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Daniel W. Drezner

Intellectual clean-up in the realist aisle, please!

Over the break, I see that John Mearsheimer got the glowing Robert D. Kaplan treatment in The Atlantic.  Kaplan is a master of this genre, writing my favorite profile of Samuel Huntington a little more than a decade ago.  In his Atlantic essay, Kaplan smartly observes that John’s real intellectual legacy should be his 2001 masterwork ...

Over the break, I see that John Mearsheimer got the glowing Robert D. Kaplan treatment in The Atlantic.  Kaplan is a master of this genre, writing my favorite profile of Samuel Huntington a little more than a decade ago.  In his Atlantic essay, Kaplan smartly observes that John’s real intellectual legacy should be his 2001 masterwork The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

The best grand theories tend to be written no earlier than middle age, when the writer has life experience and mistakes behind him to draw upon. Morgenthau’s 1948 classic, Politics Among Nations, was published when he was 44, Fukuyama’s The End of History was published as a book when he was 40, and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations as a book when he was 69. Mearsheimer began writing The Tragedy of Great Power Politics when he was in his mid-40s, after working on it for a decade. Published just before 9/11, the book intimates the need for America to avoid strategic distractions and concentrate on confronting China. A decade later, with the growth of China’s military might vastly more apparent than it was in 2001, and following the debacles of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, its clairvoyance is breathtaking.

Note to self:  start outlining awesome, earth-moving grand theory now. [Note to Drezner:  sorry, but you already dug your own grave when it comes to intellectual legacy–ed.]

It’s not surprising that Kaplan, a geopolitics wonk, loves Tragedy, with its emphasis on the "stopping power of water" and all.  The essay is worth reading in full — but seeing as how I’m quoted without attribution I’ve done a bit of research on realism, I can’t let this casual assertion go by without some pushback: 

[I]n a country that has always been hostile to what realism signifies, [Mearsheimer] wears his “realist” label as a badge of honor. “To realism!” he says as he raises his wineglass to me in a toast at a local restaurant. As Ashley J. Tellis, Mearsheimer’s former student and now, after a stint in the Bush administration, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, later tells me: “Realism is alien to the American tradition. It is consciously amoral, focused as it is on interests rather than on values in a debased world. But realism never dies, because it accurately reflects how states actually behave, behind the façade of their values-based rhetoric.”…

For Mearsheimer, academia’s hostility to realism is evident in the fact that Harvard, which aims to recruit the top scholars in every field, never tried to hire the two most important realist thinkers of the 20th century, Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz. But at Chicago, a realist like Mearsheimer, who loves teaching and never had ambitions for government service, can propound theories and unpopular ideas, and revel in the uproar they cause. Whatever the latest group-think happens to be, Mearsheimer almost always instinctively wants to oppose it—especially if it emanates from Washington.

This notion of realism being alien to the United States has been a recurring theme of realists, since, well, realism asserted itself in the American academy.  It’s impossible to have a conversation with John Mearsheimer longer than 15 minutes without him bringing up this point. 

The thing is, it’s a sloppy argument lacking in empirical foundation.  Just for starters, even realists acknowledge that Ron Paul’s campaign is doing well because it’s sympatico with the realist critique of American foreign policy.  More substantively, this canard is why I researched and wrote "The Realist Tradition in American Public Opinion" a few years ago.  My principal conclusion from that essay: 

Americans do hold some liberal aspirations for their conduct across the globe, and believe that morality should play a role in foreign affairs—in the abstract. However, surveys about foreign policy world views and priorities, the use of force, and foreign economic policies all reveal a strong realist bent among the mass American public. The overwhelming majority of Americans possess a Hobbesian world view of international relations. Americans consistently place realist foreign policy objectives— the securing of energy supplies, homeland security—as top foreign policy priorities. Objectives associated with liberal internationalism—strengthening the United Nations, promoting democracy and human rights—rank near the bottom of the list. On the uses of force, experimental surveys reveal that Americans think like intuitive neorealists; they prefer balancing against aggressive and rising powers while remaining leery about liberal-style interventions. On foreign economic policy, Americans think of trade through a relative gains prism, particularly if the trading partner is viewed as a rising economic power. Surveys and polling do suggest that Americans like multilateral institutions, but they appear to like them for realist reasons—they are viewed as mechanisms for burden-sharing.

It is somewhat more accurate to say that America’s foreign policy elites are more hostile to realpolitik — though even here, things can be exaggerated.  The recent TRIP survey, for example, revealed that realism might not be the most popular paradigm among IR scholars, but it still commands a healthy fraction of academics, and commands an even greater fraction of attention in international relations courses.  

This might seem like a small point, but it’s an important one — because to be honest I’m fed up with realists whining that everyone is against them.  If there is one thing that academic realists have in common, it’s a strong, cultivated sense of victimhood.  "Our field despises us! Americans don’t like us!  The foreign policy community hates us!" 

Cut it out already.  There is a long intellectual lineage in the American academy — starting with Hans Morgenthau and continuing with Mearsheimer and his students — that evinces realist principles.  There is an equally strong intellectual lineage of policy principals — starting with George Kennan and continuing with Brent Scowcroft and his acolytes — that walk the realist walk.  Realists advocate a doctrine that genuinely resonates with a large swath of the American mass public.  If realists fail to popularize their own ideas, then perhaps they should look in the mirror before invoking the "everyone hates us so we must be right" card.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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