Daniel W. Drezner

Let the theorist who is without sin cast the first stone

Let the theorist who is without sin cast the first stone

In the past month, two peer-reviewed academic articles have aimed point-blank at realism and yelled "Fire!" 

In Perspectives on Politics, Ido Oren argues that there is a logical tension between the idea of realism as an objective paradigm and realists proffering policy prescriptions: 

Realist International Relations thinkers often intervene in political debates and criticize their governments’ policies even as they pride themselves on theorizing politics as it “really” is. They rarely reflect on the following contradictions between their theory and their practice: if there is a “real world” impervious to political thought, why bother to try to influence it?

Samuel Barkin makes a similar point in the latest issue of Foreign Policy Analysis

Attempts by some contemporary realists to both claim that international politics are objectively predictable and at the same time prescribe particular foreign policies cannot hold together logically, because they are internally contradictory. The core argument of this article is that these attempts not only fail to fulfill their goal, but that the attempt to be scientific, to see the world as predictable, is ontologically incompatible with the core insight of classical realism, that we must see the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be.

To which I say…. meh. 

I see where Barkin and Oren are coming from, really, I do.  It is certainly the case that this is an area where, say, constructivism has a comparative advantage over realism — because the former is a theory that allows discursive and rhetorical strategems to affect real world events. 

That said, this is also one of those logical points that sounds devastating in a grad seminar but seems less persuasive when applied outside the world of Imre Lakatos (though I would pay money to see someone from APSA flash their badge at the annual meeting and say, "Freeze, Mearsheimer!!  You can’t use an interest-group explanation to explain such a broad swath of American foreign policy and still call yourself an offensive realist!  That violates section 2.1 of the negative heuristic.  You’ll have to come with me!") 

First, it’s not clear to me that these sins are unique to realism.  Other paradigms can claim objectivity, posit systemic effects and yet still proffer policy advice. 

Second, structural effects can take different forms at different junctures.  A realist could therefore proffer policy advice along the lines of:  "No matter what you do as a policymaker, the inevitable outcome is going to be X.  However, if you choose policy action A, X will happen with a lot of unnecessary bloodshed and expenditure, whereas if you choose policy action B, X happens with a minimum of negative side-effects." 

Third, there is a difference between a scientific paradigm and individual experts offering concrete advice.  The latter might contradict the former, but then again, the complexities of the real world often contradict the simplifying assumptions we make in our models.  The art of policymaking often requires knowing exactly which model applies under what conditions — and this is hardly a matter of settled debate. 

What do you think?