Friday, December 2, 2011

Question for Stephen Walt: Who is a "genuine" realist?

Stephen Walt, in a recent post at his blog, applauds (with some qualifications) Peter Beinart for endorsing offshore balancing as a U.S. strategy, but bemoans the fact that Beinart fails to mention the various scholars (e.g., Mearsheimer, Layne, Porter, Walt himself, etc.) who have been advocating offshore balancing for the last decade or more.

Walt is upset by Beinart's omission because he claims it contributes to the continuing "marginalization" of realists in U.S. foreign policy debates. Walt seems to think that realists represent a distinctive position in those debates, being less inclined to "hubristic" interventionism than necons on the one hand and liberal internationalists on the other. Walt says that there are no "genuine" realists writing for any major media outlet in the United States. I guess he must not consider Kissinger, who writes (or least use to write) quite regular op-eds in the Wash. Post, a "genuine" realist.

Walt would better off, IMHO, if he advocated his preferred policies -- with many of which I'm largely in agreement -- without trying to appropriate the label "realism" exclusively for himself and those with whom he agrees. This muddies the waters without clarifying much and also distorts the disciplinary history of International Relations, a fairly cursory glance at which makes clear that there is far more encompassed by "realism" than is dreamt of in Walt's philosophy. Realism has meant different things to different people in different contexts, and for Walt to effectively narrow its meaning to "people in the U.S. academy who agree with me about the merits of a particular grand strategy [i.e., offshore balancing] " is itself arguably somewhat hubristic. Notice how he sneaks in the adjective "genuine" to qualify "realist". Presumably a genuine realist is someone who agrees with Walt and a false realist is someone who doesn't.

The maxims and phrases typically associated with realism, and especially its emphasis on the national interest, are so vague that they can accommodate a range of policy views. George Kennan, Walter Lippmann, Dean Acheson, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Hans Morgenthau were all realists, and as Joel Rosenthal has argued (Righteous Realists, 1991) they might have shared certain assumptions, e.g. that power brings with it responsibility (itself not the most specific of notions), but they certainly did not always agree on U.S. foreign policy. Walt's effort to associate realism with a particular set of policy prescriptions ignores that realism, like several other 'isms' one might mention, is too slippery and elusive a designation to be tied down in this way. I don't object to Walt's calling himself a realist ("a realist in an ideological age," as his blog's masthead proclaims). I object to his implication that he is a genuine realist and that others who might want to use the label, but who might disagree with him on some policy matter or other, are not genuine realists. This risks inviting fruitless discussions and detracting attention from the very policy prescriptions Walt wants to advance.

P.s. To further illustrate my point about the protean character of realism, consider this description, from a publisher's recent catalog, of The Realist Case for Global Reform, by William Scheuerman (whose book on Morgenthau, by the way, I think is very good). According to the Polity Books catalog description, Scheuerman reveals "a neglected tradition of Progressive Realism" and "concludes by considering how Progressive Realism informs the foreign policies of US President Barack Obama." So the President who one scholar (Walt) considers too influenced by liberal internationalism, another scholar (Scheuerman) sees as influenced by a version of realism! I rest my case (for now, at least).

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