The Crisis of Theoretical Amnesia

The Crisis of Theoretical Amnesia

Realism isn't going away.

In an essay in these spaces titled "The Crisis of Realism," Jonathan Levine makes an appeal for more, and new, realist theorizing. He won't get an argument on that from me—as someone who first developed his academic chops as an international relations theorist and still places himself in the realist camp. But Levine presents his piece as an indictment of realists as somehow being behind the times. The thread of his argument, which includes a discursion about nuclear weapons, is a bit hard to follow, but his main point seems to be that realists are stuck in a rigidly state-centric way of looking at the world that takes insufficient account of nonstate actors. His principal foil is Kenneth Waltz, who, Levine says in an overstatement, “dismissed nonstate actors as irrelevant.”

One knows something is amiss in what Levine is saying when he weaves into an indictment of realism a negative reference to the Iraq War as “what we got” from the supposed theoretical deficiency he is indicting. And Levine is not just knocking realists for not trying hard enough to stop that war; he is saying that the war flowed directly from the “Westphalian state-to-state conflict model” that he associates with realists. But the disastrous neoconservative project that was the Iraq War was one of the most unrealist foreign policy endeavors the United States has undertaken. Some of the leading realist scholars in the nation—including Waltz—were among those who explicitly opposed the war in an open letter. The Bush administration's contrived association of a state with a terrorist group was a tactic in a sales campaign that had nothing whatever to do with any realist emphasis on states as units of analysis for understanding international relations.

Realism is far more than just a habit of looking at states and not at other things. And it is not a matter of “dismissing nonstate actors as irrelevant.” The open letter against the Iraq War stated that “Al Qaeda poses a greater threat to the U.S. than does Iraq” and added—correctly—that “War with Iraq will jeopardize the campaign against al Qaeda by diverting resources and attention from that campaign and by increasing anti-Americanism around the globe.”

Good realists do make clear distinctions between states, and state interests, and nonstate actors and phenomena. Levine fails to make this distinction when he discusses the nuclear strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction in the same paragraph with suicide terrorists and says that the former was an “early casualty” of the latter. Strategic doctrine of a state involves an entirely different set of questions from motivations of individuals, be they terrorists or anyone else. Even within nonstate groups, those who send suicide terrorists are rarely suicidal themselves.

Another of Levine's errors is a widely shared one: the tendency to overstate how much in the world of the current era is new and different from previous eras. The sense of newness is a function more of our own policy analytical vocabulary and appetite for novelty than of how the world has changed. 9/11 unquestionably opened many political and public eyes about terrorism but did not mark a sea change in terrorism itself (or in the understanding of it among those who had been studying it). The end of the Cold War changed the polarity of the global system but did not involve nearly as many other changes as are implied by our collective habit of dividing time into Cold War and post-Cold War eras. During the Cold War there was much useful writing and thinking about challenges arising from the nonstate side of things, such as in a book written in the 1970s by Graham Allison and Peter Szanton, to point to only one example.

Theory and policy analysis written in the realist tradition during the Cold War had a complexity far different from the simplistic caricature that Levine presents. Realist thinkers went in different directions, for example, regarding Waltz's view about the effects of nuclear proliferation. Although Levine describes MAD as a “sacral totem” of the Cold War, very complex bodies of doctrine were developed about nuclear strategy, too, with highly refined theory involving flexible response, escalation, counterforce strategies and the like. And during the Cold War there even was a counterpart of sorts to those realist scholars opposing the Iraq War, in the form of realist opposition to the Vietnam War (with one of the leading realist scholars of the day, Hans Morgenthau, being one of the most prominent and outspoken opponents of the war from the very beginning).

Levine longs for some new realist breakthrough equivalent to the democratic peace theory of liberal scholarship. In an oft-quoted comment, the political scientist Jack Levy described the democratic peace concept as “the closet thing we have to an empirical law in the study of international relations.” Note that he said “closet thing” to a law—not a law itself. Levine himself correctly describes why our expectations should be limited when he comments that because of the “vagaries of human behavior” international relations “is not physics” and “there are no laws.” So why should we expect some big new theoretical breakthrough?

There is a lot of rich realist theory on, and in, the books that is still very applicable to problems of the present even if it was originally constructed during the Cold War. One just has to get the books off the shelf and read them.