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

In the midst of the Cold War and at the end of the Vietnam War, there
came the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system and the oil price
revolution. The first clearly resulted from the decline in the dollar
generated by the Vietnam War, and the second was accelerated and
deepened on account of the October 1973 Middle East war. In turn,
they created instability in important military spheres, such as U.S.
containment of the Soviet Union and U.S. influence in the Middle
East. Despite this, academic realists had virtually nothing to say
about these momentous international occurrences. Again, their
concepts and precepts, founded almost exclusively upon military
issues, could not encompass economic ones, even if these had serious
consequences for international security.

Finally, near the end of the twentieth century came one of the
greatest, and the strangest, events in the history of international
relations, the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the
Cold War. What did this event tell us about the validity and vitality
of realist concepts and precepts?

On the one hand, a central cause of the Soviet collapse was the
determined policies of containment and military buildup of President
Ronald Reagan. Ironically, however, at the time that Reagan was
pursuing these policies, most distinguished realists, including
Kennan and even Kissinger, criticized them. They did not think of
Reagan as being a realist but rather as an ideologue, even a
simplistic idealist (and "idealism" had always been soundly condemned
by realists).

On the other hand, as Reagan himself knew, his military policies
could only work because of the basic economic weaknesses of the
Soviet economy, particularly the inability of the Soviet Union to
compete in international markets. This was the second central cause
of the Soviet collapse. And on this the realists had nothing to say.

The realist perspective, thus, has had a rather checkered record in
interpreting the great international occurrences of the twentieth
century. In the first half of the century, when Europe and its
balance of power were central to international affairs, realism at
best could account for the two world wars, but even there its
interpretation was ambiguous and underdetermining. In the second half
of the century, when America and the bipolar system were central to
international affairs, realism's record was even less impressive. It
could account for the beginning and continuing of the Cold War, but
it could not account in important cases (like Vietnam) for how the
Cold War was conducted and how it came to an end.

The real strengths of realism do not lie in its concepts and
precepts, in its clear and accurate understanding of the reality of
international affairs. Rather, they lie in its attitudes and
sensibilities, in its mature and profound understanding of the
tragedy of international affairs. This is ironic, of course, given
the general disdain that most realists have for such "soft" phenomena
as attitudes and sensibilities. But these and the understanding of
tragedy that they bring are the very qualities that lift the writings
of Morgenthau, Kissinger, and, above all, Kennan to the heights. They
understand Thucydides, and like Thucydides they also understand
Sophocles. Thucydides would recognize each of them to be one of his

Structural Realism: The Academic Revision of the Realist Tradition

Morgenthau, Kennan, and Kissinger, of course, were very different in
the degree to which they actually made or influenced U.S. foreign
policy in the course of their careers. Morgenthau was a well-known
commentator, Kennan a prominent diplomat, and Kissinger a famous
national security advisor and secretary of state. But they were all
prolific in their writings in the leading opinion journals that dealt
with international affairs at the time, such as Foreign Affairs,
Foreign Policy, and The New Republic.

They were also very different in the extent that they were academics
in the course of their careers. Morgenthau taught for many years at
the University of Chicago, Kennan wrote from the Institute for
Advanced Study near Princeton, and Kissinger taught for about a
decade at Harvard. But none of them saw himself as an academic; they
were in the academic world, but not of it. For such men, the fact
that their writings were characterized as being more about reality
and tragedy than about rigor and theory was not a serious criticism.
This was also true of two other distinguished realists, Robert W.
Tucker and Robert Osgood, both of Johns Hopkins University. Although
principally academics, they too published extensively in the leading
opinion journals.

Most academics, however, are only academics. In the course of their
careers, they have been paid a salary only by a university; they are
one-dimensional people. They therefore have not had the breadth of
experience to give them a sense of the reality of international
relations; nor have they had the depth of experience to give them a
sense of its tragedy. These are the hollow men, and the shallow men,

For such people, there are only a few kinds of achievements possible
in regard to international relations. One of them is to sit down and
spin out theories that fellow academics will praise as being rigorous
and original. (Merely being realistic and responsible, in contrast,
will not evoke their praise.) In truth, most academics are only
concerned about the good opinion of about a dozen other academic
specialists in their particular sub-sub-field.

It was only a matter of time before the realist tradition would be
appropriated by the theoretical academics. The result was structural

Realism had often assumed a balance of power system, one composed of
several great powers. This was indeed realistic up through the first
half of the twentieth century. With the advent after 1945 of the
bipolar system consisting of the United States and the Soviet Union,
however, a main assumption of realism ceased to be realistic.

One of the first scholars to think systematically about the special
dynamics of a bipolar system was Kenneth Waltz, who in 1964 published
an important article on "the stability of a bipolar world", and who
became one of two leading international relations scholars at the
University of California at Berkeley (the other, whom we will mention
later, was Ernst Haas). Waltz continued to develop the idea that
different international systems were distinguished by different
numbers of leading powers and different distributions of power among
them, i.e., by different international structures. These different
international structures of power give rise to different kinds of
international behavior (including stability or instability). In 1979,
he published his thoughts about international structures in Theory of
International Politics, thus becoming the founding father of
structural realism.

Waltz's theory was so general and abstract that it could be seen as
more a taxonomy or a tautology than a true theory. It is no accident
that his book normally is only cited in the academic journals dealing
with international relations, such as International Security and
World Politics, and never in the policy journals such as Foreign
Affairs, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, and World Policy
Journal. But in the academic literature it has been cited profusely.

When Waltz applied his abstract theory to policy issues, he
demonstrated why he was ignored by policy professionals. Waltz argued
that international stability would be increased by nuclear
proliferation; more nuclear powers would make for less international
aggression. There probably has not been a single foreign policy
professional in the U.S. government who has found this notion to be

International Security Studies: The Highest Stage of Academic Realism

But Waltz should not be dismissed as being only an academic
eccentric. He also mentored about two dozen younger academic
specialists in international relations and security studies. They
have written in the 1980s and 1990s a large number of useful (and
realistic) books on such topics as the dynamics of multipolar
systems, alliance formation, arms races, offensive versus defensive
strategies, and stable versus unstable deterrence. The international
security scholars also publish and debate extensively in the leading
academic journal in their field, which is appropriately titled
International Security.

The most distinguished of these international security scholars is
John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. His book Conventional
Deterrence (1983) presented an analysis, with historical cases, of
how deterrence based upon conventional (non-nuclear) weapons had
worked or had failed. In the mid-1980s, this book was highly relevant
and applicable for senior U.S. military officers, who were then
developing non-nuclear deterrence strategies against the Soviet Union
(e.g., the Air-Land Battle Doctrine of the army and the Maritime
Strategy of the navy).

There are other distinguished scholars who have been part of the
structural realist school, but who have developed theories and
analyses of international security that have been informed and
sophisticated in their use of history, as well as relevant and
applicable to contemporary issues in U.S. foreign policy and military
strategy. They are Barry Posen of MIT, Jack Snyder of Columbia, and
Stephen Walt of the University of Chicago. Together with Mearsheimer,
they have made the contemporary American academic version of realism
worthy of the great tradition.

Essay Types: Essay