Bryan Caplan  

What's Wrong With Realism? What's Right With It? Part 1

The Forked Tongue Speaks... Nobody Speaking...
A word to the wise: If you have a theory and want it to spread far and wide, call it "realism."  Who could be against realism?  Case in point: The so-called "realist" theory of international relations.  According to this view, each country acts in its own objective self-interest.  The fundamental reason for international conflict, then, is divergent national interests.  (In the economically literate version, just add transactions costs to explain why countries don't always resolve their differences diplomatically).

To me, the interesting thing about the realist theory of IR is that it's the national version of economists' standard rational, selfish actor model.  While this model works well in some situations, I've argued at length that for individual political behavior, it's dead wrong.  Voters' beliefs are far from rational, and their motives are far from selfish.

If the rational, selfish actor model doesn't even work for individual selves, it's hard to believe it would work for entire countries.  On the other hand, though, maybe there's a difference between group and individual behavior.  In the next two parts of this series, then, I'll separately consider the two key planks of the realist theory of IR: The motivational assumption that each country's goal is to maximize its national interest, and the cognitive assumption that each country acts on unbiased beliefs about how to achieve its national interest.  Stay tuned.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
El Presidente writes:

Bravo. You are a superior rhetorical tactician. :)

I think we have a great deal of difficulty being certain of our own best interest and a great deal of frustration with our own ability to achieve it. If we can settle on a definition of best interest, we may improve our odds of obtaining that result since we have a defined objective, but attainment is still uncertain. I think quite often we resort to the 'least wrong' approach to decision making, and this incorporates the apparent denial of self interest as one finds value in another and a reasonable basis for compromise and sacrifice. It seems to embrace mutual and/or collective interest as somewhat inclusive of self interest.

I think this is most likely to occur when parties have significant uncertainty but are not adversarial. When they become adversarial, then 'tit-for-tat' and hard-line 'realism' tend to dominate for the sake of self-preservation.

I like your observations here. Looking forward to the rest.

Stephen M writes:

I agree with the previous comment. The flaws of IR realism are in the assumptions about means. How does a nation go about achieving the power it desires? Some argue for the hard power approach, increasing military spending and cementing strong alliances while maintaining economic dominance. Others may argue that non-intervention, free trade and diplomacy with all nations is the best way to achieve a sense of "power" and fulfill self-interest.

In a sense, even the liberal and globalist theories of IR are based on some sort of power dynamic. It is just that they seek more influence through diplomacy and international institutions than through military might.

Karl Gallagher writes:

The IR realists I've read are assuming all nations have the same goal: increasing GDP while maintaining their current borders. That some governments might want to expand as an end in itself, or place spreading a religion/ideology above mundane wealth, is unthinkable to them. And so they're constantly amazed at what happens in the real world.

Wargamers, who have a more practical interest in modeling the real world, came up with a simpler way to describe interests: defining "Victory Conditions" for each player which may involve very different areas for each participant.

cputter writes:

I'd say it's a rather glaring assumption to think that 'nations' have any goals whatsoever.

Politicians have goals, bureau-rats have goals, generals and admirals have goals. All of them highly personalised to the individual at hand, based on their own subjective valuation. Of course sometimes those goals coincide, and sometimes they even coincide with other people living in the same nation-state. To discretize over all of this by attempting to assume that 'nations' have goals, or wants, would be a mistake.

Case in point: Somalia

14 failed attempts at trying to 'install' a democratic regime since 1991 have failed. Every politician they've brought to the table for discussions was there to satisfy his own ends. When 275 MPs couldn't work things out they'd simply add another 200 in the vain hope that more politicians would be able to agree on 'goals' for the nation. Each of them trying their hardest to milk the UN for all its worth.

I think reading nearly any book on history would show how much influence driving characters' own agenda had on the course of 'nations'. Of course all good politicians convince us that their 'vision' is in fact the dream of every citizen and thus the 'nation' must play along. Every general convinces us that his war is 'moral' (or more often 'holy') and thus deserves the support of every one of us. Every bureau-rat convinces us that his job is 'vital' to the well-being (even the daily functioning!) of us all.

'National interests' is a term one should analyse carefully. Personally I think it's merely an abstraction to justify theft, murder and fraud.

cputter writes:


'International relations' is a term describing theft, murder and fraud on a global scale.

(At least when it's not used as a euphemism for nailing Swedish blondes.)

Jacob writes:

The debate here about (neo)realism doesn't quite strike me (a poly-sci grad student) as right.

Realists of all stripes start from three premises: (1) we live in a self-help system; (2) rational states are the basic unit of international analysis (regime type is irrelevant); (3) states want to survive.

Defensive realists argue that states pursue security in a risk-adverse manner. You really only get wars if you introduce a "greedy" state to the system or if arms races spiral out of control (the security dilemma). War, after all, is very costly. Much better to balance or bandwagon.

Offensive realists, on the other hand, argue that states are security maximizers. The only way to guarantee security is to try to eliminate every other state in the system. The best one can generally hope for, however, is to become a regional hegemon, which contains rising foreign powers by supporting their local enemies (an offshore balancer).

Key to all forms of realism is the concept of relative gain/power (which tends to conflict with an economic focus on absolute gain/power). Security is maintained by gaining a relative power advantage (or parity at the very minimum).

Realism is also pretty clear on the means. Alliances are ephemeral. Institutions are epiphenomenal. Hard power guarantees security.

Steve Roth writes:

>If you have a theory and want it to spread far and wide, call it "realism."

Or even better, "objectivism"!

Sorry, couldn't resist.

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