Skip to content

Old School realism and the problem of society

August 12, 2011

The ongoing debate between Dan Drezner and Anne-Marie Slaughter, two of the online US foreign policy community’s leading lights, is an excellent one. Not only is there an attempt to present foreign policy differences which do matter, but are not often enough fleshed out, but it gives me a chance to bore you all with a pedantic discussion of the intellectual history of international relations. Now, granted, one aspect of this discussion has been the problem of strawman explanations of IR theory, so I’ll try not to stray too far from my lane and talk about realism, rather than IR theory generally.

Here’s the part of Slaughter’s piece that I first found problematic:

Of course, Kissinger and his adherents know that many other important actors and forces exist in international relations — as a descriptive matter. But the whole point of realism, as every first year IR student knows, is that structural realism (the school that holds as its bible Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State, and War) says that international relations analysts can treat the world as if it were composed only of states pursuing their power-based interests. It’s a model that does not conform to observed reality but that focuses on the long-term structural forces that ultimately determine the course of events once the ephemera of what we seem to see is swept away. It is that reductionism (although rarely as stark as Waltz’s particular brand) that makes realism so appealing as usable technology for foreign policy analysts and decision-makers.

There is a going assumption that realism is overly concerned with states and does not think that non-state groups or threats really matter. This might hold up for Waltz, who is infamous for being a “black box” theorist of international relations, who treats states as billiard balls. This is not entirely fair to Waltz, but structural realism in general does have a problem with over-determining state actions from the basic international condition of anarchy [1]. Waltz cares about states because states, in the time periods he examines, are the primary bearers of power. Power, not the state, is likely the more long-standing differentiation between the liberal/idealist and realist schools of international affairs. Realists generally care more about who has power, and particularly coercive power, because in the realist view, it is the power to control – not to collaborate, connect, or convince – which is the final arbiter and source of other forms of  socio-political-economic behavior.

For most of the history of thinkers identified with realism, the state did not exist, nor did the conception of the state as a unitary actor. Thucydides, long identified as one of the fathers of Western realism, was not a Waltzian structural realist in the slightest. As most early realists did, he cited the origins of political behavior in irrational and rational drives, which originate in the hearts and minds of men. There were no states in Thucydides’s day, but city-states, empires, and various other forms of political organization which did not survive to the present day. Thus one had to be quite conscious not just of particular parties and factions, but even individuals, who, in a polis such as Athens could completely upturn the designs of the Athenian state. In his description of the varying governments and systems of organization at play, Thuycdides actually shows a keen awareness of how regime types and the social composition can influence international politics, but only insofar as it involves the exercise of power. The exchange of goods, culture, and ideas matters far less to him. Slaughter does offhand mention that an Avian flu could kill far more than a war and be more likely. Interestingly enough, the plague of Athens does play an important role in Thucydides’s history:

And the great licentiousness, which also in other kinds was used in the city, began at first from this disease. For that which a man before would dissemble and not acknowledge to be done for voluptuousness, he durst now do freely, seeing before his eyes such quick revolution, of the rich dying and men worth nothing inheriting their estates. Insomuch as they justified a speedy fruition of their goods even for their pleasure, as men that thought they held their lives but by the day. As for pains, no man was forward in any action of honour to take any because they thought it uncertain whether they should die or not before they achieved it. But what any man knew to be delightful and to be profitable to pleasure, that was made both profitable and honourable. Neither the fear of the gods nor laws of men awed any man, not the former because they concluded it was alike to worship or not worship from seeing that alike they all perished, nor the latter because no man expected that lives would last till he received punishment of his crimes by judgment. But they thought there was now over their heads some far greater judgment decreed against them before which fell, they thought to enjoy some little part of their lives.

Here we have an assessment of a non-state threat’s impact on social class, the religious practices of average men and their role in the “great licentiousness” which comes to characterize Athenian behavior. When Thucydides speaks of the “fear of the gods” and “laws of men” no longer striking any fear, one can already anticipate the Athenian speech to the Melians and the capricious aggression that marked the Sicilian expedition, and, ultimately, the fall of Athens itself. There is no contradiction between the muddying of international and domestic, state and citizenship because polis, in addition to referring to both the “unit” of politics, also referred to the body of the citizens itself.

There is another important distinction that we find in Thucydides, though, which continues throughout realist thought, and that is a skepticism about the role of such “non-state,” or “non-governing” interests and groups wielding power. Thucydides was a skeptic of Athenian democracy precisely because the exercise of power, when delivered into the hands of the licentious, the ruthless, and the demagogues, failed. It lost measure in its action and the war itself.

This pessimism about the dangers of those lacking political virtue, or restraint of their passions, from acquiring power colors, in one way or another, much of the subsequent 2,500 years of realist thought. Ultimately, the interactions and aims of the various interest groups that Slaughter describes, and Drezner dismissed, are not necessarily prescriptively ignored but the subjects of active disdain, fear, and scorn.

Hobbes’s basic pessimism about human passions in the absence of adequate political restraint reinforced the later IR realist school’s negative opinions of non-state factors. Here we are at the dawn of the modern state, and political and international theory are not yet separate. In the Hobbesian view, alternate sources of authority and political power within the state needed to be eliminated, and the people put in awe to a common power. Hobbes summed it up in De Cive thus:

To speak impartially, both sayings are very true; That Man to Man is a kind of God; and that Man to Man is an arrant Wolfe. The first is true, if we compare Citizens amongst themselves; and the second, if we compare Cities.

To break down that order and power which allows those “non-state” actors to interact peaceably is to invite the worst behaviors of the international realm, and indeed compound upon them, for civil war breaks down even the bond among citizens that might mitigate the suffering of war against another city. The solution to homo homini lupus is homo magnus. The identification of the state as homo magnus and a “mortal God” marks the beginning of its exaltation in what would become IR theory. The state succeeds the city-state and empire as the basic unit of order because it best exercises power and order over the people, and it best provides for the defense of the citizenry against external threats. The possibility of groups not in awe of the state or the interests required for its survival are thus doubly dangerous.

Kissinger was both acutely aware and concerned about the possibility of such groups emerging to seize control of the machinery of state, or at the very least, disrupt its actions. Rather than referring to Waltz and his Man, the State, and War as the cipher for Kissinger’s thought, it would be better to examine his roughly contemporary (1954, versus Waltz’s 1959) A World Restored. Waltz’s work was the outgrowth of his doctoral dissertation, so was Kissinger’s. They demonstrate very different concerns. Kissinger’s work was about the effort not just to restore order among states, but order within them. The subject and, in effect, protagonist, is Metternich, the conservative ruler seeking to protect an Austrian Empire extremely vulnerable to the forces of revolution, nationalism, and liberalism from the chaos the French Revolution and its progeny, Napoleon, unleashed. Kissinger, along with Metternich, was very aware of the possibility of power being wielded outside the state. He assumed loyalty to the state not because it was the only body which mattered, but because, as the locus of coercive power, it was now the only institution which could doubly guarantee order on the international and internal level. Previously, the Church had aspired to that role, and the wars of religion in Europe demonstrated its failure in the eyes of later political theorists. Replacing that complexio oppositorium of the Church with the mortal god of the state seemed particularly appealing after the plagues of new faiths and new political ideologies.

So it seemed again when World War I had broken out and realism was nearly discredited in the eyes of some of the first genuine international relations theorists. However, the most potent non-state actors at this time were not civil society but rather the revolutionary parties and factions seeking to overthrow society and the state and rectify the disappointments of war and peace alike. It was in this context, as the Russian Empire re-emerged under communism and Germany began to reconstitute itself under Nazism, that Kissinger, along with a host of other realists, formed their opinions. In 1922, Carl Schmitt in his Political Theology wrote that “All genuine political theories presuppose man to be evil.” This assumption, if sweeping, at least captures the tone of realist political thought through that time. People were evil, but the state restrained that evil. The greatest danger came from allowing political, economic, or social issues to rise to the level of politics, which for Schmitt, meant violence and coercion. He and other Weimar-era theorists were very aware of the potential for non-state groups to achieve political power, but because realists see politics as power, and power as, at its root, coercion and coercive potential, they paid far more attention to international movements which demanded “criminalization” of normal political behavior (in Schmitt’s eyes, war), class warfare, or a revolutionary ideology with universal aspirations.

Morgenthau (himself partially responsible for that defining work of Schmitt’s, Concept of the Political) fled Germany, as did Kissinger. Plenty of other realists, not all necessarily academic scholars, fled from inter-war Europe. Among them were the geopoliticians Robert Strausz-Hupe and Nicholas Spykman [2]. Many of the Anglo-American realist thinkers were also very skeptical of non-state forces attempting to seek power. E.H. Carr was likely the most pro-Soviet of the realists, but mainly because he admired the power-political skill of Stalin. George F. Kennan had his own reactionary streak, as this blog has often discussed. His objection to democracy explains his opposition to the empowerment of non-state entities in politics. In 1968, he explained that:

“Gibbon’s dictum ‘Under a democratical government the citizens exercise the powers of sovereignty; and those powers will be first abused, and afterwards lost, if they are committed to an unwieldy multitude’ has lain at the heart of my political philosophy.”

This was one of the more politically correct instances of Kennan’s anti-democratic streak, being at least aristocratically liberal. His other outbursts were downright authoritarian, racist or sexist. Kennan was not a man of his times, and fully acknowledged a loyalty to the 19th or even 18th century, when the elevation of the state was not a usefully Waltzian assumption to build a socially scientific, parsimonious theory, but part and parcel of an ideology which prized power in the determination of interests, values, and social politics. Kennan and other realists distrusted “society,” in its present incarnation, at least, with foreign policy or policy generally precisely because if they wielded power they might lead to unnecessary war or worse, the breakdown of order.

Of course, when American social science realism gained the ascendance, it did much to free realism from its dictatorial reputation, while opening it to new lines of criticism. Kissinger left the academy to become engrossed in the world of policy, where his mode of thinking had major effects on American politics. Nevertheless his actions in the Nixon administration speaks to a distrust and fear of sources of political power outside the state. Morgenthau ended up embracing many of the core tenets of American liberal democracy, as LFC points out, but still with a Tocquevillian concern about the pressures of “conformity” and an anti-positivistic streak about the dangers of modern technological society. Happily, unlike Kennan, he became an advocate of civil rights. Nevertheless he identified the “powers that be” as one more faction in the realist distrust, as it endangered the national interests of the United States through its actions in Vietnam and other peripheral wars.

Social science-oriented realists, particularly the structural realists, were free from prejudice not because of any great normative efforts on their part, but because that was often not their professed objective. Waltz and other structural realists sought the most parsimonious theory possible, to find one variable that explained the most and with the most empirical accuracy, and that was to focus on anarchy and states in the “third image,” the structural level. This had enormous pitfalls as an empirical explanation, but nevertheless this approach promised more to the academy the morally charged and especially “unscientific” (by modern academic standards, if not Aristotle’s) theories of classical realists.

Of course, some of the neorealist school had stronger opinions than Waltz, but where they did they followed in the realist camp of being skeptical, if not outright pessimistic, about entrusting non-state entities with political power. Of the many debates about The Israel Lobby, it is notable that, stripped down, it is a theory about an interest group in a democratic society acquiring power that it ought not be entrusted with. Now, Stephen Walt is no authoritarian. Like Morgenthau in his later years, he has no problem with egalitarian democracy in the US. Like most realists, however, he distrusts the factional or ideologically charged elements of American society (and like Morgenthau, the “powers that be” which their policies enrich) with the highest concentrations of power.

Other scholarship, such as Jack Snyder’s work on imperialism and nationalism during democratic transitions, echoes much older realist fears about interest groups or other social factions capturing the instruments of political power and bringing about war. There has been plenty of complaint in the academy and plenty of dissension within the realist school, especially from realists worrying about the explanatory power and social scientific virtues of realist theories. However, compared to 2,500 years of realist political thought, the academically dominant strains are a mere blip. Realism, as Slaughter said on Twitter, is about states having transcendent power interests. The key word, though, is power, rather than the state.

How much, though, do the Waltzian and academic structural realists and neorealists really have on government policy, that is, foreign policy, rather than the study of international politics? The influence is rather underwhelming. Most modern realists see the United States adhering to its prescriptions generally after the alternative options of idealism are exhausted. Certainly Waltz has not gained much traction in US diplomacy, and Walt and Mearsheimer are constant critics of US policy as well. While American policymakers are doubtlessly informed by realism, it is the emphasis on power and the “evil” of political theories, not any “states only” assumptions that tend to hold sway. The George W. Bush administration seemed, at least from their campaign material, the strongest adherents of great power politics the US had seen in years – until a few months into their administration, when they became engaged in a war preoccupied with non-state actors from the micro-scale (terrorists) to the macro-scale (civilizational, ideological). So much for all that. Ditto the Obama administration’s so-called realism, obviously, Hillary Clinton will have none of that old-style realism. But it’s not such a radical departure from US foreign policy as it might seem. Bush and Bill Clinton were no strangers to the politics of non-state actors, nor were many of the Cold Warriors. America before World War II also conceived of many of its international interactions in societal or non-state terms, albeit in a less interventionist way. They engaged with all manner of non-state actors and recognized their interests, just not necessarily in the most enlightened way. Indeed, as a country which continental theorists often saw as the worst kind of British political excess, the US was a society without a state.

Realists are not all closet dictators or radical anti-democrats – certainly not today. But they are far more skeptical about entrusting society with handling power in a way that would best enable social flourishing or survival. Some of them did not even believe the state would survive as the optimal locus of political power. Schmitt, in his analysis of Hobbes, pointed out that even the most authoritarian interpretation of his theory left the cracks open for liberalism and society generally to dismantle state authority. He and E.H. Carr identified gigantism as the future (not unsurprisingly given their times) and identified ultimately with a super-state as the state’s successor, until Schmitt, at least, settled on the partisan as a genuinely political figure who might survive in an age when the telluric foundations of the state were eroding. Most realists, however, still see the state as the present and future nexus of power, especially coercive power.

Only states currently have the ability to impose order at home and project their ability abroad in representation of their constituents in the homo magnus. Machiavelli[3], even in his pro-republican Discourses on Livy, sees the military superiority of the citizen-state as essential to guaranteeing both the power of the people against tyranny from princes, foreign and domestic. He did not see possibilities for the advancement of foreign policy or popular liberties in the leading non-state actor of the day, the Church. Yet Machiavelli’s state was more a throwback to Rome, the “modern” state of that day, and the one which he measured his republicanism against as the strongest competitor, was that of France. There, Richelieu’s behavior was rather instructive. He stamped out alternative sources of genuinely political authority – his own Church and the French nobility among them – to enhance the monarch and the state, because those could best wield power to create order where the Church and feudalism were failing. It turned out that the modern, forward-looking (rather than classical and somewhat backward looking) won out over the Machiavellian conception of citizenship and the republic of virtu, but it would be a mistake to call Machiavelli or any others before him not realist because they were not social-scientific, or engrossed with the state as the only actor that mattered, or even familiar with the concept of the modern state at all.

Waltz and the academic realists who share his strict dismissal (a distant relative of the realist disdain for society attempting to seize power in its many forms) of power politics are the exception, rather than the rule in realist thought. Granted, this is an attempt to summarize 2,500 years of political thought in a blog post, and I’ve doubtlessly oversimplified things. However, I think realists and critics of realism might need to return to the nuanced, and historically deep sense of realism not as the pure preserve of states in their modern form. When Slaughter notes that:

Waltz, rather than pushing us to develop workable models and policy prescriptions based on that complexity, says it’s okay just to white it all out. (For IR students and scholars reading this, I know of course that I am vastly over-simplifying the IR theoretical landscape.)

This is a problem with the academy as much as with realism in particular. Realists generally, as political thinkers and actors and not just political theorists, should engage with complexity, but with an eye towards power as potential for coercion and control, rather than, as Waltz did, ceding vast swathes of the political universe to other theories. It is noteworthy, again, that at the height of realist influences in American history, it was this moral, loaded, very un-social-scientific form of realism that dominated American policy. [4] If the actual goal is policy relevance (and for Waltz, Man, the State, and War and Theory of International Politics were decidedly not theories of foreign policy), realists might benefit from reconnecting with their roots. Realist thought has survived and endured through several transformations in the state of human affairs – but not as what the modern academy might define as realism. The realist answers to the problems Slaughter proposes explaining are unpopular. They are, because they are, historically, deeply pessimistic and skeptical about the prospect of social factions solving the problems of power at the domestic or international levels. Few want resuscitate as models Thucydides the proponent of oligarchy or Kennan the reactionary defender of aristocracy.

Reconciling the authoritarian streak in realism with democratic society without losing focus on the primacy of power is a difficult task. The alternative, however, is a realist approach to the rest of society that settles for, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything,” and, consequently, says nothing, or at least, not as much as it could. Slaughter is absolutely correct that modern realist theories have difficulties dealing with global complexity. But realists should be able to make the case that global society inherently exists in a relationship of power, and one where power drives the success and failure of social movements. The driving difference between realism and its liberal opponents is thus not the state. The state is a mere vessel for power, one which can shatter when a confession, a party, or some other entity supersedes it. That the consequences of such seizures are so often disastrous is why realists gravitated towards the state as the superior form for the exercise and restraint of power. It’s power and pessimism that generally separate the realists, historically, from the idealists or liberals. For a variety of social, professional, and political reasons, it’s uncomfortable to call that what it really is. But Strauss and Schmitt had no problem identifying it for what it was: evil. Maybe that’s just me. Certainly I’m not accusing Drezner or anyone else of being evil. But Thucydides’s amorality was not a product of detached scholasticism. Machiavelli wasn’t a social scientist seeking to white out extraneous variables. Hobbes wasn’t trying to develop a state-centric rational choice theory. I’m sure that most modern realists do not like to think themselves as students, scholars, or, worst of all, teachers of evil. But that’s what realism’s been most of these years, and that might be where it still has the most to say as far as foreign policy goes.

[1] There are occasional examples of thinkers, predating structural realism of course, which do deal with socio-political developments (rather than state interests in and of themselves) on the non-state level but see them as products of a state’s external environment. The obvious example is Leopold von Ranke and his Primat der Aussenpolitik theory of diplomatic history. But Publius makes similar claims about the notion of a balance of power system on a continent being inimical to the liberty and free socities of individual states, but distance from the nearest threat and resistance to external interference being useful preconditions for democracy. In arguing that a balance of power and warfare could even erupt between small democratic states, it also demonstrates an early rejection of democratic peace theory (and a great lost opportunity for those who wish for more explanatory cases to study).

[2] Let’s leave aside entirely the organic state theorists and quasi-mystical geopoliticians who didn’t emigrate, which are another issue entirely.

[3] Machiavelli, arguably, is one of the most most liberal and pro-republican (not necessarily democratic) figures in this list. But it is notable the states he exalts as free include above all the Roman Republic and sometimes Sparta. Indeed, Sparta resembles more a mixed government or constitutional monarchy than the authoritarian dictatorships which followed it.

[4] The roller coaster ride of excellent posts about grad programs in IR, I’m sure, has nothing to do with my contrarianism and hedging against modern realist theory here.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2011 8:57 pm

    A lot here – probably more than I can absorb properly reading it on a screen (would have to print it out, which I may do at some point, though I rarely if ever do that with blog posts). Also, I didn’t read the Drezner-Slaughter debate beyond Drezner’s first post a while ago about Slaughter’s new blog venue.

    With those caveats out of the way, one or two things, with apologies for perhaps simplifying what you’ve written. First, on your suggestion that the main difference between realism and other traditions is that realists are more focused on power (and coercive power especially): It is of course no secret that realism is sometimes taken as synonymous with ‘power politics’, and certainly if one looks at lists of various definitions of realism (e.g. in J. Donnelly, Realism and International Relations, pp.7-8), the emphasis on power does recurrently appear. But as Wendt points out in Social Theory of International Politics (I’m not going to hunt for the particular page right now), other schools of thought also are concerned with power; indeed postmodernists think power is everywhere. Wendt sees the distinctive positions of IR realism (which he capitalizes to distinguish it from ‘scientific realism’) as having more to do with emphasizing the material (as opposed to ‘ideational’) foundations of ‘reality’. Whereas for Wendt ‘power’ and ‘interest’ themselves are categories mostly given content by ideas, not brute materiality. Granted, a main focus of Wendt’s criticism is Waltz’s Theory of International Politics which, as you point out, is a departure in some ways from earlier realist work, certainly in Waltz’s own view. (Though exactly how much of a departure it is continues to be debated.)

    Your argument that realists have long been, and continue to be, distrustful of domestic interest groups (or their precursors) is interesting. I’m not quite ready to agree or disagree with it. But if you can make a convincing case (which I’m not entirely sure, on a quick-ish reading, this post does) that one can trace this theme from Thucydides to Walt/Mearsheimer, there might be at least an article lurking in here.

    I’ll think I’ll stop there.

    • August 13, 2011 9:34 pm

      Thanks much for the comment. I certainly admit to getting carried away, but my goal here was at least to take a more provocative, historical look at an argument that can sometimes get trapped in the limits of arguing from essentially 50 years of international relations (and in one country at that!)

      I probably should have emphasized the coercive (and especially violent) aspect of power, but you’re definitely correct that the issue of power is a bit more tricky than I get into here. Certainly even modern liberal theorists believe in power, but they conceive of far more diverse forms and hierarchies than realists do. My main point in that part was to try and emphasize that the difference between realism and liberalism is more fundamental than their relative ranking and emphasis of a particular political institution or configuration.

      If anything this post has me interested in going back and doing some re-reading to find more concrete examples, but at the very basic level the positing of “real” state interests does force realists to at least grapple with the question of what kinds of groups and regimes ought be entrusted with statecraft. Whether they really do more often than not end up distrusting the ability of particular interest groups within a society will take some more reading…

      Thanks again and I appreciate the comment as always. There will probably be some more posting on this subject as I get around to reading and re-reading with it in mind.

  2. August 16, 2011 12:03 pm

    Btw, Henry Farrell has a long post at The Monkey Cage on the Drezner-Slaughter debate. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet (and probably won’t for a while, as there are some other things occupying me at the moment).



  1. High Noon in the IR Corral | UNL Political Science Graduate Student Blog
  2. Maritime realism and the geopolitics of the “Middle Sea” « Slouching Towards Columbia
  3. Maritime realism and the geopolitics of the “Middle Sea” | Fear, Honor, and Interest
  4. Geopolitics, networks, and complex friction « Slouching Towards Columbia
  5. Geopolitics, Networks, and Complex Friction | Fear, Honor, and Interest
  6. Slouching Towards Columbia
  7. International Relations, Principal Theory « elcidharth
  8. The Critical Theory of International Relations and I | elcidharth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: