the field of foreign policy one hears a lot about
"realists" vs. "idealists," Marxists,
and so on. In such discussions the term "realist"
does not necessarily mean hard-headed, feet-on-the-ground,
practical, pragmatic, worldly, ready to do what needs
to be done, etc. as opposed to persons or polices
lacking those interesting qualities. No, here we have
to do with a particular way of looking at states in
the international state-system.
contend that, in a manner analogous to the laws of
physics, states in the state-system must behave
in certain predictable ways. Reckoning with a mob
of geographical and other structural factors, they
say that a rising state which seems bent on becoming
a hegemonic or dominant state tends to call into being
an opposing coalition of the threatened, who will
seek to thwart that aspiration by diplomatic means
and, finally, war, if it comes to that. This isn't
the worst way to look at things, and in a rough and
ready way such insights can be useful.
problem comes when metaphors imported from the natural
sciences, such as "equilibrium," "power
vacuum," and "balance of power," are
taken literally as guides either to policy or scholarship
which influences policy-makers. Then the bloom
is indeed off the rose and the circus is in town.
The problem has grown worse over the last several
DIPLOMACY TO BEHAVIORISM...
exponents of 20th-century American "realism"were
often diplomats and policy-makers. George F. Kennan
and Hans Morgenthau come to mind. Kennan had some
very worthwhile things to say, but that must wait
for another day. Kennan had a way of seeing that,
given the way things are, if you do this, you should
expect that. For example, he wrote in 1951:
would like to say a word about the total result of
these two world wars in Europe. These wars were fought
at the price of some tens of millions of lives, of
untold physical destruction, of the destruction of
the balance of forces on the Continent at the
price of rendering western Europe dangerously, perhaps
fatally, vulnerable to Soviet power. Both wars were
fought, really, with a view to changing Germany: to
correcting her behavior, to making the Germans something
different from what they were. Yet, today, if one
were offered the chance of having back the Germany
of 1913 a Germany run by conservative but relatively
moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists, a vigorous
Germany, united and unoccupied, full of energy and
confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off
of Russian power in Europe well, there would
be objections to it from many quarters, and it wouldn't
make everybody happy; but in many ways it wouldn't
sound so bad, in comparison with our problems of today.
Now, think what this means. When you tally up the
total score of the two wars, in terms of their ostensible
objective, you find that if there has been any gain
at all, it is pretty hard to discern."(1)
Kennan derided such characteristically American fetishes
as "total victory" and "unconditional
surrender" as massively wrong and ideologically-driven
errors bound to make any situation worse than it needed
to have been. You can imagine what he thought of Woodrow
Wilson. If this is realism, then one might
wish for more of it.
of course was, as "Mr. X" in Foreign
Affairs in 1947, one of the architects of the
Cold War, but quickly turned critic as Washington
policy-makers turned his rather modest notion of "containment"
into a militarized global crusade. The new breed of
Realists, who grew up in the Cold War, were cut from
different cloth. One example might be political scientist
a book published in 1972, Spanier, like Kennan, derided
the excesses of American "idealism" what
one might call moral imperialism. Unlike Kennan, he
saw little wrong with applied Cold War policy as it
existed. Writing as a technician in the service of
power, he held that the inexorable and immutable logic
of the world's state system, as such, had required
the great US-Soviet confrontation all considerations
of communism aside.
Spanier, the backward, "isolationist" American
masses were too dim to see this logic. Hence, "the
struggle for power and security endemic in the state
system had to be disguised as a struggle for the realization
of the highest values.... anti-Communism was an obvious
means for mobilizing Congressional and public support
for postwar policy."(2)
might object that it is wrong to fool the sheep, but,
alas, we have no time for that, the great game's afoot
and much is at stake. Better, on Spanier's assumptions,
to hoodwink the masses and the legislature for decades
at a time, while the pragmatists make the real decisions
from inside their post-constitutional agencies. This
seems deeply corrupting, but that judgment, too, must
be filed under "idealism."
scientistic and even behaviorist orientation, both
in scholarship and policy-making, drove the radical
sociologist C. Wright Mills to coin the phrase "crackpot
realism." In Mills' view, it was an integral
part of "bureaucratic rationality" which
wielded "abstracted empiricism" as its major
tool and, when that broke down, brought in essentially
empty "Grand Theory" to take up the slack
in the research program.(3) That
Grand Theory itself rested, in the end, on the same
assumptions as abstracted empiricism, meant that if
the latter was flawed, no serious intellectual progress
could made along either path.
course jobs and careers were possible, as I have noted
perhaps the 1980s, there have been many attempts to
restate, refurbish, or even supplant the style of
realism that grew out of Cold War liberalism. (Few
have wanted to return to Kennan's sort of realism.)
The authors of these trends are legion, as are their
journals. A fair sample can be gleaned from International
Organization, to name one journal in which realism
(and other) paradigms are aired.
all, these writers wish to field tighter concepts,
more rigorous definitions, and stronger hypotheses,
which can then be "tested" or "falsified"
per the positivist notion of science. Matters are
further complicated by the existence of a competing
school of "(neo-)liberal" writers on international
relations, whose views are said to descend, somehow,
from Grotius. The boundaries between realists (or
"neo-realists") and neo-liberals are less
than fully clear, and Alexander Wendt writes that
many of the latter are effectively "weak realists."(4)
writer who surveyed the terrain in 1988 noted that
the fortunes of realists and liberals varied pretty
directly with political fashions within the US political
class; thus, liberal theorists throve in the 1970s
and realists in 1980s.(5) In other
words, "collective security" types had an
audience in the seventies, whereas our old pals, the
Neo-Cons, spread gloom in the eighties.
now, other turns of the scholarly wheel have taken
place within international studies circles. One aspect
of the ongoing fray is the rise of "institutionalists,"
who seem to overlap strongly with neo-liberals. These
scholars hope to bridge the gaps they spot in realism
by a wholesale borrowing of models of institutional
"evolution" grounded in neo-classical economics.
Here, states are seen as "rational utility maximizers,"
up to no good, but sometimes able to cooperate in
overcoming "free rider" and "public
are thus just as benign (or not) as private business
firms or individuals a perilous assumption to make.
present purposes, the fact that all these schools
hold with positivism/empiricism outweighs their differences.
First, few of the schoolmen – liberal, realist, or
institutionalist – show any skepticism about the right
or wrong, desirability, or practicality of US hegemony
or empire. One of these fellows can write of the state
system: "Other states, aware of U.S. preeminent
power, do not (well, should not) perceive it as a
threat because its actions obviously benefit all actors
within the system other than rogue states...."(6)
Obviously! Good God! Objectively, one might say, such
scholars, whatever their intentions, are working for
the same ends, as did the Cold War liberal bureaucrats
of blessed memory. Second, however interesting the
many disagreements and debates between sundry schools
and sub-schools, they share much the same orientation
toward the world. Third, the economic-institutionalist
approach an infection that undermines the thinking
not just of mainstream scholars but also that of some
libertarians – can provide a cheery "spontaneous-evolutionary"
rationalization of the power of the current Last Remaining
it just happened, you know, and things always work
out for the best, when Evolution is on the job.
William Appleman Williams once wrote, such scholars
see the world chiefly as an object to be manipulated.
They theorize and wrangle for years at a time about
available methods. They hardly care a whit that power
as such might constitute a problem now and then.
why worry about it? Well, if we really wish to understand
our situation and what might be done about it, we
need a conceptual grid and some sort of theory. To
leave the field to present practitioners is to acquiesce
in Alexander's standing between us and the sun. It
blocks our vision.
how does it do this? It does so because such theories,
generally, are driven by their most basic assumptions
to ask narrow questions, especially those suited to
quasi-mathematical exposition. Such methods give off
an illusion of natural-scientific rigor, while leaving
out many important things that we know about people,
ideology, values, history, and even sound economics.
TRUTH TO POWER, IF 'TRUTH' IS WHATEVER POWER WANTS
a real sense, our present discontents, at home and
abroad, are deeply rooted in the mechanistic Anglo-American
"empiricist" tradition in epistemology
from Bacon through Bentham, and on to the RAND Corporation.
If, owing to various methodological assumptions, no
questions can ever arise about the morality or practicality
of US (or any power's) imperial hegemony, there will
certainly be a field day for those who can treat the
whole thing as a merely technical exercise in giving
advice to power. This is why we talk about a State-Military-Industrial-University
the one hand, the imperial masters get immediate service
from such applied natural sciences as geology, chemistry,
physics, and aerodynamics. After all, their acquired
tastes include drilling for oil and blowing up those
who might get in the way. On the other hand, the rulers
derive additional utilities from Court Intellectuals
who rationalize their policies and who, at least some
of the time, flatter their egos.
order for the hegemon to do what a hegemon's gotta
do, someone has to convince the sheep and their elected
misrepresentatives that "communism" or ___________
is out to get them. No other explanations are permissible,
you see. It wouldn't be scientific to think about
course there are other pieces and other puzzles to
be addressed; and I would never say that no good or
interesting work takes place in the circles and journals
of which I have been speaking. George Kennan is not
the only "good" realist from the standpoint
of those who would like to see a lot less warmongering
and empire-building, and it goes without saying that
European realism is its own kettle of fish.