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The Debate over the Influence and Extent of “Realism”

 Kudos to Dan Trombly of Fear, Honor and Interest. Why?

First, for drawing attention to the debate between Dan Drezner and Anne-Marie Slaughter over, hmm, “Real-world Realism” in American foreign policy:

Dan DreznerMeet the new foreign policy frontier…. same as the old foreign policy frontier

….Well, this is… this is… I’m sorry, I got lost among the ridiculously tall strawmen populating these paragraphs.   I’ll go out on a limb and posit that not even Henry Kissinger thinks of the world the way Slaughter describes it.  Just a quick glance at, say, Hillary Clinton’s recent speech in Hong Kong suggests that actual great power foreign policies bear no resemblance whatsoever to that description of “traditional foreign policy.” 

Slaughter knows this very well, given that she was Clinton’s first director of policy planning.  She also knows this because much of her writing in international relations is about the ways in which traditional governments are becoming more networked and adaptive to emergent foreign policy concerns.  

Rebuttal time…..

Anne-Marie SlaughterThe Debate Is On! A Response to Dan Drezner

….I’ll take that bet. I think it’s exactly how Henry Kissinger still thinks of the world. Indeed, he has just published a book on China — of course, because from the traditional realist perspective China is by far the most important foreign policy issue in the 20th century, as it is the only possible military and economic competitor to the United States. Hence, as realists/traditionalists never tire of repeating, the U.S.-China relationship is the most important global relationship of the 21st century: what matters most is ensuring that as both nations pursue their power-based interests they do not collide catastrophically. Never mind that an avian flu virus that is both fatal and aerosol-borne arising anywhere in Asia could do far more damage to global security and the economy than China ever could — just see the forthcoming movie Contagion.

The second reason for giving Mr. Trombly props is that his excellent post in response to the above was a lot more interesting and substantive than their pleasantly jocular and Friedmanesque exchange:

Old School realism and the problem of society

….Waltz cares about states because states, in the time periods he examines, are the primary bearers of power. Power, not the state, is likely the more long-standing differentiation between the liberal/idealist and realist schools of international affairs. Realists generally care more about who has power, and particularly coercive power, because in the realist view, it is the power to control – not to collaborate, connect, or convince – which is the final arbiter and source of other forms of  socio-political-economic behavior.

For most of the history of thinkers identified with realism, the state did not exist, nor did the conception of the state as a unitary actor. Thucydides, long identified as one of the fathers of Western realism, was not a Waltzian structural realist in the slightest. As most early realists did, he cited the origins of political behavior in irrational and rational drives, which originate in the hearts and minds of men. There were no states in Thucydides’s day, but city-states, empires, and various other forms of political organization which did not survive to the present day. Thus one had to be quite conscious not just of particular parties and factions, but even individuals, who, in a polis such as Athens could completely upturn the designs of the Athenian state. In his description of the varying governments and systems of organization at play, Thuycdides actually shows a keen awareness of how regime types and the social composition can influence international politics, but only insofar as it involves the exercise of power. The exchange of goods, culture, and ideas matters far less to him. Slaughter does offhand mention that an Avian flu could kill far more than a war and be more likely. Interestingly enough, the plague of Athens does play an important role in Thucydides’s history

….This pessimism about the dangers of those lacking political virtue, or restraint of their passions, from acquiring power colors, in one way or another, much of the subsequent 2,500 years of realist thought. Ultimately, the interactions and aims of the various interest groups that Slaughter describes, and Drezner dismissed, are not necessarily prescriptively ignored but the subjects of active disdain, fear, and scorn

Much to like in this fairly lengthy post, which  I recommend you read in full.

Now for my two cents.

First, as a factual matter, it would not be hard to establish that Dr. Slaughter is correct and Dr. Drezner is not that Henry Kissinger does think like that. He most certainly did while he was in power, as is amply recorded in the National Archives, Kissinger’s memoirs and secondary works by historians and biographers who made Kissinger their subject. To all appearances, Brent Scowcroft, Kissinger’s protege thinks the same way, as did Kissinger’s master, Richard Nixon, whose private remarks regarding the unimportance of ephemeral actors to geopolitics were brutal. The UN, for example, Nixon dismissed as a place for “just gassing around” and Nixon was happy to use the UN (and George Bush the Elder) as unwitting props in his China Opening.

Policy makers do not think like IR academics do, even when they are IR academics like Dr. Slaughter or Dr. Kissinger. They don’t have the time or luxury of remove from events. The cool, detached, analytical, Harvard intellectual who wrote Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy became the emotive, egoistic, domineering, slightly hysterical, bureaucratic operator and diplomatic tactician as National Security Adviser. I suspect a six days a week, sixteen hour days of crisis management culture as Policy Planning Director at State likewise tempered Slaughter’s time for theorizing speculations.

That said, there is some room present for Dr. Drezner’s skepticism and Mr. Trombly’s “active disdain, fear and scorn”of non-state actors (which I think is a spot on gestalt of the Metternich-worshipping Henry the K).

The state as an organization of coercion and defense is unrivaled in human history by any other political form except the tribe. The state is fine-tuned to be a beast of prey and open challeges to the state, in all it’s panolpy of might, without a long preparatory period of eroding it’s legitimacy and attriting it’s will to power, seldom turn out well unless the challenger is another state. Non-state actors who challenge state authority tend to survive and thrive initially only by being elusive, deceptive, adaptive, faster and by inflicting moral defeats until they accumulate enough armed power to co-opt, thwart, deter or topple the state by force. This requires the challenger engaging the state in such a way that it habitually reacts with excessive restraint punctuated by poorly directed outbursts of morally discrediting excessive violence ( see Boyd’s OODA Loop)

When non-state actor challengers gain sufficient political momentum and break into a full-fledged armed insurgency, a dangerous tipping point has been reached because insurgencies are generally very difficult, expensive and bloody to put down, often representing a much larger pool of passive political discontent. The advantage begins to turn to the challenger because the mere existence of the insurgency is itself an indictment of the state’s competence, authority and legitimacy. Some states never manage to regain the initiative, slipping into state failure and co-existing with the insurgency for decades or being ignominously defeated.

We live in an era of state decline, or at least an era of erosion of the state’s willingness to use force in self-defense with the unconstrained savagery of a William Tecumseh Sherman or a Curtis LeMay. While overall, the zeitgeist favors the non-state actor, challenging the state a much harder trick when it is ruled by a charismatic sociopath, an authoritarian lunatic or when the machinery of security is organized on the basis of extreme and homicidal paranoia. Very little political “room” exists in such circumstances for non-state actors of any size to emerge because the state has used terror to atomize society and dissolve natural bonds of social trust; dissidents, if they are to be effective, often must rely upon external support and patronage.

This is not to say that the power Dr. Slaughter commends, to “collaborate and connect” is unimportant. Far from it, as it represents a very formidible long term threat to the omnipotence of states by permitting a highly networked and wealthy global civil society to self-organize to check their power. At the inception though, “collaboration and connection” is very fragile and vulnerable to state interdiction. Representing oneself as a political challenge to the state before power is acquired to any significant degree is unwise; if empowering civil society in tyrannies through “collaboration and connection” is the goal of the USG, it ought to be done under the radar with plausible pretexts and without an obvious affiliation to American sponsorship.

That would only be…..realistic.

20 Responses to “The Debate over the Influence and Extent of “Realism””

  1. onparkstreet Says:

    Carl Prine did a list of best FP presidents (in response to a Michael Cohen Democracy Arsenal list) and included Nixon because of the "Kissingerian" removal of forces from Vietnam and pivoting toward China.
    I have never been a fan of Kissinger or Nixon (East Pakistan and Yayha? Sorry, cant’ get over it) but the reasons for that may be more emotional than rational. Still, depending on how things go in the future, who knows how subsequent generations will look at some of our Asian policies of that period?
    But I digress….I think I’m more in Dr. Slaughter’s camp. The real world is a messy place. What is realism anyway? Half the time realists seem in love with their theories which doesn’t seem very realistic to me. Theories are only so good as the execution.
    – Madhu

  2. onparkstreet Says:

    Oh wait. I think I misread a bunch of the above. See? That’s why I don’t naturally warm to IR thinking. It’s so far above the granular, sometimes, that I’m like? What world are your describing. This world? The one here on earth?
    Again, I may be getting that all wrong. There is a reason I studied medicine. Frankly, the study of medicine is very good for critical thinking provided one bothers to bring those skills to other disciplines. Something I don’t always see from other physicians as they transition to politics or, er, more nefarious activities. Why are doctors so seemingly over-represented in some modern movements?
    – Madhu

  3. onparkstreet Says:

    Okay. I read that all completely wrong.
    What does more networked mean, exactly? I can see more networked making states less adaptive if the networking adds more confusion to the decision making process.
    Never mind.
    Emily Litella (aka Madhu)

  4. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    I read the FHI article and didn’t/don’t quite know what to make of it. Your comments seem right. I’m with Madhu..I don’t know what "more networked" means, so I approach this from the other end.
    The West is the only sphere where the state, as you accurately portray it, is reluctant to use force and this is due largely to political correctness and how “force” would cast the political types in the 24/7 news cycle…I’ve suspected for some time that we’re at a point where we’ll have to acknowledge evil and resolve to combat it. Our national revulsion at judging someone or something for fear of offense or because it wouldn’t be fair has come full circle. Flash mobs cleaning out 7-11’s and  roaming mobs of thuggery, however will wake us from our PC slumber…
    The unprecedented prosperity and peace we’ve enjoyed is in the process of being challenged, and I would not be surprised if, in our connected world, some of our coming domestic challenges will be motivated from off-shore. There were reports that AQ contacted their bubbas in the UK and encouraged them to join in the fracas…an example of very dangerous “networking.”

  5. Larry Dunbar Says:

    "Okay. I read that all completely wrong."I know just how you’re feeling. You’re so not alone."Note how orientation shapes observation, shapes decision, shapes action, and in turn is shaped by the feedback and other phenomena coming into our sensing or observing window." Boyd’s loop.When you look outward from orientation one believes that orientation actually shapes observation, when its really observation’s explicit commands that shape orientation implicitly. Orientation represents a positioning that has an advantage over the environment that one observes, and it is that advantage and the bias and feedback from that advantage that you are given that makes it seem like you are shaping observation. What is being "shaped" by our observations is the implicit image of ones self, that self being a state. This "shape" creates a harmony with all others in the state, therefore the environment. Probably the bigger the "picture", of the implicit image, the greater the leverage, which is why the state (the barer of the most leverage) is so powerful. Going against state is going against harmonically implicit forces that everyone holds, until they are broken by such licentiousness that the harmony is broken. So the divide is between explicit realism (as things are) and implicit realism (the way things really are).

  6. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Larry, Your excellent comment tracks with Joseph Fouche’s more robust OODA–he calls it the "bow-tie."

  7. Joseph Fouche Says:

    The "bow-tie" was something some John Robb first brought to my attention:
    I just remixed it with the OODA:

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  9. zen Says:

    Doc Madhu, there’s no disgrace at not wanting to follow IR theory down the rabbit hole 🙂
    Scott and Madhu,
    I take "networked" to mean  1) scale-free social network structure, both orgs (strong ties) and informal movements (weak ties) and 2) being connected through multiple channels of interaction. At least that is my interpretation.
    The West is the only sphere where the state, as you accurately portray it, is reluctant to use force and this is due largely to political correctness and how “force” would cast the political types in the 24/7 news cycle…I’ve suspected for some time that we’re at a point where we’ll have to acknowledge evil and resolve to combat it. Our national revulsion at judging someone or something for fear of offense or because it wouldn’t be fair has come full circle. Flash mobs cleaning out 7-11’s and  roaming mobs of thuggery, however will wake us from our PC slumber…
    I think the non-west and quasi-west has plenty of states that while very willing to use force are too incompetent to use force effectively over a sustained period of time, creating a similar outcome albeit for different reasons. Otherwise, I agree with you – PC is the elite’s form of psychological self-crippling as well as a tool for manipulating the larger public

  10. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Understand the issue of ignorance in your comments. 
    Suppose part of my point was the other end of the network is more menacing and nimble than the top where these folks are pontificating. Boyd’s notion of agility is coming to play in a big way. Big Government is, by definition, not agile. One of our mutual friends at FB offered a Dept of Offense where Letters of Marque and Reprisal breath a new life and bad guys are whacked by privateers..
    I’m actually doing some market research for a couple niche areas where I could do the job cheaper than DoD.

  11. zen Says:

    "One of our mutual friends at FB offered a Dept of Offense where Letters of Marque and Reprisal breath a new life and bad guys are whacked by privateers..
    I’m actually doing some market research for a couple niche areas where I could do the job cheaper than DoD."

    It would be constitutional, by definition. It would also work under international law because the holder of the letter would be, temporarily, an agent of the state and therefore, a legal combatant with the "chain of command" being the entity that Congress authorized to supervise the holders of such letters.
    Interested in what Lex would say here to that…..

  12. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Missed your excellent comment! To operate in your excellent bowtie OODA requires what Boyd called, harmony. Harmony is emergent; groups that possess harmony possess the ability to embrace/tolerate the emerging order/balance…
    I’m still monkeying with the ideas, but this is very close to Polanyi’s polycentric order and Hayek’s spontaneous order (both emergent phenomena, btw).  More to come…

  13. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Scott,The dynamic tug of war between the contingent, the tacit a la Polanyi, and the explicit a la Polanyi and how they give rise to emergent order is something that the Clausewitzian trinity embedded in the diagram captures nicely.
    If you haven’t read it, you might want to glance over "Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War"over at Clausewitz.com:
    It nicely complements many of the themes on emergence in Boyd’s slides.

  14. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Joesph,
    Many thanks for sharing…I’ll give this a read soon. I’m a novice to Clausewitz, and this looks like a good intro. I have Hew Strachan’s little book, too—just need time to read.

  15. Larry Dunbar Says:

    The normal force regulates the fiction. Conservatives tend to enforce conformity, while liberals tend to generate diversity. The right and left, unlike what I said or implied before, are simply two different individuals, much like the east and west. Where the left and right are the same: it could be in the way they like to disperse themselves among a crowd. The left disperses outward towards those who have control and the right disperses inward towards those in command. 

  16. Larry Dunbar Says:

    Friction? Maybe fiction is more correct. Of course Who is in command?

  17. onparkstreet Says:

    @ Larry Dunbar – cool. I missed your comment somehow. You know, I usuall get lost when you all get on the Boyd thing. That is the first time I feel like I kind of understand what you have been talking about. Cool the way you used my own comment to teach me.
    – Madhu

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  20. larrydunbar Says:


    I am glad you caught that. Much of the time when one tries to use the comment of another it comes off as trying to use ones words against you instead of with you. 

    In comment 15, I was just trying to explain what a society that is structure as the Right looks like and, in comment 16, explain (in my humble and honest opinion) how friction is regulated by the normalizing force of the Right.

    I wasn’t trying to be judgmental, I will leave that up to other, but in a physics sense, I was trying to explain how the structures of the Right and Left function differently.

    A society structured as the Right controls friction with the use of a normalizing force (God or country)–a society structure as the Left is individually controlled (Church or State).

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