The realist school: An emerging paradigm

First published on 14 June 2022.

Sometimes, intellectual thought undergoes a rupture that cannot be stopped. It does not matter how much you resist the conceptual tsunami, or how far you run. It will tear down what you know, and force any remaining ideas to cluster around the victorious Noah’s ark of the God-given intellectual inundation. ‘Après moi, le deluge’, said the penultimate King of France to his mistress, before his successor was overthrown and replaced with Robespierre and the Jacobins — and, eventually, Napoleon and the rise of the modern state. Which intellect today has the foresight to predict the coming deluge within the aristocracy of academia? Who, like Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, can manipulate ‘psychohistory’ to anticipate the fall of the galaxy-spanning empire of the mind, and discover ways of shortening the coming barbarism, to hasten the return of civilisation (through, as it happens in Seldon’s imagination, the preservation of knowledge)?

John Mearsheimer, founder of the controversial theory of international politics, ‘structural realism’.

One such prophetic figure is John J. Mearsheimer, the incumbent R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Professor of International Relations at the University of Chicago. Author of such incendiary books as Why Leaders Lie and such founding texts as The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer astutely balances academic and political concerns. His books similarly balance historical reasoning with philosophical abstractions, which have often been criticised for assuming a ‘billiard-ball’ model of international politics, where states are treated as units of some more general systemic process of geopolitical evolution.

If this is a criticism, it is also a boomerang, since the logical follow-up surely is: so what? If states are not wholes unto themselves but are merely parts of a bigger, formless, stateless whole, then order does not run the universe; chaos does. For Mearsheimer, we are not after the deluge — we are in it. And what is more, we have been for some time.

Mearsheimer’s ‘dark’ view of international politics has been associated with late nineteenth century imperialists. But it has much more in common with critiques of imperialism, as summarised in the work of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, which views nation-states as integral units that compete, as Hobbes suggested, for ‘power after power’. Arendt suggested the nation-state has no alternative, and to this Mearsheimer would agree (in a recent book arguing that nationalism has a unique political advantage over liberalism due to the hegemony of the modern state over capitalism). But Arendt also suggested Hobbes was somehow responsible for the atrocities of totalitarianism by taking rationality to be a power-consuming, and power-producing, process. Hobbes certainly errantly elided ‘is’ with ‘should’ in his analysis of ‘the state of nature’ as a ‘warre’ of ‘every man, against every man’ — applying this model to ‘the posture of war’ among states themselves (anticipating Mearsheimer’s structural clarification of Hobbesian realism). But Mearsheimer doesn’t make this mistake: Mearsheimer calls great power politics a ‘tragedy’. And, of course, Hobbes is hardly optimistic, calling ‘the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’. These writers see the origins of totalitarianism in the modern workings of the social world itself, and they don’t like what they see.

But Hobbes and Arendt are utopians. They think either a monarchical modern state (Hobbes) or a revived democratic ancient polis (Arendt) can save us from our chaos demons. Mearsheimer is hardly so optimistic. Nation-states are inescapable and their importance grows, not wanes, as global capitalism fragments into competing trade blocs. Just look at U.S.-China conflict. (Admittedly, these are also ‘civilisational states’, as LSE Professor Christopher Coker has put it, but they retain nationalist ideologies and characteristics of the modern state: bureaucracy, the market, and an organised military of professional soldiers.)

Mearsheimer sees reality as it is, and he does not see a way out. And he is not alone.

Professor Helen Thompson, reflecting on the destruction of the liberal dreams of the 1990s that Mearsheimer was an early critic of, has laid out reasons for doubting liberal causes such as the re-democratisation of Ukraine, calling out the West’s ignorance of China’s now-global reach. This warning is startlingly similar to Mearsheimer’s, though it does not go nearly as far as Mearsheimer’s infamous paper: ‘Why the Ukraine crisis is the West’s fault.’ (Mearsheimer’s reasoning is as follows: since the end of the Cold War, the persistence and expansion of NATO has needlessly intimidated post-communist Russia to lead it lash out violently at surrounding former ‘buffer states’ which once protected it against fears of a resurgent Germany and a nuclear America. Even Putin’s ascendance followed the tumultuous early 1990s in which the West’s economic reforms sent Russia into tailspin. Ergo, Western liberalism has unrealistically turned Russia into a frightened, authoritarian toddler state, throwing its tank toys out of the precarious pram … again.)

Thompson adds to Mearsheimer’s geopolitical logic an economic dimension, re-coining the phrase ‘geopolitical economy’ to describe her and others’ realism. While liberalism or idealism look to the hopes and aspirations of fallen idols, realists look to the problems or ‘predicaments’ (as Thompson likes to put it) in the structural contradictions of existing society. Such contradictions fall along ‘fault lines’ between states, and within them: between regions, classes, and political institutions. Mearsheimer is aware of these domestic and economic springs of international politics, but his theory focuses on the shallow whole of the international system, rather than the deep whole which includes the individual cogs in this vast machine: states, and their classes.

This balance between political states and economic classes, whose significance Thompson traces to class struggles in ancient Rome between the popolo and the grandi (to use Machiavelli’s terms — a favourite theorist of Mearsheimer’s), reflects a further theoretical balance between Hobbes’s theory of states and Marx’s theory of classes. These theories, which explain the state from war (in Hobbes) and classes from trade (in Marx, to some degree), anticipate the complex historical accounts of Mearsheimer and Thompson. Mearsheimer considers the politics of the international system, while Thompson considers the economic background to domestic and international politics, tracing much of today’s ‘disorder’ to the energic politics of oil.

Oil is a scarce resource. On a planet with rising population and living standards expectations, as well as diminishing oil reserves and scientifically-verified fears of climate change arising from burning fossil fuels, Thompson explains, the cost of oil rises. Such events as the Ukrainian war (echoing the great power politics of the Crimean war in the nineteenth century, perhaps) contribute to this effect. Scarcity increases competition, increasing the importance and raising the difficulty of streamlining political institutions to optimise efficiency and effectiveness in the great game of economic politics in the twenty-first century.

This harkens back to Malthus’ fears that population pressure and resource scarcity would produce a general collapse. But it also reminds me of Darwin’s response to Malthus, suggesting that selective pressure is not a uniform evil (though neither is it a utopia), since natural selection gave rise to beings capable of answering questions like the ones we have been considering, namely us, human beings, for whom (as Arendt’s once-was lover Martin Heidegger argued) being is itself a question.

The original realist, as Jeffrey Winters argues (and one who inspired Arendt and Heidegger alike, although he incensed Hobbes), was Aristotle, student of Plato, sometimes known as the first idealist. But Aristotle thought we could build a good city from existing options. And Plato thought we had to imagine a new city to bring balance to a chaotic world. Perhaps this is why Hobbes is more fond of Plato; Hobbes also opposed the ‘kingdom of darkness’ with his own ‘kingdom of light’, a utopia in answer to his own dystopia (as intellectual historian Devin Stauffer recently argued on a visit to University of Cambridge, intellectual home of Helen Thompson, and parallel university to University or Chicago, though Stauffer himself teaches in Austin, Texas).

Realism is hard to nail down. Every attempt to approximate realism leads back to idealism. But Mearsheimer and Thompson do not have utopias; only the ‘hard times’, as Thompson quotes Dickens, of the the twenty-first century.

Thomas Kuhn once argued that sciences, including social and political sciences, periodically underwent ‘paradigm shifts’ in their dominant conceptual vocabularies and methodological ‘technologies of power’ (as French philosopher of science Michel Foucault put it). Perhaps the science of politics, a ‘civil science’ (as intellectual historian Quentin Skinner describes Hobbes’ project), is undergoing a similar transformation. Once dominated by the Cambridge Platonists and now the Hobbesian/Skinnerian ‘Cambridge School’, perhaps Cambridge is now following Chicago down a different path. The time for a realist school, an emerging paradigm of political thought, may at last have come. Only time will tell.

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