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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.