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CIAO DATE: 03/02

The Enduring Dilemmas of Realism in International Relations

Stefano Guzzini

Copenhagen Peace Research Institute
December 2001


After the end of the Cold War, realism has been again on the defensive. In recent years, two major discussions have been waged about it. The first debate was triggered by a piece John Vasquez 1 published in the American Political Science Review. In this blunt attack, Vasquez basically argues that realists reject the systematic use of scientific criteria for assessing theoretical knowledge. Vasquez charges (neo)realism either for producing blatantly banal statements or for being non-falsifiable, i.e. ideological. For him, much of the post-Waltzian (neo) realist research results are but a series of Ptolemaic circles whose elaborate shape conceals the basic vacuity of the realist paradigm.

The second debate followed an article by Jeffrey Legro and Andrew Moravcsik in International Security. 2 There, realists were asked to accept that their recent work is only good, because they have been incorporating ideas and causal variables from other approaches. On the one hand, this critique is less harsh than Vasquez's insofar as realism is not denied a scientific status. But on the other hand, by being allotted a small and usually insufficient terrain on the academic turf, realism would become structurally dependent on a division of theoretical labour defined elsewhere.

The present article will argue that these debates are but the last manifestation of two enduring dilemmas, realism is facing ever since its inception in International Relations. I will call the two dilem mas the "identity dilemma" or the distinctiveness/determinacy dilemma, and the "conservative dilemma" of realism. In both cases, realism has continuously tried to avoid facing them, i.e. it wanted to have the cake and eat it, too. Consequently, the ambiguity of its position has systematically produced criticisms of which this last round after the Cold War is just another incidence.

Realism's "identity dilemma" is indirectly visible in the paradoxically rather difficult definition of realism. A recent textbook compares different definitions which leaves it with little more than a family resemblance or a certain "style", such that "we may not be able to define [realism], but we know it when we see it". 3 Indeed, since early realists tended to confuse realism with the matter of IR tout court, they unproblematically relied on assumptions which were not unique to itself, such as the micro-assumption of rationality 4 or the macro-assumption of anarchy, both widely shared among so-called idealists. Rather then thinking in exclusive term s, realists understood themselves as closer to a purely materialist pole of the rationalist theory of action and to a m ore pessim istic v ision about anarchy, that is, a cyclical vision of history without progress. 5 These two assumptions, and in particular the latter, helped much to overcome the endemic identity crisis of the nascent discipline of International Relations by setting it apart from (domestic) political science and hence produced the easy confusion between the boundaries of realism and the discipline of IR proper. 6

As successful as they are in their paradigmatic function, I will claim that these strictly realist assumptions produce causally indeterminate theories, however. Hence, in order to make determinate and empirical claims, realism always needed to be supplemented by elements alien to realism. From here stems its identity dilemma. Contemporary realism can either be distinct from other approaches, but theoretically vacuous, or explanatory more determinate, but then indistinguishable from some other approaches in IR. As this article will show, the reason is to be found in the indeterminacy of its central concepts, like power, which can simply not bear the theoretical weight assigned to them. In other words, Legro's and Moravcsik's finding is no coincidence of only recent realist research, but conceptual necessity in an enduring theoretical dilemma.

Following Kissinger's analysis of Metternich, I would propose to call the second enduring dilemma of realism the "conservative dilemma" 7 or the science or justification/tradition dilemma of realism. Faced with criticism about realism's scientific character or its findings, it has been a recurring feature of realists to lean towards less stringent understandings of their own theory. Realism then refers to a philosophical tradition or more generally "an attitude regarding the human condition". 8 Yet, when realism wants to retreat to a traditional position, it is caught by a dilemma which exists since its origins in International Relations. Despite Morgenthau's early insistence on the intuitions of statesmen and the "art" of politics 9 , realism derived much of its appeal from its claim to understand reality "as it is". But ever since the foreign policy maxims of Realpolitik are no longer commonly shared knowledge and legitimate politics, realism can not refer to the "world as it is" and rely on its intuitive understanding by the responsible elites. Instead, it needs to justify the value of traditional practical knowledge and diplomacy. To be persuasive, such a justification comes today in the form of controllable knowledge. Moreover, since realism self-consciously refers to the world as it is (and not as it should be), it necessarily requires a kind of objective status. In other words, by avoiding justification, realism loses its persuasiveness in times of a rational debate it decides not to address. But taking the other way by consistently justifying a world-view that should be natural and taken for granted, realist defenses testify to its very demise. Today, there is no way back to paradise when realism needed little justification.

In a last section, I draw some implications of these two dilemmas. I will argue that IR realism seems pitted to return to these dilemmas if it does not give up its own identity of the so-called first debate between realism and idealism. It is this relentlessly reproduced opposition which drives IR realism to be an impoverished branch of political realism more generally. For political realism is defined not only by the counterposition to a (utopian) ideal, whether or not this has really existed in IR, but also to an "apparent" masking existing power relations. It is a double negation, both anti-idealist and anti-conservative. By giving up its classical IR identity, and getting out of the "first debate", IR realism would be free to join in a series of meta-theoretical and theoretical research avenues, which it leaves to other schools so far. The need felt to defend IR "realism" seems therefore too costly on strictly intellectual grounds — for realists, but also for IR at large.


Note 1: Vasquez 1997. Back

Note 2: Legro and Moravcsik 1999. Back

Note 3: Donnelly 2000, 9. Back

Note 4: There is considerable confusion around this issue, since the rationality assumption does not imply that actors always act rationally. It simply means that realists have usually been in the Weberian tradition (e.g. Morgenthau) assuming rationality as a measuring rod with which to make sense of individual behaviour. Back

Note 5: For the importance of this assumption, see Bobbio 1981. Back

Note 6: Guzzini 1998, chapter 1. Back

Note 7: Kissinger 1957, chapter XI. Back

Note 8: Gilpin 1986 [1984], 304. Back

Note 9: Morgenthau 1946. Back