The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

How to Be a Good Realist

February 18, 2012

I’m going to delve clumsily into IR Theory here, so I’d be grateful to get some feedback on the question of the ‘Realist’ minimum.

In a fascinating post recently on US-China relations, Stephen Walt wrote:

“First, as a good realist, I think that the basic state of Sino-American relations will be driven more by balances of power and configurations of interest than by the personalities of individual leaders. As I’ve noted before, if China continues to grow more powerful, Bejing and Washington will view each other with an increasingly wary eye and are likely to find more issues about which to conflict. A serious security competition — especially in East Asia — will be likely (which does not mean that war is inevitable or even likely, by the way). Again assuming China’s continued ascent, I’m guessing this will occur no matter who is in power in each country.”

Hang on. Are realists actually supposed to think that the personalities of leaders are marginal forces in world politics?

There are a number of difficulties here. Strictly ‘structural’ realists might believe that impersonal things like ‘balances of power’ are more often than not the engine that propels (or shapes and shoves) the world. But (from my recollection), even Kenneth Waltz didn’t straightforwardly take that view. But classical (or neoclassical) realists such as Colin Dueck, Gideon Rose, or Asle Toje surely are attentive to the things that can mediate between the world and the folk who wield power. Those things can be ideas, agents or contingencies.

After all, good realist commentators and theorists like Stephen Walt don’t write as though intervening variables matter little. Realists pay great attention to the figures (eg. Bismarck, or maybe more recently Deng Xiaoping) who succeeded in navigating their nations through the anarchy of the world. In so far as their personalities mattered, they were figures who interpreted the world around them coherently and applied power effectively. Realists often also make concrete recommendations about policy. Its not clear why they would prescribe policies if they were so deterministic to assume that states would behave only in structurally undifferentiated ways regardless of who was in power or what ideas they had. Or is it?

That’s not to say that realists should always privilege ‘personality’ as the main agent. Political elites conceivably can share a ‘common sense’ concept of interests drawn from a wider political culture (such as the GOP/Democrat Consensus on Israel that Walt has argued for). But if intervening variables can count, why not the views/assumptions/quirks of a powerful individual from time to time? The research agenda in this area would presumably be charting and explaining when and how individual personalities interacted with everything else (both ideational and structural), as well as the causal mechanisms behind these interactions, whether in the parsimonious and systematic form of some scholars, or the richer but less systematic ways of others.

Ultimately it is always hard to prove or falsify this kind of stuff. It relies eventually on counterfactuals. Can we be sure that a ruler other than Stalin would have resisted intelligence reports of Hitler’s imminent attack in 1941? Would a President less incuriously dogmatic than George W. Bush have responded sooner to growing evidence of an insurgency in Iraq? Of course, such counterfactuals raise their own problems – of explaining how someone not like Stalin or Bush would have been in the harness at that time. Its a slippery thing.

Regardless, we should resist the notion that Realists can only call themselves Realists if they privilege big impersonal forces as the dominant way of explaining behaviour. As Dan Nexon wrote a while back, (and in less sympathy than my own affection for neoclassical forms of Realism), being a Realist emphatically does not require believing that states consistently act rationally in their self-interest:

“What’s odd here is why realists would react to putatively self-defeating state policies as if they comprised some kind of anomaly. Almost all of their “timeless lessons” about international politics involve states screwing things up: provoking counter-balancing coalitions, trying to make collective security work, getting involved in irrelevant peripheral conflicts, and so forth. Moreover, their underlying theoretical architectures are, as we’ve already seen, compatible with a broad range of state behavior.”

So what does it mean to be a Realist? Could a better version, staked out in its neoclassical form, be that states (and non-states, for that matter), may screw up for a range of reasons. It is the anarchical system around them that has its own, dark and unforgiving rationality, that penalises self-defeating behaviour.

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Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. He is also Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. His research interests are great power politics, grand strategy, realism, the causes and consequences of major powers’ decline, the Iraq war of 2003, foreign and defence policy in the US and UK, and the intellectual life of major powers and their foreign policy establishments. He has written four books. His book Blunder: Britain's War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize, 2019. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020). He also wrote The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power (Georgetown University Press, 2015) and Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2009.