by Benjamin Studebaker
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.
What makes realism so attractive in the first place? If states were well and truly realist, they would be highly efficient utility maximisers for their citizens. This would be of great benefit to their citizens. A state that accurately understands its interests accurately understands what is of greatest benefit to its citizens as a whole, and a rational state is capable of pursuing those interests with maximal efficiency. The same flaws in realism are flaws we recognise in our own states. When Americans despair over US foreign policy, what they despair over is not its realist character, but its lack thereof. The complaint is invariably one of two kinds:
- The US has misidentified its interests.
- The US has adopted faulty and irrational means of addressing its interests.
There are numerous examples of cases in which people within the United States have been critical of US foreign policy for one or both of these reasons.
Some Americans question whether US support for Israel is truly in the American interest, believing that support for Israel generates terrorism, unpopularity, or instability in Muslim countries. While many Americans embrace energy security, some think it should be achieved with renewable energy, some with increased domestic fossil fuel production, and some with foreign interventionism. Some Americans think terrorism should be fought as a war, others as merely a police issue. There is tremendous scope for disagreement.
The source of the disagreements on these issues is often ideological, not altogether rational. Many Americans believe that promoting democracy through interventionism will make the rest of the world more stable and peaceful, but America’s history of intervention in places like Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that this is not so, that the result is instability, backlash, and corrupt puppet governments. So why the attachment to spreading democracy? Ideological commitment to democracy as a political system, born from an American education and socialisation that favours democratic principles and values, condemning all alternatives. And why the difference of views on energy security? Because people have pre-existing political commitments on climate change and environmentalism.
Not only are there different views on our interest and what we should do about them, but there is the corrupting influence of money. Many lobbying groups bankroll politicians who will support their particular interests, even though those interests may not jive with the interests of the state or community as a whole. Democratic politics is often a clash of different lesser interests. Voters often vote for what they take to be in their interest, not for any national agenda, and when they do consider the welfare of society as a whole, it is through a biased and coloured lens. Lobbying organisations only worsen this problem by bribing politicians to give them special consideration over and above the consideration they give to other citizens and other lesser interests.
When you have a society in which people do not agree on what the interests are, they do not agree on what should be done about the interests that are agreed upon, and they are constantly under the influence of moneyed interests and personal prejudices, it is no small wonder that states often act in ways that do not seem to us to be strictly speaking realist.
But what this does reveal is that we would like for our states to come to their positions on their interests as rationally as possible, with as little bias as possible. It is impossible for any person or state to be perfectly rational, to make decisions about interests and the actions we take to pursue them perfectly. We would, however, like our states to aspire to this, rather than settle for appeasing subsidiary interests at the expense of the whole, or making decisions emotionally, flippantly, or under the influence of ideas improperly considered. Realism is a blunt instrument as a descriptive theory, unable to explain the inanities of our often fickle and incompetent states. It makes a much better normative theory.
Our states should try to be realist, to be impartial, to weigh and consider the interests of all citizens equally when making policy. They should attempt to check their biases and their potentially faulty ideological frames. Just as individuals are incapable of perfection, so too are states, but in aspiring to a perfect standard, states can come closer to it than they otherwise would. States may not be realist, but they should try to be.
Thanks for your excellent post!
Unfortunately realism is too often associated with militarism. Although realists will use military force if necessary, realism is too often misused by hawks to pursue their own aims.
Thank you, and very true–just because a realist may be willing to consider military force as a potential problem solving tool does not mean that said realist necessarily believes it is the most effective tool in a particular context. Realism does not provide reasons for picking force over other options by itself; its only mandate is that we not refuse to use force when it is the best option.
I am not so convinced that this is incompatible with realism:
“The US has misidentified its interests.”
In such a case we simply apply standards of rationality to the misidentification. If I believe up is down and I say I want to go up, no one should be surprised to see me walking down. Even, if I concede objective interests (which I merely do rhetorically), this is more properly addressed by a discussion about how the state comes to understand its objective interests. You will be unsurprised to hear that I think interest formation is subjective and so “misidentification” is only relevant in terms of information asymmetry—and there’s a rational model for that too.
Indeed, much of this discussion has been rebutted by IR realists and in related fields using a rational agent model. I found myself thinking of Kenneth Binmore’s works, especially Natural Justice and Playing for Real, where he lays out the case for the rational, subjective agent and rebuts the well-worn critiques quite soundly.
There is never certainty of correctness of one’s construction of one’s interest, but this does not mean that there is not an optimal objective configuration. Uncertainty does not yield indeterminacy. For any state, there exists some conception of interests that is “best”, and while we can never know if we have the right conception, we can devise strategies by which we believe ourselves to better target it. Equal concern for the interests of citizens in determining the state interest is an important component, and many states demonstrably do not do this, and consequently, in my view, demonstrably do not act rationally.
You’re tying rationality up with outcomes. Prima facia, this would be no problem for me if this were your own work and not a critique. However, this is simply not what rationality means to realists, or most social scientists, for that matter. Again, Binmore (Playing for Real, p 116):
“For people to behave as though their aim were to maximize a utility function, it is only necessary that their choice behavior be consistent.”
I will concede that this criterion is very vulnerable to certain critiques and, further, is very hard to pin down in practice. However, “bad” choices by some metric are not at issue here—though it’s definitely an important question in its own right:
“Equal concern for the interests of citizens in determining the state interest is an important component, and many states demonstrably do not do this, and consequently, in my view, demonstrably do not act rationally.”
This simply is not a component of the realist definition of rationality. Point of fact, it is the kind of wishy-washy idealized criterion that realists sought to reject. That the interests of the state are often badly aligned with the interests of the people (whatever that may mean) is a point of strength in the realist approach, not a flaw. By determining what interests (good or bad) drive the state, we can (in theory, anyway) make descriptive predictions about possible outcomes.
I suppose I am more or less proposing something different–I would like to see realism as a normative proposition rather than a descriptive one. The conception of rationality used by descriptive realists is insufficiently critical and too narrow, it does not reflect the responsibility of IR theorists not merely to explain state behaviour, but to improve it.
There’s plenty of normative IR as well. (Including normative realism, but ick!) But really, this comes down to what we want IR to do, which is far from 1 thing all the time. When we want IR to describe—and ideally predict—outcomes, the realists have offered us a robust and useful model of the world. Most realists don’t argue that you should use realism as a normative construct. And you give a decent critique why; what nations choose to do may not fit our normative criteria for what they ought to do.
I feel like you’re simply dissatisfied with the message of realism and are so shooting the messenger. Nations do what is in the perceived, homogenized best interests of those with power and influence. It just isn’t constructed to be a normative proposition. The solution to your complaint that IR should have normative components is to look at normative theories instead of focusing on descriptive ones.
I suppose there is a tension within IR, where the critiques of realism are really seeking not to explain behaviour but to change it, and in this way the goals of realists and their critics often are to some degree not contradictory so much as unrelated. In order to defend realism against those critiques, one has to make it into something it did not intend to be, a normative rather than descriptive theory. Nonetheless, I think a more expanded realism with interest-determining components would make for a compelling normative IR theory in comparison with say, Marxism or liberalism. The potential for the reciprocity inherent to realism’s conception of cooperation for wider normative application is significant.
Sure, interdisciplinary research would do everyone a lot of good. But in light of what you’ve just said, much of your critique above is, as you say, unrelated to realism.
Well, the point of the critique was not to refute descriptive realism, but to argue that realism has more value as a normative theory.