Realism, schmrealism

by Henry on February 16, 2011

Stephen Walt writes a quite odd post on realism, liberalism and the future of the euro.

Over the past few months, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have been negotiating a joint proposal for deepening economic coordination within the EU (and especially the eurozone) in an attempt to solve some of the problems that produced the crisis in the first place. … Not only does this question have obvious implications for politics and economics in Europe itself, but it also raises some fundamental questions about IR theory and might even be a revealing test of “realist” vs. “liberal” perspectives on international relations more generally. Realists, … have been bearish about the EU and the euro since the financial crisis, arguing that European member states were more likely to pursue their individual national interests and to begin to step back from some of the integrative measures that the EU had adopted in recent years. … By contrast, institutionalists, and EU-philes more generally, have suggested that the only way forward was to deepen political integration within Europe. … So what we have here is a nice test of two rival paradigms, and students of international politics should pay close attention to how this all plays out.


Now Stephen Walt is a smart guy, famous, and all those good things. But this post seems to me (and not only me ) to be completely wrong-headed. For one, his lumping of people into one or the other side of the debate is peculiar and artificial. Andrew ‘powerful states, not institutions, determine the course of European politics’ Moravcsik is a decidedly unorthodox representative of international relations ‘institutionalism.’ Walt’s second pick, Barry Eichengreen is hardly any better; he argues in the piece that Walt links to that:

France and Germany are always the drivers of the process. Decisions may require consensus among the member states, but France and Germany have always been the ones shaping that consensus.

Moravcsik and Eichengreen’s beliefs about EU integration stem exactly from their arguments about powerful states’ national interests, not from some belief that institutions e.g. are designed to reduce transaction costs, and are largely innocent of state interest and power relations. This comes out less clearly in the specific Moravcsik piece that Walt links to – but it is pretty clearly outlined in the rest of his work.

But then, Walt’s own arguments are not realist arguments either, except under the most anodyne possible definition of realism. He claims:

As you’d expect, I’ve tended to be among the bears, in part because I don’t think greater “policy coordination” between the member states can eliminate occasional fiscal crises and because I think nationalism remains a powerful social force in Europe. European publics won’t be willing to keep bailing out insolvent members of the eurozone, and the integrative measures that have been proposed won’t be sufficient to eliminate the need.

Fiscal crises, nationalism, the preferences of national publics, and functional economic needs all fit very poorly with modern realist theories of international relations (Walt’s sometime co-author, John Mearsheimer, has a realist theory of ‘hypernationalism,’ but it isn’t at all a good one). For realists, international politics is supposed to be driven by what happens between states, not what happens within them. And this is the problem with Walt’s supposed ‘test of rival paradigms.’ They aren’t rival paradigms (and if they were, they couldn’t really be tested against each other anyway). They’re different arguments in different stages of development about the domestic sources of national interests. If (as Walt seems sometimes to be suggesting in this post), realism is nothing more than the claim that national interests predominate in explaining international outcomes, then realism is theoretically very nearly vacuous. Moreover, the candidate ‘rival paradigm’ explanations are, under this broad definition, actually realist too. They have quite as much to say about state interests, and perhaps more to say about power relations than Walt does. If Walt has an actual realist explanation of what is driving European states apart – one that would presumably be rooted in the security dilemma or some other systemic phenomenon – it would be very nice to know what it is. He certainly doesn’t tell us about it in the post as it stands.

There aren’t very many realists in international political economy. I personally think this is a shame (I think that there is space in particular for neo-classical realist accounts of economic outcomes). But this post does not make a good case for realist IPE. The realism that it portrays is, it seems to me, nothing better than a realism-reasoning-backwards – that is, a version of realism which starts from the postulated consequence that cooperation must necessarily fail, and looks back to see what possible causes might lead to this result, regardless of whether they are system-level, state level or some not very satisfactory mixture. For a variety of reasons, this does not seem to me to be a theoretically useful way of reasoning about politics. Walt usually does a lot better than this.

{ 11 comments }

1

Matt 02.16.11 at 12:06 pm

So what we have here is a nice test of two rival paradigms, and students of international politics should pay close attention to how this all plays out.

Didn’t many realists already claim that the EC/EU was going to be an important test of rival theories back in the early 90′s, with the realists confidently predicting that, with the end of the cold war, the EC would not integrate further but pull apart? How many tests to they want?

… realism is theoretically very nearly vacuous. This would generally be a good place to stop in most discussions of realism, partly for the reasons you suggest in the last paragraph, but also because of the ways it generally tends to take the book-cooking aspects of revealed preference rational choice theory and ramp them up without noticing this is a problem.

2

ogmb 02.16.11 at 1:47 pm

For a trenchant scientific analysis, they might want to have a look at Frhr zu Guttenberg’s dissertation. Oh, wait…

3

chris 02.16.11 at 2:08 pm

a version of realism which starts from the postulated consequence that cooperation must necessarily fail, and looks back to see what possible causes might lead to this result, regardless of whether they are system-level, state level or some not very satisfactory mixture.

If realism had been developed in a universe littered by the remains of failed attempts at cooperation, this might be a reasonable approach, and the theoretical satisfactoriness of the causes would rightly take a backseat to their ability to adequately explain the observed failures of cooperation.

What inspired people to develop a theory that claims cooperation is impossible while surrounded by successfully cooperating nations, though, I have no idea.

4

LFC 02.16.11 at 3:38 pm

They aren’t rival paradigms (and if they were, they couldn’t really be tested against each other anyway).

I’d emphasize the phrase in parentheses. ‘Mid-range theories’ can be tested. ‘Grand theories’ — or as Walt calls them in his post, “general theories” (realism, liberalism, etc.) — can’t be tested, it seems to me. When Walt writes that “general theories of international relations or foreign policy are never right 100 percent of the time,” he is implying that one of them may be right, say, 60 or 70 or 80 percent of the time. This seems to me confused. General theories of IR are not “right” or “wrong” a certain percentage of the time; they are different ways of looking at the world that may make more or less sense when applied to particular situations, but they are sufficiently amorphous that their adherents will almost always be able to interpret a particular situation in such a way that it conforms to their preferred ‘general theory’.

5

John Quiggin 02.16.11 at 10:11 pm

A side issue this raises is what does ‘realism’ have to say about the breakup of nation-states, something which has occurred quite a few times during the period when they have been predicting the doom of the EU. Particularly striking are cases like Czechoslovakia and even the Soviet Union, both of which showed remarkably little interest in their own survival (I’m consciously anthropomorphizing here, in the manner typical of realists). Is the notion that the successor-states existed all along as some kind of ideal form in waiting?

6

Timothy Scriven 02.17.11 at 5:03 am

I realised the other day that a version of the realist thesis, sometimes tossed around, is vaccously false ( I make no promises that any actual realist has ever believed all of these claims!) :

1. All states are only interested in their physical survival.
2. The only threat to the physical survival of a state is a state ( obviously this is false, but one could regard it as a simplyfing assumption.)
3. All states know these facts.
4. All states are rational.

It follows that a state would only ever act to threaten the physical survival of another state, if doing so would increase the probability of its own physical survival. But this assumes that there must be a state threatening the physical survival of that first state, but in order for this to be so there must be a state threatening the physical survival of that state…

Thus an infinite regression results in which nothing is explained. There is a more formal game theoretic proof, but this captures the flavour. Basically the implication is, the variant of realism described predicts perpetual peace.

7

Timothy Scriven 02.17.11 at 5:14 am

And for what its worth I reject entirely the claim that we can’t test high level theories- it’s a theory/observation distinction in another guise. The more abstract a theory, the greater the escape routes open to it, sure, but at some point the additional epicycles become more entertaining than anything (c.f neoclassical economics). Data underdetermines all theory, not just higher theory, but with all theory, including higher order theory, the wriggles and changes of auxiliary hypotheses a theory become sufficently bizzare to render all but the hacks incredulous.

Sadly, there are a lot of hacks.

8

Andrew 02.17.11 at 1:00 pm

I agree with much of your critique, but two quick points:

For realists, international politics is supposed to be driven by what happens between states, not what happens within them. And this is the problem with Walt’s supposed ‘test of rival paradigms.’ [...] If (as Walt seems sometimes to be suggesting in this post), realism is nothing more than the claim that national interests predominate in explaining international outcomes, then realism is theoretically very nearly vacuous. Moreover, the candidate ‘rival paradigm’ explanations are, under this broad definition, actually realist too. They have quite as much to say about state interests, and perhaps more to say about power relations than Walt does. If Walt has an actual realist explanation of what is driving European states apart – one that would presumably be rooted in the security dilemma or some other systemic phenomenon – it would be very nice to know what it is.

I agree that Walt’s phrasing is too broad (and “paradigm” inappropriate), but I also think your characterization of realism may be too narrow. Aren’t there forms of realism that rely, in part, on variables internal to states (or even persons) to explain the international behavior of states? They’re not all neorealists who praise to exclusivity the virtues of system-level explanations.

I also agree that Walt’s proposed narrative needs fleshing out – it was a very short article after all – but I don’t think he simply means “a belief that nations ought to, or in any case do, pursue national interests” by the term “nationalism.”

The realism that it portrays is, it seems to me, nothing better than a realism-reasoning-backwards – that is, a version of realism which starts from the postulated consequence that cooperation must necessarily fail, and looks back to see what possible causes might lead to this result, regardless of whether they are system-level, state level or some not very satisfactory mixture.

Alternatively, I read Walt’s piece as claiming that realist schools would lead us to expect one outcome, liberal schools another, and that the future course of events may vindicate one prediction or the other. The manner of the piece does present an odor of rationalization, with its hand-waving about nationalism and fiscal crises, but I think that’s more an effect of the format and medium of the article, than it is of the underlying ideas Walt is attempting to communicate.

9

chris 02.17.11 at 1:52 pm

they are sufficiently amorphous that their adherents will almost always be able to interpret a particular situation in such a way that it conforms to their preferred ‘general theory’.

The polite term for this is “nonfalsifiable”, but there are more derogatory ones.

10

Andrew Moravcsik 02.17.11 at 4:56 pm

I agree with this line of criticism. I like most of my friend Steve Walt’s pieces and admire his frankness, but, as is often the case, when faced with the EU, he goes off the rails. Many before him–Grieco, Rosato are two–have done the same.

Here, as realists are often tempted to do, here he reduce the theoretical debate to optimism vs. pessimism–a tendency to argument backwards from results that should have gone out of fashion with E.H. Carr. I agree that the real issue is the precise nature of national interests. Just citing pessimism doesn’t make Rosato either a realist, nor give him a theoretical basis for the prediction. If he could show that either the EEC/EU or EMU was based on geopolitical balancing (not itself reduced to the democratic peace or other liberal phenomena–a case that is harder to make, ironically, because of Walt’s own work), then he might have something. But the trend in the historiography over the past 20 years is strongly toward economic/functional interpretations of EU history, following Milward, Ludlow, myself and others, because the primary documents will support little else. (More precisely, I argue that geopolitics played an important secondary role in a number of major decisions, but the dominant force was functional.)

Rosato is in a particularly odd position, trying to support the interpretation that the EU was about geopolitics on the basis of an analysis of failed organizations (ECSC, EDC) in the 1950s, before its founding, and leaving out the intervening 50 (!) years. You cannot beat something with nothing in social science or history.

Like many realists, however, Walt appears to practice in balance of power politics in academic debates, and appears to stick with his realist cobeliever, whatever the evidence says. I worry about this, in part because I believe it will change what people think about the EU in the US–but I am less concerned about that, frankly, because the folks who work this issue in Washington are generally better informed. I worry about it primarily because this sort of data-lite, theory-lite debate gives qualitative methods in IR a bad name, rightly so. The future of historical methods in IR is something I care about deeply in IR–as does, I expect, Walt.

11

LFC 02.21.11 at 2:31 pm

this sort of data-lite, theory-lite debate gives qualitative methods in IR a bad name

Are qualitative methods in IR really so fragile that they have to be protected, like rare orchids, from debates in the blogosphere?

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