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The limits of realism

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COMMENTS

28 January 2009 11:10

Steve Clemons at the Washington Note links to a promising new 'meta-blog' called The Progressive Realist. Steve then goes on to say:

I heartily subscribe to several versions of realism, particularly progressive realism — but also subscribe to Anatol Lieven's depiction of "ethical realism" and Michael Lind's essays on "American internationalism."

Awkward constructions like 'ethical realism' and 'progressive realism' reflect a bind that centrist American foreign policy types perpetually find themselves in. They don't want to associate themselves with the amoral (or as they see it, immoral) realism of the Kissinger school, yet they are also turned off by what they consider the naive idealism of the left. Their solution is to adopt versions of realism that try to soften some of realism's harder edges.  

But keeping the 'realism' tag concedes too much to realism, which really cannot be divorced from its power politics roots. Actually, for me, the key problem centrists ought to have with realism is in that phrase, 'power politics'. One of realism's key insights is summarised in the Clausewitzian dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means. When you turn that phrase around, you get an idea of how realists view international relations:

Politics is the continuation of war by other means.

It seems to me that those in the American political centre would be far more comfortable with a theoretical construct in which politics is seen rather differently: as a product and expression of order, rather than a substitute for the exercise of strength. But you can only view international politics this way if you first agree there is some kind of political order in the international sphere, rather than it being simply a realm in which strength decides the question.

There is one tradition of foreign policy theory which addresses this issue, but it is one which American foreign policy thinkers tend to ignore; I can only think this is because it isn't much taught in American universities. It is what the English academic Martin Wight described as the 'broad middle road' of international relations theory. Wight called it 'Rationalism' or 'Grotianism', but it has become more widely known as The English School.

One of the founding texts of the English School is The Anarchical Society, by one of Australia's finest ever political theorists, Hedley Bull. That brilliant title sums up nicely the argument of the book, which is that the international realm, while anarchical, is not chaotic, and in fact exhibits a great deal of order, such that we might refer to the international realm as a 'society' (as opposed to what realists would call it: a system).

That barely scratches the surface of the theoretical debate between realism and the English School, and as this Wikipedia entry describes, there's a deal of debate within the English School tradition as well. So I'm not arguing that adoption of English School ideas would solve all the theoretical problems faced by American foreign policy centrists. But it would distance them from the realist tradition, something which 'ethical' or 'progressive' realism doesn't convincingly do. 

Photo by Flickr user son.delorian, used under a Creative Commons license.

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