Realism and the balance of power: Deborah Boucoyannis weighs in

Jan 24, 2008

Not long ago, Charli posted about Deborah Boucoyannis’ provocative Perspectives on Politics article, “The International Wanderings of a Liberal Idea, or Why Liberals Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Balance of Power” (PDF). A number of readers and contributors commented on Charli’s post and the article. Now, Deborah responds:

Note: I’ve put the original comments she’s responding to in blockquotes. Her comments are formatted normally.

Yet her attempt to redefine realism as, in essence, hegemonic-order theory strikes me as strained.

Well, it’s not just hegemonic theory that I am defining it as; it is offensive realism too. In short, the theories that predict the opposite of a balance.

But she gives away a lot to rather weak arguments about the “degenerative” character of realism, and winds up treating a framework as a predictive theory (715). Realism is consistent with a range of distributions of power as outcomes, although particular predictive theories within the realist approach may not be.

Ok, I think here we are growing apart due to language. What is “Realism”? How do you define it? Any theory that talks about power and self-interest? But this cannot be a sufficient basis of differentiation as both factors are key, as I show, in classical liberalism. If we are to distinguish the theories, we need to point to where they differ. You do not specify this here, so I cannot say more.

This is frustrating, because her discussion of contemporary liberalism immediately prior is quite good. I guess one way of putting this is that “liberalism” and “realism” are simultaneously ideal-typical constructs and things that people call themselves.

True. And the cause of this big mess we have in IR, I think, with people calling each other degenerate (well, that’s what they mean, really)! Identifying theories with what people claim to believe over the course of their careers is very problematic.

So it doesn’t strike me as overly radical to point out that actual liberal and realist theorists share a lot of assumptions, both because we shouldn’t expect them to be philosophically pure and because the source material for the traditions overlap and borrow from one another.

But again, if that is so, then what’s the difference between the two theories? Aren’t they supposed to represent alternative approaches to IR? Are we all the same after all? This is not right, it seems to me. There are fundamental differences in how Mearsheimer approaches problems and Keohane does. And this is not because Keohane is less “philosophically pure” (I’ve heard endless times he’s a confused realist). Keohane is absolutely consistent with the classical liberal tradition (he thanked me for noting that!). He shares many assumptions with realism, but he also believes, unlike realists, that institutions can make a difference. This has been, from the beginning, the hallmark of liberalism. And our IR theories should reflect that, I suggest.

Yes, both realists and liberals have argued that the creation of a balance of power checks domination and allows for the management of coercion. And some “realists” (e.g., Morganthau) argued that this would allow for the creation of robust, power-transcendent international orders. But other “realists” disagree, which has to do with how they break from contemporary “liberals.”

Let me interject, in good spirit! Morgenthau is not a “Realist,” with all the nasty short-sightedness this habitually implies! Hoffman called him “a somewhat conservative liberal in revolt against other, imprudent liberals”. Nor is Carr a Realist. Carr was a reformed socialist. Neither was realist in any meaningful way that would put him in the same political category as Mearsheimer, or Kissinger (the practitioner, not the book-selling entrepreneur). Marx and Karl Schmitt had some pretty similar “realist” critiques of liberalism; this does not make them fellow travelers.

Just to be provocative, this is a bit of the Jonah Goldberg way of lumping people together: find one point of convergence, and they’re all one thing. Williams, in his wonderful book (which I wish I had read before I sent the article in—thanks to your blog for bringing it to my attention!), actually does call Morgenthau’s “realism” a form of liberalism (p.130), though he stops short from actually calling Morgenthau liberal, even though this is what he is trying to prove throughout the book.

But Morgenthau is a good old-fashioned liberal; this is clear throughout his work on domestic politics, he is committed to greater state power, which alone can combat private concentrations of power (Purpose of American Politics, 311-12), and to the institutional management of power. He supports the New Deal and even places Castro on the side of Eisenhower and FDR, vs. Battista and Trujillo on the narrow question of “justice” to the people, despite his autocracy (see the Lang book on Morgenthau’s lectures on Aristotle—fascinating!). He is a “realist” as far as “philosophy and method” were concerned: his dispute with “liberals” was on those levels, not on goals: he affirmed that, at least in the US, all sides were committed to progress and improvement. “Conservative in philosophy and method, revolutionary in purpose—such has been our political tradition from the beginning of colonization.” (Purpose of American Politics, 297). A statement that could perhaps confidently be made in 1960, though not so today. Just look at what he was telling students about racial and gender equality (in the Lang book). It is simply odd to think of Mearsheimer or Kissinger as part of a “revolutionary” political tradition (well, compared to the mullahs, Charles Taylor, or Putin, they are of course democrats, but within the democratic arena, they are not “revolutionary”). Reading Morgenthau’s “domestic” works is simply a revelation. As is Carr on “Nationalism and After”, or on “The Prospects of a New International Order” in the 20 Years Crisis.

We cannot ignore half of these men’s work, simply because they subscribe to a realist, “pessimist” approach to human nature or human affairs, seems to me. We need to understand what these thinkers actually meant when they said they were “realist”. And we have to take each at his word when, Carr e.g. wrote in The New Society, in 1951: “We are committed to mass democracy, to egalitarian democracy, to the public control and planning of the economic process, and therefore to the strong state exercising remedial and constructive functions.”

No, these are not “Realists.” No pun intended, but if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

My whole point in the end is that having a “realist/pessimist” view of human affairs does not condemn you to blinkered views about the possibility of change or the institutional management of power; in fact, it can make you a prudent, responsible, and much more effective promoter of the collective good. Mearsheimer et al will always say they are prudent and more responsible, but they explicitly reject change and institutional management of power; Morgenthau and Carr defended both—and this is the key distinction between a conservative and a liberal/progressive.

Anyway, if this article is any indication of her depth of thought, I can’t wait to read her multi-award winning dissertation

.That is really kind! And entirely reciprocated: we have been following parallel paths in, it seems, everything we do, from a dissertation on state formation in Europe to articles on how Waltz is ‘really not as bad as most people think!’ Yet always from slightly different angles. I greatly look forward to further exchanges of this kind, especially on our book projects!

And a few more points on comments posted, though I cannot do justice to all:

1. To LC: You’re not a weakling if you don’t predict or prescribe power balancing, but liberalism is weakened when it fails to make power a central concept, as it mostly does today. What I am saying is that the balancing hypothesis is the distinctive way liberals developed to deal with the problem of power, and contemporary liberals should recapture that.

2. To Matt: Points 1-6 deftly express the conventional wisdom, but are exactly what I spend the whole article arguing against. Point 7, on why the balancing idea does not transfer to the international level, what I am saying is that it has: this is what Waltz did, which is why the section on him is called “Adam Smith goes Security”. And as Richard Tuck and others have argued, the whole liberal turn to the individual received its theoretical foundation in treatments of the sovereign state system, so even if the balancing idea did not emerge in this context, the two realms have always been informing one another.

I’ve seen various iterations of Boucoyannis’ article, although always through third parties. A really nice piece, but not entirely convincing. For example, Guicciardini gets labeled a “humanist” and Machiavelli a proponent of “realpolitik,” but the reason for this distinction remains unclear.

The main point still stands: Guicciardini supports a balanced internal order that does not seek expansion; in this, he is closer to the classical ideal. Again, this is a distinction that has been made before (Waltz and Butterfield did, and Deudney mentions it as well). Guicciardini has been seen in this to draw on humanists like Bruni; James Hankins has written a great paper on Bruni’s vision of the Italian system as a precursor to the federation of free republics in Montesquieu’s sense. So there is a family of ideas and Guicciardini is, in this, closer to the classical view, whereas Machiavelli is often seen to lean in the imperialist direction (though these are always crude simplifications).

It is also not true that Machiavelli lacks any notion of the international balance of power;

But I do not claim he does. Note, I am not using “balance of power” in the generic sense of the term (“what matters is power, so let’s see how it is distributed”), but in the specific one, that the individual pursuit of self-interest by all will/should prevent domination by one.

She notes, on at least one occasion, that bandwagoning produced the subjugation of Italy (this is the diagnoses of Guicciardini’s History of Italy). While he does “opt” for imperialism, moreover, he also argues that republics *can* opt for a strategy of being armed to the teeth.

Well, I think Mac’s polarity is between imperialism and stasis. That said, the point is well taken, only I would add he claims that “Without doubt…if the thing could be held balanced in this mode, it would be the true political way of life and the true quiet city.” (Discourses I.6.) But then he admits that due to the inherent instability of human affairs, such a delicate balance over the long haul is simply unsustainable, and thus to preserve liberty states must be ready to expand and to be able to keep what they gain, so that the people do not become “effeminate or divided.”

In general, I think there’s some important slippage between the valence of terms like “liberal” and “realist” in various philosophical traditions and the valence of those terms in contemporary IR theory. By much the same token, I am unconvinced by the dismissal of republican theory as an alternative root to the balance-of-power notion; but once republican theory can produce the balance-of-power notion, it follows that one need not be liberal to affirm it.

First, let me say that I understand the appeal of republicanism as an alternative to liberalism, especially in the impoverished way the latter is usually conceived. When I started, I was drawn to it too. But the republican version is very different. Republican theory states that the balance between different social orders will preserve liberty. This is to be achieved either through the mixed constitution or through the opposition/antagonism of the rich and the poor, as in Machiavelli’s famous formulation (which is of course a radical departure from the classical model, a departure that Guicciardini rejects, but I will lump them together for these purposes).

So, yes, a similar idea of balancing existed under republicanism. But every concept in the modern political vocabulary harks back to some ancient or medieval concept—we did have democracy with slaves, foreigners and women disenfranchised. Establishing familial origin does not mean we are talking about the same thing. What I am saying is that the relevant concept in IR, viz in Waltz, is drawn from the liberal transformation of the concept (via the Scots, private interest, division of labor etc). He is certainly not talking about a federation of republics.

Further, I don’t think we should be turning to republicanism; my reservations about it echo those of other liberals (as in “US Democrats”); see Ian Shapiro in Critical Review, 1990, “J.G.A. Pocock’s Republicanism and Political Theory: A Critique and Reinterpretation.” As I said, I share the dissatisfactions with liberalism—the liberal order cannot survive without a host of other inputs (see e.g. footnote 40). But I think republicanism is not an adequate replacement.

This is a fascinating topic in its own right, but I’ll have to leave it at that for now.


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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.