Against "Realism"

Neoconservatism has received a great deal of attention for its contribution to the American war machine.  Far, far less attention has been paid to the insidious power of the ideology of Realism.

"Realism" as False Materialism

In an episode of the TV show, "Parks and Rec," there's a cult that believes that the world will be ended by an interstellar lizard named Zorp, who will melt everyone's faces with his volcano mouth. What do they call themselves? The "Reasonabilists." This is fiction, of course, but there are many movements that use a similar tactic.

Take, first of all, the "Objectivists," followers of the cult of Ayn Rand. What they're saying must be objectively true, right? It says so, right in the name!

Or the Scientologists - the direct objects of Parks and Rec's satire. Clearly, everything they have to say must be scientifically accurate, by definition. Otherwise, how could they have that name?

I do identify as a materialist, but I have to admit that some people (like certain Marxists) use this term as a cudgel, saying, effectively, "if you disagree with me, then you must disagree with material reality!" Likewise, someday I'll write my opinions about "Pragmatism," that curious tradition of American philosophy that is anything but pragmatic. This seems like a good scam - I should probably start a movement called "Factism" or "Truthism" or "Honestism". I could make a lot of money.

But today I want to address another cult, one that calls itself RealismTM, which has had and continues to have its own group of followers in the 20th century and into the 21st. I consider myself a realist, with a lowercase "r," but RealismTM turns out again and again not to be very realistic. Instead theirs has hardened into a dogmatic faith, with enormous force of passion, but not much weight of evidence. Despite its name, the RealistTM movement is in fact quite idealist. 
Reinhold Niebuhr

It must be remembered that Realism began as a religious movement. The foremost exponent of "Christian Realism," as it was called in the first half of the 20th century, was the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), but he was quick to point out that he had not invented Christian Realism- rather, he saw his own antecedents in figures like St. Augustine of Hippo and Karl Barth. (Reinhold's brother Richard was also another important theologian, but with views somewhat different from his own, and the two can be seen as developing their own views in a somewhat spirited conversation with each other. And Reinhold's wife was Ursula Keppel-Compton, an important theologian in her own right, but interestingly of a different faith, namely the Church of England.) Niebuhr was a fascinating and complex figure, and there is much to admire especially in his early work, though there are aspects worthy of criticism as well. At first he was essentially a follower of that great preacher of social gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch of Rochester, NY, and as such expressed a deep and reverent sympathy for the working class. At times the positions he lays out in some of his early writings almost seem a bit similar to Marxism - but not quite, never quite. He became deeply involved in the auto workers' movement in Detroit, sharing his pulpit with union representatives and denouncing Henry Ford in fiery speeches.  In short, at this point in his career, he was that strange and paradoxical thing, religious clerical labor leader, perhaps comparable to Father Gapon in Russia. Together with Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr, at least in his early work, would become a lasting influence on the Christian left for generations - most especially, Martin Luther King, Jr., and later, Cornell West. (But there are dark aspects of Niebuhr's early work, as well: he was absolutely fanatical about converting Jews to Christianity, in language that today would be considered anti-Semitic. He later renounced this aspect of his teaching.)

But as Niebuhr grew older, he broke further and further away from Rauschenbusch (who passed away in 1918) and became more and more conservative, turning away from social gospel and towards what he called "neo-Orthodoxy." By his own account, [in a book entitled "Ten Years that Shook my World"] he "underwent a complete conversion of thought," and declared that his earlier, more left-wing writings contained "all the theological windmills against which today I tilt my sword." 

When he had been a young man, like many on the left, he had opposed war, militarism and imperialism. But as American "isolationism" waned and it became more and more clear that the U.S. was going to enter World War I, Niebuhr not only supported the war effort, he preached to his congregation, a group of first- and second-generation immigrants who mostly only spoke German, that they had to learn to speak English, assimilate to American culture, become patriotic Americans, and renounce any fidelity they still felt towards Germany. Drawing upon Augustine, he wove a complex and compelling theological argument in favor of just war. And thereby, he gained some national attention, especially from jingoists who were arguing in favor of war, who were able to point to him and say: Look! Even this leftist pacifist German-American wants us to fight the Kaiser!  
As the years went on, Niebuhr only became more and more pessimistic, emphasizing the fallen nature of humanity. He often said that sin was the one element of Christianity that was empirically verifiable. He became especially distrustful of the social aspect of human life. He tended to think that individual human souls could repent, accept God, and receive the gift of redemption, but that nations could never be moral, and would always pursue their own national interest at the expense of other nations, as he explained in books like "Moral Man and Immoral Society." He became especially skeptical of the hopes of large-scale political and social programs, and saw each of these movements as ending in failure and catastrophe in a tragic and even somewhat farcical way, as he explained in "Irony and American History."

And, as it turned out, Niebuhr was as eloquent a writer in English as he had been in German. When polled, a lot of people think it's in the Bible, and some people think it was Bill W. or Dr. Bob, the founders of A.A., but it was actually Reinhold Niebuhr who penned that famous poem, the Serenity Prayer:

"God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference."

Actually, Niebuhr's wording was slightly different, and importantly, he put courage first:  "Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other." [Incidentally, the history of the connections between RealismTM and 12-step programs is long and complicated. But that's a story for another time.]
For a brief time, between the wars, Niebuhr returned to pacifism. But soon with the rise of fascism, he was again calling for war, and as World War II began, he became one of the most prominent voices pushing for the United States' entry into the war.  Meanwhile, his cause of Christian Realism was spreading from his own Evangelical faith to other forms of Protestantism to American Catholicism and despite Niebuhr's anti-Semitism, it soon even attracted some Jewish thinkers like another German immigrant, Hans Morgenthau, who wrote for Niebuhr's magazine, "Christianity and Crisis." 

George Kennan
Kenneth Waltz

But Niebuhr's greatest "get" for the movement was the diplomat George Kennan, who was born in America but who had spent his youth in Germany. It was in the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War that RealismTM really flourished and became a world-changing force. Kennan served as Director of Policy Planning under Secretary of State George Marshall and was instrumental in was the founder of the group of six advisors that became known as "The Wise Men" (Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, W. Averell Harriman, Robert Lovett, John McCloy, and Kennan himself) who became a kind of permanent bloc of influence inside and outside of the State Dept., no matter which party happened to be in charge of the White House.  Kennan himself was the architect of the official policy of the United States toward the U.S.S.R., "containment" (a word that he coined).  In his famous "Long Telegram," and then later in the "X Article" published in Foreign Affairs, Kennan emphasized the inherently expansionist tendency of the U.S.S.R., brought on by their "instinctive Russian sense of insecurity," and their "Oriental secretiveness and conspiracy."  He thus proposed a federation in Western Europe to hold back any possible Bolshevik expansion, which indeed became central to U.S. policy interests for decades.  More importantly Kennan built a network of intellectuals in the State Department, in the C.I.A., in military intelligence, and in academic international relations departments as well as think tanks across the country.  Through his patient building, RealismTM became a force to be reckoned with, and after many decades, at the end of his career, when delivering the memorial address at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Kennan would intone that "Niebuhr is the father of us all."

George Kennan may have established RealismTM in the halls of power of the Washington bureaucracy, but Kenneth Waltz has probably done more than anyone else to make RealismTM dominant in academia.  He was the author of what has become the standard textbook of international relations, namely his book, Theory of International Politics.  But Waltz's ideas differ markedly from Niebuhr's: any solidarity with the working class is completely gone, and much of the Christianity, as well.  For this reason Waltz's work tends to get called Neorealism, or, as he preferred, "Structural Realism".  Rather than giving us impassioned, eloquent theological moral arguments, Waltz presented his analysis in a cold, dispassionate, pseudo-mathematical style.  Like the other kind of "structuralism" that became popular in the 20th century (and which also, as in the case of Althusser, evolved out of a kind of left-Christian perspective), Structural Realism eschews dependence upon a belief about human nature as the source of the aggressive behavior of nations, and instead puts the blame on the particular overall system of international relations - or lack thereof.  Waltz is famous for claiming that the state of international relations is "anarchy," and that everything else he has to say follows from this - to the perpetual frustration of actual anarchists, who hate to see the name of their political belief system so ignorantly and prejudicially misused.

John J. Mearsheimer

After Waltz's death in 2013, the foremost academic representative of RealismTM has been John J. Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago (where all the weirdest and creepiest ideas come from and go to, it seems).  Mearsheimer has managed not only to be a senior, well-respected academic, whose works get cited by scholars all over the globe, but also a media celebrity, his lectures racking up huge numbers of viewers on youtube.  Mearsheimer distinguishes his own "offensive Realism" from Waltz's "defensive Realism" - that is, he thinks that even when there is a relative balance of power among nation-states, they will be driven by rational interests to acquire more power, and may engage in aggressive behavior to do so.  
Nowadays, RealismTM is usually summarized as a group of axiomatic principles and the consequences that follow logically therefrom.  From author to author, these principles may vary a bit, but they are usually a list more or less similar to the following:

1) The fundamental unit of international relations is the nation-state.
2) Nation-states are unitary actors.
3) Nation-states are rational actors.
4) The most important goal of all states is security.

5) The international system is anarchy.
For instance, John J. Mearsheimer lists his own set of principles, which is similar, but in a somewhat different order:

1) The international system is anarchic.
2) Great powers possess some offensive military capability, which gives them the wherewithal to hurt and potentially destroy each other.

3) States can never be certain about other states' intentions.

4) Survival is the primary goal of nation-states.*

5) Nation-states are rational actors.*

* Actually, what Mearsheimer writes is that survival is the primary goal of great powers, and that great powers are rational actors.  But from the context, I think his argument applies not just to great powers, but to all nation-states.  His argument doesn't make much sense otherwise, so I am steelmanning him and giving him the benefit of the doubt.

From these principles, Realists derive all the rest of their ideas, in something like an a priori logical proof.  For instance, in John J. Mearsheimer's book "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics," he provides all kinds of facts and figures - but these facts and figures don't really do anything.  They don't add to his argument, and they don't subtract from it. Everything he has to say is more or less derived from his axiomatic principles.

Neo-realism may have acquired a patina of quasi-mathematical logic, but don't be deceived.  Realism's principles are not mathematically sound; nor have they ever been tested by any kind of scientific evidence, be it sociological, anthropological, psychological, neurological or what have you. Indeed, rarely are they questioned in any meaningful sense among the intelligentsia; rather, they have hardened into an extreme and inflexible dogma. They are "Realism" - to question them in any way is to be out of step with reality itself. 
RealismTM feels like math, and there was a time when many of the same sorts of people who interested in, for instance, game theory and decision theory in mathematics were also seduced by the Realist cult.  That time was the 1940s and 1950s.  At the same time that RealistsTM have dug in and become ever-more smug and convinced of the incontrovertible truth of their vaunted principles, mathematics has moved on and, as a result, no one with any mathematical competence takes RealismTM seriously anymore.  The explosion of technology that made rigorous computational models of geopolitics possible has left the primitive, lo-res noises of the RealistsTM in the dust.  As Bruce Bueno de Mesquita has pointed out, "The notion that there is a nation that has interests is incoherent. People have interests."  Clunky theories that treat nation-states as unitary actors are just too stupid to work.

You would think that this would humble the RealistsTM.  But no.  If anything, the "neo-realists" of government think tanks have only become more extreme in the intervening decades and have come to violent conclusions that even the religious founders of the movement could not stomach.  After all, the most famous, powerful, and influential Realist of all is none other than Henry Kissinger.  As a 2020 article in the New Yorker put it, "For more than sixty years, Henry Kissinger's name has been synonymous with the foreign-policy doctrine called 'realism'."

Henry Kissinger

In the mid-70s, during the Ford administration, the CIA, under the leadership of then-director George H. W. Bush, commissioned a project known as "Team B," led by the fully delusional Richard Pipes, and including old Paul Nitze and a young Paul Wolfowitz.  It was a palace coup: Ford's chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, was making a play against his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.  Even George H. W. Bush himself was unimpressed with the results, commenting that Team B's work "lends itself to manipulation for purposes other than estimative accuracy."  Nonetheless, this signaled the rise of a new power: neoconservatism.   For the next 40 or 50 years, RealismTM and neoconservatism have been bitter rivals for control of U.S. foreign policy leadership and planning.  Sometimes the neoconservatives are in the lead, and so the RealistsTM act as a party of loyal opposition.  This tactic works well - sometimes even leftists are tricked into thinking that the RealistsTM are on their side.  
Thus, neoconservatism has received a great deal of attention and quite a bit of criticism for its contribution to the American war machine.  Hundreds and hundreds of books came out about neoconservatism, written for a popular audience, as well as articles, television spots and so forth, so that "neocon" became something of a household word, even if few people could actually articulate what it means.  The Rolling Stones even wrote a song about it.  
Far, far less attention has been paid to the more insidious power of the ideology of RealismTM.  And what little attention it has received in the press has been largely positive.  Realists are portrayed as the sensible, good, peaceful(?) alternative to neconservatism.  Francis Fukuyama was widely perceived as an arch-neoconservative with his "End of History" thesis, being a student of the one of the most respected intellectuals of the neoconservative movement, Allan Bloom (see my essay about Allan Bloom here) and publishing his famous article in a magazine run by Irving Kristol, often regarded as the leader of the movement.  He even included a chapter in the book-length version of The End of History on what he called "The unreality of 'Realism'".  But during the war in Iraq, he changed his mind and distanced himself from neoconservatism, announcing that it "has evolved into something I can no longer support."  And so he went, somewhat with his tail between his legs, back into the Realist camp, writing an article entitled "The Neoconservative Moment" (implying that it was over) and then a book entitled America at the Crossroads in which he encouraged his readers to go back and study Realism, searching for some kind of balance between the two poles of Realism and neoconservatism.  
Don't fall for this trick - the truth is that the realists and the neoconservatives are closer together in ideology than they appear.  Noam Chomsky has remarked that "The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum," and if we restrict the range of our possible opinions to the range between neoconservatism and Realism, it will be an extremely narrow range indeed.  These two positions are nearly identical, both are on the side of capitalist imperialism, and neither has anything to offer the left.   

The overlap between neoconservatism and Realism is large.  Charles Krauthammer, who in the 80s had been a critic of Realism (writing "The Poverty of Realism") and a dyed-in-the-wool neoconservative, first lashed out at Fukuyama for what he saw as a defection, but gradually came to feel that neoconservatism had "matured" and eventually arrived at a position he termed "democratic realism".  For that matter, we could talk about Robert Kaplan, the neoconservative's neoconservative, who worked under Paul Wolfowitz and helped draft the policy of the Iraq war, was a self-professed Realist from the start, a student of Mearsheimer and an effusive admirer of Morgenthau.

(By the way: if we define "neoconservative" as people on the right who used to be on the left - and I know there many ways of defining that term but that's certainly one way, and the one that's implied in their name (several famous neoconservatives are former Trotskyists, etc.) - then Realists themselves might be considered neoconservative in a way, mightn't they?  Arguably Realists were neoconservative before neoconservatives were neoconservative, as the example of Niebuhr shows - but I guess that makes them less "neo".  Whatever.)

Anyway, who are worse? The Realists or the neoconservatives? It's difficult to say. The self-created myth of the Realists is that they have been the loyal opposition to the neoconservatives' irresponsible interventionism and adventurism, but this is nothing but P.R.. The facts don't bear this out at all, and indeed many of the most reckless and destructive military incursions and wars that the United States has inflicted upon the world are equally, if not more, a product of "Realist" calculation than they are an application of the Neoconservative's idealistic principles.  To their credit, Niebuhr and others who established the doctrine of Realism opposed the Vietnam war.  But for every Realist argument that has been offered against America's imperialist violence, one could come up with rationalizations of the same violence on equally Realist grounds.  Kissinger, Realism personified, saber-rattled with his "no more paper tiger" rhetoric and was the brains behind America's war of aggression in Vietnam.  (Worse than that, Nixon and Kissinger sabotaged LBJ's peace talks.  See also here.)  The ouster of the democratically-elected Allende in Chile, the support of the Greek dictatorship that attempted the overthrow of another democratically-elected leader in Cyprus, the support the Shah or Iran who had come to power in a coup and whose father was good buddies with Hitler: the Realist Kissinger had a hand in all of this.  According to history Gary Bass, Kissinger was also in part responsible for the genocidal treatment by Pakistan upon the region we now recognize as Bangladesh.  As Bass points out, this was "not only morally morally flawed but also disastrous as Cold War strategy."  Kissinger has even acknowledged that this was an "error."  Some help "Realism" was in figuring out Cold War strategy there.  Perhaps worst of all was Kissinger's go-ahead for genocidal actions of the Indonesians towards the East Timorese.  And the list goes on and on.  Does any of that sound like the way that Realists like to portray themselves, as cool, cautious, and laconic, compared with neoconservative interventionist war-mongering?
RealistsTM love to bash "the establishment," but the truth is that RealistsTM are the establishment.  Like many Christian churches, the devotees of RealismTM like to think of themselves as a remnant, a tiny, beleaguered and persecuted minority, when in reality they are the dominant culture on Earth. They like to portray themselves as sensible, constant and reliable traditionalists, perhaps a bit obsolete, belonging to a bygone era, and surrounded by young and likely foolish enthusiasts of an aggressive modernity, and furthermore they want you to think that they are in some kind of rebellion against this modernity. In reality they are a vast network of bureaucrats and technocrats - or, worse, academic cheerleaders for bureaucrats and technocrats, and the occasional despot or dictator. They are company men, mass men, towing a party line, which they make believe is a quasi-mathematical certainty.  Moreover, these principles have led to a series of policy prescriptions that are worse than foolish and must be considered mendacious. No matter how many times "Realism" has failed, and how false it has turned out to be, it is still treated as the mature, responsible position not only among the foreign policy establishment and intelligence community within the U.S. government and other allied governments around the world, but by the media, by academia, and to some extent by the public at large. 

The Realists like to portray themselves as unhampered by ideological blinders, more focused on the exigencies and particularities of regions than their professed political doctrines. But again, this bears little relation to the truth - see, for instance, Kissinger's embarrassing book on China, which is so superficial in its understanding of the complexities of China and its ruling Communist Party that it amounts to little than a compendium of cartoonish stereotypes about the Chinese, proceeding as if the events of recent decades can be derived from ancient history and Confucian philosophy.  The pre-fab generalities of Realism, in which everything can be derived from the pure ideas of the Realist principles, makes it possible for a Realist like Kissinger to ignore the concrete material conditions of contemporary China.

Barack Obama makes no secret of his admiration for Reinhold Niebuhr.  Hillary Clinton, in turn, sees Henry Kissinger as a mentor - and Foreign Affairs published an article claiming that Biden is a Realist, too.  The Nation magazine has even claimed that Bernie Sanders is a Realist, though that might be a bit of a stretch.  But Realism is even more widely accepted among Republicans.  National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft was probably the most important Realist in Washington for the last few decades, together with former Secretary of State James Baker, and Lawrence Eagleburger, who had been Kissinger's Deputy Secretary.  In the Senate, there was Richard Lugar, and the House, Chris Stewart of Utah, among many more.  Back in 2008, Leslie Gelb wrote a manifesto, "Realists Unite," calling for a unification of Republican and Democratic Realists, among whom he counted Sam Nunn, Richard Holbrooke, and Joe Biden.  Ross Douthat of the New York Times at least sees himself as a Realist - whether or not he actually has the intellectual chops of an academic Realist is another question. 

Which brings us to the question of Trump.  The RealistsTM - especially John J. Mearsheimer, who has become the Pope of RealismTM, and its most vocal living representative except for Henry Kissinger who somehow unfortunately isn't dead yet - tend to be very critical of American foreign policy in the neoconservative, or what Mearsheimer calls the "liberal universalist" age.  But they have been much more muted in their criticism of Trump, or even cautiously supportive of Trump's foreign policy.  I partly want to say that the rise of Trump was the rise of RealismTM, and in a way there's a kind of truth to that. Obviously Donald Trump himself is totally uninterested in fads in academia, and in fact does not betray any evidence of having read any book ever. Steve Bannon is essentially selling Realism for Dummies – a Realism that has been stripped of all its pretenses of academic nuance and rigor, so that the contradictions that have been inherent to Realism for decades become embarrassingly, glaring obvious – and Steve Bannon seems completely uninterested in trying to hide them.

Maybe it's a bit of an exaggeration to call Trump a realist, though this has not stopped another well-known RealistTM, Stephen M. Walt, from claiming just that.  But I would put it this way: the ruling ideology of the United States is currently undergoing something of a shift.  Neoliberalism was born in the 1930s, gradually grew in influence over the next few decades, fought for dominance in the 70s, came to power at least nominally in the 80s (but with much resistance), and implemented its policies fully the 1990s and has been fully in control, seemingly absolute and invulnerable, declaring "the end of history".  (And when it comes to foreign policy, at least, neoliberals and neoconservatives are... exactly the same, aren't they?  It's the same exact group of people saying the same exact things.)  That is, it seemed invulnerable until about 2008, when it received a severe shock to its system, from which it has been attempting to recover ever since, without much success.  What kind of ideological system is coming into power?  No one is really sure.  Some think that we are living in an era of "post-neoliberalism".  Others think that the next ruling ideology will still be a form of neoliberalism, just a different form of neoliberalism.  To me it looks like the next ruling ideology can be expressed in the formula: neoliberalism + RealismTM.  A strange, curious, somewhat incoherent ideology, to be sure.  Perhaps an intrinsically unstable one.  Not that that's entirely unprecedented.  In some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  This shift has been a general trend, a long time coming - it's just that Republicans, and especially Trumpists, have adapted themselves to the shift a little bit ahead of the Democrats.

Perhaps we could say that Trump is for this new hybrid ideology (neoliberalism + RealismTM) what Reagan was for neoliberalism.  That is to say, he is the public face of this larger movement, and has come to symbolize it and will probably be iconic figure for the movement as historians look back for many decades.  Neoliberalism had been building for decades as an intellectual idea, it subtly came into power behind the scenes during the Ford and Carter administrations, became public knowledge during the Reagan administration (and equally importantly, the Thatcher administration), and then actually implemented its policies under Clinton and Blair.  Similarly, this new hybrid ideology (neoliberalism + RealismTM) has been coming for many decades, started to come to power behind the scenes under Obama, became known to the the world in an obvious way under Trump, and is now being implemented by the Biden administration.  Biden has more or less followed the Trump line to the T, for instance following Trump's plan for the withdrawal from Afghanistan - to the dismay of many people in both the Democratic and Republican parties, but to the quiet applause of many RealistsTM.  And now, Biden seems extremely reluctant to put American troops on the ground in a groundwar against Russia over Ukraine.  Many members of the White House press corps are very obviously pushing for war, because they're stuck in the old-fashioned neoliberal model of foreign policy, whereas Biden, ever the opportunist and political survivor, has read the writing on the wall and knows that that era is over.
But just because this era of the ideology of global governance was ushered in by a buffoonish, loutish reality television star, don't think that it lacks content.  I'm tempted to say that Realism has mostly been the dominant lens through which the foreign policy establishment has seen the world since the 1940s, with the possible, partial exception of the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, former head of the C.I.A., was in many ways a realist, with or without a capital r). And these are only partial exceptions. True, the war in Iraq in 2003 was a Realist's nightmare, and caused a decisive break between the Realists and Neoconservatives. And sure, Bill Clinton, in his rhetoric, was specifically anti-Realist. But if you peel back the rhetoric – all his heartwarming paeons to Bono, etc - in practice, didn't Clinton actually more or less tow the Realist line? - with the exception of the war in Kosovo, which Clinton only entered very reluctantly.  Looked at this way, it's not so much that we have entered a new era, with a brand new ruling foreign policy ideology (neoliberalism + RealismTM) - we're just going back to the way things were before - and not that long ago.  The purely neoliberal era, far from being the End of History, was a brief and partial aberration.

And by the way - isn't the ideology of Putin something very similar to RealismTM?  And all of the nationalist, authoritarian leaders arising all over the world, from Erdogan in Turkey to Bolsonaro in Brazil to Orban in Hungary to Netanyahu in Israel to Modi in India - aren't they something like RealistsTM as well?  Well, yes and no.  We could say that they are closer to being RealistsTM than they are to being liberals.   But they also operate without the illusions of the RealistsTM.  Take Putin, for example - although he is often considered a nationalist, he doesn't actually believe in any nationalist ideology.  In fact he's quite explicit about rejecting the theory of national self-determination as put forward by Lenin, and uses this rejection to rationalize his invasion of Ukraine.  Moreover, he cynically manipulates the nationalists as only someone who did not believe their nonsense possibly could.  Witness the way he invented two brand new nationalities - the "Peoples' Republic of Luhansk" and the "Peoples' Republic of Donetsk" - and demanded that the rest of the world recognize their right to self-determination.  If it weren't such a brutal act of aggression, this could almost be a kind of joke - at the expense of ideologues like the RealistsTM.  What is clear is that RealismTM is completely ill-equipped to understand someone like Putin.

*     *    *

So what, exactly, is wrong with RealismTM?  In a nutshell, it is the fact that Realism, rather than working from concrete, factual, local material conditions - especially economic conditions, and also ecological conditions - up to understanding global politics, instead works down from its completely invented ideas and principles - originally religious in origin - and then tries, in a hamfisted way, to apply them to the real, historical world.
Let's go through the problems with the principles, as outlined above.
The first and most salient problem with Realism is that it fails to understand the ideological character of nationalism, and of the nation-state as such. Therefore, it fails to historicize nationalism and the nation-state. It treats the nation-state as an axiomatic, a priori reality, as though there have always been nation-states and there will always be nation-states. Back in reality, nation-states are a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, and they are purely ideological - "Imagined Communities" as in the title of Benedict Anderson's famous and brilliant book.  For hundreds of thousands of years, there were no states at all.  There were no nation-states at the time of the Roman Empire, or in the feudal era that immediately followed it.  As late as 1000 CE, most of the landmass of Earth was still not governed by any centralized state.  The nation-state only arose along with capitalism and, as Benedict Anderson points out, the printing press, and arose out of the religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants that followed.  These European nation-states were anything but unitary and stable and in many cases took a long time to form - witness Germany and Italy, which lacked unitary nation-states well into the 19th century.  Then these Europeans attempted to export the nation-state to the rest of the world through imperialism, imposing often absurd borders onto regions of, for instance, Africa and the Middle East, in such a hamfisted way that these borders continue to cause terrible problems to this very day.

Next - nation-states do not behave in a unitary way at all.  This has been true for as long as nation-states have existed, but it is more true than ever, now.  And this is one way that the FSB (formerly the KBG) is way more sophisticated than the RealistTM dum-dums working in the U.S. State Department.  Most importantly, Realism ignores the class composition of a "nation," assuming that all members of a nation share a common interest, and failing to recognize that different classes will have differing class-interests.  Here, more than anywhere else, RealismTM fails to be genuinely materialist.  In addition, nations may be divided by political parties, by religion, by language, and by a whole host of other considerations.  But in the low-res understanding of RealismTM, in which they famously treat each nation-state as a "billiard ball" or a "black box," they will fail to understand any of that.  The FSB is not so naive - indeed, they will exploit exactly these kinds of divisions between citizens of nations they wish to disrupt.
We could go through every other aspect of RealismTM, point by point - do nations really behave rationally?  Do they really put security above all other concerns?  (It doesn't seem all that hard that we might be able to find one or two examples of times in history when lining the pockets of a corrupt elite was put above a nation's security - and these corrupt elites allowed a powerful country to come right in and exploit their own people.)  These and many other considerations are very dubious, and deserve further analysis.  But let me just focus on one more, in closing - the most famous axiom of RealismTM of all: the idea that the international system is "anarchy" - by which they mean that there is no hierarchy among nation-states.  This is their most laughably false contention of all, because it denies the reality of imperialism.  There quite obviously is an overarching power on Earth, and many of the Realists have been directly or indirectly employed by it.  Privilege often blinds people to the reality of their privilege (and other people's oppression) but it's hard to understand how the Realists could be so blind as to think that the world is anarchic.  It is not anarchic.  It is archic.  Fuck Henry Kissinger.


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