It seems like good times have come around again for realists. After decades in the theoretical and empirical doldrums (getting end of Cold War wrong, opposition to war in Iraq, terrorism and COIN) realism is back. The most recent U.S. National Defense Strategy renews a focus on great power competition, specifically with China and Russia. The Pentagon has offloaded MRAPs and is stocking up on boost phase interceptors, hypersonics, and other weapons platforms not all that useful against insurgents but great for peer competitors. Oh, happy days for the balance of power!
Except, appearances are deceiving. Take for example a recent conference at OSU on realist foreign policy. According to organizer Randy Schweller:
The purpose of the conference is to assemble a “dream team” of realists to hammer out the elements we should expect to see in realist foreign policy. The ultimate goal is to develop a set of baseline expectations on a range of important issues (alliances, coercive diplomacy, economic statecraft, ethics/morality, deterrence, nuclear politics, etc.) for realist foreign policies that distinguish them from the liberal alternatives.
At least from the appearance of the program on the website, the ‘dream team’ appears to tackle just these issues. And that, I argue, is the heart of the problem for realism. Its narrow foundation, grounded as it is in the politics of security, make it relatively inflexible and incapable of adaptation.
Allow me to make two points in this regard, one concrete the other more esoteric. First, this conference is notable for absence of climate change—a remarkable absence given the monumental scope of the problem. The conference is not unique in neglecting climate change. While it is impossible for me to say that there has been no treatment of climate change from a realist standpoint, I do feel confident in saying there is not much treatment, if any at all. That is because, aside from examining the possibly of increased conflict of natural resources à la Thomas Homer-Dixon and the Toronto School, the logic of great power security competition that lies at the heart of realism cannot account for the complexity of climate change. In the first instance, competition does not resolve (no balancing) nor is it emergent from either the causes or effects of climate change. The logic of security/loss is incapable of sustaining the kind of fundamental and long-term political, social, and economic changes required to address climate change. Thomas Homer-Dixon and the Toronto School, the logic of great power security competition that lies at the heart of realism cannot account for the complexity of climate change. In the first instance, competition does not resolve (no balancing) nor is it emergent from either the causes or effects of climate change. The logic of security/loss is incapable of sustaining the kind of fundamental and long-term political, social, and economic changes required to address climate change.
The second point concerns the nature of threat in realism. Climate change certainly introduces the possibility that states will be existentially threatened—sea level rise will eliminate some pacific atoll nations and seriously threaten other low-lying states like Bangladesh. But while these threats seem familiar to realism, the approach’s tools are useless in response because the outcomes are not effects of security competition. Going further, however, we know that climate change will also create social instability through disruptions to long-standing weather patterns. Wealthy countries may be able to afford adequate adaptation measures, at least in the short-to-medium term. But poor and middle income countries will not, sparking the substantial possibility of major population movements as destabilized populations seek political and social stability.
As the refugee crisis in Europe and the ongoing debate in the United States suggest, policymakers in wealth states face a dilemma: open their borders and face a populist backlash that threatens to undermine socio-political cohesion, or close the borders and turn to security measures (e.g. increasingly authoritarian police tactics, building walls) to maintain political legitimacy. In either event, in the case of democracies the threat is not primarily the people trying to get in but rather to the continued existence of democratic social and political systems. Here realism also fails because its conception of state survival is purely material; creeping authoritarianism driven by environmental refugees is not something that realism conceives as a threat to the state. But it is fair to ask in an era of widespread authoritarian populism and in the face of future climate instability whether the United States or any democracy has meaningfully ‘survived’ if it has ceased to be a democracy. Realism’s materialist ontology gives us no real tools for taking on this increasingly significant question.
This is not to say the (social) logic of realism will disappear. The idea that social relations are/should be based on material competition for survival will persist. But realism, as a social scientific theory that offers explanations of international outcomes, will become increasingly irrelevant.