Realism, Episode III: Return of the Realist Critics

Following up on my rant against realist whinging and Rosato and Schuessler's non-whinging defense of realism, the following is a response by the managers of the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) surveys. Their basic argument: no matter what realism says as a paradigm, individual realists do not exactly advocate what Rosato and Schuessler say they advocate. 

Let the fight…continue!

Are There Neoconservative Wolves in the Realist Flock?

Dan Maliniak, Ryan Powers, and Michael Tierney

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. —Matthew 7:15

Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler recently argued that there is "a complete absence of bona fide realists inside the Beltway" and that if more policymakers employed realist thinking when making foreign policy, then we could expect the real "prospect of security without war." They bemoan the criticism that realist theory receives within both the academy and, especially, in foreign policymaking circles. "This is unfortunate, as realists seem to turn up on the right side of history as often as not -- the Vietnam and Iraq wars are prominent examples -- and may do so again if the Obama administration stumbles into a foolish war with Iran (a war that prominent realists have opposed)."

Leaving aside the notion that we ought to strive for a foreign policy that is only successful "as often as not," Rosato and Schuessler are correct that some prominent realists (e.g. Stephen Walt and Nuno Monteiro) oppose war with Iran. Several prominent realists also opposed the Vietnam War (e.g. Hans Morgenthau) and the war in Iraq (e.g. John Mearsheimer). But realists are not alone in their opposition. Many other non-randomly selected scholars representing other schools of thought also often oppose the use of force. For example, see liberals Joe Nye and Anne-Marie Slaughter or constructivists Marc Lynch and Colin Kahl who also oppose war with Iran.

Noting the policy preferences of a particular set of realists (or liberals/constructivists) does little to support the claim that having more realists inside the beltway would lead to fewer U.S. military interventions. An alternative way to assess the likely impact of inviting more realists into policymaking circles would be to survey all IR scholars and see whether self-identified realists are less likely, more likely, or no more or less likely on average than proponents of other IR paradigms to support the use of force abroad. As it happens, we've done that in a series of Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) surveys.

In 2004, we asked IR scholars in the U.S. a variety of questions about their support or opposition to the war in Iraq. Among dozens of other questions, we also asked scholars to report the primary IR paradigm that they employ in their research, their political ideology, and their substantive field of study. No matter how we asked the Iraq question (and we asked it four different ways), realists are no more likely than liberals or those who don't adhere to a particular paradigm to support or oppose the war in Iraq once we control for political ideology. If we leave ideology out of the model, realists are actually more likely to have supported the war in Iraq. Constructivism is the only paradigm that is statistically significantly correlated with opposition to the Iraq war after controlling for ideology. Here we plot the predicted probability of favoring the Iraq war by paradigm after controlling for ideology (error bars represent 90 percent confidence intervals):

The 2004 Iraq results are consistent with results from the 2011 survey regarding the potential use of force in Iran. We asked scholars "Would you approve of disapprove of the use of U.S. military forces ... if it were certain that Iran had produced a nuclear weapon." Again, realists were no more or less likely than adherents of other paradigms to support or oppose the use of force against Iran after controlling for ideology and field of study. Again, if we leave ideology out of the model, realists are more likely to support striking Iran (We discussed the results of the 2011 survey in more detail in a recent guest post on the Monkey Cage).

Our 2006 results differ. We asked scholars "If Iran continues to produce materials that can be used to develop nuclear weapons, would you support or oppose the U.S. taking military action against Iran?" In this case, realists are more likely to support intervention, even after controlling for ideology and a number of other factors.

So, our results from 2004 and 2011 fail to support the claim made by Rosato and Schuessler and our results from 2006 are the opposite of what their argument suggests.

Proponents of a realist foreign policy may rightly point out that our discussion above is about individuals who self-identify as realists, not realist theory. Perhaps there are just a bunch of respondents in our sample calling themselves "realists" who don't really understand the logic of their favored paradigm. And perhaps a more accurate reading of realist theory (as offered by Walt, Mearsheimer, Rosato and Schuessler) would lead to foreign policy prescriptions that are less bellicose and radically different from other IR paradigms. Perhaps. But it is individual realists — not some version of realist theory personified — who are appointed to policy posts in Washington to craft and implement policy, who write op-eds, blog posts, and journal articles to inform current policy makers, and who teach future policy makers at colleges and universities. And those realists (on average) were not less inclined to advocate the use of force in Iraq back in 2003 and they are not less inclined to advocate the use of force against Iran today.

In most of our tests above, it is only after controlling for political ideology that realists tend to fall in line with liberals and constructivists in opposing the use of force. The average ideology of self-identified realists in the sample helps to explain the gap between the realism that Rosato and Schusseler advocate and the "average" understanding of realism that is reflected in our surveys. As Brian Rathburn recently argued, there may be hawkish wolves within the realist flock — individuals who call themselves realists but who support policies that do not conform to the realism of Mearsheimer, Walt, Rosato, and Schuesster. As Rathbun explains, "The situation is...confused by the invocation of 'realism' as a guiding set of principles by both neoconservatives and conservatives."

To put our cards on the table, we find the Rosato and Schuessler version of realism both sensible and consistent with our own descriptions of realism to our students. We also agree that the Iraq and Vietnam wars did little to advance the interests of the United States, and that a war with Iran would also be a bad idea. We show that many IR scholars also agree for reasons related to their scholarly commitments and/or personal views. Currently, many scholars who self-identify as realists are also conservative and it may be their ideology, rather than the logic of realism that shapes their policy preferences. If that is the case, and they are dressing up their ideologically driven positions in realist trappings, Rosato and Schuessler are right to continue their efforts to better communicate the logic and implications of realist theory. But perhaps they also ought to warn their readers, "Beware those who come to you in realist clothing, for they may inwardly be ravenous neocons."

What do you think?


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