global politics, relationally

The Realists are Right – in American Politics? Power Matters


When I was in graduate school, one thing we learned to do was critique. In fact, we spent so much time learning the art of criticism, particularly against whatever the “reigning paradigm” was, that we sometimes referred to it as “piranha school”.

At the time, the dominant paradigm in the study of international politics was Realism. Yes, there were nuances and debates among Realists (more, I think, than we really appreciated at the time). But on the whole, Hans Morgenthau was the Godfather and Ken Waltz the reigning king, with up-and-coming princes like Steve Walt, John Mearsheimer, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita carrying the banners of the empire. Since we all grew up in the era of Star Wars (both Lucas’ and Reagan’s), we knew an Evil Empire when we saw one.

Against this seeming intellectual monolith we hurled any number of counter-arguments. We read Keohane’s After Hegemony and argued that there really is a role for international organizations like the UN. We read Jervis’ Perception and Misperception in International Politics and mocked Realists for their dependence on a rationality that clearly doesn’t exist in the real world. When Alex Wendt’s “Anarchy is What States Make of It” rolled off the presses, we lapped it up.

In the midst of all of our ferocious critique, however, we lost sight of a truth that the Realists had begun with: power matters. A lot. In fact, while there are counterexamples, power drives political outcomes far more often than otherwise. I was reminded of this reality in a very different context the other day, reading this New York Times article about legal representation in the multitude of court cases springing up around issues of homosexual marriage and gay rights. Here’s the money quote, from early in the article:

Leading law firms are willing to represent tobacco companies accused of lying about their deadly products, factories that spew pollution, and corporations said to be complicit in torture and murder abroad. But standing up for traditional marriage has turned out to be too much for the elite bar. The arguments have been left to members of lower-profile firms.

The article presents this as something of a mystery, but it shouldn’t be. Tobacco companies, polluting factories, multinational corporations – all have a measure (often a significant measure) of money and power in society. Another article recently talked about the difficulty seismologists are having in Oklahoma getting anybody to pay attention to the massive spike in earthquakes there, because of the economic power of the oil-drilling industry.

Those “standing up for traditional marriage”, on the other hand, are not wealthy or particular powerful. Some few of them individually may be, but there is no organized interest which connects that position  with power. Moreover, they are clearly on the losing end of the national debate, so that what power there is (and it can be significant in the right circumstances) in public opinion is arrayed against them. Is it any surprise that major law firms have decided to sit this one out? Being self-interested (another basic Realist tenet), they have no incentive to do otherwise.

Realism has run into trouble not because its central theoretical ideas are bad (power does matter, actors do pursue self-interest) but because they have tended to be too rigid about their application. Before he made a career out of poking Israel with a stick, John Mearsheimer famously penned “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War”, quite possibly one of the worst predictions of the last generation. He saw a return to a warring, multipolar Europe instead of the greater institutional integration that actually happened. Chalk one up to Keohane.

But just because Realists have been wrong in specific cases (sometimes spectacularly so), we should not dismiss the fundamental core ideas that drove their movement. Instead, we should be looking for a broader array of opportunities to apply them. A more flexible Realism might help make sense of a great many things in the political world that don’t make sense to most folks. At the very least, it would help move us beyond being piranha to building explanations that we can (hopefully) communicate to the wider world.