Inside the Cave: The Banality of I.R. Studies

Inside the Cave: The Banality of I.R. Studies

Mini Teaser: In general, the landscape of international relations thinking in the United States is a view of a great American desert with a few refreshing and enlivening oases. Here's how to improve it.

by Author(s): James Kurth

The twentieth century has certainly been among the most--if not the
most--grand and dramatic centuries in the history of international
relations. In the military sphere, there was the First World War, the
Second World War, and the Cold War (really a third world war). In the
economic sphere, there was the Great Depression of the 1930s, the
long boom of the 1950s-60s, and the oil shocks and world inflation of
the 1970s. History doesn't get any more grand and dramatic than this.
And at the end of the story comes the triumphal conclusion: the
United States as the sole superpower, as the hegemon of the global
economy, and as the first universal nation--bestriding the world more
grandly than any empire since that of Rome.

In the same century, the universities of the United States have
become the greatest and richest academic institutions in the history
of intellectual life. Part of this is the result of the numerous
services that the universities performed for the U.S. government
during the Cold War. Part of it is the result of great national
wealth. And part of it is due to the numerous scholars that have
flocked to the universal nation--the nation made up of peoples from
everywhere and representing every culture--from all over the world.

Surely then, we might reasonably think, the theories that American
academics have produced about America's international role, and about
international relations generally, would be commensurably rich and
grand. But of course, we know that this is not the case. Most readers
of The National Interest will have only a vague idea of what is being
written by leading academics about international affairs, and this
with good reason. In the sole superpower, the higher learning about
international relations does not loom large on the intellectual
landscape. Its practitioners are not only rightly ignored by
practical foreign policy officials; they are usually held in disdain
by their fellow academics as well.

This essay will offer a map of the landscape of international
relations thinking in the United States. In general, it is a view of
a great American desert. It will point to a few refreshing and
enlivening oases, however, and it will suggest how these oases might
grow to reclaim the desert and make it bloom.

The Two Great Traditions

There have been two great traditions in the interpretation of
international relations. One tradition emphasizes such ideas as the
autonomous actions of sovereign states, the anarchy of international
relations, the importance of national power, and the pursuit of
national interests. For the past half century this perspective has
been known as realism. The other tradition emphasizes such ideas as
the necessity for states to engage in international cooperation, the
harmony of interests, the importance of international economic
exchanges, and the erosion of the nation-state. For the past quarter
century, this perspective has been known as liberalism. Each
perspective has its strengths (otherwise it could not have continued
to exist decade after decade). Each has its weaknesses (and, taken
seriously, these could have dire consequences for America's role in
international affairs).

There is also a third perspective that we should consider. It is not
yet really a great tradition in the interpretation of international
relations, but rather a major tradition in the study of comparative
politics. In the future, however, it may prove to be the most useful,
even if the most demanding, perspective from which Americans can view
their role in the world. It emphasizes the distinctive cultural
characteristics of different societies, as they are expressed by
different kinds of states in the international arena. Many of these
cultural characteristics derive from the great religions. A few of
these societies are nation-states (e.g., Britain, France, Germany,
and Japan). Others are multicultural states (e.g., the United States,
Canada, and Russia). And others are entire civilizations largely
under the rule of one government (e.g., China and India).

The Realist Tradition: Power & Tragedy

The founding father of the realist tradition was Thucydides, as he
developed this distinct perspective in his great book, The
Peloponnesian War. Written twenty-four centuries ago, this awesome
achievement has never been surpassed in its rich and lucid
understanding of the reality, and the tragedy, of relations and wars
between independent states.

In the modern era, the realist tradition was developed in Europe by
Carl von Clausewitz in On War, Leopold von Ranke in The Primacy of
Foreign Policy, and Friedrich Meinecke in Reason of State. In
America, it has been ably represented by Hans Morgenthau, Henry
Kissinger, and George Kennan. The first two were refugees from Nazi
Germany; Kennan has been the native-born American with the most
sensitive and profound understanding of the reality and the tragedy
of Central Europe in the twentieth century.

It is no accident that the great representatives of the realist
tradition have been either Germans or Americans intimately familiar
with Germany. The realist tradition was completely natural and
logical for Continental powers operating within a balance of power
system, particularly for a power at the center of the continent,
i.e., Germany. As we shall see, however, it has not been so natural
and logical for a great maritime power, even one on a continental
scale, i.e., the United States.

The realist perspective was very good at explaining the great wars of
the first half of the twentieth century. The scramble for colonies,
the arms races, the competitive mobilizations of 1914--all of these
events leading up to the First World War fit realist concepts,
especially the concept of the security dilemma. Similarly, the
ruthless pursuit of national interest, the brutal display of military
power, and the fatal consequences of neglecting realist precepts--all
of these factors leading up to the Second World War fit realist
concepts, especially the emphasis on the prime importance of national

Even within these successes of the realist interpretation, however,
there could be found some anomalies. In regard to the First World
War, it could be argued (and was argued by President Woodrow Wilson
and other Americans) that the sudden outbreak and prolonged stalemate
of that horrendous war, the very Great War itself, was a result of
the failure, not the success, of realist concepts and precepts.
Surely the balance of power system and the dual-alliance system, so
much in keeping with realist notions, made the war as great as it was.

Similarly, in regard to the Second World War, it was all very well to
say that realist concepts and precepts like balance of power and
containment (as were advocated by Winston Churchill) could have
prevented the war. But, as it happened, the leading British academic
realist of the time, E.H. Carr, writing in his influential 1939 book
The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939, gave an extremely comprehensive
and sophisticated argument for the policy of appeasement. If realist
concepts and precepts could lead to such opposite policies as
containment and appeasement on an issue of such importance as what to
do about Nazi Germany, then they hardly could be of much practical
use to statesmen trying to make decisions.

In between the two great world wars, there was a great economic
calamity. The Great Depression clearly resulted from the economic
disruption caused by the First World War and it even more clearly
resulted in the Second World War. However, realists had virtually
nothing to say about it. Their concepts and precepts, focused almost
exclusively upon military ("security") issues, could not encompass
economic ones, even if these had the gravest of consequences for
international security.

Eventually (forty years later), there was developed a power-centered
interpretation of the origin of the world depression. This was the
account by Charles Kindleberger of MIT in his 1973 book, The World in
Depression, 1929-1939. But Kindleberger was a distinguished economic
historian, not a realist theorist of international affairs. Further,
while he argued for the necessity of an "economic hegemon" that would
ensure the smooth operation of the international economy, realists
have always argued that a hegemon is what every other power would, or
at least should, strive to prevent.

The second half of the twentieth century was the really American part
of the century. How did realist concepts and precepts fit the major
military and economic occurrences of this period?

The realist perspective could readily explain the Cold War. The
division of Europe into two blocs, the competition for influence in
the Third World, and the competitive arms race all fit realist
concepts, especially the policy of containment and the strategy of
nuclear deterrence. Even within this success of the realist
interpretation, however, there again could be found some anomalies.
In regard to the division of Europe, it could be argued (and was
argued by that eminent realist, George Kennan) that U.S. national
interests would better be served by a policy of disengagement that
would create a neutral buffer zone in Central Europe. Similarly, in
regard to the Vietnam War, a prime example of competition for
influence in the Third World, Hans Morgenthau argued against the U.S.
intervention, while Henry Kissinger was in favor of it. Again, if
realist concepts and precepts could lead to such opposite policies as
containment and disengagement in regard to the Soviet Union and to
such opposite policies as intervention and non-intervention in the
Vietnam War, then they hardly could be of much practical use to
statesmen (even Kissinger) trying to make decisions.

Essay Types: Essay