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What is realism?

By Xander Snyder

At ReConsider one of our principles is stating upfront any potential biases Erik or I think we may have. This is because we believe that most research on bias shows that no one is capable of true objectivity. Recognizing this, the best we can do to try to search for a better understanding of reality and to be honest about how we think about things. This way, others can scrutinize the way we think to see if there’s something we’re missing. We don’t claim that we’ll catch all or even most of these. But we reason that when we do you deserve to understand our thought processes. So, today I’m focusing on my own bias in terms of the way I think about foreign policy.

My day job requires analysis of international affairs and geopolitics. As an analyst, my professional responsibility is to inform and not advocate. I spend more time thinking about how things are rather than how things should be. The other day a friend of mine pointed out that this is a refrain all journalists use and that even with a true commitment to objectivity people think about things through a lens colored by their own experiences. In other words, he was telling me to fess up.

When it comes to foreign policy analysis I believe I am aware of how I think about how things work. Again, this is not a reflection on my thoughts about how things should work, let alone what’s right or wrong. Rather, it is about which systems of thought best describe and predict world events.

The way I think about international events is most clearly outlined in Gideon Rose’s 1998 paper Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy discussion on neoclassical realism. Neoclassical realism is distinct from other forms of realism, which are sometimes lumped incorrectly into a single category and called realpolitik.

Much of this article will be a summary of and reflection on themes discussed in greater length in Rose’s paper.

Classical, Offensive, and Defensive realism

Understanding neoclassical realism requires having a general idea of other realist schools of thought. What separates realism from other schools of foreign policy thought is the focus on relative power between states and how it impacts their interactions. This is differs from liberalism, for example, which claims that the primary feature of state behavior is its form of government.

The first school of realist thought is classical realism. Generally, this refers to the concepts outlined in Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, a pillar in the neoclassical school. However, classical realism has also come to refer to a large number of authors throughout history. So many people’s definition of classical realism varies substantially. This is why nowadays classical realism is a less-frequently-used term.

Offensive realism assumes that security is scarce in the international system and anarchy is “Hobbesian.” “Hobbesian” means that actors provide for their own safety solely by changing their ability to control others.

Without a leader in charge to moderate interactions of those who lack the power to challenge him/her, mankind falls into a state of nature.

“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain…[just] continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan)

“‘To understand why a state is behaving in a particular way, offensive realists suggest, one should examine its relative capabilities and its external environment, because those factors will be translated relatively smoothly into foreign policy and shape how the state chooses to advance its interests’” (Rose, emphasis added by me).

On the other hand, defensive realism says that security exists naturally in the international system. Security is abundant not scarce. States only mobilize for war when they are confronted by unusual threats. Major conflicts arise when “…certain situations lead security-seeking states to fear each other, such as when prevailing modes of warfare favor the offensive” .

Defensive realism sees the international system as generally stable. It is only upset when irrational actors misread power relations, misstep and force other countries to react.

Note that this theory somewhat discounts the importance of power imbalances as a causal factor. Instead, it assumes that states have mostly peaceful relations regardless of their wealth and strength.

Neoclassical Realism

Neoclassical realism doesn’t strike a balance between offensive and defensive realism. It challenges them both. Neoclassical realism objects to offensive realism’s assumption that there is a clear link between systemic incentives and state action.

Instead, it argues that all situations must first be filtered through a leader’s reality, which is constrained by their understanding of it.

This inserts a variable between systemic incentives and state action: internal factors that stem from the domestic political environment.

Inserting domestic politics and internal factors as a variable distinguishes neoclassical realism from other schools. It forces analysts to attempt to understand how leaders view the world around them. At the same time, it recognizes that the difficulty of such a project will result in a certain degree of ambiguity. This makes the linkage between international incentives and action murkier than offensive realism assumes and difficult to clearly detail. This makes short-term forecasts problematic, as leaders proceed in fits and starts. They’re constantly attempting to better understand the world around them. Medium to longer-term forecasts, however, are still possible based on an analysis of each state’s capabilities and restraints.

Neoclassical realism also challenges defensive realism’s model of a stable status quo that is rarely disrupted by irrational states. Neoclassical realism emphasizes the importance of relative power analysis and how power changes over time can alter a country’s perception of its security interests. As countries become more powerful, their ability to influence their environment increases. This causes them to interpret events that are in their power to control, but that, at the moment, are not in their favor, as security threats. This is why we expect to see powerful countries expand their security as their military and economic capacities grow.

At the same time, as a superpower expands the likelihood of peripheral threats destroying it decreases, since there are no other states that can pose serious threats. This lets states with greater resources and geographical reach plan for their security interests further into the future. For this reason, neoclassical realists argue that an analysis of the international order must begin with an understanding of power imbalances. This is since over the long run power imbalance is what constrains states’ capabilities and, therefore, their menu of actions. This shows that the relatively stable status quo assumed by defensive realism is flawed since it does not account for the change of state behavior as access to resources changes over time. From Rose:

“…over the long term the relative amount of material power resources countries possess will shape the magnitude and ambition — the envelope, as it were — of their foreign policies: as their relative power rises states will seek more influence abroad, and as it falls their actions and ambitions will be scaled back accordingly.” (Rose)

Uncertainty creates a grey area where leaders must constantly grapple to better understand their present reality. Intelligence is never perfect and decisions must be made with incomplete information.

This search for understanding proceeds in fits and starts, which can cause “perceptual shocks.” In these moments, leaders quickly become aware of the “cumulative effects of gradual long-term power trends,” resulting in a rapid re-interpretation of their country’s capabilities.

Neoclassical realism is a useful conceptual framework since it lays out what must be understood before state action can be analyzed and forecasted. First, relative power must be determined by studying nations’ political, economic, and military resources. Analysts must then understand, to the best of their abilities, how leaders perceive this balance. This makes shorter term predictions challenging but medium and long term forecasts possible.

Through this lens I consider and analyze foreign policy. Does this constitute a bias? I don’t think so, since it focuses more on understanding reality rather than advocating for how things ought to be. However, now that you know how I think about world events you’re free to make that judgment yourself.

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