The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Is it possible to be a realist?

March 2, 2016

Some weeks ago, Stephen Walt lamented the absence of realist commentators in the American media space. What was striking to me at the time was Walt’s claim that realism is a ‘well-known approach to foreign policy.’ That claim—that realism is a foreign policy approach—makes sense in the context of Walt’s dirge, which focuses on the role of policy makers and media in shaping state behavior. But putting realism into a foreign policy context does not come without theoretical costs. Indeed, the grandee of modern realism in IR Kenneth Waltz rejected the idea that realism was a foreign policy framework.

By taking analysis down to the policymaker level, Walt (and others) introduce a tension into analysis that is irreconcilable. The problem lies in the objectivist foundations of realism. For Waltz, the strictures of the system were independent of human perception, beliefs, or ideas. Waltz is never quite clear how systemic forces actually produce state behavior—he discusses socialization, but who is socialized, how that socialization is carried through time, and how it translates into actual policy outcomes is never very clear (in modern parlance, his microfoundations needed work). But, for the objectivist ontology and epistemology that formed the lynchpin of a now ‘scientific’ realism (e.g. balance of power as a timeless law governing international politics), Waltz’s neglect of microfoundations was useful for reasons that I hope are clear by the end of this post.

As Walt’s post suggests, he carries forward Waltz’s objectivist starting point. If only, Walt bemoans, policymakers from Bill Clinton onward had not been blinded by ideology or sentiment, the United States would have pursued its objective national interest and as a consequence be in much better shape internationally than it is now. Realist predictions, Walt argues, have been far more accurate than alternatives. The United States would not have invaded Iraq or tried to nation build Afghanistan, focusing instead on ‘eliminating al Qaeda.’ NATO would not have expanded and put Russia in a corner (an argument I have previously disputed here on the Duck). The US would have played Iraq and Iran off each other in the Middle East and abstained from toppling Gaddafi in Libya.


On its face, the story Walt tells looks convincing. But dig a bit deeper, and it starts to come apart in profound ways. For the sake of argument, I am willing to grant Walt some contested grounds, specifically that there is a national interest that exists independent of individual perception and shared societal belief.* I am also willing to grant that policymakers can and do think in terms of material power, something my own research has shown.** The primary problem for Walt is that there is increasing evidence that, even if there is an objective national interest, the workings of human psychology would prevent anyone from being able to know and effectively act on it. To make my point I turn to the literature on strategy, which is the central mechanism by which realist foreign policy makers assess the national interest and act to pursue that interest.


In his meticulously detailed assessment of the concept of strategy Richard Betts reaches some sobering conclusions. Betts assembles a range of critiques of strategy and finds merit in many of them. For example, some argue that that it is impractical to judge risk in advance (unanticipated consequences, deeply imperfect knowledge, no basis for weighting risk) and that the past is little guide because observers confuse what they know about the results of past strategic choices with what they can expect strategists to know before the choices are tested. Thus, almost any strategy can be rationalized. Was Churchill’s resolute rejection of an accommodation offered by Hitler wise pursuit of the British national interest or a foolhardy ideological gamble on US intervention that might not have occurred had the Japanese not attacked Pearl Harbor? Hindsight holds the former, but at the time it would difficult to adjudicate that question. After assessing ten critiques Betts finds strategy afloat, but barely. At best, strategy can be meaningful only in constrained circumstances: when policymakers are confronting a simple situation over a short timeframe. The more complex or the longer the temporal scope, the less meaningful strategy becomes.


While Betts was specifically addressing military strategy, his assessment is relevant to foreign policy realism in two ways. First, foreign policy realism predominantly focuses on material power as the basis of the national interest, of which military strategy is the most obvious manifestation. Second, the problem of connecting means to end and the challenge of operating across levels of analysis is not particular to military strategy, and as a consequence many if not all of the critiques identified by Betts apply to foreign policy strategy writ large.


If Betts’ work suggests that foreign policy realism is at best profoundly constrained, Kenneth Payne’s new book on the psychology of strategy indicates that even in those constrained circumstances it is impossible for human decision makers to know or effectively act on the national interest. Payne draws on a wide range of findings in psychology and social psychology to highlight the inability of humans to assess the world in the way that foreign policy realism requires. To start, Payne notes that humans are cognitive misers. The human brain is simply unable to ‘rationally’ process all the data imposed on it. To cope, evolution has imparted a range of coping mechanisms that lighten the cognitive load. These range from cognitive fluency (humans go with the choice that is the easiest to think about) to emotional processing (emotional states simplify the information stream by highlighting specific elements) to analogical reasoning (using historical examples as a basis of decision making).


While these and other mechanisms make it possible for the brain to function in the context of perpetual information overload, they are ill-suited to assessing or acting on the objective national interest. Compounding these individual-level factors are social psychological hueristics (social identity, honor, self-esteem) that further compromise the link between policymakers and the objective national interest. Indeed, Payne goes so far as to argue that while the foreign policy realist model of the rational policy maker pursing the objective national interest may allow for “mathematical modeling of decision-making…this perspective has delivered poor results in explaining strategic behavior” (23).


What about history? After all, Walt invokes a series of examples that were certainly—at least from our current vantage point—disastrous choices. It is not hard to see that he cherry picks his examples, and even then does not recognize that many of them cut both ways. Playing Iran and Iraq off each other? Looking the other way as authoritarian leaders slaughter their people? Propping up oppressive regimes that support US policy? These kinds of policies are arguably at the root of widespread antagonism against the United States in the Middle East, so it is not clear how foreign policy realism delivers the US from the problem of regional resentment. Indeed, it is possible to read the instability in the Middle East as the culmination of decades of American/Western support of increasingly illegitimate rulers, hardly an outcome that would seem to be in the objective national interest of the United States. With respect to Libya, it is not clear how realism has much to say about the thus far failed intervention other than Walt’s claim that realism is skeptical about the efficacy of military power.


Moreover, Walt neglects a checkered history of foreign policy realism. In US history, it may be impossible to find a foreign policy team more enamored with realist thinking than Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Yet even a quick glance at their foreign policy record reveals an almost unmitigated disaster—hardly a testament to realist foreign policy. Bombing Cambodia at the very least catalyzed the rise of the Khmer Rouge and decades of instability and repression. The deployment of an aircraft carrier to intimidate India in 1971 imposed relationship damage that took decades to repair and likely contributed to India’s nuclear test in 1974—with no gain for the US. Even the opening of China, the duo’s signature realist foreign policy achievement, is not as straightforward as it appears at first glance. My colleague Fei-Ling Wang observed to me a couple weeks ago that had Nixon not shown up when he did, Mao’s regime stood a very good chance of collapsing under the weight of the Cultural Revolution. While it may be possible that such a collapse would have been against the US national interest, it might have also been in service to that interest. In light of China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, at the very least the idea that Nixon may have saved Mao prompts a rethink.


Other examples of apparently counterproductive realist foreign policy are not hard to find. Right off the top of my head I can think of fighting a proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and supporting the Shah of Iran. Coming back to Walt’s example of NATO expansion putting Russia in a corner, that might not be a problem if the US had worked harder to help Russia rebuild its economy and governance after the Cold War.  With this historical track record, the problems exposed by the strategy literature come into greater relief. It may be that there is an objective national interest (though I doubt it), but there are good reasons to believe that policy makers are unable to recognize it or act accordingly. If that is the case, foreign policy realism cannot sustain as a self-proclaimed scientific approach and instead becomes a normative theory. Returning to my point at the outset, by refusing to link realism to policy makers Waltz avoided the problem of reconciling individuals immersed in a subjective and intersubjective reality with his theory’s objectivist foundations.


*Though it is worth noting that Walt neglects the legitimating ideological foundations of governance in his assessment of the interests of states. One suspects it would weaken US power if it used liberal norms to legitimate its place at the top of the international pecking order but repeatedly refused to act on plausible mass violations of human rights like those threatened in Libya.


**Though this same research also shows policymakers think using other logics as well.

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