Does Realism Need a Saviour?


Alexander Kirss’ recent article publish on War on the Rocks caused quite the stir in the foreign policy circles in the last days: apart from being a flamboyant example of insubordination from a fellow to it’s think thank, it added fuel to the fire of what some now call the “realist civil war”. It focused on why Trump is not going to be a boon for foreign policy realists, but it was also loaded with other assessments on realism’s “failures” which I think are probably more important than the piece’s main thesis. While denouncing the Center for National Interest’s (CNI) increasingly lenient stance on Trump’s wishy-washy idea of a foreign policy agenda, he lambasts realists for shirking policy-making and staying within the comfort of academia, failing to provide a compelling narrative for America’s role in the world, and not being sufficiently organized in ways that can  influence policy. The take-away is that because they fail at implementing policy, realists tend to flock to strong-men like Donald Trump to “save” them.

While his criticism of the realist movement regarding its absence from policy circles is accurate, I don’t believe that realism has “failed” as he implies it, or that it needs a saviour like Trump. In his anger at the CNI’s position on Trump, he seems to have painted realism with broad strokes, and forgotten what it is fundamentally about. The question of Trump being a messiah for realists or not is relevant; a much better question would be what realism is, is not and can be, with or without him.

Let’s remind ourselves of just what realism is exactly: it is a theoretical framework which uses certain premises on the nature of states and the international system to predict the formers behaviour in the latter. The universally accepted premises are well known and widely adhered to in international relations writ large: the international system is anarchic, and states have survival as their first and foremost interest. There are some divergences on the finer points of states’ behaviors and how they go about surviving, but generally, those two premises is something all realists rally around. I’m certain that this is nothing that Mr. Kirss is not intimately familiar with. This framework is used to understand international relations in it’s broad strokes, which all the but the most obstinate realists having no pretension to it’s capacity to explain everything. What’s more, realism in itself carries no inherent normative ideal of how international relations SHOULD function, unlike other schools, notably everything derived from liberalism. To be sure, it is used by many to predict outcomes on the international scene, but it does so in a fatalistic way which considers states to be a certain way by nature. There is no teleologic goal built in to the framework, no gold standard to progress towards. Liberals have things like world peace and prosperity as a goal, and advocate reaching it through different means depending on their understanding on the international system, and this is how you get institutionalists and interventionists; the only thing we realists have it the sisyphean cycle of balancing and checking, buck-passing and bandwagoning into new international orders every so often.

If the academic conception of realism does not invite normative policy recommendations by design, then the obvious question is the following: what do realist policy recommendations look like? I’d answer that the only thing realists can truly hope to achieve is to shed light on what constitutes “national interest” and to better inform decision makers on ways to maximizing it, in the context of the existing international order. Obviously, ask 100 different realists to write up a list of what does and does not constitute interest and you’ll get 100 different answers. Don’t be surprised if self-professed realists differ in their opinions or if they act like they’re the only “real” realist on the planet; as with everything related to politics, the tiniest minutia can and will throw people into arguments that will make all parties blue in the face. But in the grand scheme of things none of those disagreements matter, because they occur within the “black box” of intra-state politics; as long as realism remains a useful predictor and explanans for what goes one once the domestic decisions are made, it has not failed. Realism does not need to be “saved”; it’s doing an immensely useful job at describing the dynamics of world politics, albeit while doing so in the darks corners of International Relations faculties of various universities.

Even if the end-game goal of realists were to enact policy, I think there is a strong argument to be made that this goal could be better reached under Trump. For one, the Donald has gone out of his way to be a contrarian, proposing several policy elements which completely break the orthodox hegemonic-liberal narrative of American foreign policy. As Kirss pointed out, his solutions are scattershot, but that’s precisely what makes him unlikely to carry on the “righteous nation combatting evil” world-policeman role that the previous four (or more) administrations have based their international relations on. His non-commital to a specific over-arching, prescriptive narrative on how foreign policy aught to work is precisely what might give some leeway to a truly rational calculus of interest to be pursued, if not by Trump himself, then by other actors who pull the levers of foreign affairs. If realist ideas are indeed a latent thought in states’ decision-making, Trump’s loose fabric of policy are the best medium through which these ideas can permeate to the surface. That hardly makes him a saviour; the most credit he could be given is not attempting to cloak realist concerns in several layers of liberal feel-goodery.

The fact of the matter is that neither Trump, nor any other politican can save realism from itself because it is unpalatable to the public, and hence toxic to politicians. In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer described Americans as realism-adverse because the doctrine clashed their self-perception and values, and there is a case to be made that this is true around the world. There can no longer be Machiavellis, in a world where political leaders have to stand up to the scrutiny of a public unable to accept that the international scene is a dog-eat-dog world. In this sense, realist concerns are doomed to be diluted when presented to the public; wether the dilution is done by a drone-wielding Nobel Peace Prize winner or a cheetos-coloured real-estate mogul doesn’t really matter all that much.

I share Mr. Kirss’ yearning to see more realism-inspired policies enacted, policies which will actually evaluate national interest sensibly and that will stop coating every unnecessary over-seas escapade in the language of realism. I admire that he obviously wants us realists to be more vocal on our disappointment with how wacky nation-building projects are pushed to the masses as a necessity for our security. However I don’t think that his objectives and disappointment with their non-achievement are grounds to lambast realism as a whole. Realism as we know it has been along for a while now as a theory, and for even long in practice; it can and will weather the storm of another bad president. The fundamentals of realism are sane, it’s just a matter of seeing it’s popularity coming around. We don’t need to make realism great again, it already is.