Monday, January 16, 2012

Pity the Realists

I have avoided reading Robert Kaplan's take on John Mearsheimer's work mostly because I really cannot stand Kaplan's previous stuff, especially Balkan Ghosts.  I actually don't think it did as much damage to the Balkans as one might guess because Clinton, famously having the book on his bedside table, had lots of other reasons to delay intervening in Bosnia.  My biggest contribution during my year on the Joint Staff was revising the reading list for the Balkans branch, dropping Balkan Ghosts.

Anyhow, Dan Drezner does a nice job of destroying the canard that realists have not been influential in American foreign policy without even mentioning Kennan (Dan provided a couple of realists a chance to respond).*  Drezner even mentions how oppressed realists have often felt.  As Steve Martin would say, well, excuuuuuuuse meeeee!  Why?  Because the realists have, as good secret Marxists, held some of the commanding heights and means of production in the academic economy: a journal (International Security), post-doc suppliers (less so of late with the decline of Olin), and jobs at a variety of desirable academic outposts.  They are not alone in that--Peter Katzenstein complained on one panel how oppressed constructivists were, at a time where they seemed to be getting heaps of post-docs, the best jobs, and publications in the best journals and presses.
*  Yes, the realists can take credit for being right on Iraq in 2003, but, then again, so can nearly every other IR scholar.
 The reason why Realists often feel that they are victims is due to their success--that they have been able to define their approach as the baseline to which any and all competitors must compare.  If states do not maximize their interests (defined as security or power, depending on the realist), then why do they behave as they do?  Thus, anyone who either wants to explain deviations from this baseline or argue that the baseline is wrong has to take on Realism.  So, even if only 15% of IR folks or pubs are avowedly realist, probably 75-90% of the work in the field presents a realist argument even if it is presented as a strawman [Updated: Mike points out that the real data, as opposed to my imaginary data, indicates that 20-50% of non-realist stuff presents a realist argument of some kind--see comments below].

This in sharp contrast to liberal or constructivist arguments--they are not seen as the baseline and are not required to be invoked somewhere along the way when writing something for an IR journal or press.  I say this from much experience. Even with the latest project on NATO and Afghanistan, where there is much variation among the allies in how they behave, even non-realists push me/us at talks to specify how this is not a tale realists can explain.  So, we dedicate space in our intro, juxtaposing various ways to think about threats and security concerns and show how the cross-national and cross-temporal variation do not jibe with realist expectations.  Of course, realists can quibble with how we operationalize realism, but since there are many flavors of realism, this will always be the case.

Let me conclude with what I think are Realism's biggest weakness and biggest contribution:
  • Realism is indeterminate.  That is, there is usually more than one way to maximize one's security.  This is why realists can often engage in heaps of arguments with each other, and not just between offensive realists (who focus on maximizing power) and defensive realists (who focus on security).  The international system rarely provides a single best way to defend oneself.  Folks are still arguing, for instance, whether British appeasement of Germany in 1938 was a good idea or not. 
  • Realism is right to remind us to focus on power--not in terms of interest but in terms of outcomes.  Power matters greatly in determining outcomes, although not entirely as the insurgents of the world can beat the stronger countries.  I tend to buy into the Moravcsik view of Liberalism telling us much about why conflicts of interest emerge, but Realism via power can usually tell us much about who wins. 


Steve Greene said...

I literally read the Atlantic piece this morning thinking, "sounds pretty good, but what would Big Steve have to say about this." I did find it really educational, as one of the huge gaps in my graduate school education was an IR survey and most everything I know is simply through very casual conversations with my IR/Comparative friends. In what camp to you place yourself, anyway?

Mike Tierney said...

Hi Steve,

I basically agree with your point about the "realist baseline." In fact, that is exactly the phrase I use in my Intro IR course. All the other approaches are discussed in terms of whether their predictions are deviations from the realist baseline and whether they deviate in a systematic way.

Also agree that lots of articles frame their own argument in terms of some realist alternative. But, I am guessing that was more prominent in the 90s than now and am guessing the percent is lower than your 75-90% estimate. In fact, in the TRIP article database we have a variable called "Taken Seriously" and it attempts to measure the degree to which an author takes other theoretical approaches seriously in his/her article. By that measure, realism IS the paradigm taken most seriously by others between 1980-2007. The percent ranges between 10-30% of non-realist articles taking realism seriously. If we added "straw-man" treatments of realism, I'm guessing it goes up another 10 to 20 percent. But that is pure conjecture. You can find the relevant time series graph on page 448-448 of this ISQ article...

Here is the link that proves your assertion about the views of IR scholars on the Iraq War (see questions 58-63)...

In other papers we show that opposition to the war remains strong even when you control for paradigm and ideology.