The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Being realistic about (academic) realism

June 23, 2012

At the BISA/ISA panel on pluralism Jennifer Sterling-Folker stressed that realism is not the “dominant paradigm” of North American international-relations scholarship. Instead, she argued, neoliberal institutionalism rules the roost. How do we know this? Among other reasons, neoliberal institutionalists don’t spend a lot of time on ‘big theory’ — on thinking about the scientific ontology of world politics. They take their worldview for granted, and seek mainly to elaborate and test middle-range (explanatory) theory. It only looks like realism is dominant because realists control one very prominent journal — International Security — as well as the less prominent Security Studies.

I consider this line of reasoning about half right. Sterling-Folker is right to stress the comparatively weak position of realism in the field. Although control of one of the most influential journals — and one of the few read outside academia — doesn’t exactly render an approach marginal, realism simply doesn’t enjoy the academic dominance many Europeans think it does. Indeed, when I review and read European articles, I often see criticisms of some sort of strange realist-rationalist chimera, in which “realism” and “rationalism” are taken to be synonymous. I suppose one could trace this analytical mess to Richard Ashley’s famous criticism of neo-realism (read, Waltz’s structural realism) for abandoning the putatively richer tradition of classical realism.

Regardless, it does not really exist. A great many realists are soft-rationalists — insofar as they explain state behavior via fairly primitive cost-benefit calculations — but the real force behind rationalism are the embedded liberal assumptions in a great deal of IR theory, whether “bargaining theories of war” and their progeny or “open economy” politics approaches to International Political Economy (IPE). If one’s favorite target is “rationalism,” one needs to get this straight.

But Sterling-Folker gets the other part wrong: neoliberal institutionalism isn’t where the action is.* Open IPE has much more in common with Moravcsik’s version of liberalism than Keohane’s. Rational institutionalism, itself part of open-economy IPE — has a close family resemblance to neoliberal institutionalism, but it isn’t the same thing.

If there’s a lesson in all this, it is that we need better maps of the field. The ones we work with are ridiculously outdated.

*David Lake’s relational-contracting approach to hierarchy formation is, as Paul MacDonald (I think) once pointed out, is the closest thing we have to a contemporary incarnation of neoliberal institututionalism.

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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.