The ongoing debate between Dan Drezner and Anne-Marie Slaughter, two of the online US foreign policy community’s leading lights, is an excellent one. Not only is there an attempt to present foreign policy differences which do matter, but are not often enough fleshed out, but it gives me a chance to bore you all with a pedantic discussion of the intellectual history of international relations. Now, granted, one aspect of this discussion has been the problem of strawman explanations of IR theory, so I’ll try not to stray too far from my lane and talk about realism, rather than IR theory generally.
Here’s the part of Slaughter’s piece that I first found problematic:
Of course, Kissinger and his adherents know that many other important actors and forces exist in international relations — as a descriptive matter. But the whole point of realism, as every first year IR student knows, is that structural realism (the school that holds as its bible Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State, and War) says that international relations analysts can treat the world as if it were composed only of states pursuing their power-based interests. It’s a model that does not conform to observed reality but that focuses on the long-term structural forces that ultimately determine the course of events once the ephemera of what we seem to see is swept away. It is that reductionism (although rarely as stark as Waltz’s particular brand) that makes realism so appealing as usable technology for foreign policy analysts and decision-makers.
There is a going assumption that realism is overly concerned with states and does not think that non-state groups or threats really matter. This might hold up for Waltz, who is infamous for being a “black box” theorist of international relations, who treats states as billiard balls. This is not entirely fair to Waltz, but structural realism in general does have a problem with over-determining state actions from the basic international condition of anarchy . Waltz cares about states because states, in the time periods he examines, are the primary bearers of power. Power, not the state, is likely the more long-standing differentiation between the liberal/idealist and realist schools of international affairs. Realists generally care more about who has power, and particularly coercive power, because in the realist view, it is the power to control – not to collaborate, connect, or convince – which is the final arbiter and source of other forms of socio-political-economic behavior.
For most of the history of thinkers identified with realism, the state did not exist, nor did the conception of the state as a unitary actor. Thucydides, long identified as one of the fathers of Western realism, was not a Waltzian structural realist in the slightest. As most early realists did, he cited the origins of political behavior in irrational and rational drives, which originate in the hearts and minds of men. There were no states in Thucydides’s day, but city-states, empires, and various other forms of political organization which did not survive to the present day. Thus one had to be quite conscious not just of particular parties and factions, but even individuals, who, in a polis such as Athens could completely upturn the designs of the Athenian state. In his description of the varying governments and systems of organization at play, Thuycdides actually shows a keen awareness of how regime types and the social composition can influence international politics, but only insofar as it involves the exercise of power. The exchange of goods, culture, and ideas matters far less to him. Slaughter does offhand mention that an Avian flu could kill far more than a war and be more likely. Interestingly enough, the plague of Athens does play an important role in Thucydides’s history:
And the great licentiousness, which also in other kinds was used in the city, began at first from this disease. For that which a man before would dissemble and not acknowledge to be done for voluptuousness, he durst now do freely, seeing before his eyes such quick revolution, of the rich dying and men worth nothing inheriting their estates. Insomuch as they justified a speedy fruition of their goods even for their pleasure, as men that thought they held their lives but by the day. As for pains, no man was forward in any action of honour to take any because they thought it uncertain whether they should die or not before they achieved it. But what any man knew to be delightful and to be profitable to pleasure, that was made both profitable and honourable. Neither the fear of the gods nor laws of men awed any man, not the former because they concluded it was alike to worship or not worship from seeing that alike they all perished, nor the latter because no man expected that lives would last till he received punishment of his crimes by judgment. But they thought there was now over their heads some far greater judgment decreed against them before which fell, they thought to enjoy some little part of their lives.
Here we have an assessment of a non-state threat’s impact on social class, the religious practices of average men and their role in the “great licentiousness” which comes to characterize Athenian behavior. When Thucydides speaks of the “fear of the gods” and “laws of men” no longer striking any fear, one can already anticipate the Athenian speech to the Melians and the capricious aggression that marked the Sicilian expedition, and, ultimately, the fall of Athens itself. There is no contradiction between the muddying of international and domestic, state and citizenship because polis, in addition to referring to both the “unit” of politics, also referred to the body of the citizens itself. Continue reading