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Richard Ned Lebow July 2008

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Richard Ned Lebow July 2008


The concept of realism was developed in 1930s and 1940s as an alternative to attempts to understand and conduct international relations based on international law. Founding fathers Nicholas J. Spykman, Edward Mead Earle, Frederick Schuman, E. H. Carr, John Herz, William T. R. Fox and Hans J. Morgenthau asserted the realism of their power-based approaches to foreign policy in contrast to what they described as a dangerous idealism of their predecessors. Writing in response to the appeasement of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, which they held responsible in large part for World War II, realist arguments had great resonance.

In the United States, realism appeared to offer intellectual justification for the Cold War and a range of policies pursued by the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations that were otherwise at odds with proclaimed American values. By the mid-1950s realism had become the dominant paradigm in international relations and remained so until the Berlin Wall came down. Since the end of the Cold War realism is at best primus inter pares, as liberalism, constructivism, feminism, philosophical realism and post-structuralism have all become more prominent. Realism arguably remains the dominant frame of reference for policymakers, although even here, liberalism especially has made important inroads.

Looking back on the post-World War II era, we see three waves of realism, each with important implications for the study and practice of international relations and foreign policy. The first wave, represented by the writings of the realists described in the paragraph above, was far and away the most influential. Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, its principal text, was first published in 1948 and went through six editions, the last published posthumously in 1985. Within the United States, and to a lesser extent in Europe, it became a core reading in undergraduate international relations courses. Morgenthau became a prominent public figure in the United States, and achieved a certain notoriety for his early support for the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. He lamented that American foreign policy makers had “overlearned” the lessons of realism and lost sight of the appropriate moral and legal limitations on the use of power (1966:77).

Morgenthau maintained that power is the currency of politics and should be the first concern of states. He divided the world into status quo, revisionist and prestige seeking states (1948: 21-25). Status quo states were intent on maintaining existing territorial divisions, and revisionist states on overturning them. Prestige seeking states sought to demonstrate their power to gain more influence. Morgenthau insisted that state goals were not essentialist, but changed over time, and were not always apparent to outside observers. He thought peace most likely to be preserved when status quo powers were more powerful than their revisionist challengers, and that the power of either group could be enhanced through alliances. Morgenthau, and realists more generally, speak of the balance of power, which can mean the distribution of power in the system at any given moment, the balance between status quo and revisionist states or an advantage in favor of the former. Morgenthau used it all three ways – to the consternation of his critics.

The balance of power assumes some capability of measuring power and its distribution. This has proven difficult for realists of all persuasions. Morgenthau (1962: 131,180-81) conceived of power as an intangible quality that had diverse material and political components, among them territory, population, national resources, industrial capacity, military preparedness, national character, morale and the quality of diplomacy and government. None of these attributes translated directly into power because power was “a psychological relation[ship]” that gave those who exercise control over certain actions of others “through the influence which the former exert over the latter’s minds.” “Of all the factors which make for the power of a nation, the most important is the quality of diplomacy.” The other attributes of national power are the raw materials out of which the power of a nation is fashioned. Diplomacy “combines those different factors into an integrated whole, gives them direction and weight, and awakens their slumbering potentialities by giving them the breath of actual power” (1948: 14, 105).

Morgenthau described his theory as scientific, but his description of the nature of power and the balance of power indicates that the measurement and exercise of power and the construction of a successful balance of power is more art than science. This is most evident in his analysis of bipolarity and its consequences. Bipolarity was coined by William T. R. Fox in 1944 to describe the domination of the postwar international system by two “superpowers”: the United States and the Soviet Union.. Morgenthau recognized the world as bipolar in the mid-1950s because the power of these two states had become so “overwhelming” in comparison to allies and third parties that “through their own preponderant weight they determine the balance of power between them.” The balance of power could no longer be “decisively affected” by changes in the alignments of their allies, at least for the foreseeable future. Nor could lesser powers easily defect from alliances, because “the two giants” had the power to “hold them there even against their will” (1948: 270-74; 1951: 48, 52-54). The flexibility of the balance of power and its restraining influence upon power aspirations of the main protagonists had disappeared. The superpowers were free to define their respective positions as vital interests and engage each other with every means at their disposal in every arena in which they compete. In this novel situation, “the give and take of compromise becomes a weakness which neither side is able to afford.”(1962: 285).

Morgenthau was clearly uncomfortable with the pessimistic implications of his analysis, and sought to hold out a ray of hope for the future. “The changed structure of the balance of power has made the hostile opposition of two gigantic power blocs possible,” he argued, “but it has not made it inevitable.” Bipolarity has the potential for “unheard-of good as well as for unprecedented evil.” In the last resort, peace did not depend on the nuclear balance, but on the moral quality of leaders and their willingness to place the common goal of survival over the pursuit of unilateral advantage (1948: 285-86). Morgenthau’s theory, in contrast to his neorealist successors, stresses the independent power of agency.

In the third, 1962, edition of Politics Among Nations, Morgenthau recognized additional incentives for superpower restraint. He speculated that the experience of the Korean War may have taught Moscow and Washington that they have to adapt their policies to the wishes of their allies “if they wanted to draw the maximum of strength from their support” (1962: 351-52) The emergence of a number of newly independent and unaligned states might also serve the cause of restraint. The third edition continued to describe bipolarity as on the whole inimical to peace (1962: 362-63). In the fifth edition, published in 1972, Morgenthau (355-56) expressed cautious optimism. Détente, explicit recognition of the territorial status quo in Europe, a corresponding decline in ideological confrontation, the emergence of third forces (e.g., Japan, China, West Germany), and the damaging effects of Vietnam on American power had made both superpowers more cautious and respectful of the status quo. For all practical purposes, the de facto acceptance of the postwar division of Europe had ended the Cold War.

For Morgenthau, the success of the balance of power for the better part of three centuries was less a function of the distribution of capabilities than it was of the underlying values and sense of community that bound together the actors in the system. When the European value consensus broke down, as it did from the first partition of Poland through the Napoleonic Wars, the balance of power no longer functioned to preserve the peace or integrity of the members of the system (1948: 160-66). The consensus broke down again in the twentieth century with even more disastrous consequences. At mid-century, Morgenthau was deeply pessimistic about the future. The balance of power was at its nadir. There were two great powers instead of many, Britain no longer had the capability to play the role of balancer, the colonial frontier had disappeared and one of the principal powers rejected the very premises of the international order. International politics had been reduced “to the primitive spectacle of two giants eyeing each other with watchful suspicion” (1948: 285).

Morgenthau’s theory is descriptive and prescriptive. “Realism,” he insists, is superior to “idealist” approaches on both counts. It is more rigorous because its axioms are logically derived from its starting assumptions. It is empirically valid because “the facts as they are actually lend themselves to the interpretation the theory has put upon them” (1962: 1). Morgenthau has been accused of making contradictory claims: he justifies his theory on the grounds that it provided a better description of reality, but at the same time criticizes French and British policymakers in the 1930s, and their American counterparts in the 1960s, for acting in sharp violation of its principles. He dismissed this criticism as beside the point. Politics Among Nations did not aim at an “indiscriminate description of political reality,” but was an attempt to develop a “rational theory of politics.” The balance of power was “an ideal system,” and in his more pessimistic moments Morgenthau was willing to admit that it was “scarcely found in reality.” Realism provided a benchmark against which actual policies could be understood and evaluated. For the same reason, it contained a strong normative element. It was a “theoretical construct” of a fully rational and informed foreign policy that “experience can never completely achieve,” but which can be used as a guide for making and assessing policy (1962: 8).

Neo- or structural realism, developed by Kenneth Waltz (1979) represents an attempt to purge the tensions and contradictions of Morgenthau and other realists of his generation to construct a more scientific theory based entirely at the system level. The starting point for Waltz is the alleged anarchy of the international system that makes it a “self-help” system. Anarchy requires states not only to make the acquisition of power their first goal, but as Waltz disciple John Mearsheimer insists, to accumulate sufficient economic and military capabilities “to make sure that no other state sharply shifts the balance of power in its favour” (2007: 72). For Neo-realists, the yardstick of power is relative not absolute power because states must assess their power relative to other political units.

Drawing on Nietzsche and Weber, Morgenthau attributed conflict at every level of social aggregation to human nature: people were driven by a desire to dominate others (animus dominiandi) and to use them for their own ends. This behavior was less constrained at the international level due to the relative absence of institutions, rules and mechanisms for channeling this drive into more socially acceptable channels. Neo-realists find the explanation for inter-state conflict entirely at the system level. They invoke the “security dilemma,” a phenomenon first described by John Herz (1950; 2003), another prominent first-generation realist. The uncertainty of the international environment encourages states to seek a margin of safety in their military power. Their buildups and deployments threaten other states who respond the same way. Because of the security dilemma, international conflict would arise in a system in which every power had only benign intentions. In contrast to Morgenthau, regime type and regime goals are irrelevant for most neo-realists As the system itself causes conflict, actors, in the words of John Mearsheimer (2007) can be treated as “black boxes.”

For Waltz (1979), the number of actors and the distribution of the power in the system are they key variables for understanding international relations as they determine the polarity of the system. Unipolar systems, dominated by a single hegemon, are the most stable because the hegemon has enough power to enforce order, as Rome did for centuries throughout the Mediterranean basin. Bipolar systems also have a degree of stability because each of the two dominant powers is strong enough to protect itself against any possible combination against them and are accordingly less worried about the addition or defection of allies than great powers in a multipolar system. Multi-polarity is the least stable system because there is not that much difference in strength among leading powers, making alliances and additions and defection from them critical to the balance of power. The balance between opposing alliances is also much more difficult to calculate because it requires estimates of the strength and intentions of multiple powers. Miscalculation becomes an additional source of war in multipolar system.

Neorealism is not monolithic. Its adherents differ among themselves in important respects. Violating Waltz’s commitment to a parsimonious system-level theory, Steven Walt (1987) maintains that states balance against perceived threats, not power. The United States, he contends, never worried about British or French nuclear arsenals, only about Soviet and Chinese arsenals because both considered were considered adversaries. John Mearsheimer (2001), author of his own theory of international relations, builds on the distinction between offensive and defensive realism. Traditional realists, whom he describes as defensive realists, maintain that other powers will balance against any state that becomes relatively too powerful. Mearsheimer advocates offensive realism on the grounds that other powers often bandwagon (make an accommodation with the dominant power) or buckpass (sit on the sidelines) in preference to joining a balancing coalition. This behavior, and offensive dominance -- the likelihood that states who start wars will win them – create strong incentives for aggression.

Realists and neorealists disagree about the implications of nuclear weapons. Whereas Morgenthau recognized that they had revolutionalized warfare and with it, international relations, Waltz (1981) regarded them as an unalloyed benefit as they had a powerful deterrent effect. Other realists, stressing problems of command and control and fear of being the victims of a first strike attack, see them as potentially destabilizing (Sagan, 1995).

Critics have identified numerous conceptual and empirical problems with neorealism. Alexander Wendt (1992) has argues that anarchy does not automatically lead a self-help system; the character of the international system depends very much on how states respond to anarchy. Lebow (1994) argues that neorealism’s definition of power is as problematic as Morgenthau’s. Waltz offers a definition of power almost identical to Morgenthau’s. He then asserts the overwhelming importance of material capabilities, especially military capabilities, because “force remains the final arbiter” of international affairs. The superpowers are “set apart from the others. . . by their ability to exploit military technology on a large scale and at the scientific frontiers” (1979: 131, 153, 180-81). He insists (1979: 131) that the determination of polarity can be answered by “common sense,” and that the world was bipolar in 1945. Efforts by scholars to determine when bipolarity began range from Waltz’s 1945 estimate to Morgenthau’s mid-1950s estimate as well as assertions by some that the postwar world was never bipolar. The end of the Cold War has created a similar controversy, with Waltz (1990) arguing that the world was still bipolar, Mearsheimer (1990) that it had become multipolar and other realists (Krauthammer, 1990/91, Wohlforth, 1990; Mastanduno, 1997) contending that it is now “unipolar.”

The most fundamental problem with Waltz’s theory is that it is, by his own admission, a theory of international relations not of foreign policy and thus says little to nothing about how individual states will behave. Its principal substantive proposition is that multipolar systems are less stable (enduring) and more war-prone than bipolar ones. Such a proposition is not testable because we would require a large sample of both kinds of systems and there been very few bipolar systems in history. It is also meaningless because what anyone is really interested in is the likelihood of war in a particular system and no inferences can be made about single cases from statistical distributions.

Mearsheimer’s theory, elaborated in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001) has also encountered strong criticism. Offensive dominance has little empirical support. It is simply not true, as Mearsheimer claims, that initiators win most of the wars they have begun. Lebow (2007: 12-15) shows that in the 30 wars fought since 1945 initiators won only 7. Mearsheimer’s (1990, 2001) predictions that NATO would not survive the end of the Cold War and that Germany and Japan should and would acquire nuclear weapons have (fortunately) not come to pass.

The third wave -- classical realism -- was ushered in by the peaceful end of the Cold War which appeared to contradict the expectations of neorealism. Classical realism was also a response to widespread recognition that problems of identity, globalization, justice and world order were at least as important as the balance of power in understanding contemporary international relations. Scholars have accordingly revisited the works of Thucydides (Lebow, 2003), Hobbes (Williams, 2006) and Morgenthau (Lebow, 2003; Erskine and Williams, 2007) in search of insights relevant to these problems.

Lebow’s The Tragic Vision of Politics (2003) is the most extensive attempt to reconstruct the wisdom of classical realism through hermeneutic readings of the texts of Thucydides, Carl von Clausewitz and Morgenthau. He contends that all three authors wrote in the aftermath of destructive wars and sought to reconstruct order by drawing on the best of old practices and the most promising new ideas. In sharp contrast to neo-realists, they recognized that the principal threat to world order came from dominant powers who succumbed to hubris and overreached themselves. Such powers were more effectively constrained by domestic restraints and external practices and institutions than by the balance of power. Support for this contention also comes from Kaufman, Little, and Wohlforth's (2007) comprehensive study of the balance of power in the ancient world and non-Western systems. They find that it rarely worked to preserve the peace most realist theories suggest.

Lebow (2003) further contends that classical realists were more interested in influence than in power. They recognized that material capabilities were only one component of power and power was only one source of influence. Influence is relational and the least efficient way of exercising it is through threats and rewards. They consume resources and threats generate antagonism because they make other actors aware of their subordination. Influence is most effectively exercised through common projects that respond to common needs and build common identities. Influence of this kind is limited to projects considered to be in the common interest, and repeated efforts to advance common interests can win honor for dominant powers and corresponding willingness of others to accept their leadership. Lebow explores the role of honor in A Cultural Theory of International Relations (2008), in which he develops a constructivist theory of international relations, but one that incorporates key tenets of classical realism.

Morgenthau thought that nuclear weapons and environmental degradation were problems that could not be addressed by nation states acting unilaterally. To address them the world required “a principle of political organization transcending the nation-state and commensurate with the potentialities for good or evil of nuclear power itself” (1962B: 76). While Waltz and neorealists sought to explain the status quo, Morgenthau looked beyond it. The principal task of international relations theorists was to help them to by laying the groundwork “for a new international order radically different from that which preceded it” (Ibid). Thucydides, Morgenthau and Herz are attractive to classical realists above all because of their concern for justice and the transformational nature of their projects.


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