(To read the entire "Getting Orwellian” series, please click here.)
To stand out in the crowded field of foreign policy sites, the editors of War on the Rocks, when launching their new website, promised to approach all topics from the perspective of “international relations realism”. I wish them well. Though I tend to come from the other side of the international relations theory spectrum, I find parts of realist theory fantastically useful, particularly the blogging of Stephen Walt.
Part of me also sighed. Seeing the word “realism” reminded me how much I hate that term in national security debates. I wish I had the power to rename that entire branch of international relations theory.
Why? Because “realism” means so much more than just one branch of IR theory. Since I don’t want to take us down an uber-wonky rabbit hole, I want to quickly define realism. Fortunately, War on the Rocks does a good job of that in a post explaining their site:
“[realism] is a broad term that encompasses people of many opinions with a variety of party affiliations but all of whom believe in the centrality of fear, honor, and interest as drivers of inter-state affairs. Politics is power. À la Morgenthau, we understand power as “anything that establishes and maintains the power of man over man …. from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.”
See that definition? It isn’t bad and (according to the wisdom of crowds) it defines the discipline fairly accurately.
Except War on the Rocks then precedes to confuse their IR realism with being realistic:
“Our realism is not merely theoretical, but is rather a perspective earned through experience and reasoning. We are not reasoning backwards from a blind ideological position.”
This is the part of the phrase “realism” I hate: some Realists use the name of their sub-discipline like a club on international relations liberalists (like myself), pacifists (like Eric C), Democrats (by Republicans), people who oppose increasing defense spending (by lobbyists or mouthpieces of lobbyists), or the proponents of the hypothesis that the world is increasingly violent.
International relations realists--or anyone using the term “realist” in a foreign policy debate--benefit from the convenient fact that their sub-discipline of international relations happens to share the same etymology as another word, “realistic”. In debate, international relations realists and neo-conservatives both use the phrase “realism” to mean, “grounded in reality” interchangeably with “analysis using power politics as the base”. They take advantage of a rhetorical quirk: in foreign policy terms, the opposite of realism is liberalism; linguistically, the opposite of realistic is naivete (at best) or unrealistic (at worst).
And honestly, “realism” is better than “idealism” in colloquial English. A realist accepts the world for what it is; an idealist aspires to a different world. Idealists are dreamers; realists are men of action. Foreign policy tends towards the latter; the American voting public favors the latter as well.
But that isn’t what “international relations realism” is. Realist IR theory sees the world and nation states in a balance of power struggle...and generally conduct their analysis through that lens. As smart theorists--like my aforementioned favorite Stephen Walt--have written, neither side has won the intellectual war. If they had, there wouldn’t be a debate. Instead, each side has its own data, arguments and intellectual foundations.
But that won’t stop a pernicious breed of IR theorist--and opportunistic politicians and pundits--from claiming the “realism high ground”. To differentiate them, I call them “real-world-ists”. These pundits and politicians love to insist their viewpoints come from “the real world”, especially as opposed to isolated “ivy tower academics”. Bad “realists” mix up their philosophy of IR theory with phrases like, “realist”, “reality” and “realistic”, while criticizing their opponents as “naive”, “unrealistic”, “idealistic” and “head in the sand types”.
I can’t fix this problem, but I can point it out. Embracing one branch of the ideological spectrum of IR theory doesn’t make your beliefs more accurate or descriptive of the real world. Even if your theory is named, “realism”.