Foreign Policy, Security, Top Stories, World Affairs

The World According to Realism

The late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington argued in the 1993 Foreign Affairs article “The Clash of Civilizations?” (later expanded into a book with the question mark removed) that post-Cold War conflict would precipitate over differences in identity, religion, and culture. Fareed Zakaria, a former Huntington student, wrote of his mentor’s thesis, “While others were celebrating the fall of communism and the rise of globalization, he saw that with ideology disappearing as a source of human identity, religion was returning to the fore.” Huntington was writing in response to the argument of another former student, Francis Fukuyama, that a Hegelian “End of History” was upon us. In the heady days following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Huntington held the minority opinion that geopolitics and power still mattered, and worried that American foreign policy was entering a new era of history with its eyes half shut.

Stephen Walt points out that at the time of Huntington’s article liberal internationalism was ascendant, al Qaeda was a minor threat, the Middle East was healing, and America was king. Economic interdependence, global free markets, human rights, and the spread of liberal values became the foreign policy priority for Western nations. The late Kenneth Waltz observed in 1993 that the greatest threat to U.S. national security was either overextension or isolationism driven by internal preoccupation. His hope was that the U.S. would exhibit “forbearance that will give other countries at long last the chance to deal with their own problems and make their own mistakes.” Today, Russia and China are explicitly authoritarian, populism is challenging democracy from Poland to Pennsylvania Avenue, the European Union is falling apart, the U.S. is still engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, and North Korea and Iran are continuing to pursue nuclear arms. How did these scholars anticipate our current predicament?

Stephen Walt

While Huntington was a lifelong Democrat and classical liberal, in foreign affairs he was a proponent of realism, a school of international affairs that sits outside the mainstream left-right split of domestic U.S. politics and media. Realism’s central premise is that relations between states can be explained by the distribution of power in the international system. It draws from the Hobbesian social construct of the Leviathan: absent a disinterested third-party—a Leviathan—that monopolizes the use of violence, individuals are responsible for their own security. In societies, governments play the role of Leviathan by imposing a significant enough cost on an individual’s use of violence to incentivize cooperation over conflict. Realists take this line of thinking into the domain of international relations where they argue that because no Leviathan world government exists, states are likely to conflict in their pursuit of national security. International relations scholarship, and, specifically, the theories of realism (sometimes referred to as neorealism to distinguish the modern incarnation from classic variants) extended in the works of John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and the late Samuel Huntington and Kenneth Waltz provide an antidote to the glaring blind spot of the mainstream left-right split. Liberal internationalists and neoconservatives dominate the pages and airtime of major media outlets, while realism has remained what economist Eric Weinstein calls a “stigmatized narrative.” Realism offers no compelling story for what the world ought to look like, as it instead focuses on how the world actually is.

In contrast to the restraint of realists, neoconservatives and liberal internationalists support explicitly interventionist policies. Neoconservatives split the world into two (us and them, right and wrong, good and evil), and believe in the virtues of U.S. military power. They tend to perceive alternative means of diplomacy, such as negotiation, as signs of weakness. Liberal internationalists also believe in interventionism. They advocate for the global promotion of liberal values, and draw on the neoliberal school of international relations to argue that free markets, multilateral institutions, international law, and democracy incentivizes cooperation and promotes peace based on the theory of complex interdependence. Neoconservatism offers a romantic and subtly sectarian conception of the world, and so lacks the coherence to engage in substantive dialogue with realism and neoliberalism. Thus, scholarly debate occurs primarily between realism and neoliberalism over how well liberalism can effect and explain state behavior. While realists are often classic liberals domestically, they believe internationally that the way toward a more open, prosperous, and just world is not through regime change, nation building, foreign-domestic meddling, or a reliance on international institutions. Realists instead believe that “carrots” like the UN, WTO, and IMF matter only insofar as their stipulations are tied to the “sticks” of military force exercised by individual member states or by balancing member coalitions. In realist thinking, the fact that Enlightenment values are the values best suited to human well-being does not change how states feel about their own safety and security in the international system, and does little to determine how they will react or respond to international events.

John Mearsheimer

Realists argue that interventionists are playing a fool’s game as the only logical conclusion on offer for a country like the U.S. is global hegemony, which is intrinsically unstable given the time and resources necessary to police the world. Realists suggest that the U.S. would be better off employing a “pull” rather than “push” strategy. By setting a good example at home, the U.S. would draw more states into its sphere of influence as foreign powers observe the political and economic payoffs of free markets, openness, and rule of law. The net outcome of realism’s narrow focus on power and security is that it counterintuitively promotes greater peace and stability the world over. It accomplishes this directly firstly, as John Mearsheimer points out, by limiting conflict and intervention to a small number of regions of strategic importance. For the U.S. this means Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. (Neoliberalism and neoconservatism in contrast see the entire world as a potential battlefield.) Secondly, realists understand that if any given power gets too far out of line, other states will unify against that power in the form of a balancing coalition. Neoliberalism and neoconservatism tend to ignore this fact as it does not fit well into arguments that champion international institutions. Finally, realists perceive war as a domain of last resort and the arena of unintended consequences. As Marc Trachtenburg writes, “serious trouble developed only when states failed to act in a way that made sense in power-political terms.” In contrast, neoliberals and neoconservatives are often willing to act abroad independent of immediate U.S. strategic interest. So realists ultimately anticipated that the U.S. would continue to use military force abroad, and also put forth as a second possibility a turn toward isolationism, which seems to be on offer with Trump’s current policy agenda.

In contrast to neoliberalism and neoconservatism (which sees U.S. engagement as generally good) and realism (which tends to suspend judgement), the most explicitly anti-interventionist school of international relations is critical theory. Noam Chomsky is perhaps the most well-known proponent of this school, which includes Marxists, post-Marxists, and postmodernists. Each offers a critique on how capitalist states or capitalism itself disempowers and enslaves large segments of the world’s population through politics, economics, military capabilities, or language and discourse itself. Because critical theory yields no concrete recommendations on how policy should be made and implicitly or explicitly calls for global revolution, it is a dissident minority in the field and was empirically discredited even before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is worth noting that the person most affiliated with interventionism, war, and foreign meddling, and, ironically, realism is Henry Kissinger. While Kissinger used realist principles to successfully open China and establish direct communications with Moscow, he failed to heed realism’s sensitivities to foreign engagement. He was often penny-wise and pound-foolish in the application of its principles. While Kissinger supported the Vietnam War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, realists in the 1960s discerned no strategic interest for the U.S. in Vietnam and opposed intervention. Realists were also skeptical of violating Iraq’s sovereignty and pursuing regime change and in general opposed invasion. Of the major conflicts of modern U.S. history, realists have either cautioned against, or outright disagreed with, all of them—Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq each began with broad public support and ended in domestic public discord and general embarrassment. Kissinger’s realism is evidenced mostly through his academic works and writings, where his tenure as a practitioner of foreign policy defies such clean categorization.

Examining the past through a realist lens gives us a better sense of how we got to where we are today, and how tomorrow is likely to look. Stephen Walt has done an excellent job detailing the implications of realism on the world in his Foreign Policy column, “What Would a Realist World Have Looked Like?” Realists look at North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs and observe their seemingly irrational pursuit of arms as a logical deterrent to the United States. The U.S. policy of regime change and invasion provokes these countries to respond by shoring up their defenses. They regard the U.S.’s military dominance with suspicion and question why they are the ones asked to disarm in exchange for potentially hollow assurances. Realists discern how Western Europe sought balance against Soviet influence during the Cold War through the EU, but aspirations for a collective European identity began to fray once the Cold War was over. European nationalism, as a result, has returned with vengeance. Realism sees in Russia a country responding rationally to the build-up of military capabilities along its borders. The U.S. and its European allies have been expanding NATO eastward throughout the past two decades despite warnings from Moscow. By 2013, the United States and the EU sought to pull Ukraine into closer alignment with the West. This led to interference in Ukraine’s domestic political processes and questionable transgressions of agreements signed at the close of Cold War hostilities. Vladimir Putin in turn seized Crimea, an illegal but unsurprising—to realists—reaction.

Finally, realists see in China a rising power that, while weak, made the right noises and passively acquiesced to Western-liberalism. Today, China is strong, and has become more explicitly authoritarian in both its rhetoric and actions—it no longer tries to placate the West and instead seeks to establish regional hegemony in its hemisphere. Its ascendant power foretells future security dilemmas and conflict with the U.S. and its allies. It is a not unlikely possibility that China will replace the Soviet Union as the second pole in international affairs and return the international system to a bipolar structure, just as realists would predict.

In 2016, Ayaan Hirsi Ali said of Huntington’s thesis, “There’s no other thinker to this day that has challenged it… There you see, the clash between the world as it is and the world as it should be. The work Sam Huntington was doing was describing the world as it is.” No theory of social science is perfect, but the results of recent U.S. policy seem to demand new insight. It may be incumbent upon free-thinkers to breathe life into the ideas of realism. We need foreign policy of a realist bend that is compassionate, and prioritizes the values of liberalism and democracy in foreign relations while also acknowledging the limits and geopolitical consequences of extending U.S. power. Realism shows that trying to transform world politics unilaterally produces unintended consequences and often fails as a strategy. Rather, incremental behavioral change of adversaries through influence and persuasion, a focus on domestic realities, a strengthening of the fabric of civil society, increased spending on education, infrastructure, and research and development, and a gradual transition of authority and security responsibility to U.S. allies abroad would help us contend with the world we are living in. Let us hope that we might continue to steward our world toward a future that accords with, as Steven Pinker has written, the better angels of our nature.

Author’s note: Much of this article draws on the scholarship of preeminent academicians. I have cited several authors throughout, but encourage the reader to explore the works of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, arguably today’s leading realist thinkers. Their Foreign Policy article, “One World, Rival Theories” provides an excellent overview of the field of international relations.


Ryan Zielonka is an independent consultant and incoming PhD student at the University of Washington. His research focuses on international affairs and artificial intelligence. You can follow him on Twitter @ryanzielonka


  1. You really should take a class or two in IR theory. This maybe acceptable for a site like Quillette, but it would be ripped to shreds by anyone whose taken any IR theory class. There is an unbelievably amount of incorrect information and description of realism, liberalism, neoconservatism, and critical theory (the later belongs in the constructivist school).

    UW is not a strong IR theory school, centering more on policy applications of IR but you should really, really try to brush up on this material.

    • Daniel says

      Joe, I’m curious to know what you had in mind. Perhaps you’d consider picking one school of thought that you felt Zielonka represented poorly and explaining it more fully?

    • Michael Overlake says

      I received my undergraduate degree (Poli Sci with IR emphasis) from that hopeless UW, so I may be similarly benighted as the essayist, Ryan Zielonka. This may explain why I had no difficulty reading his essay and clearly understood (and agreed with) his main contention that realist thought such as found in Huntington’s “Clash” needs re-emphasis.

      Joe, are you aware that your single specific plaint, that “critical theory (the later [sic] belongs in the constructivist school,” is both trivial and irrelevant to his essay?

      It might almost seem like your entire point is to point out your much better understanding of things IR. Rather than engage with the article, I note.

      As for “Clash,” it dropped on my undergraduate years like a ton of bricks. It was recommended to me by my favorite fellow student, a President’s Award scholar from Kazakhstan. She, being thoroughly aware of the Islamic deformation developing in her homeland, thought that Prof. Huntington was the only Western writer who understood what was coming.

      • You know what? Cool story bro. I have a MSc in International Relations Theory from LSE. I’m a fifth year Political Science student with an IR/Comparative focus at a top ten PoliSci grad program, UW isn’t even ranked.

        But hey, if home boy here wants to write crap with his name attached and not accept criticism of his work, well there are too many Ph.d students and too few jobs–less competition.

        • Intersectional Playboi says

          Cool story, bruh.

          How about you actually try to mount an argument against the essay? Because you haven’t offered one yet. And while you’re at it, perhaps you can refrain from fallacious reasoning, such as your odd attempt to argue from authority by alluding to your credentials (?!?).

          • peanut gallery says

            Yeah, it’s not his fault someone wasted money on a degree in poli-sci. Who told them to do that?! At the very least the professor should have dissuaded them from staying in the class. “You wanna be like me?!”A vocation is not the same as avocation.

        • Nobody cares. Take the time to refute the claims, definitions, or whatever other problems you have with the article or continue to be utterly dismissed as you have been heretofore.

  2. Bill says

    You say “populism is challenging democracy…” as a dig against the Trump election; however, isn’t that very action demonstrating democracy in a constitutional republic? The will of the people, through the democratic election process, elected the populist. I assume “populist” is now a negative slur ala “alt-Right” or “racist” or “white nationalist” (often blended to mean white supremacist)?

    And lest the ‘HRC won the popular vote” chants of the fascist take over the thread — she won the popular vote due to the rules of the game. If it was a popular vote contest, entire methods of campaigning would be different. For example, MANY voters in “solid ” states skip voting because they recognize their vote doesn’t matter. In Republicans in CA/NY may skip voting because regardless of what they do it will not impact all their state’s electoral votes going to the opposing candidate. The same for solid red states where Democrats may skip voting for the same reason. This psychology also had very Left-wing dems voting for Trump during the GOP primaries in open primary states like VA simply because they felt they were helping their Dem candidate by “hurting” the perceived strong Rep candidates. I would guess that the reverse were true as well for Sanders (although polling suggested Sanders the stronger Dem candidate even though the DNC had pre-selected HRC).

    • Maybe the author has very tight definitions of populism and democracy that make the phrase meaningful; but he should have shared them with us.

      Absent such definitions, you’re correct.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Yes, electoral college voting is itself anti-democracy, putting the vote for the leader of the nation into the hands of states more than the people…then again, that’s the basic structure of the USA.
      Populism challenges the international order, but it’s unclear how it challenges democracy which is based the very notion of traditional populism, support by the ordinary people.

    • Yergen says

      The full quote refers to Europe as well, where populism is slightly different than in the US. Although the populist movements there have received their votes in democratic elections, there are more than a few questionable tendencies in these movements that challenge democracy, not only from the right.

  3. I don’t claim to have much more than a passing acquaintance with the ideas discussed in the article, but I will say that any school of thought which builds its foundation on an attempt to see the world as it actually *is*, rather than as it *ought* to be, is more likely to get my interest or support than the other way around, for the same reason that a city government which focuses its resources on fixing potholes and making sure the trash is picked up on time gets more of my respect than one more interested in passing resolutions praising illegal immigrants or spending millions of dollars on “diversity celebrations” (both of which happened recently in my city). It’s not the proper role of nations or any level of government to write poetry, dream of building a shining city on a hill, or spend money on virtue signaling. Therefore, I don’t want my country’s foreign policy to be about nation building, “bringing democracy to the Middle East,” or lecturing other governments about human rights. A reasonable level of security (and decent infrastructure at home) sound like much better priorities. I just government to pick my trash up on time.

    • david of Kirkland says

      I’m with you. People can train/teach/speak to what ought to be, but the use of government force suggests that a country can actually determine this absent the results of reality based on real people acting in their own best interests, including charity.
      But sadly, the common people tend to be easily tricked into thinking force and their culture are superior, which is why nationalism is on the rise at a time when global immediate communications coupled with global trade indicate we need to cooperate more at the international level.

  4. Keith says

    ** This maybe acceptable for a site like Quillette, but it would be ripped to shreds by anyone whose taken any IR theory class. **

    *may be

    *who has

  5. harvardreferences says

    As much as I generally admire Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on this point she is straight up objectively wrong. Amartya Sen has for years made a critique of Huntington central to his discussions and writings on identity and justice. He’s repeatedly taken on the idea the ‘class of civilisations’ as being both fundamentally flawed, and dangerous.
    It doesn’t discredit the wider points about realism as an IR theory, but to present Huntington’s thesis as seriously unchallenged is misleading at best.

    • dirk says

      And Sen is certainly not the only one, Harvard, and Ayaan of course knows most of them, but what she meant to say was,- not seriously challenged-. By the way, strange that so many adherents of the Clash (not Class, that’s something else) are ex-muslims themselves, who know, better than any scholar, multiculturalist or politician what’s fermenting under the skins. In her last book Heretics she bravely tries to mitigate this clash (by humanising islam, as happened earlier with the christian faith), so, maybe, she herself is a little bit challenging the clash.

      • dirk says

        Worse maybe even, not only ex-muslims, also many muslims themselves think in an inevitable clash idea! So, agree with Hamilton.

  6. N Spinelli says

    It’s odd to be sold the idea that moral choices are unnecessary risks and that one is less moral for resisting this notion at the same time. I see how the ultimate theory against leftist power rests on this realist transcendence that separates and protects its intellectuals from the stigma of conservative ignorance, and that the cleverest of Trump supporters like Tucker Carlson or occasionally Rand Paul are already ahead of the curve on these foreign policy critiques. Of course there really is little to show in the way of success in recent interventions so refuting the gist of this article seems pretty futile.

    I can’t imagine being very excited to live in a world where the main concentration of power in foreign relations is centered on intellectuals and noble cynics who seem to want to save everyone from their own bad choices but have a lot of contempt for the rubes at the same time. For all this distinction against postmodernism, the intentions are really the same, only espoused by more skillful mouthpieces. If we were to adopt this realism full scale in the US and my insignificant preferences were unwisely granted decision making power, I would make sure that for every scaling back of the US’s presence in the name of realism, there was a constant barrage of Trump-like vitriol against literally every other country on the planet, no longer forced to bear our military endeavors but to listen to us snidely judge their every action and belittle their people and make mockeries of all their values, on a scale of ugliness the “Ugly American” essayists could never even conceive of. Just cuz.

    Also, it seems many realists take a much harder line against “rogue agents” in their own citizenry, but I wonder why realism doesn’t take into account the moral obstructions of SJW types when they are simply responding to other powers impelling them to behave a certain way. I’d make this much more consistent or maybe just accelerated by becoming much more like Russia in our own country so that we could all have benevolent mega-oligarchs of our own except they like the Enlightenment more than tracksuits and the rest of us can pay fealty to their benevolent supremacy. How exciting is the future.

    • Daniel says

      Thucydides was the first to study and apply the theory of political realism. It’s a demoralizingly cynical view of the world, until one realizes it can be used to achieve and maintain stability.
      N Spinelli, I share your personal distaste for a political theory like this, but I think the best way to consider it is in terms of large groups of people. The larger the group, the fewer factors are unifying enough to get them to act together. At the state level, it is pretty much exclusively power. That is the only thing that can reliably cause every state to act according to its interest. A state cannot be expected to act “morally”, for instance. But if a state acts in its own interest — especially its long-term interest, in which there is acknowledgement of the importance of continued constructive interactions with all parties — then it is quite predictable. The whole situation is stable.
      And, by golly, nobody would complain about some stability in some parts of the world today!
      Thucydides described the political situation in the Greek city-states, in which Athens and Sparta exerted overwhelming influence. Both had dozens — hundreds even — of city-states in their respective leagues of power. One effect this had was to bring widespread peace and prosperity. For one thing the polises weren’t constantly at war, for all the participants in the Athenian league, for instance, were treaty-bound to each other. Without constant war, the prosperity they enjoyed was unlike anything that had happened before. And it was because of the presence of two massive, threatening gorillas in the room.
      IMHO, the Athenians’ problem was that they started interpreting “power” in terms of their egos, rather than in terms of the blunt facts about what would most benefit their state.
      Of the main news organizations, nobody is representing this school of thought correctly. Everybody is resorting to the most brainless, blindly-emotive jingoism and political bigotry, and it’s not helping in the slightest. I don’t know if your connection of the realism described in this article with people like Tucker Carlson and Rand Paul is accurate.

  7. Andrew says

    I’ve always been deeply sceptical of the extent to which Realism is simply a theory which describes the world as it it ‘is’. In doing so adherents to the theory usually seem perfectly happy accepting appalling situations in the name of ‘balance’, and comfortable with a doctrine of might means right.
    Take Russia’s response to NATO expansion for instance. Yes it’s ‘rational’ for an authoritarian Russia to feel threatened, but for that to influence Western policy reguires acceptance of Russia’s imperial ambitions and the idea the these parts of Eastern Europe are legitimately part of Russia’s sphere of influence’. It’s easy to forget that it’s also ‘rational’ for the Baltic states and others to fear Russian tanks, and to welcome NATO protection from Putin and his cronies.
    It implies that NATO expansion was imposed on Eastern Europe, not sort by sovereign democratic governments (oddly the exact position taken by the Chomskyite left). The ‘realist’ position if taken seriously by the west would appear to abandon millions of people living under Putin’s thumb. That does more than mere describe the world as it is.

    • Daniel says

      You’ve got an interesting point here, but let me push back: wouldn’t a realist position just mean that before the Western nations intervene in the Russian sphere of influence, they would need to clearly identify how it would benefit them? We’d need a good reason, in other words. That good reason was, according to some, conspicuously missing in Vietnam. WWII did pose a genuine threat to the US, though.

      • Andrew says

        Yes, you’re right. This what a Realist is likely to argue and what the theory suggests, but you’ll note in the piece Mearschiemer talks of one of the benefits of his way of thinking being restricting areas of conflict. I’m pretty sure he’s on record as being ok with Iran getting nukes as it would balance Saudi power and reduce conflict in the region. My point is in that it becomes very easy to just view see Russian aggression as ‘rational’ and therefore privilege ‘balance’ as always being the most important end goal regardless of other considerations.
        In my example it becomes very likely that you just end up saying, bad luck Latvia your sovereignty and democratic ambitions & our principles aren’t a good enough reason to risk conflict with Russia

    • Realism is helpful in understanding how the world works.

      Ideology (“spreading our way of life”)+ “national exceptionalism” is helpful in justifying a Crusade.

      Realism is not useful for rationalizing the use of violence generally, so it doesn’t hold much appeal for Crusaders.

      But unfortunately, international belligerence isn’t a good in itself. Most empires over-extend themselves, and collapse because they cannot afford to keep up the costs of maintaining the empire. Also, imperialism + blank slate leads some to believe you can make Iraq into a liberal democracy, and thereby prove that a “round square” can exist. [But you just re-define what a square looks like,]

      Likewise, democracy can be redefined from rule by the people to rule by the established elites. Thus, when the people vote established elites out of office and replace them, you have a clear threat to “democracy”.

  8. D.B. Cooper says

    Interesting article. For what it’s worth, Huntington deserves some credit for his hypothesis on Islamic extremism. While reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which militant Islamism accurately approximates to a first-order threat to world peace as Huntington argued it would, I am, admittedly, hard-pressed to take seriously any sentiment that doesn’t recognize Islamic extremism as a clear and present danger to Western peace (Europe & North America).

    With respect to the subject matter, my knowledge of realism as an IR theory is far too insufficient for me to draw a relevant judgement on any one of the author’s claims here; although I would be interested to know a bit more about the primary weakness of realism, and how leading theorists, such as Huntington, addressed those weaknesses.

    My neophyte status notwithstanding, one potentially significant weakness of realism is its reliance on the assumption of international State actors – and their corresponding political systems – as rational actors whose actions maximize their own self-interests. As I understand it, the theoretical framework of realism establishes a number of assumptions, including:

    (A) State actors would presuppose that their own actions are perfectly rational, and;
    (B) The actions of foreign political systems always seek to maximize their own self-interests.

    The problem with applying these assumptions within the backdrop of real-world choices, is that State actors are almost guaranteed to lack full or perfect information on all available choices, and therefore, the ability to choose the optimal choice (among various alternatives) that maximizes one’s own self-interests will languish to some measurable degree.

    Furthermore, this deficit (inability to consistently make rational utility-maximizing decisions) is likely to result from not only incomplete information, but also from the absence of a utility-maximizing choice as well as from a reduction of certainty due to choices made by foreign actors, among others. I believe, though I’m not certain, that this is similar to bounded rationality in microeconomics.

    • Mearsheimer certainly doesn’t assume states are rational actors. In fact, the book he wrote with Walt on the Israel Lobby is a pretty clear case of a state not acting rationally from the standpoint of IR.

      For realism, you simply need to posit a multiplicity of nation-states that serve as the primary actors in international politics. The UN, NGOs, etc. don’t count for much in realism (or are seen as fronts for nation-state actors).

      Next, you need to assume imperfect information (leaders can’t read other leader’s minds, not withstanding George W. Bush’s soul gazing at Putin). Last, you have to assume an international state of anarchy, e.g. no higher ordering principle above the nation-state.

      The security dilemma, which emerges from game theory, is used by Mearsheimer to explain a good deal of why nation-states behave as they do. The security dilemma depends on the existence of imperfect information, which would also suggest that there would always be a serious debate about what the best course of action for a nation-state might be as everyone on each side could assume different intentions of their rivals.

      • In other words, states are the primary actors, and anarchy–God is not going to come down from the sky with a legion of angels if the naughty people win the war– combined with the other mind problem of not knowing another’s intentions.

        States can be stupid actors, or clever actors, and further, stupid actors sometimes win, and clever actors sometimes lose as luck and perhaps destiny play themselves out.

        • Meirsheimer does not propose states are “self interested” in the sense of seeking good exchange, he sees them primarily motivated by the urge to survive. There are various interpretations of the Marshall Plan, but it clearly did not serve the short-term economic interests of the United States–however, many realists regard it as a good diplomatic move.

          When we say states seek to survive, this does not mean that the leadership has to act in accordance with the survival of the state. However, when they do, either the state fails and is replaced by one that can survive, or the leadership is replaced by a leadership that seeks the survival of the nation.

          • D.B. Cooper says


            First, let me say, thanks for the information. As I stated in my original post, this subject matter is relatively foreign to me and any additional information I gain on ‘realism’ is a plus. One question I do have, however, is in regard to your following statement:

            ”When we say states seek to survive, this does not mean that the leadership has to act in accordance with the survival of the state.”

            Are you claiming that State leaders do not ‘have’ to act (read compelled, obligated, mandated, etc.) in accordance with the survival of the state, or are you claiming that while State leaders do ‘have’ to act in accordance with the survival of the state, they simply fail to do so due to incomplete information or any other limiting factor, regulating them as “stupid” actors. The former is on its face utterly self-defeating (self-sabotage), and the latter, I would guess, might be characterized by the more recent actions of Germany’s Merkel.

    • D.B. Cooper:

      Theoretically, leaders don’t have to act in the interests of the survival of the state. However, if this becomes a trend, then the state becomes weaker, and is vulnerable to conquest or loss of control to a stronger state, which then calls the shots. Likewise, if leaders are weakening the state, the people within the polity–who want security and freedom–may become unhappy with their leaders and either vote them out or revolt.

      You have a similar dynamic in politics. People are elected to office who do not seek to secure and if possible, increase, their power. However, such people have a harder time rising in a competition with people who are power oriented, and are vulnerable to replacement by those with a power orientation.

      So its not the case that ALL politicians are simply in it for power–but structurally, the game rewards those who are, and punishes those who are not. The same holds for national leaders, leaders who strengthen their states–all other things being equal–are in a better position to resist external and internal enemies. Those who weaken their states are more likely to fall to either external or internal enemies.

      To be a realist in IR is not the same as being a rational choice economist. Realism admits that leaders can be foolish, but lucky, or leaders can be wise, but spurned by Lady Fortuna.

      • When I say people want security and freedom, I mean freedom in the ancient sense of not being controlled by a foreign power–people want to be members of a sovereign community. You can see from the history of colonialism or the Soviet Eastern bloc what can happen when a people is subjugated by a foreign power.

        • To address the point of information, and the national interest not always being clear cut (I mean, I think any leader is not going to sit by and let the Goths raid local farms if they can do anything about it).

          Let’s take Putin. Other leaders have no clue what Putin’s real intentions are–although we can objectively look at what Russia’s national interests may be, for example, we know they probably want to sell their oil and natural gas resources for hard currencies. But you can imagine there would be a dispute between those who regard Putin’s intentions as more malevolent or more benevolent, which would shake out in foreign policy debates. . . and the fact is we can never know. Putin may despise the West and want nothing more than its total destruction, or he may love the West and desire better relations but is hamstrung by powerful elements within Russia which tie his hands.

          • D.B. Cooper:

            If you are interested in realism, I would read John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Powers, its a great introduction, although be warned. Realism is a school of thought, and has some commonalities (focus on nation-states, international anarchy, strong dose of Hobbes and Machiavelli) but there are a number of debates within realism as you could only expect from a bunch of academics.

  9. D.B. Cooper says

    My apologies for the continued italics in the bottom half. It should have ended after “self-interests” in bullet (B).

  10. Peter from Oz says

    Isn’t being a Democrat and a classical liberal a contradiction?

  11. ga gamba says

    … populism is challenging democracy from Poland to Pennsylvania Avenue,

    My read of ‘challenging’ here is ‘in opposition to’. Is populism something apart from democracy? Is it totalitarianism?

    I suspect the problem isn’t populism per se, rather it’s the “wrong kind” of populism used by the “wrong kind” of people that’s been ascendent.

    Years ago I came across the Texas politician Jim Hightower, who calls himself “America’s #1 Populist”. He’s a leftist, and not one shunned by the Democrats of three decades ago; he was conventional enough to speak at the Party’s national convention endorsing Dukakis in 1988. Writes the New York Times: Jim Hightower came up with two of the better lines of the 1988 Presidential campaign – two of the few that seem likely to survive from a contest more notable for faux pas than bons mots.

    Not surprisingly, given his populist creed, Mr. Hightower thinks that Presidential politics has become so geared to ‘the collection of the vast amounts of money needed to drive the mechanics of television, computers and jet airplanes’ that it has lost touch with the concerns of the ordinary voter. Candidates are constantly worried, he said, about ‘offending the rich, so they end up being totally irrelevant to the poor.’

    Writes Hightower in an undated web post; I surmise it’s recent since he mentions Trump: But there is a medicine to fight this disease, a powerful antidote deeply entwined with our nation’s history: populism—a political doctrine rooted in the rebellious spirit and commitment to the common good of ordinary, grassroots Americans. Time and again throughout our country’s history, populist rebellions have been sparked when ordinary folks were being run over by abusive concentrations of power. And so it is today: hundreds of thousands of Americans—young and old, white and black and brown—are again speaking up and standing against the armed robbery of the people’s rights and the grand theft of the American Dream. That is populism.

    If you perform a google search of populism and restrict the results to those prior to 2015, you’ll find the mainstream press and punditry then had much less antipathy to populism other than that of the Tea Party’s.

    USA Today lamented that prairie populists were fading, Populism isn’t “a bashing of the wealthy or a bashing of those that have made it. It’s a sense that together we can use the powers of government to make sure that the economy works for all,” Harkin said.

    The left-leaning American Prospect wrote, Liberalism [of the American definition] and populism exist in an uneasy but symbiotic relationship. Liberals are wary of populism’s tendencies toward parochialism, nationalism, and romanticism about community and “the people.” Populists see liberals as wary of mass democracy and bending toward elitism. Yet these two strands of the American political tradition have been closely linked, from Franklin Roosevelt’s tirades against “economic royalists” to the appeals of Robert Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson, or Barbara Mikulski. www(dot)prospect(dot)org/article/democratic-engagementbringing-populism-and-liberalism-together

    The leftist The Nation even found populism in the cannabis legalisation movement: The protest marked the beginning of a grassroots countercultural movement that would develop years later into a widespread populist revolt against conventional medicine and extra-constitutional authority. www(dot)thenation(dot)com/article/let-thousand-flowers-bloom-populist-politics-cannabis-reform/

    Of the pre-2015 mainstream press it was right-of-centre The Economist that was reliably anti-populist: Populism has always been a problem for The Economist. Our newspaper was founded in opposition to the Corn Laws, which were meant to protect British farmers from foreign competition. Similarly, populism calls for the government to intermediate in favour of one class at the expense of another. The populist movement in America began with the goal of inflating the currency in order to assist debtors at the expense of lenders. Nowadays, populism generally involves protecting the income of certain producers from the free choices of their neighbours. It is axiomatic among economists that the collective costs to the neighbours from protectionist laws are unacceptably large compared to the benefits enjoyed by the protected.

    Government at its best can create the conditions for general prosperity. Populism argues that government should instead interrupt those conditions to award prosperity specifically and temporarily. Hence, my use of the term “rot”.

    Even the academics were praising populism and advocating its usefulness for the left. Wrote King’s College, London Professor Luke Bretherton:
    While it is unlikely that anything like the Tea Party will develop in the UK, the irony is that populist themes could point the way for the electoral renewal of Labour: for Americanism insert Englishness; for producerism, insert labour; for small government, insert a critique of the dominance of privileged elites; and for the sense of a moral crusade insert the need to protect the common life, common land, common institutions and the customary practices of ordinary working people.

    He wasn’t alone. Ohio State Professor Mark Horger found a particular strain of populism favourable: During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a number of public figures revived the combination of anti-elite animus, visceral distaste for banking and corporate finance, and bold demands for government action on behalf of ordinary people which had been characteristic of the original Populists.

    One of them, of course, was Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal programs intervened aggressively in wide swaths of American economic life and rearranged national political coalitions for a generation or more. Roosevelt defended the New Deal with increasingly anti-elitist political language, particularly after 1935 or so, when he began to welcome the hatred of “government by organized money” and sharpen his rhetorical attacks on “economic royalists. […]

    … Lawrence Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America, from 1976.
    Goodwyn re-interpreted Populism as a lost opportunity of potentially transformative democratic potential. Goodwyn was moved not by Populist monetary policy or political rhetoric, but by what he considered its organically grassroots “movement culture” of economic cooperation and collective uplift.

    The positive sentiment evaporates when it’s rightwing populism. In fact, the academics suggest the populist Tea Party may not be populist at all: The most consistent policy preference articulated by these various groups, in fact, appears to be opposition to robust government action of any kind. Government response to the recession has been quite robust, and this is a primary source of tea party anger. www(dot)origins(dot)osu(dot)edu/article/american-populism-and-persistence-paranoid-style

    For me the most interesting sentence of the article is this: “It is essential to recognize,” Goodwyn wrote, “that Populism appeared at almost the very last moment before the values implicit in the corporate state captured the cultural high ground in American society itself.” If so, then the populism we see now is a last gasp.

    Move forward to the present, and we find The New Yorker, amongst many, writing of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:She delivered an important message to the Democratic Party by running an explicitly populist, anti-establishment campaign. And, as the Party prepares for the midterms and the 2020 Presidential election, it would do well to listen to her.

    NYMag pulled off an interesting bait and switch, using the ‘populism’ in the url, www(dot)nymag(dot)com/daily/intelligencer/2018/06/ocasio-cortez-won-by-fusing-identity-politics-with-populism.html yet not using populist and populism once in the article. It appears some on the the left are uncertain how to frame her candidacy after having spent two years lambasting ‘populism’ and imagining the populist bogeyman under everyone’s bed – mine snores.

    Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign tweeted: “Please don’t use the term “populist” when referring to Ocasio-Cortez.”

    Ocasio-Cortez is the populist socialist who isn’t the populist socialist. Maybe she’s just socially popular. Yeah, that’s it.

    No, populism isn’t challenging democracy, at least not yet – we’re not at Peronist populism. It’s challenging certain leftist and corporatist interests in the democratic system and they don’t like it. Until they do.

    • peanut gallery says

      Populism seems like a buzzword that has lost any meaning it might have had. “I don’t like you. You make appeals to ‘the people’ and you’re popular…. YOU POPULIST!” Yeah. Ok. Is this a slur or a description of something that’s happening? YMMV.

  12. I suggest that the name ‘Realism’ is itself deceptive, and kind of self-praising for the old mainstream. This article strikes me as a power claim for the Foreign Office (yes I know) establishment, when their advice is being pretty much ignored in a Patton-esque seizing of the initiative by the Trump.

  13. dirk says

    In my literature classes, once, long ago, realism was also a term to denominate a certain type of novels. The novels, not on the love affairs and what not all the upper classes thought and felt (they happened never to have a certain job, or to go to work) , but what happened in the street and on the work place. Maybe, there are many more realisms in society.

  14. Oh Realism, how I love you and your variants, your incredible predictive capacity, and deceptive simplicity. That’s what’s so great about Realism, its logical foundation seems utterly solid, so solid that most other International Relations (IR) schools borrow its central assumption, that there is no sovereign above the sovereigns. This conception of anarchy, that the author accurately portrays, is a defining assumption of IR. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must, to paraphrase the Melian Dialogue.

    Fundamentally, one of the issues that I find hard to fix is that most actions can be explained as reasonable, justified post-hoc, regardless of what the decision was. State does x, this action is rational because y, State does a, this action is rational because b. So, ultimately, when is an action irrational? If it goes against the states interests or compromises its power and/or security? These are hard to quantify, and most actions can be justified with some explanation, which though I may find said explanation contrived but difficult to fully refute.

    Take Saudi Arabia’s recent reaction, or overreaction, to a Canadian Foreign Affairs Ministry (I will not call it Global Affairs Canada, its execrable actual name) Tweet. It seems to be an extreme reaction to harm economic ties which strengthen it and Canada over some standard talking point about human rights. But, one can also make a reasonable case that the Crown Prince had to take harsh action to maintain his standing in his country, and secure his place as ruler, creating a stronger position in the long term. Both arguments have SOME merit, but which is more rational? I don’t know, and this is my issue with rationality as the basis for state action. There just seems to be something missing in the puzzle.

    • dirk says

      Not overreaction MF, just simply reaction, if you feel strong, you speak like that, it’s just Macchiavelli. I wonder where this will end!

      • dirk says

        And more on realism: today in all newspapers worldwide the obituary of V.S.Naipaul. In my newspaper it ended with:
        -Fiction for him was freedom from the non-world, the in-between of two cultures- (the world how it should be??)
        -Non-fiction the real world, the raw reality, the wider context-
        I really hope that Quillette also dedicates some attention to this giant.

    • X. Citoyen says

      I sympathize with your take because realists encourage that conclusion when they try to spell out the “theory” underlying realism. This piece also encourages your take because it describes realism as a theory akin to liberal and neoconservative theories, which are really variations on the same theory. Both liberal and neoconservative theories assume there is an ideal end-state for humanity—i.e., liberal democracy—and that all states are moving toward it. The two schools of thought differ only (and only sometimes) on the means. The only difference between Bush II in Iraq and Obama in Libya, for example, was the rhetorical framing and the number of “boots on the ground.”

      (Side note: Many people mistake neoconservatives for conservatives because of the label, leading to all manner of confusion. But neoconservatives are better understood as progressives who’ve broken with liberalism over the means, not the ends, of driving social progress at home and abroad. Oddly enough, some leftists seem to have realized this, lumping both under the label “neoliberalism.”)

      It’s a lot more useful to think of realism as the rejection of these universal and progressive theories—or, put another way, of Hegelian theories of historical development in favour of what Aristotle called practical reasoning about a hard-to-predict human affairs. Hobbes’s state of nature is less a theoretical model of the international order than a heuristic for understanding it in the absence of a universal theory, such as liberalism. Again, the Hobbesian stuff shouldn’t be exaggerated because it’s just a way to think of the difference between relations within states, where there’s a monopoly of force, and between them, where there isn’t.

      The lack of a robust theory is what gives the appearance of circularity to realist predictions. The two working assumptions—i.e., that states act on their perceived interests, regardless of the lofty spin placed on their motives, and that human affairs are hard to predict—means that realist predictions will always be general best guesses based on past behaviour and highly contingent on circumstances—in other words, weak predictions because that’s all that can be done. Adding to the confusion, different realists will make different predictions based on different readings of the evidence because they’re not working for the same ideological script (the way the other two schools are).

      I don’t expect this to persuade you of the virtues of realism, but I hope it suggests a way of seeing how realism might be more coherent than it appears.

  15. Populism is challenging democracy? It IS democracy. That’s why our ruling class is so fiercely opposed to it. It prioritizes the needs of the people above the needs of the ruling class. They’re used to having their way and this seems unfair and anti-democratic to them. Their meaning of “democracy” means “I get my way”.

  16. Think again. Populism challenging democracy? Populism is challenging the erosion of democracy.

  17. augustine says

    It seems that the nature and the scale of assumed responsibility is key to some of the differences under discussion here. The sphere of influence of a conservative entity is limited naturally to self, family and immediate circles. Modern liberalism (cf. Classical Liberalism) prescribes wider circles of interest, incorporating the entire human project, both personally and politically. Which one is more realistic? Which one is more successful, and for how long?

    If “conservative” is our baseline, our general stable tendency that liberalism requires to rebel against, I question whether realism can really be seen as steering a rational middle course instead of skewing right instead.

  18. martti_s says

    The caricature of Democracy that is prevailing in the Western countries has been created to give the voters, the masses, the ignorant and the depraved, a feeling that they are participating in decisions that concern their daily life and the future of their kids while making sure that they do not get to interfere in the market of services and counter services, money and power.

    Whenever the hegemony is threatened, the cries against ‘populism’ are heard.
    The political elite with its muggers and mouthpieces is concerned about its own well-being. You call out the foul and you pay…unless you are attractive and for sale at a reasonable price.
    I was waiting for a revolution once the cyber media too over. Thus far, all I have seen in the infantiliziing of the genera opinion and polarization of ideas that have no meaning in the everyday life of the great majority of people.

    Who evidently do not take an active part in the discussion due to the lack of interest, education and time. The noise made does not correlate with numbers.

  19. Pingback: Virtuality Bites – Enlaces interesantes de la semana – antroposcopio

  20. Pingback: Virtuality Bytes – Intersting links of the week 18 August, 2018 – QUEROLUS.ORG – A DIGITAL LIFE EXPOSED

Comments are closed.