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The Most Confused Term in IR Theory: Getting Orwellian on "Realism"

(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”.

six comments

Oh and before anyone, ANYONE, says, “Um, technically according to such-and-such realism is…” just stop. We are simplifying for a blog post that needs to come in under a 1,000 words. I’ll save the parsing of precise academic debates for my published papers.

It doesn’t help that another IR theory is called “Idealism,” which is as closely related to the dictionary definition as realism is to realistic. At least in this case there’s an alternative name: Constructivism. But suffice to say that IR could perhaps use a refresh with a new vocabulary. Jack Snyder’s “One World, Rival Theories” article offers a good overview.

Thank you for considering our platform worthy of a such a reflection. It made for interesting reading. I will merely point out that the term “international relations realism” appears nowhere on War on the Rocks – not even in one single article. I deliberately put some distance between IR theory and War on the Rocks when I wrote the following a couple weeks after we launched in July 2013:

“War on the Rocks is ecumenically realist toward a goal. It is, again, the study of human relations with a focus on power and strategy. It associates with none of the particular sub-branches named above. And as someone toiling at the intersection of history and sociology, I personally do not accept the structure provided by international relations theory, but that is a discussion for another time” [emphasis mine].

Perhaps that discussion is overdue and I’d be happy to have it. I’ve never found the grand IR theories to be particularly useful nor even meriting the term “theory.” I think it all went down the wrong path beginning with Waltz. I agreed with John Bew (biographer of Castlereagh and a WOTR contributing editor) when said in an interview:

“Much of the practice of international relations theory has retreated into remoteness and abstractness. It has lost both its historical basis and its present-mindedness.”

I can’t speak on behalf of all of our 70 regular contributors, but War on the Rocks as a project is generally much more concerned with what tends to be called classical realism and strategic realism rather than with IR realism. I hope this explains where we are coming from. At the end of the day, I don’t force my interpretation of realism on anyone and work hard to be ecumenical as an editor.

Ryan, I highly recommend changing your “about” page then. I used “international relations realism” to define any group using “politics is power” as its foundational ideology.

From your about page: “*Realism teaches us how to think about the world, rather than what to think about it. It 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.”

But none of that means the analysis on your site is “more realistic/accurate/factual” than any other. We use “international relations realism” to differentiate “being realistic” from IR theories calling themselves realism. Frankly, I don’t know the difference between “classical realism”, “strategic realism” and “IR realism”, and going down those linguistic rabbit holes is the problem more than anything.

Thanks for your comment. I guess we will have to agree to disagree. The way the first sentence of your post is constructed, you are suggesting that we use a phrase to describe our approach that we simply do not use (“international relations realism”) and never have used in the history of our site.

I think we might be talking past each other. I am totally comfortable with the wording and content of our about page and the way we describe realism there and in our introductory articles from July 2013. I stand by my original comment to your post and appreciate the exchange. You might enjoy a book that should be coming out sometime late next year on the history of Anglo-American Realpolitik by John Bew of King’s College London.

@ Ryan Evans – I discussed it with Michael C, and we may edit the article to reflect your feedback, changing the first paragraph to emphasize “classical realism (international relations)” as wikipedia describes it.

That said, it won’t change the rest of the post, which is what we hope most realists, of any description, take into account.