Daniel W. Drezner

What is realism?

What is realism?

As I was reading Paul Wolfowitz’s essay on Obama and realism, I kept thinking, “there’s realism and then there’s Realism.” 

Small “r” realism consists of a recognition that there are some unpleasant truths in world politics that must be acknowledged if one is going to pursue a prudent foreign policy. If a government amasses significant capabilities or acts aggressively, it will tend to trigger balancing coalitions. International institutions are often feckless and hypocritical. Forcible regime change is really, really hard. Implacable hostility to powerful actors with different ideologies won’t work terribly well. Power is a relative measure and a resource that should be husbanded for important matters of state. You get the idea. 

Big “R” Realism is a theoretical paradigm that makes certain assumptions about what drives powerful actors in world politics, and derives interesting predictions (and occasional prescriptions) from those assumptions. Many of these predictions match up with small “r” realism (balancing behavior, useless international institutions, etc.). Many go beyond them, however. According to Realism, regime type is unimportant in explaining world politics. The democratic peace is a mirage. Strong states are better at foreign policy. Not all Realists agree on everything, but they agree on some big and not obvious things, and they all seem to publish in International Security an awful lot (don’t aske me to parse out the difference between defensive realists, neoclassical realists, structural realists, and offensive realists; if you do, well, I’m going to have this kind of reaction). 

The difference between the two “realisms” is one of purpose. Small “r” realism is a set of guidelines for real, live policymakers, and is intended to foster prudence. Big “R” Realism is intended to be more provocative to the point of caricature — i.e., to the point where Realists might have little difficulty incorporating zombies into their paradigm. It is certainly possible to be both. Behind closed doors, I have heard big “R” Realists proffer small “r” realist prescriptions that might contradict the academic paradigm. In public, it’s funny how Realists who believe that anarchy and the distribution of power are the only things that matter nevertheless rail against the pernicious influence of ethnic lobbies. 

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