A tale of two realisms

3 March 2022, 1410 EST

It’s been a rough week for John Mearsheimer. He has come under a barrage of criticism for his claim that Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine is the West’s fault. His theoretical tradition, realism, has also come under fire, for producing not only (arguably) bad policy takes but policy takes that don’t seem to flow from the theory itself. Does this mean that all of realism is flawed? I would argue no, by pointing to another target of such claims, Stephen Walt. This says something about how to make/keep realism relevant.

The trouble with realism?

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mearsheimer’s statements on US-Russian tensions circulated widely on Twitter; he argued that the post-Cold War expansion of NATO threatened Russia, leading to Putin’s aggressive moves. After Russia’s invasion, as the world pulled together in opposition to Russia’s actions, he became the target of widespread criticism for his views, as encapsulated by this New Yorker interview.

Most are critiquing his policy prescriptions, but some are taking aim at his academic work. What does it say about offensive realism, which Mearsheimer championed, if it produces policy takes such as this? What does it say about realism in general? The issue isn’t just that many of us disagree with his policy views, it’s that they don’t seem to connect at all with his theory. Mearsheimer argued that states will inevitably seek to expand their power, as this is the only way they can be assured of their security. This expansion will continue until they are balanced by a countervailing force or come up against geographic boundaries. The idea that Russia’s security could be assured with promises from America, thus undermining Russia’s aggressive tendencies, seems like something Mearsheimer should argue against.

This has drawn in another famous realist, Stephen Walt. Several critiques of Mearsheimer list Walt alongside him (just search the two names together on Twitter). Like Mearsheimer, Walt has become a public intellectual and at times has advanced policy views that do not seem to fit with his academic work, in his case defensive realism. Defensive realism accepts that states can achieve security, with international tensions emerging from misperceptions or systemic destabilizing factors.

Mearsheimer’s policy takes are a blatant contradiction of his academic work. Walt’s thereotical elaborations on realism, however, allow for a richer policy analysis.

A few of his policy works seem to contradict this. There is the famous (infamous) “Mearsheimer and Walt” book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. Beyond being controversial for its depiction of a unified “Israel lobby,” many pointed to the irony of two structural realists claiming domestic politics drives US foreign policy. In Walt’s Taming American Power (a book I find excellent, and which I assign in my Intro to IR classes) he discusses the importance of things like the United Nations and normative legitimacy. And in his periodic columns on foreign policy he has argued realism can explain issues it has ignored, like public health.

So here we have two academic realists who seem to depart from their scholarly theories when they are incapable of explaining current events. They do so, it seems, by adding ad hoc extensions to their theory or abandoning its core foundations altogether. This is the sort of Lakatosian regressive research program Andrew Bennett warned us about in our PhD seminars at Georgetown.

But I’m not sure this is fair to Walt.

In defense of Stephen Walt

I have been critical of Walt, such as when he claimed realism can explain Covid-19. And I’ve been critical of the paradigms in general, as I think they don’t reflect current trends in the study of international relations. But I think it’s unfair to lump Walt in with Mearsheimer.

Let’s compare their heresies. Mearsheimer went from arguing that states will constantly seek power to arguing states will only be aggressive if others make them feel insecure. That is a blatant contradiction, and we should call it out as such. Walt, however, has argued that revolutions and the intentions of a state can influence how threatening it appears. More generally, this encompasses domestic factors–instability and foreign policy orientation independent of structural position–and ideas such as revolutionary ideologies and the aforementioned foreign policy orientation.

Let’s all criticize Mearsheimer. But leave realism out of it.

Some have criticized Walt over these elaborations on realism, arguing it weakens the theory and demonstrates its unsuitability. But I would argue it strengthens it, by expanding on the things that matter in international relations (which is actually more in line with structural realism’s classical realist roots). And it creates a theoretical foundation for a richer foreign policy analysis. If domestic instability or preferences can matter in international relations, why not domestic lobbying groups? If ideological orientations can influence how threatening a state is, then why can’t shared international beliefs do the same? Admittedly, it’s harder to reconcile his recognition of the UN’s importance (although if someone has an example where he theorized this, let me know). He’s even admitted he was wrong on things like culture.

This matters for assessing the usefulness of academic realism in both policy and academic debates. Realists argue that states are self-interested and insecure, giving rise to a tense and uncertain international system. Walt’s work demonstrates the variety of forms this tension can take, and the possibility of reducing (but never eliminating) it. This allows for a rich policy analysis. Mearsheimer rejects anything beyond the pursuit of material power, which gives him little with which to analyze international relations.

On the academic side, there’s nowhere really to go with offensive realism. You just find cases of states balancing based on power. As more and more studies show, however, that isn’t really the norm. Defensive realism provides more options, while Walt’s policy work provides suggestions for how to incorporate normative concerns and international organizations into the study of power politics. Instead of rejecting realism, we should deepen these theoretical connections. One good approach (although one of the authors may recoil at me comparing his work to Walt’s) is Goddard and Nexon’s work on power politics.

Either way, let’s all criticize Mearsheimer. But leave realism out of it.