Why do people hate realism so much? It’s a thoughtful question asked by Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy. Walt is a card-carrying foreign policy realist, his work on alliances and his theory of balance of threat influenced the theoretical framework of much such research with major explanatory power. Walt argues that at the time of realism’s triumph, as the theory predicted a conflict in Ukraine, we’re observing a withering attack on the worldview. “Much of this ire has been directed at my colleague and occasional co-author John J. Mearsheimer, based in part on the bizarre claim that his views on the West’s role in helping to cause the Russia-Ukraine crisis somehow make him ‘pro-Putin’ and in part on some serious misreadings of his theory of offensive realism,” Walt writes, adding that “another obvious target is former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose recent comments urging peace talks with Moscow, a territorial compromise in Ukraine, and the need to avoid a permanent rupture with Russia were seen as a revealing demonstration of realism’s moral bankruptcy.”
Walt concludes that there are several reasons people dislike realism. Primary among them is the idea that realism is pessimistic. “It’s not hard to understand why many people are reluctant to embrace such a pessimistic view of the human condition, especially when it appears to offer no clear escape from it.” Second, realism is “indifferent or hostile” to ethical considerations, being an amoral framework where power is the chief determinant. “There is a grain of truth in this charge, insofar as realism’s theoretical framework does not incorporate values or ideals in any explicit way,” Walt writes, “for realists, noble aims and good intentions are not enough if the resulting choices lead to greater insecurity or human suffering.” Realists do not consider any country exceptional, as their worldview argues that every country, every power will usually act in a certain way, facing a certain set of variables. That also rubs most people the wrong way, as most people tend to think in group dynamic, and any criticism of their own country’s behavior or dissent and nonconformity to the “current thing” or conventional wisdom, are considered unpatriotic.
Finally, Walt writes that realism got major questions right, and naturally got major ideological opponents on the way. Walt writes, “realism tends to be unpopular because its proponents have an annoying tendency to be right … realists were right about NATO enlargement, dual containment in the Persian Gulf, the war in Iraq, Ukraine’s ill-fated decision to give up its nuclear arsenal, the implications of China’s rise, and the folly of nation-building in Afghanistan, to note just a few examples.”
There is a lot of sense in these arguments. Realism, a framework which privileges (to borrow a word used often by the academic Left) power and national interest, is by definition a “reactionary” theory, more at home within political conservatism and hierarchy. It is fundamentally opposed to mass democracy and subsequent volatility of public passions. And while it is sternly in favor of national interest, it also favors compromises and a balance of power based on relative gains. Furthermore, being a reactionary theory, it believes in a cyclical view of history, instead of a steady arc of progress. Therefore, realism falls squarely opposed to any worldview that affirms egalitarianism or progress, whether liberalism, socialism, feminism, or Marxism, all of which are theories stemming from the enlightenment, with an egalitarianism embedded. In turn, all progressive theories, from liberalism to Marxism, are normatively opposed to any political reaction. The opposition to realism (and realists) within the academy is therefore qualitatively similar to all the progressive fanaticism about statue toppling, hierarchy, and canceling classics, a deep aversion to anything vaguely reactionary from patrimony, to authority, to national borders, an opposition which isn’t just academic or theoretical, but ideological. To borrow Peter Hitchens’ famous words, a rage by “tiny figures scuttling through cavernous halls built for much greater men.”
Realism is, of course, amoral, but not cruel or unethical. In fact, the instinct for compromise and balance of power comes from a higher ethical consideration. As Hans Morgenthau wrote,
Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place. The individual may say for himself: “Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish),” but the state has no right to say so in the name of those who are in its care. Both individual and state must judge political action by universal moral principles, such as that of liberty. Yet while the individual has a moral right to sacrifice himself in defense of such a moral principle, the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival. There can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action.
While realism isn’t blameless, the record of realism isn’t comparable to the democracy crusades of the last thirty years.
But to return to the original question, one must add that the framing of the question itself is flawed. The people don’t hate realism. In fact, public opinion is usually fundamentally reactionary, if channeled rightly. The majority favors national borders and opposes foreign misadventures. What could be more reactionary than that in our time? Public opinion can be volatile and appeals to emotion succeed in the short term. But overall, the public understands their interests if clearly communicated with. Consider the recent drop in support for a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) over Ukraine, the moment it was explained what an NFZ would actually entail. The hatred for realism (and any political reaction) is an elite progressive affliction, aided by an ideological academy. What realists sometimes refuse to accept is that they are at a structural disadvantage. This isn’t the time of Metternich, nor is it the time of Yalta, or even Kissinger’s secret China visit. Realism isn’t a worldview that can succeed automatically in the age of social media, NGOs, hyper-democracy, and an activist academy and internationalist news media. To succeed in that scenario, realism and realists will need to use the inherent reactionary public instinct to their advantage, and communicate in ways that might at times go against electoral propriety, and sound like an uncouth New York tycoon. Whether it is a compromise academic realists are willing to entertain, to regain a hand in policy setting, is a key question.
Sumantra Maitra is a national-security fellow at the Center for the National Interest and an elected associate fellow at the Royal Historical Society.