Joseph R.


November 18, 2002

'Crackpot Realism' Again?


In 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.

Realists 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.

The 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 decades.


Early 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:

"I 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)

Accordingly, 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.

Kennan 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 John Spanier.

In 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.

For 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)

One 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."

This 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.

Of course jobs and careers were possible, as I have noted elsewhere.


Since 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.

Over 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)

A 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.

By 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 goods" problems.

States are thus just as benign (or not) as private business firms or individuals – a perilous assumption to make.

For 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 Super Power.

Hey, it just happened, you know, and things always work out for the best, when Evolution is on the job.

As 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.

So 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.

And 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.


In 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 Complex.

On 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.

In 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 other answers.

Of 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.

comments on this article?


1. George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy: 1900-1950 (New York: New American Library, 1951), p. 51.

2. John Spanier, Games Nations Play: Analyzing International Politcs (New York: Praeger: 1972), p. 357.

3. C. Wright Mills, The Causes of World War III (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1958), pp. 81-89, and The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959 ), esp. pp.25-118 .

4. Alexander Wendt, "Anarchy is what states makes of it: the social construction of power politics," International Organization, 46, 2 (Spring 1992), p. 392.

5. See Joseph S. Nye, Jr., "Neorealism and Neoliberalism," World Politics, 40, 2 (January 1988), pp. 235-251.

6. Edward Ingram, "Hegemony, Global Reach, and World Power: Great Britain's Long Cycle," in Colin Elman and Miriam Elman, eds., Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists, and the Study of International Relations (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), p. 250.

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Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on


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