Realism Is an Attitude, Not a Doctrine

August 24, 2015 Topic: Politics Tags: RealismInternational PoliticsPower

Realism Is an Attitude, Not a Doctrine

Realists agree that power is what drives international politics, but they disagree about exactly when and where it should be unleashed or husbanded.

FROM TIME to time pundits and professors find themselves enmeshed in remarkably testy disputes about the validity of “realism” in foreign policy. As someone usually seen as a realist, though an inconstant one, I have argued the matter as dutifully as any academic colleague. But is there any good reason for actual policy makers who have to get things done to be concerned with it? Many seem to think so. In the past few years, a number of commentators have pondered whether President Barack Obama fits the mold of realist or idealist.

In one sense the theoretical issue doesn’t matter all that much because in concrete cases, realists do not always provide definite answers, or answers different from those of idealists. Yet the theoretical question remains important because it calls attention to the difference between utilitarian or consequentialist moral concerns on one hand and absolute moral principles on the other—why the former should take priority when they conflict, and how the balance of power should drive states’ choices.

Underlying such debates are two epochal images from the twentieth century: the contrasting paths to war represented by the crises of 1914 and 1938, which demonstrate the dangers of overreacting and underreacting to threats, respectively. Those images have been overworked in the imaginations of both analysts and decision makers. We cannot get beyond them, however, because their visions of mistakes to avoid point in opposite directions, and—contrary to the tendency of many to cite one or the other as the crucial lesson—neither of the two can safely be dismissed. In addition, two other less frequently considered cases from that era deserve more attention than they have gotten as illustrations of where realism prescribes a clearly different course from what many idealists think of as common sense: the Western reaction to the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939 and Finland’s status during the Cold War.


DOES REALISM tell us what to do? Statesmen have good reason to care about ideas if they offer a practical road to action or inaction. And the most important of questions about what to do is whether to use force or threaten it when a conflict grows. The trouble with realism is that it is not a reliable prescription for actual policy. It is a highly general concept, covering a multitude of sins in its evolution over the centuries. To liberal idealists it connotes a brutally cynical cast of mind and a violent modus operandi in the style of the Borgias, while to neoconservative idealists it represents naively callous appeasement in the mold of Neville Chamberlain. Realism is a vague norm that does not offer consistent strategic guidance. Rather, it is an attitude more than a doctrine, and it has counseled forceful activism in some conflicts, restraint and accommodation in others. In the early Cold War realists were usually seen as hawks, but since then they have been more often viewed as doves. As Matthew Evangelista once noted with more than a whiff of contempt, one might find wanting a theory that has recommended policies as diverse as appeasement and preventive war.

Realism is usually seen as dismissing moral and legal concerns in international politics, while idealists see values and institutions as driving forces. Yet conservative realists like Henry Kissinger put great emphasis on the role of legitimacy and multilateral institutions in world order (for example, the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe), and liberal idealists like Madeleine Albright have often been avid in the use of force and compromised respect for the legal import of sovereignty (as over Kosovo). Neoconservatives, too, who are basically unilateralist liberals when it comes to foreign policy, see concern with power and values not as alternatives but as strategically fused, with military muscle being the necessary vehicle for America’s unique moral right and responsibility. In fact, who does or does not count as a realist in the real world, as compared with the ivory tower, is seldom clear. Is Obama a realist because he reveres Reinhold Niebuhr and sometimes holds the United States back from military adventurism? Or is he an idealist because he sometimes takes counsel from Susan Rice and Samantha Power?

Outside the ivory tower actual policies do not come straight out of any realist or idealist playbook, but from coalitions that cross the theoretical divide. Consider the strange bedfellows on Vietnam: liberals like Henry “Scoop” Jackson joined with conservative realists like Richard Nixon in favor of the war, while opposites like George McGovern and George F. Kennan made common cause against it. In a later example of division within the club, the New York Times op-ed page of September 26, 2002, featured dueling realists: on one side of the page a manifesto by thirty-three scholars (myself included), mostly realists, opposing the coming assault on Iraq, and on the other, an essay by Kenneth Pollack asserting the urgent need to launch it.

Realists agree that power is what drives international politics, but they disagree about exactly when and where it should be unleashed or husbanded. Nor do they agree about what international distribution of power best preserves peace and stability—multipolarity (favored by most traditional realists), bipolarity (Kenneth Waltz and John J. Mearsheimer), or unipolarity (Geoffrey Blainey, Robert Gilpin, William Wohlforth). If realists expect statesmen to respect their wisdom when confronting crises today, they should explain why their advice on specific matters of war and peace varies so much despite agreement on the principles by which strategic decisions should be made. The reason for variation in practice is uncertainty in assessments of actual threats being confronted—disagreement about how to interpret evidence of the nature and extent of a given adversary’s intentions and capabilities.


REALISTS DO agree among themselves about morality. Contrary to popular belief, they are not amoral. Realism is grounded firmly in consequentialist morality, or a materialist version of situational ethics. It simply sees the probable balance of costs and benefits in the outcome of a contest, rather than the justness of either contestant’s claims going in, as the proper moral basis for action. Realists focus more on results than on motives and are more attuned to how often good motives can produce tragic results. Idealists tend to leap to support the righteous and fight the villainous when a conflict begins because they believe they are doing what is right. Right and might, however, are not always aligned, and the practical choice available in a given conflict is often between greater and lesser evils. In that case, realists are willing to accede to odious forces if doing so results in the lesser evil.

Related to this consequentialist morality is a more equivocal view of good and evil in international politics. Critics charge realists with promoting “moral equivalence.” That is not true. To be sure, realists do empathize, if not sympathize, with the motives of their opponents. The alternative is to demonize them, which can impede peaceful compromise. Sometimes, however, enemies really are demons, and when realists fail to recognize this they go badly astray, as at Munich.

The focus on outcomes brings up another big concern for realists: the balance of power. No matter whether it is ideals or interests that drive conflict, in a world without world government, power is the ultima ratio in deciding whose claim prevails. This makes realists pay special attention to how military power should be fielded and managed to influence an adversary’s behavior. They focus on calculations of what quantity, quality and types of forces are needed to win if the conflict falls into war, and, accordingly, what forces need to be kept ready in peacetime to deter the adversary from starting the war. (Kennan, who had a tin ear for military concerns, was an exception.) Liberal idealists do not deny the importance of military power, but they usually have little to say about it. They rarely provide more than vague estimates of what success will require if it comes to combat. Neoconservative idealists do pay attention to technical military issues. They are more forthrightly willing than liberals to pay high costs in blood and treasure—and usually willing to pay more than realists—for the benefits at stake. (Consider the number that remain unrepentant about Iraq.)

At the risk of overgeneralizing, one can say that idealists worry most about courage, realists about constraints; idealists focus on the benefits of resisting evil with force, realists on the costs; idealists worry more about the costs of failing to act, realists more about the costs of acting and failing; idealists are optimists, realists pessimists.

Of course, such fast and loose generalizations are dubious, if only because there is no consensus on what defines realist or idealist, or who qualifies as either one. Many critics of realism also deny that their criticism is idealistic. (Idealism is still useful as a descriptor because it highlights the salience of absolute values—whether religious, liberal, Marxist, fascist, monarchist or other—as grounds for action without reference to careful analysis of potential consequences.) Nevertheless, the generalizations ring true to most who consider themselves realists. If realists share such priorities, why then do they vary widely in their willingness to go to war?