Rethinking Realism

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:

  1. The US has misidentified its interests.
  2. 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.