The Realist bogeyman

Everyone likes to shoot the messenger and nobody likes to hear “I told you so”

Artillery Row

You may not have noticed, but the war in Ukraine has prompted yet another round of western academic feuding over Realism. Bear with me — this matters more than you might think. Realists see international relations (IR) as anarchic, inherently war-prone and competitive. The perspective has always had haters — name a consequential tradition that hasn’t — but the hostility has visibly grown, especially since February 2022.

For Tooze, realism has its lineage in fascist or pseudo-fascist genealogies

Leading IR scholar and realist Stephen Walt argues that people loathe realism for largely political reasons. They dislike its pessimism about the human condition, trapped tragically to be insecure in a world without a protective Leviathan to ensure their safety. They assume, wrongly, that because realists emphasise hard and especially military power, they are therefore war hawks, equivalent with that atypical architect of brutal and amoral realpolitik, Henry Kissinger. They resent the alleged amorality of realism. And they dislike realists’ resistance to the notion of American exceptionalism, in a country where the language of exceptionalism is so pronounced.

Overnight, a number of academic and think-tank critics have pushed back. The issue, they argue, is not political but methodological. They object to realism because, for them, while a general pessimistic tradition about the world is reasonable, beyond that it is a junk theory, or family of theories.

They find realism indeterminate (that is, lacking any precise predictions about state behaviour); rigid, in its incapacity to account for a wide range of state behaviour (given rulers range from Jacinda Ardern to Vladimir Putin); and its mixing of “is” and “ought questions”, purporting to rigorous social-scientific explanation, while smuggling in value-judgements. 

I think they are wrong. These objections are real, to be sure. But they are not the main engine of anti-realist resentment, whether within the academy or beyond.

It may be true that most hatreds are methodological. But there is a non-trivial strain of critique, if not hatred, that is normative. Some folks oppose it for being, as they see it, retrograde and offensive.

For instance, there is a recent line of argument from the historian Matthew Specter, buttressed by the economic historian and polymath Adam Tooze, that traces realism’s roots to a dark, German-American geopolitics of the 19th and 20th centuries.

For Tooze, realism (his main target is John Mearsheimer, too often treated as the only brand of the tradition) has its lineage in fascist or pseudo-fascist genealogies. Specifically, its ancestry can be traced to the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt.

Critics of this stable allege that modern realism’s claim to be part of an ancient intellectual tradition is largely an affectation. In fact, they argue, it is historically only a recent & sinister assemblage of thought, intended to naturalise projects of imperial domination.

Realists don’t, of course, regard war as abnormal or aberrant

This argument is overblown, and indeed forms a rash construction of its own, based on an excessive inference from Schmitt, via the bridging figure of the Chicago realist Hans Morgenthau, to Mearsheimer. It’s also an association game one can play with any tradition. Consider, for instance, the close associations of British suffragette feminism, or one wing of it, with war recruitment & fascism.

Also, it wildly oversimplifies realism’s relationship with war. Tooze ends his critique by calling for an international system and attendant IR theory that treats war as a “radical and perilous act”. Well, part of that proposition lies at the core of most realist theory.

The émigré intellectuals who fled European fascism helped found and formulate American realism, like Morgenthau or Brzezinski. They objected to what they saw as the naïve Wilsonianism of American IR at its inception — with their enthusiasm for international institutions or other transformative devices such as the outlawing of war. They warned that this progressive optimism and its schemes could not guard against totalitarian menaces. Their watchword was not war, but deterrence & preparation. Flawed or not, they offer(ed) a theory of peace.

Realists don’t, of course, regard war as abnormal or aberrant. To the contrary, they mostly expect war’s recurrence and therefore stress the need to organise foreign and defence policy as a preparation of it, principally to deter it. But they mostly also fear it as perilous, lethal and chaotic, from Thucydides onwards.

As argued by the likes of Richard Betts, an under-celebrated realist of our time, realists often have a hawkish view of the defences a country needs, but a narrow, cautious and fearful view of using it. An aversion to a messianic, crusading and expansive view of war, and security-seeking, is part of realism’s canon. So is a pessimistic view that large states tend to insist on maintaining their regional spheres, reasonably or not. 

Which brings us to Ukraine today, and Russia’s invasion.

The backdrop for this recent (2022) revival in attacking realism’s roots is a frustration, at times rage, against realists for arguing that the West inadvertently contributed to the wider crisis out of which the current catastrophe sprang.

Realism offends people who are primarily moralists

This offends people because it seems too indulgent of Russian aggression, the force realists forewarned western enlargement, de facto if not formal, could help attract. As it happens, many realists (including yours truly) support bleeding Russia in Ukraine, to reduce its ability to threaten NATO, while arguing Europe should be taking the lead. These are not contradictory positions. Warning in advance of a bushfire, and the conditions that create a bushfire, does not preclude acting to extinguish it. But the anger persists.

Realism offends people who are primarily moralists. And moralism in the west intensifies in a time of war, even if we are not fighting directly. Moralism, in this case, is the conceit that interests and values, rightness and prudence can all be harmonised. It opposes the suggestion of tradeoffs, compromises or limits. 

Moralism suggests that only good actors can legitimately feel externally threatened. Through moralist eyes, trying to imagine how a malign actor — like the Putin regime — sees things, and believing there is a reactive element to its behaviour, is tantamount to aligning with that actor. Never mind that some of the sternest opponents of NATO enlargement were George Kennan, Brent Scowcroft and Robert Gates, not exactly apologists for Russian imperialism. 

While some observers reasonably and legitimately argue that Putin’s aggression is primarily self-directed, or driven by his regime’s response to domestic politics, or is just imperial aggrandisement, those most aggravated against realism have a distinct complaint.

They reason that even if Russia genuinely was scared of western encroachment on its borders (on its terms), and driven by reactive security seeking, it had no right to be. It’s a wicked, murderous regime, and any explanation that goes beyond evil is wrongly indulgent.

Moreover, they argue, any fear of the EU, NATO or the West in general is so unreasonable that it does not deserve recognition as a cause. Surely Moscow ought to have realised that our intentions are not only benign, but clear and unchanging?

Realists disagree with all of this. The point here is not to relitigate the argument. Rather, it is to say that the reaction against realism this year in academic IR is not primarily driven by a beef about methodology, logic, indeterminacy or tautology. It’s about how we see the world, and how we secure ourselves.

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