A Scientist’s View of Realism

Stephen Walt recently complained that there are not enough op-eds from foreign policy realists, and Daniel Drezner replied with two op-eds on realism, one suggesting that realists own Donald Trump as their US presidential candidate. That would give them subject matter for op-eds.

I am an outsider to political science. My academic training is in chemistry, but my career has collided with political science at a number of points: disposal of Pershing rockets in response to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty; destruction of chemical agents in response to the Chemical Weapons Convention; and working in former Soviet republics on environmental cleanup, among others.

Naturally a scientist would be intrigued by a body of thought that calls itself realism.

After World War II, Hans Morgenthau came up with Six Principles of Political Realism. Kenneth Waltz continued in the 1950s with his book Man, The State, And War.

The scientific successes of World War II – the Norden bombsight, radar, antibiotics, and the atomic bomb – encouraged scientific thinking. Physics and chemistry had won the war. It was time to systematize other fields. By the late 1950s, the structure of DNA had been described, unlocking the potential for rapid progress in biology. The 1960s saw the discovery of the energetic underpinnings of the not-quite-believed geological theory of continental drift.

The goal was to find basic theories that could drive rapid progress, in the social sciences as well. B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism, with operant conditioning and positive and negative reinforcement, became a leading force in psychology. Behaviorism eschewed considerations of mental states for observable stimuli and responses. Similarly, realism insisted on observables in international relations. The emphasis was on structures and power, not the internal affairs of nations.


Observations and Assumptions

Until the discoveries of the 1950s and 1960s, biology and geology were largely observational. Biology was ahead in its systematization of heredity and evolution, biochemistry of life, disease causation. Geology systematized rocks and minerals and where they were found, which contributed to filling out chemistry’s periodic chart. Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, introduced in 1915, seemed obvious to anyone contemplating a map of the South Atlantic Ocean but lacked a mechanism to drive continental movement. That systematization provided the context from which the structure of DNA and the discovery of oceanic spreading centers could help those fields take off.

Observations are more difficult to collect and systematize in the social sciences. Variables cannot easily be separated; experiments may be difficult to reproduce; and numbers of samples are small. Realism, like behaviorism, attempted to deal with these problems in the way physics had: through reductionism. Their big simplification was to ignore internal states. Most of the difficulties, however, remained. Human behavior is much more complex than atomic structure or even coal tar.

Morgenthau’s Six Principles were observational. He did not adduce observations to support them in the same way that Charles Darwin had supported evolution and natural selection. In the hard sciences, those principles would have been stated as hypotheses, bases for accumulating evidence and capable of being changed as observations accumulated. But both Morgenthau and Waltz intended to lay down principles that could guide analysis, and their basis was their experience.

That experience was significant, but, like Wegener’s continental drift, lacked some components. Here’s my condensation of Morgenthau’s Six Principles:

  1. Politics, like society, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature. In order to improve society it is first necessary to understand the laws by which society lives.
  2. Interest is defined in terms of power.
  3. The key concept of interest defined as power is an objective category which is universally valid, but its meaning is not fixed.
  4. Universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place.
  5. The moral aspirations of a particular nation are not identical to the moral laws that govern the universe.
  6. Realism is political, not concerned with economics, the law, or morality, while giving those areas their own weight.

The Principles consist of both assumptions and methods. That the meaning of the key concept is not fixed (3) is a problem, as is the filtering through circumstances (4). Both allow enormous latitude in application and interpretation.

The basics of realism have changed over time, although not necessarily in response to observation. Here is the set for defensive realism:

  1. The international system is anarchic.
  2. States inherently possess some offensive military capability, which gives them the ability to hurt and possibly destroy each other.
  3. States can never be certain about the intentions of other states.
  4. The basic motive driving states is survival.
  5. States think strategically about how to survive in the international system.

Or a more general four:

  1. That states are the central actors in international politics rather than individuals or international organizations,
  2. That the international political system is anarchic as there is no supranational authority that can enforce rules over the states,
  3. That the actors in the international political system are rational as their actions maximize their own self-interest, and
  4. That all states desire power so that they can ensure their own self-preservation.


Comparison to Observation

The actions of nations are not simply interpreted. Arguments continue over the reasons the Japanese government surrendered in August 1945, or the beginnings of the Cold War, or pretty much any big historical event. Those events are the culmination of many previous decisions, many opinions of many people, and many factors driving those people. Reasons given for Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria include

  1. A desire to stabilize internal Russian affairs
  2. Support for an ally to indicate trustworthiness to potential allies
  3. Demonstrating Russia as a major international player
  4. Opposition to what he sees as the US doctrine of chaos
  5. A desire to retain Russia’s only military bases on the Mediterranean
  6. Cutting terrorists short before they can come to Russia

All of these are plausible as motivators, and it is plausible that all play a part, and there may be additional factors unknown to us that will be uncovered in the future. In the terminology of the hard sciences, international relations are overdetermined; any action has more motivators than are necessary to make it happen.

That overdetermination makes it possible to select factors that will validate a particular view and declare them determinative. Realists are not alone in doing this.


An Uncertainty Principle

Another problem of the social sciences is that actions change circumstances. Realist thinking began to develop after World War II. At that time, the United Nations and other international institutions had only begun. Most of the history on which realism was based was from a world that was, indeed, anarchic internationally. After 1945, nations gave up some of their sovereignty to move toward a world in which the wars of the first half of the twentieth century would not be repeated. This is a conventional objection to realism, and the conventional response of realists is that powerful nations obey those international strictures only when it benefits them. There is no simple resolution to the argument.

The change from the pre-WWI colonial world to today’s world of more autonomous actors has upset some of the realist expectations of how power can be used. Vladimir Putin, who seems to be acting from principles similar to the realists’, keeps running into the problem of smaller allies who are difficult to control, in both Ukraine and Syria. This seems not to have altered his expectations that the United States can fully control their smaller allies.

Likewise, the realist analysis of Russia’s increased aggression makes the case that the United States and Europe overreached in bringing former Soviet satellites and republics into NATO and the EU; a hostile response was to be expected from Russia; Russia needs a sphere of influence, and peace can be guaranteed only by neutralizing Ukraine in particular and perhaps other countries on Russia’s border. This ignores the alternatives of what might happened without those expansions and the expectations of Ukraine and other nations bordering Russia. Insisting that the realist analysis is the correct one and that it would lead to the best outcomes, as Walt does, verges on making it a doctrine.


Moving Forward

Skinner’s behaviorism came to be seen as inadequate to model the full range of human behavior. In the same way, the reductionism of realism is inadequate to fully describe and analyze international interactions.

Because Russia seems to be acting out of realism and the United States and Europe out of what is called in international relations liberalism, a discussion among these various theories might illuminate how these seemingly incommensurable worldviews might be brought together. Such a discussion might be facilitated by the abandonment of the label “realism.”

That label was grabbed when international relations was trying to systematize itself, and lesser labels assigned to other schools of thought. It was a smart move from a realist perspective of power, but it confuses those outside the community and grants a psychological advantage to those who call themselves that. The other schools deal with reality too; the differences are in the values and priorities assigned.

Daniel Nexon and Stacie Goddard, looking at the issues from inside IR, suggest something similar (full paper here): a study of the uses of power via collective mobilization in international politics while stripping away some of the realist assumptions. This kind of rethinking is consistent with science at its best: revising itself to describe reality better. The world has come a long way since the mid-twentieth century. It’s time the realists catch up.


Graphic: Metternich flees Austria, 1848

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