Rethinking Realism

In international relations, realism commonly comes under attack. Realism is the belief that states are rational and that they pursue their interests and their interests exclusively through rational means. Realism is a descriptive theory–it makes claims about how the world is. Many people criticise realism on the grounds that this is very much not the whole story. It is often unclear what a state’s interests are in the first place, and there are many cases in which states act in ways that seem to run contrary to their interests. States sometimes make irrational mistakes. We know that states are not exclusively rational because we care who determines our foreign policy. If all leaders were rationally and pursued the same set of interests rationally, all leaders would be equivalent to one another in policy. Insofar as there are policy differences among different leaders, there is either disagreement about interests, more rational and less rational policies in pursuit of interests, or some combination of both of these things. This often makes realism seem reductionist. It ignores the way we construct our interests, taking them as given. It also ignores the mistakes that people make, the capacity for leaders to be incompetent. However, I do not think realism can be dismissed on these grounds. Instead, it requires re-framing.

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