06 Apr

William Scheuerman challenges the dominant interpretation of realism

Posted By Politybooks

William ScheuermanAfter I finished making my case for an alternative interpretation of the “realist” school of international theory during a panel at the recent International Studies Association meeting in Montreal, an audience member posed an important question: who cares?

Why bother challenging the dominant interpretation of realism as an institutionally complacent and conservative theory of international politics? What do we gain by underlining international realism’s original reformist and politically progressive impulses?

I responded by offering two answers. Both are deeply political.
In the US (and elsewhere), dominant foreign policy elites have effectively monopolized the category of “realism” and thereby married it at the hip to many troublesome foreign policies.

Condoleeza Rice, for example, has frequently described herself as a disciple of Hans Morgenthau. Innumerable neoconservative pundits (e.g. Charles Krauthammer) like to describe themselves as realists as well. The result is that the concept of “realism” now conveniently serves as an intellectual cover for much of what passes for right-wing foreign policy.

Realism represents too rich and multifaceted a tradition to be left in the hands of the political right or, for that matter, even the centrist US foreign policy establishment (as exemplified by journals like Foreign Affairs). Reclaiming that tradition represents an important political task.

We need to show that the Emperor has no clothes: the right-leaning defenders of deeply problematic foreign policies who wrap themselves in the realist tradition do so only by distorting what that tradition is all about. So we need to make it clear that realism is a deeply contested category whose core attributes can and should be mobilized by progressives who seek far-reaching global change and ultimately, global democracy.

The second political target of my reinterpretation of realism is located on the left. Many of them have become enamored of cosmopolitan international theory; I sympathize with their efforts. But the fact of the matter is that cosmopolitans have simply not done justice to some theoretical matters about which politically progressive realists (e.g., Carr, Herz, Morgenthau, and Niebuhr) thought long and hard – most importantly perhaps, the question of power.

In particular, the realist view of robust statehood as ultimately essential to successful global governance remains intellectually vital. Too often, cosmopolitans have subscribed to anemic ideas of “global governance without government.”

Realism can show us how and why this is a mistake. If we are serious about global governance, we will need to consider the possibility of a political and institutional aspiration that too often remains a taboo even among the most ambitious cosmopolitans: world government. Even if it is at best a long-term aspiration, a properly conceived model of world government potentially remains an attractive goal.