Tag: realist theory

Duck Podcast G&T series episode 1: Power, realism, and the politics of IR academia

I am really excited to drop the newest episode of the Duck of Minerva podcast, part of what will hopefully become a new series I/we are tentatively calling the G&T series. The idea is to bring scholars and practitioners together to discuss issues in the study and practice of IR. Our inaugural episode features Anne Harrington and Jacqueline (Jill) Hazelton discussing the role of realism in IR and the marginalization of critical approaches. If you haven’t already, check out Anne’s brilliant piece in the New York Times on Claude Eatherly, the pilot who came to regret his role in the bombing of Hiroshima. Jill’s book Bullets Not Ballots: Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare is out May 2021 with Cornell Press. Her argument that good governance is immaterial to counterinsurgency outcomes makes it a must read.

If you have ideas for a G&T series podcast, or have a couple people that might want to do an episode, DM me over Twitter @jarrodnhayes or shoot me an email at Jarrod.hayes@gmail.com.

As always, thanks to Steve Dancz for our music.


Mirror, Mirror upon the Wall — Who is the Realist of them All?

Despite Adam Elkus’s prodding, I avoided participating in the first-round beat down of Paul J. Saunders supremely stupid essay, “Giving Realists a Bad Name.” That’s okay, because Daniel Larison, Dan Drezner, and others piled on.

Saunders’s subsequent response to Drezner does make a very good point: just because you are a realist doesn’t mean you don’t have to care about “values.” Realism writ large is not logically equivalent to Meineke’s “Machiavellianism.” Unfortunately, Saunders’s justification is more Joseph Nye than E.H. Carr:

Realists understand well that perceptions are important in shaping international power and influence and, as a result, that policies disconnected from our values diminish the United States and weaken its ability to lead. Moreover, they recognize that such policies are not politically sustainable.

Dan Trombly, in turn, thinks this is the point when Saunders’s loses all credibility.

The first argument, that perceptions are important in shaping international power, is true in a sense. But it has really nothing to do with connecting our values to our policies. Realists generally choose to shape perceptions by dropping pretensions to morally grandiose visions that stake our influence or credibility on bringing the rest of the world into ideological conformity with the U.S. Realists recognize that ourvalues might not impress other governments. Indeed, policies that seem disconnected from our values, like non-intervention in other countries’ internal affairs, may be the most agreeable to foreign states. But of course, realists do morally justify their decisions – but they do it not by blindly accepting the narrative that the only policies which reflect American values require liberal intervention or democracy promotion, but by accentuating the values in American politics that have been articulated, say, by Washington, Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams rather than Wilson, Roosevelt or Reagan. Realists recognize that foolish or impractical policies of value promotion do far more damage to its international standards than its failure to be sufficiently liberal overseas, at least in the eyes of foreign powers which very often do not care about or actively oppose the kinds of American values under discussion here.

Put differently, most flavors of realism would agree that under some specific circumstances hypocrisy can be costly. But no self-respecting realist ever would make the general claim that “policies disconnected from our values diminish the United States and weaken its ability to lead.” That’s precisely the kind of wooly-headed nonsense realism stands against — the kind of thinking that, in their view, leads policymakers to engage in ideological crusades and other idiotic policies.

As Trombly concludes, paraphrasing Patrick Porter:

Hans Morgenthau argued that credibility was too often the rallying cry for pursuing an impossible enterprise to the point of diminishing marginal returns. Realists accept inconsistency as an inevitable part of foreign policy, especially moral inconsistency – and recognize the only way to reduce moral inconsistency is to be less sweeping in our moral claims and commitments about events outside our control.

Of course, none of this intellectual evisceration was ever really necessary. Saunders’s argument is, as I noted at the outset, transparently awful. Realism, for Saunders, is nothing more than a shibboleth for a hackneyed screed against the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. A screed that doesn’t make much sense even on its own terms. When I first Saunders’s original article, I thought that this was pretty divorced from reality:

In dealing with Russia, the Obama Administration courted former president Dmitri Medvedev at the expense of ties to his more influential predecessor and successor Vladimir Putin and appeared to support—with little evidence—the notion that Medvedev was more “modern” and, by implication, more “democratic.”

Because, in brief, U.S. policy toward Russia did nothing of the sort. But then I read his conclusion:

Since the U.S. economy is both an immediate and a longer-term challenge for America’s domestic health and its international role, one could argue that China, Russia and the Middle East should take a backseat to restoring sustainable growth; perhaps in current circumstances, avoiding international problems and minimizing their domestic consequences is the best the White House can do. That would not be a bold agenda, but it could be a defensible one—if President Obama were working to build domestic consensus to tackle the deficit and create jobs. The administration’s ineffective and uncoordinated half measures don’t promote either America’s security or its prosperity [emphasis added].

When an essay starts out with ‘the Obama Administration isn’t realist because it didn’t provoke a major diplomatic conflict with a rising power over a single dissident‘ and closes by pretending that the debt-ceiling crisis never happened… well, to borrow a phrase from Saunders, it is a pretty safe bet that such a person is “wholly unrealistic and un-realist.”


Clashing Networks and Foreign Policy

Anne Marie Slaughter and Dan Drezner had an interesting debate last week on the role of nonstate actors in foreign policy. AMS stakes out a “modern/liberal-social” position highlighting the role of nonstate actors, whereas DD takes a “subtle realist” view, maintaining the priority of states and national interests. DD sums up their differences this way:

I’m skeptical about the viability of transnational interests to effectively pressure multiple governments to adopt a common policy solution, and I’m super-skeptical that these groups can supply broad-based solutions independently of national governments.

My own take is that DD underestimates the extent to which transnationally-linked domestic coalitions affect policy, but that AMS takes too narrow a view of the civil society actors involved. I agree with DD that nonstate actors alone will not provide “broad-based solutions” themselves–although I don’t think that AMS would go that far anyway.

Most international issues do not pit states against nonstate actors, with each lining up on different sides of the issues. Rather, what we see are networks on each side, usually with states representing key components. Keck and Sikkink made this point years ago in a book that revived the scholarly debate on transnational relations. But the presence and importance of states in networks is often overlooked. States must be a major part of network studies because, in the end of course, they make policies.

On a day to day basis within networks, however, states are not necessarily the leading forces. When it comes to projecting the ideas and rallying the interests that go into policy outcomes, civil society actors play key roles. Acting as interest groups within states, they seek to shape governments’ preferences. Acting as NGOs across state borders and in international institutions, they exchange ideas, personnel, and money, affecting both domestic and international policy.

Notably as well, these networks are not all “progressive,” although most of the scholarly and journalistic attention has focused on human rights, environmental, and global justice groups. Rather, there is huge diversity among transnational advocates, with powerful right-wing networks fighting the left. Nor is it simply the case that conservatives ally with states to oppose changes in the status quo. In the ongoing battles that comprise most of international policy making, all sides support or reject change at certain times.

Finally, the means by which policy change happens transcend the staid “logics” of persuasion—framing, shaming, grafting, deliberation, dialogue, etc.–on which much of the literature has focused. Network members do use such tactics. But these are invariably countered by opposition networks. They smash frames and deploy their own equally resonant ones. They shame the shamers and honor those who the other side seeks to embarrass. They sever grafts while making their own.

In other words, these are policy wars, not one-sided persuasive campaigns aimed at changing state policy or public opinion. The tactics that opposing sides use extend well beyond the rhetorical. They seek to exclude one another from key institutions. They invent their own institutions to keep the other side out. They seek to silence one another’s voices. And they attack one another ferociously, for misunderstanding, misstatement, and downright evil.

I’ll take a few cases that I’ve written about in my forthcoming book. Admittedly, these are not frontline national security issues, but I’d say they are nonetheless important parts of international and domestic politics in many countries.

Gay rights has advanced tremendously in Western states over the past few decades. This has been led not by governments but movements that have effectively organized and been able to achieve political and cultural change. There has been substantial transnational interaction within the gay rights movement, with domestic groups learning from one another, receiving assistance, and exchanging personnel. They’ve also been active at the UN trying to affect policy.

All the while, however, they have faced resistance from a transnational coalition of conservative religious groups, what I call the “Baptist-burqa” network. In some countries, this has helped keep gay rights off the political agenda completely. In others, it has led to continuing conflict whose outcome remains unclear. At the international level, at least with regard to UN policy on gay rights, it has kept “progress” slow and minimal. The fight has been far from pretty, with the two networks and their national components engaging in all sorts of mudslinging and competition. The current stalemate at the UN stems from the respective power of these opposing networks, in particular their ability to affect state policy choices, even if in the final analysis it is states that vote on the policies themselves.

Small arms control is another issue pitting network against network. Human rights, gun control, and development organizations organized transnationally in the 1990s, seeking to stem the global trade in weapons. But they immediately faced opposition from a transnational coalition of gun rights groups, led by America’s National Rifle Association (NRA). The two sides, complete with powerful states on each side, have fought over controls on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW) since then. In these battles, the nonstate actors on both sides have helped shape state policy, through both domestic and international politicking. The failure thus far to achieve significant controls stems in large part from the power of the gun network to influence ideas and policies in a number of states. This is an outcome every bit as important as policy change—and stemming significantly from civil society activism and clashes.

In other cases that AMS mentions, such as the landmines treaty and the ICC, networks of states and nonstate actors achieved much—but could have achieved much more but for the power of opposing states within larger ideological networks. The U.S. government was a major impediment to reaching the goals activists originally hoped for. But this was a U.S. government strongly influenced by NGOs and activists—and the outcomes are in large part a result of their ideas and sway.

Other interesting recent works that show the power of these kinds of networks, and especially their clash, include Orenstein’s on pension policy and Teles and Kenney’s on free market activism.

What about “major” international policy? DD puts it this way:

The kind of non-state actors that Slaughter embraces have not been shy in engaging issues like climate change, Israel/Palestine or macroeconomic imbalances — but I haven’t seen any appreciable change in global public policies as a result.

John M. Owen has written a fascinating new book arguing that clashing ideological networks have been a key basis for regime change for centuries. I’d argue that some of the most important foreign policy developments of the last decade stem from powerful civil society interests, affecting state policy. The role of neo-conservative networks in sparking the Iraq War is Exhibit A.

Regarding climate change, I see this issue not as involving a clash between powerful states and environmental groups but as one which again pits network against network. On both sides, there are an array of powerful states, corporations, foundations, and NGOs, supporting divergent views. The failure to reach agreement on climate change policy is a testament as much to network as to state power.

On Israel/Palestine, I’d argue that a major reason for the situation we now see is the power of internationally-linked domestic interests–in the US, a loose but real agglomeration of civil society groups, the Israel Lobby as Walt/Mearsheimer define it. Its activism has shaped perceptions of America’s national interest, notwithstanding increasing efforts to reshape that view by other civil society actors.

The end of all this interaction may not be easily predictable, certainly not in the way that structural realists purport to predict outcomes. Henry Farrell makes this point in talking about cross-border “contagion” and the unpredictability of policy outcomes that result. The “contagion” metaphor, however, with its overtones of hot zone diseases spreading spontaneously and uncontrollably only explains part of what is happening.

Often there is deliberate, strategic interaction among like-minded groups within different states. They seek to shape policy both within their own and other states, using demonstration effects at home or abroad to push for their own favored policy outcomes more broadly. True, as HF states, we may not be able to predict outcomes as easily as in a billiard ball world. But I agree with AMS here that we need to pay attention to these interactions.

Where I differ with many who highlight transnational relations is in their taking too narrow a perspective on the groups, networks, and tactics involved. To reiterate, these networks centrally involve states, sometimes politicians, sometimes bureaucrats. There is not a full-scale power shift to nonstate actors. Second, these networks by no means push only “progressive” solutions to global problems. Rather, there are conflicting networks following and often deepening the ideological divisions of modern societies. Finally, because the stakes are so high for the groups involved, the tactics they follow are bare-knuckled and hard-hitting—just like politics in any other sphere.


Random Thought

Modern realist theory contains no arguments (of significance) absent in the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli or Francisco Guicciardini.


Zombie NATO? Or, the Poverty of Realism

A great many bloggers and policy wonks, motivated by the upcoming Lisbon Summit, are weighing in on NATO’s future. NATO faces a number of challenges and difficult issues, including:

While opinions differ over the health of the alliance, I’ve been particularly struck by the weakness of Steve Walt’s arguments for why NATO is headed for membership in the society of the walking dead. He isolates three major reasons for his negative assessment: Afghanistan, defense cuts, and Turkish foreign policy.

Today Walt reported the results of a debate he held in his MA international relations class (“NATO Lives!”), but reiterated his belief in NATO’s growing irrelevance:

Here the three big wild cards are 1) The effects of the latest round of European defense cuts (which will make out-of-area actions even more difficult in the future), 2) The lessons that NATO draws from the Afghan War, and 3) The rising importance of Asia. If Afghanistan is eventually seen as a successful operation that produced a positive result, then NATO’s value will appear to be reaffirmed and support for it is bound to continue. If the Afghan war ends in a defeat or even some sort of messy compromise, then more people will ask if the Alliance ought to be in the nation-building business at all. And if it’s not performing some sort of global policing duties, then what is it for? Finally, as the Asian balance of power starts to loom larger in everyone’s consciousness, NATO’s relevance will almost certainly decline even further. NATO may be willing to give the United States some modest assistance in the Gulf or in Central Asia, but it is hard to imagine Europe doing much of anything in some future conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea. Indeed, they’d be more likely to stand aloof and trade with both sides.

As Walt himself notes, he’s been beating this drum for some time; indeed, realists have been proclaiming the death of NATO since at least the end of the Cold War. Their fundamental reasoning lies in an understanding of alliances as balancing coalitions; with the passing of the Soviet threat, NATO’s purpose disappeared. Since then, NATO has searched for a rationale: policeman of Europe’s turbulent frontiers (e.g., the Balkans), democratic security community, global rapid reaction force, etc. Realists are predisposed to view each of these purposes with suspicion anyway, and every piece of evidence that they’re fraying provides, for realists, another nail in NATO’s coffin.

None of these arguments are ridiculous. NATO has significant problems. The contemporary shift of power from Europe to East Asia does, in some respects, make NATO less important to global politics than it was during the Cold War. And nothing lasts forever–at some point not only will NATO disappear, but so will most contemporary political institutions.

At the same time, Walt’s reasoning seems a bit off.

First, Turkey. I simply cannot understand why he places so much weight on recent Turkish overtures in the Middle East. After discussing disagreements over Iran and Israel, he writes:

Rising Islamophobia in both the United States and Europe could easily reinforce these frictions. And given that Turkey has NATO’s largest military forces (after the United States) and that NATO operates largely by consensus, a major rift could have paralyzing effects on the alliance as a whole.

Walt doesn’t explain why the size of Turkey’s military matters. For what it is worth, Turkey currently contributes less than two percent of ISAF’s total forces. Its contributions to other operations–e.g., IFOR, SFOR, and KFOR–have varied widely, but none of these NATO missions depended on a Turkish military presence. But even putting aside Turkey’s significance in recent NATO operations, it isn’t at all obvious why the size of Turkey’s military makes Ankara’s dispositions more important to NATO cohesion than, say, London’s, Paris’, or Berlin’s.

Obviously, NATO would face additional problems if major rifts opened up with Turkey on issues of substantive importance to the alliance. Indeed, Turkey does disagree with other important members over tactical nuclear weapons and conventional arms control. But it isn’t at all clear what kinds of NATO actions a more “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy would preclude. If the US strikes Iran, it won’t be as part of a NATO operation. If the US deploys forces in support of Israel, it won’t be part of a NATO operation either.

Second, ISAF and defense cuts. Walt’s arguments on both these fronts reduce to the same claim: the future of NATO out-of-area operations looks grim, and thus NATO will be deprived of a key rationale for its continued “vitality.”

In fact, current defense cuts make clear NATO’s ongoing importance to Europe. By co-binding virtually the entire Atlantic and European Community, whether through direct NATO integration or the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, NATO has created an unprecedented security community. Every major power (save one) on the continent has interoperable military forces linked together via multiple consultative and coordinative mechanisms. As Walt’s students correctly noted, NATO has greatly diminished the likelihood of security dilemmas, arms races, and military instability within its borders.

NATO not only plays a key role in mitigating the pathologies realists associate with anarchy, it also continues to serve a deterrence function–most notably with respect to the Russian Federation. NATO membership, or lack thereof, makes a major difference to the strategic environment faced by former members of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. Moscow would, for instance, enjoy significantly more influence Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania if the three had remained outside the alliance.

NATO security guarantees also structure, for the better, current European and US engagement with Moscow. They have done so not only by, for all intents and purposes, eliminating the threat posed by Russia to the most forward-looking NATO advocates of extensive political-military engagement with Moscow (e.g., Germany and France), but also by reducing Moscow’s ability to play divide-and-conquer games in Europe. It isn’t so much that Moscow doesn’t play those games now (it does), or that it hasn’t enjoyed important successes in doing so (it has). Rather, without NATO’s co-binding institutions and practices, Moscow’s wedge strategies might well be pulling Europe apart.

Although it may seem somewhat paradoxical, this state of affairs has been a net positive for the Russian Federation. A more realpolitik environment in Europe, even one driven, in part, by Moscow’s power-political influence, would greatly undermine Russian military and economic security. Indeed, Russia’s long-term ability to meet the challenges posed by a rising China depends on stable, predictable, and friendly relations with its major western neighbors.

Yet Walt’s line of reasoning reduces all of these effects to little more than the shamblings of a Zombie. If NATO fails to send expeditionary forces abroad, cannot come to a consensus on Iran, or plays no role in a future Taiwan straits crisis, then it is “irrelevant.” What could possibly account for such an assessment?

The answer lies in Walt’s theoretical commitments–in particular, realism’s jaundiced view of international structure. By this I do not mean, as most constructivists argue, that realists pay inadequate attention to culture. Rather, realists lack adequate appreciation for the ways in which political and social ties–including alliances–texture international relations. They see international politics as patterned by “anarchy” and “the distribution of power.” All the rest is merely “process.” But it should be obvious that NATO profoundly structures Eurasian political and military relations, and will still do so even if its ability to act collectively further declines. Whether or not one agrees with my assessment of how NATO structures Russia’s strategic opportunities, it strikes me as difficult to argue that NATO’s impact on western Eurasia has no significance for the future of East Asian security relations. At the very least, it does so not only by shaping the political, military, and economic environment confronting Moscow, but also that of policymakers in Washington, DC.

Perhaps, then, it would be most accurate to say that whether the future includes “live NATO” or “Zombie NATO,” NATO will hardly be irrelevant to global politics.


Wilson’s legacy

Duck readers may recall that just over two years ago Charli posted about an interesting and provocative Deborah Boucoyannis article arguing that realist notions of the balance-of-power are actually liberal ideas about checks-and-balances.

The post generated a lot of comments (which apparently cannot be linked under the new software), including a fairly long and somewhat critical one from Duck founder Dan Nexon. Despite the flaws he noted, Dan nonetheless wrote that “the argument…is persuasive; she’s made a very important contribution, at a minimum, in arguing that the ‘balance of power’ is too big to restrict to realism, and ought to be treated as an object of analysis in its own right.” Later, the author responded to the critics.

As Charli said in her post, if an idea long associated with realism can be explained from a liberal viewpoint, then many of us must rethink how we teach IR theory. In my case, I’d long compared the balance of power to domestic checks and balances so that students familiar with the latter could better understand the IR concept. However, I’d never made the argument Boucoyannis presented.

This exchange came to mind recently when I read Stanford historian David Kennedy’s brief essay in the January/February Atlantic Monthly. Kennedy makes a novel-to-me argument about Woodrow Wilson’s famous call that “The world must be made safe for democracy.” This time, however, the scholar asserts that an idea long associated with liberalism (nee Wilsonianism!) in IR was actually tied to a practical realism:

Wilson tempered his diplomatic ideals with a pragmatic comprehension of the modern world, of its possibilities and its dangers. He respected the pride and the prerogatives of other peoples. He shrewdly calculated the reach as well as the limits of American power. Perhaps most important, he was attentive to what kind of foreign policy, resting on principles of moral legitimacy, the American public would embrace.

Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman took the lessons. They asked only that the world be made safe for democracy, not that the world be made democratic. They understood the complexities of human cussedness and the constraints on even America’s formidable power. They would surely have hesitated to wage a preemptive war against Iraq that grossly overestimated America’s capacity to achieve its goals.

In the end, Kennedy praises a set of four “principles [that] constitute a blend of realism and idealism, not a stark choice between them, and their careful application over several decades represents a singular achievement for American diplomacy.”

At ISA, I served as a discussant on a panel about continuity or change in U.S. foreign policy from Bush to Obama. Two of the three papers quoted the familiar Wilson line in a way that reflected the taken-for-granted meaning — and widely shared view of its crusading implications. I pointed the authors to Kennedy’s piece because it was fresh in mind, but it is certainly possible that this is an established argument that I’ve somehow missed or forgotten. Does a longer version appear elsewhere?

Kennedy’s argument about Wilson serves also as a fairly clear warning that neoconservative calls for a “democratic realism” are dangerous and not Wilsonian. Neocons want to employ American (military) power to advance democracy. Wilson and his successors wanted to secure democracy in a dangerous world.


The World According to Realists or, “Never Go In Against a Sicilian When Death is On the Line”

In World Politics yesterday we covered the Peloponnesian War, the Melian Dialogue, and the security dilemma as an introduction to realist theory. Students played a version of the 2-person non-iterated prisoner’s dilemma game developed by my former professor Robert Darst, with the winners receiving candy and the person with the lowest possible grade receiving an extra credit point toward their final grade. The students learned that the incentive structure in the game is a powerful causal variable affecting outcomes: when the game is structured so as to reward rational, self-interested behavior, cooperation becomes foolhardy, even if your intentions are noble. Realists would say this reflects the nature of the international system under anarchy.

Then again, game theory also predicts that if you change the parameters of the game you change the possible outcomes. The clip above from The Princess Bride demonstrates the basic idea of game theory, and also how changing the nature of the game is the best way to get what you want. But there’s many a slip between cup and lip – between manipulating perceptions within the context of the same parameters and changing the game itself. Unfortunately, realists are not optimistic about the latter happening unless a world government is established.


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