Some weeks ago, Stephen Walt lamented the absence of realist commentators in the American media space. What was striking to me at the time was Walt’s claim that realism is a ‘well-known approach to foreign policy.’ That claim—that realism is a foreign policy approach—makes sense in the context of Walt’s dirge, which focuses on the role of policy makers and media in shaping state behavior. But putting realism into a foreign policy context does not come without theoretical costs. Indeed, the grandee of modern realism in IR Kenneth Waltz rejected the idea that realism was a foreign policy framework.
By taking analysis down to the policymaker level, Walt (and others) introduce a tension into analysis that is irreconcilable. The problem lies in the objectivist foundations of realism. For Waltz, the strictures of the system were independent of human perception, beliefs, or ideas. Waltz is never quite clear how systemic forces actually produce state behavior—he discusses socialization, but who is socialized, how that socialization is carried through time, and how it translates into actual policy outcomes is never very clear (in modern parlance, his microfoundations needed work). But, for the objectivist ontology and epistemology that formed the lynchpin of a now ‘scientific’ realism (e.g. balance of power as a timeless law governing international politics), Waltz’s neglect of microfoundations was useful for reasons that I hope are clear by the end of this post.