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Cambridge University Press
The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations

The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations

by Michael C. WilliamsMichael C. Williams


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Although thinkers such as Thucydides, Rousseau and Hobbes are considered central to the realist tradition, Michael Williams re-evaluates their positions. Arguing that such philosophers were not concerned with methodological issues of rationality and anarchy, as commonly interpreted, Williams asserts that they wanted to establish political practices for leaders which would ensure order. His original interpretation of major thinkers will interest scholars of international relations and the history of ideas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780521827522
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 01/06/2005
Series: Cambridge Studies in International Relations , #100
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.26(w) x 9.29(h) x 1.02(d)

About the Author

Michael C. Williams is Senior Lecturer in the Department of International Politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He has published widely in both International Relations theory and security studies, including articles in International Organization and International Studies Quarterly.

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The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations
Cambridge University Press
0521827523 - The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations - by Michael C. Williams


Few claims are as enduring, powerful, and controversial in the study of world politics as that of being a Realist. To some, being a Realist represents the height of wisdom: the mark of a clear-sighted ability to understand the world the way it is, a willingness to confront the dynamics of power and interest that are held to govern world politics. To others, Realism is a mark of failure: morally obtuse and historically anachronistic, it represents a lack of political understanding and imagination that is misleading at best, pernicious and destructive at worst. Yet whatever stance one takes, there is little doubt that despite continual declarations of its irrelevance or imminent demise, Realism remains at the heart of theoretical and political dispute in world politics, constituting a continuing reference point against which competing positions consistently define themselves and a conceptual and rhetorical fulcrum around which both analytic and political debates revolve.

Throughout the 1990s, Realism seemed on the defensive. The end of the Cold War, it was widely argued, demonstrated its limitations all too clearly, while emerging dynamics - from state fragmentation, to globalisation, to environmental degradation - presented challenges that Realism was ill equipped to analyse, and even less well suited to address. Even amongst its supporters, the question 'Is Realism Finished?'1 seemed to emerge with new urgency; and although they almost invariably answered their rhetorical question with a rather predictable 'no', the frequency with which it was asked illustrated the pervasiveness of the challenge and the breadth and sophistication of Realism's critics.

These debates have by no means disappeared,2 but it is difficult to avoid a sense that in the twenty-first century Realism is resurgent. Given increased impetus by the events of September 11, 2001, but driven more generally by a concern with American power and foreign policy in an era of seemingly unprecedented primacy, a series of influential writers have sought to reassert Realist truths supposedly obscured by the 'liberal' euphoria that dominated the previous decade. The hard realities of power politics, of the tradition of realpolitik, are once again being touted as lessons that must (yet again) be learnt and imperatives that must be followed. It is not difficult to discern a degree of mythologisation in these calls for a return to Realism. Casting the 1990s as a period of naïve liberalism bears suspicious signs of an attempt to reinvoke the 'twenty years' crisis' of the interwar period, and to draw on the still powerful symbolic legacy bequeathed by previous Realist assaults on well-meaning but profoundly misguided visions of world politics.3 Be this as it may, there is no doubting Realism's resurgence. Books such as Robert Kaplan's Warrior Politics and Robert Kagan's Of Paradise and Power have made considerable impacts on the broad intellectual setting within which policy is debated, each arguing forcefully for a return to Realist principles even as they challenge previous understandings of what Realism is and how it should be applied.4

One of the most notable dimensions of Realism is its appeal to history, and particularly to a legacy of Realist thinking stretching back centuries, if not millennia. It is thus not surprising to find familiar references to a 'Hobbesian' international system in Kagan's account of the imperatives of power, and Kaplan's mining of the history of political thought for inspiration (while certainly refreshing in a popular book on world politics) is by no means out of the ordinary. On the contrary, the claim that there exists an identifiable 'Realist tradition' stretching across the ages and illustrating the 'timeless wisdom'5 of a vision of world politics centred upon the principles of power politics and the dictates of international anarchy is one of the central aspects of International Relations theory. Renditions of this tale pervade the study of International Relations, informing everything from standard introductions to Realism for new students of the subject, to sophisticated scholarly and popular discussions of theoretical alternatives currently on offer. The protagonists in these stories are familiar: Thucydides and his account of the rivalry between Athens and Sparta in the Peloponnesian War; Machiavelli, with his advice to the Prince in the Italian city-states of the Renaissance; Thomas Hobbes' stark portrayal of the state of nature as a 'war of each against all'; Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his telling analogy of the stag-hunt illustrating the logic of international distrust and competition; Hans Morgenthau, with his assault upon the naïvetés of interwar 'liberalism' and his powerful restoration and reaffirmation of the principles of power politics as the basis for a revived study of International Relations in the wake of the Second World War, all play prominent roles in evocations and invocations of the Realist tradition as a bedrock for understanding world politics.6

The idea of a Realist tradition has a powerful impact on the study of international politics, as these figures and the tradition which they are held to comprise have become central elements in the narrative which the discipline of International Relations tells about itself, its history, and its conceptual foundations. Equally importantly, claims about the Realist tradition function as forms of legitimation, confirming the continuing validity of 'Realist' principles throughout history, and appropriating the authority of classical figures in political theory in their support. Indeed the claim that there is a Realist tradition is a key component of claims about the continuing salience and wisdom of Realism itself. The appeal of the idea of such a tradition is, therefore, hardly mysterious.

This book arose from a deep dissatisfaction with the ways in which key figures in the history of political thought have been appropriated in much of International Relations, and the visions of Realism that have been associated with them. The more I looked at these thinkers, the more convinced I became that Realism had generally done little justice to those figures it claimed as its own. In fact, the more I looked, the more I came to suspect that the positions of key thinkers in the Realist canon not only bore remarkably little resemblance to their roles within standard renditions of the Realist tradition in International Relations, but that they often stood in direct opposition to the claims attributed to them. Far from supporting contemporary Realism, it seemed to me, a fuller engagement with the legacy it claimed actually undermined its authority.

The first two chapters in this study - on Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau - were the initial results of these suspicions. In each, I argue that far from supporting claims about International Relations as an inevitable 'state of nature', or a realm of realpolitik, these thinkers actually develop understandings of International Relations that profoundly challenge many of the dominant claims which they are today used to support.7 But I also gradually became convinced that revisiting claims about a Realist tradition could go beyond just challenging conventional appropriations and misappropriations of these thinkers. In particular, it seemed that by taking the thought of these canonical figures more seriously, and reopening the questions with which they struggled, it might be possible to contribute to a reconstruction of a Realist tradition in ways that both brought out their historical concerns and altered their contemporary significance. In short, was there not another Realism - within the existing 'tradition' - that could be brought into view by challenging contemporary claims about both the nature of Realism and the positions of classical thinkers within its tradition?

This agenda was further stimulated by an engagement with another canonical figure in the Realist tradition: Hans Morgenthau. Morgenthau, I had long assumed (largely on the basis of my own very limited reading and the assurances of numerous cursory, secondary accounts), was a remarkably crude, if surprisingly influential figure, whose theory of power politics based in a universal animus dominandi represented everything that a sophisticated theory of International Relations - whatever its stripe - should leave behind as rapidly as possible. As in the cases of Hobbes and Rousseau, it did not take long to discover that this view bore little resemblance to reality. Indeed, it soon became apparent that Morgenthau's thinking reflected a deep engagement with - and a clear and sophisticated understanding of - many of the issues at work in the understandings of international politics that could be found in Hobbes and Rousseau. At this point, I decided to move away from the narrower (albeit safer) theme of simply engaging with individual thinkers and providing critiques of their interpretation within the discipline of International Relations, toward the broader goal of reconstructing an understanding of Realism that would bring out (and bring together) the concerns of these thinkers and illustrate what I increasingly came to believe was their profound challenge to contemporary understandings of the Realist tradition and its place in International Relations theory today.

This book seeks to outline this understanding of the Realist tradition, a tradition that I call 'wilful Realism'. The vision of wilful Realism as I try to present it here has three defining features. The first lies in its relationship to scepticism. Wilful Realism is characterised by a rational questioning of the limits of reason. It is not a denial of knowledge, or of rationality, and it insists upon the importance of empirical and historical knowledge. It is, however, deeply sceptical - and often harshly critical - of modern empiricism and rationalism as adequate bases for political knowledge, and of the broader tendency to model knowledge after the lead of Enlightenment science. These concerns are not abstract: they are driven by the conviction that questions of knowledge and belief are crucial elements in the construction and evaluation of action and order. The sense of limits arising from this scepticism does not yield resignation or nihilism; on the contrary, it is taken as a challenge requiring the active construction of political and social order, leading wilful Realism to a continual concern with the relationship between knowledge and politics, the politics of knowledge, and a strong advocacy of the need for a politics both informed and suitably chastened by an understanding of the limits of knowledge.8

A second key component is relationality. Wilful Realism does not assume that the nature of either the self or political order is fixed or given. It focuses instead on the construction of subjectivity and political order through relational processes of self and other, at the level of both individuals and communities. This concern with relationality is historical and sociological, examining processes of constitution, maintenance, and transformation within and between political orders. It is also conceptual and philosophical. By focusing on the importance of knowledge in the construction of action wilful Realism seeks to ensure that the inescapability of relationality - of, for example, the self gaining identity in relation to others, or of concepts gaining meaning in relation to their antitheses - does not devolve into dualism: into understandings of identity or knowledge as defined wholly by opposition. This makes the concern with relationality more than just analytic: it is also part of a political and ethical sensibility in which the relationship between self and other has significance as a political principle, and constitutes one of the most important differences between wilful Realism and forms of rigidly oppositional power politics.

The third dimension can, more familiarly, be termed power politics. Power is central to any understanding of Realism, and wilful Realism is no exception. At the centre of wilful Realist analysis is an engagement with the multiple forms of power at work in politics, including those involved in knowledge claims, forms of subjectivity, and structures of authority and action (including those that allow the effective mobilisation and exercise of material power). Beyond these analytic issues, however, there again lies a broader set of political and ethical imperatives. Politics is in this vision identified by its specific duality: an indeterminacy that makes it at one and the same time a realm of power and inevitable struggle, and a realm of openness and self-determination. As a sphere of contest over the determination of values and wills, politics is an undetermined realm in which the struggle for power and domination is potentially limitless. Yet politics is also the sphere of activity uniquely concerned with the consideration, generation, and transformation of common interests and understandings: the sphere where the fundamental meanings and values of social life are contested and determined. The lack of fixed understandings of the good and the true is the condition of modern politics, and the basis of its distinctiveness as a realm of freedom, creativity, and change. Wilful Realism is deeply concerned that a recognition of the centrality of power in politics does not result in the reduction of politics to pure power, and particularly to the capacity to wield violence. It seeks, on the contrary, a politics of limits that recognises the destructive and productive dimensions of politics, and that maximises its positive possibilities while minimising its destructive potential.

This understanding of the Realist tradition clearly stands at some distance from many - indeed most - understandings of Realism today. The first three chapters seek to establish my claims by exploring the significance of each of these dimensions in the thinking of Hobbes, Rousseau, and Morgenthau. I argue, for example, that the concept of 'Hobbesian anarchy' is both more complex and more challenging as a foundation for thinking about International Relations than has usually been recognised. The significance for International Relations of what Stephen Holmes has called the 'Hobbesian moment' in political thought lies less in Hobbes' stress on human mendacity, or a presentation of the objective 'logic of anarchy', than in his use of the state of nature as a powerful metaphor underlining the role of knowledge and belief in political action, and the centrality of the politics of knowledge in political order. One of Hobbes' most interesting, and perhaps important, contributions to thinking about international politics thus lies in his engagement with scepticism and the limits of political order, and his attempt to provide a renewed understanding (and cultural practice) of subjectivity and sovereignty that would allow a maximum degree of autonomy - while providing stability, peace, and order - both within and between states.

Like Hobbes, Rousseau has achieved a canonical status in International Relations. His parable of the stag-hunt, so influentially drawn upon by Kenneth Waltz,9 has become a staple model and powerful metaphor conveying the structural 'logic of anarchy' in the international system. Yet Rousseau's thinking also emerges from sources considerably different from those which have been invoked in his name within International Relations. Beginning with the relationship between knowledge and politics, Rousseau develops an account of the historical development of subjectivity, grounded in the relationship between self and other, that provides him with both an explanation of the emergence of realpolitik, and a vision for moving beyond it. Far from being a quintessential theorist of the logic of anarchy, one of Rousseau's primary goals is to demonstrate how such a view systematically misunderstands politics; and far from revelling in a discovery of the deterministic laws of international anarchy, he provides a penetrating critique of the logic of realpolitik and seeks to overcome its dilemmas through an understanding of sovereignty as a politics of right formed within states, but extending beyond them.

Finally, one of the most fundamental and yet misunderstood elements of Morgenthau's Realism lies in his struggle with the nature of 'politics' itself. Morgenthau is often accused of initiating a Realist tradition that marginalised, or even excluded, the role of ideas in international politics, and of having an almost incomprehensibly narrow and simplistic concept of politics itself. I argue that a deeper enquiry into Morgenthau's understanding of politics reveals in his Realism a sophisticated interrogation of the relationship between knowledge claims, political order, social mobilisation, and political power. Far from reducing politics to power, Morgenthau's Realism recognises both the destructive and productive potential of politics, and attempts to construct an understanding of domestic politics and foreign policy that restrains modernity's worst potentials while retaining its principled and productive possibilities.

Each of these thinkers is fully aware of the destructive possibilities of modern politics, and their ideas reflect a direct concern with the politics of power, violence, and conflict. The relationship between knowledge and politics that is at the centre of Hobbes' engagement with scepticism, for example, is for him no abstract question: he sees it at the heart of the bloody conflict of the English Civil War. For Rousseau, the brutal degradation he sees in civil society, and the violent state of war he observes between sovereigns, is a direct consequence of the distorted forms that the process of relationality and the evolution of reason have undergone. Morgenthau's apparently abstruse interest in the concept of 'politics', similarly, is not an esoteric philosophical excursion: it arises directly from his attempt to oppose the violently oppositional vision of the 'concept of the political' developed by the 'crown jurist of the Nazi party', Carl Schmitt, and from his attempt to construct a viable liberal politics in the light of the collapse of Weimar and the catastrophic rise of fascism. Recognising the conflictual dimensions of politics is thus undeniably a key part of what makes these thinkers recognisably 'Realist' in the more conventional meaning of the term. But what makes them realistic in a much deeper and more significant sense is their refusal to retreat from the dilemmas bequeathed by modern politics into a reliance upon tradition, a facile fatalism, or a narrow power politics. Their 'wilfulness' resides in their unflinching attempts to construct a viable, principled understanding of modern politics, and to use this understanding to avoid its perils and achieve its promise.

The core of this Realist tradition thus does not lie in the concepts of anarchy and rationality as they have come to dominate International Relations theory. It lies instead with questions of the construction of social action and political orders, with the conditions of stable and legitimate political authority, and with the consequences of different, particular, and historically contingent resolutions to these broad political challenges. The Realism I explore in this study is not a rationalist theory of anarchy that presupposes certain forms of knowledge, subjectivity, states, and anarchy. It is a reflection on the politics of the construction of knowledge. It does not lack, or assume, a theory of subjectivity - a rational actor: it is a reflection on the constitution and limitations of precisely such a construction of subjectivity. It does not lack or assume a theory of domestic politics: it is a theory of domestic politics, a theory of the political at its most basic level, providing a sophisticated attempt to understand politics at both the domestic and international levels.

From past to present

A recovery of this tradition of Realist thinking has significant implications for International Relations theory today. Most obviously, it challenges the use of these classical thinkers as foundations for a Realist tradition of international 'anarchy' stretching across the centuries. Yet its implications extend well beyond the use and abuse of Hobbes, Rousseau, and Morgenthau. To take seriously the legacy of these thinkers presents a direct challenge to many of the conceptual foundations, categorical distinctions, and doctrinal divisions that structure contemporary International Relations theory. Chapter four explores some of these implications by looking at three key distinctions and divisions: those between Realism and liberalism, Realism and constructivism, and modernism and postmodernism.

The division between Realism and liberalism is one of the most long-standing conceptual oppositions in International Relations. However, a fuller appreciation of this relationship has been constrained by the tendency either (traditionally) to reduce liberalism to an amorphous form of 'idealism', or (more recently) to identify it with a fairly narrow form of rationalism. Treating Realism as emerging within the broader problematic of political modernity, by contrast, shows that the relationship between Realism and liberalism is much closer and more complex.10 In fact, far from being opposed to liberalism as a whole, the Realist tradition I seek to reconstruct here has fundamental affinities with a form of non-rationalist liberalism that Richard Flathman has called 'willful liberalism'.11 It is in part to highlight the importance of this relationship that I have chosen the term 'wilful Realism', and I will argue that it is essential to recognise that in some very important senses Realism is not opposed to liberalism: it is a form of liberalism.

If the division between Realism and liberalism represents one of the most long-standing theoretical distinctions in International Relations, one of the more pervasive recent categorisations is that which presents Realism and constructivism as clearly defined theoretical alternatives. In opposition to this tendency, I argue that wilful Realism shares many of the sensibilities of contemporary constructivism, while at the same time presenting important challenges to it. More broadly still, I suggest that one of the most significant and paradoxical implications yielded by an engagement with wilful Realism is that the divide between constructivism and rationalism that is sometimes now presented as the most basic theoretical distinction in the field, is fundamentally misconceived. Seen from the perspective of wilful Realism, rationalism is a construction - an historical outcome of the attempt to construct social and political order in modernity: to oppose rationalism and constructivism thus provides a fundamentally misleading account of the theoretical alternatives available.

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

Introduction; 1. Sceptical states: Hobbes; 2. Rousseau, realism and realpolitik; 3. Hans Morgenthau and the historical construction of realism; 4. The tyranny of false polarities; 5. The ethic of responsibility.

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