’t conform to Chomsky’s idealism he misidentifies Yglesias’s argument as realist. For a realist, it really is silly and naive to think that great powers will (or should) submit themselves to the same rules that they impose on others.

So realist scholars are misidentified as idealists, idealists as realists, and critiques mistaken for apologias.


Posted on January 7, 2016, in international relations, international relations theory, political order, realism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I also missed the Chomsky-Yglesias exchange — just learned of it now from reading this post (though haven’t actually followed the links). Yglesias’ pt that intl law was not written by pacifists but at least partly reflects the interests of the great powers is correct; on the other hand, one might argue in reply that intl law is a mixture of different elements, and certain great powers have in the past violated it fairly often (and the US track record in this respect is mixed at best). That said, Chomsky and his admirers do seem to have too rose-colored a view of intl law and its origins, and I wouldn’t nec. count on Chomsky to perceive accurately what a ‘realist’ argument is.

    On the question of whether realism (broadly defined) not only describes but also endorses realpolitik state behavior: yes, but. The “but” wd be that some realists tend to present themselves as simply describing. However, there are almost always normative assumptions that are implicit when they aren’t explicit.

    Finally, just fyi, are you aware that Hendrik Spruyt jumped into the IR textbook business several years ago (just discovered this by chance, sort of, on Amazon)? I don’t know if his textbook is any good or wd suit yr needs, or even if you use an intro text in your teaching, but just thought I’d mention.

    (Haven’t read the previous post yet. Will get to it later.)

    p.s. There are some good things you can suggest to your students to help clarify for them the contours and the character of the realist ‘tradition’ (as I’m sure you know). Beyond the obvious ‘primary’ texts by the obvious names, there are some decent secondary surveys out there: e.g., Jack Donnelly, Realism and International Relations (2000); Michael J. Smith, Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger (1986); somewhat more narrowly U.S.-centric is Joel Rosenthal, Righteous Realists (1991). There is also a collection of ‘classic’ and other essays edited by James Der Derian, International Theory: Critical Investigations. And although I am not a particular fan of R.B.J. Walker myself — I find his somewhat meandering, throat-clearing, less-than-direct style often quite annoying — some of your students might like what he does in Inside/Outside. And then of course there are lot of more recent titles, but I don’t really keep up w the lit. Plus of course stuff in languages other than English, which I don’t try to and (except for French) can’t really keep up with.

  2. Last book mention: Robert Vitalis’s White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Cornell U.P., 2015) looks interesting on disciplinary history (though U.S.-centric, as the subtitle suggests).

  3. I’m not sure whether Chomsky would associate himself with realism in an IR sense, as someone with sympathies for anarchism I doubt he would find the Hobbist tradition appealing. But his arguments are sometimes assumed to be supportive of IR realist arguments by some students, which I really don’t think they are. With regards to the US and international law, I agree that there have been many instances when the US has violated widely-share international legal principles and gone against undertakings that it has made. But realism encourages scepticism towards the whole idea of international law, and one doesn’t need to fully endorse realism to agree that international law is of a very different character to domestic law and very much deficient in certain respects.

    I don’t think that realism is every merely descriptive, realist approaches attempt to explain why power-politics and cynical behaviour by states is the norm. The central contributions in the realist canon all claim that the use of realpolitik is rational and necessary. Furthermore, they claim that if states do generally behave in a narrowly self-interested, ruthless manner in the pursuit of power and/or security then any individual state must either conform to this pattern or place itself in jeopardy. So the descriptive, explanatory and prescriptive aspects of mainstream realism all fit together to identify power-political behaviour as normal in international relations.

    I don’t want to bash realism too much though, I don’t think realism necessarily involves an endrosement of militarism or the worship of power. Plenty of realists in the classical tradition of political theory have wrestled with the difficulties of reconciling the imperatives of real world politics and the demands of morality. There’s a strong tradition of opposing US adventurism in American realist scholarship, on the basis that power-political means should only ever be used in defence of the national interest strictly conceived. Scholars like Lebow and Bell have tried to revive realism in international political theory. There’s also an overlap between realist and critical approaches through the legacy of Machiavelli. So I don’t want to be dismissive, certainly not in the seminar room. But distinguishing Chomsky’s angry, disappointed idealism from the realism of Morgenthau and Waltz is something that I think IR students need to be capable of.

    I really like Donelly’s book, it makes some excellent arguments I’m a big fan of his generally. I don’t know the others, the history of realism that I am familiar with is Haslam’s No VIrtue Like Necessity. The Vitalis book sounds interesting, a lot of the founding myths of the discipline have been overturned in the last few years even though they linger on in the textbooks. Speaking of which, Spruyt’s textbook looks interesting.

  4. I think we’re mostly in agreement. I was using the word “describe” loosely with respect to realism to include explanation; my fault for being unclear. The only point I was trying to make there is that the prescriptive element in realism is not always presented openly (though sometimes it is).

    The overlap between realist and critical approaches through the legacy of Machiavelli might be an interesting topic for a post some time if you decided to elaborate on that a bit. I know there’s a Machiavelli-Gramsci link, to use a shorthand, and the IR Gramscians (Cox, Gill etc.) reference Machiavelli, I guess (it’s been quite a while since I’ve looked at any of that)

  5. Another thought on Chomsky — my impression of his views in recent years has come mostly from the comments of his admirer G. Scialabba (‘geo’) on Crooked Timber, and from those comments I’ve gathered that Chomsky takes something close to an economic-driven view of US foreign policy: i.e., its overriding aim is to serve the interests of US-based corporations. Of course a lot of other people think that and it’s partly true, but in geo’s comments at any rate it tends to crowd out everything else. That does not mean Chomsky’s a Marxist (for reasons you mentioned in the orig. post), but it does suggest some points of commonality.

  6. Maybe I was being pedantic, sorry. I think in fairness to Waltz and his immediate disciplines, unlike some other realist thinkers and practitioners from history, they did seem to express regret about the power political nature of international relations. They aren’t celebrating power politics, but endorsing it reluctantly as the only feasible option for states seeking to survive.

    The Machiavelli-Gramsci connection is the link I was thinking of, yes. But my understanding is that there is a broader interest in Vico and the wider tradition of Italian political thought iin contemporary critical theory. I haven’t looked in detail, but I might include some of it on the further reading list for my FPA course, which touches on the agency-structure debate. This is the sort of thing I was thinking of:

    I don’t think that a political economy view of foreign policy can be dismissed, although there is a simplistic version that crops up on comment threads according to which the US starts wars to sell more guns. The problem (okay, one of many problems) with those sort of arguments is that the burden of taxation falls on the upper middle classes, which makes US foreign policy a conspiracy at the expense of the bourgeoisie.

    But I think that political economy explanations deserve a fair hearing. The problem is they are rarely made in academic IR, left-leaning IR scholars tend towards constructivism or just work in IPE – where the claim that domestic economic interests drive policy is pretty uncontroversial as a viewpoint. Even Marxists tend not assert a direct link between political economy and security policy. I have Narizny’s ‘The Political Economy of Grand Strategy’ on my desk though, maybe there are arguments that could be applied to contemporary US foreign policy.

  7. Thanks for the link to the Devetak article, looks interesting. So does the Narizny book, in a different way.

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