Friday, November 19, 2010

Realism =/= American Exceptionalism

. Friday, November 19, 2010

Where does this stuff come from?

It’s very simple. Did you ever study international relations?

To my misfortune.

Har har. From an interview by David Samuels (bold) of Noam Chomsky, referring to Walt & Mearsheimer's Israel book. Pretty vapid interview. They don't dwell on IR for long, but they still manage to get an impressive number of things dead wrong. For example, they dislike Walt/Mearsheimer because it is realist IR when they should dislike it because it neither realist nor IR. Or take this part from Chomsky:

American innocence is built into international relations theory. That’s what American exceptionalism means. If you read the founders of the theory, like Hans Morgenthau, it’s very straightforward. Hans Morgenthau was a smart guy, a very decent guy, incidentally. He has a book called The Purpose of America. He said the historical record doesn’t conform with the purpose of America, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the purpose. In fact he says, this is like atheists criticizing religion because people do bad things. The truths are still there, even if the record conflicts with them. That is the foundation of realist international relations theory.

How to parse this? Nearly all of it is wrong. (For all I know, Morgenthau actually was a decent guy.) American innocence is built into realist IR? Tell that to this guy. Or this guy. Morgenthau himself wasn't an American, and opposed American adventurism in Vietnam (a stance taken after the publication of The Purpose of America). Waltz claimed that states are functionally undifferentiated, which doesn't sound like American innocence or exceptionalism to me. Mearsheimer and Walt are certainly not alleging American innocence. In short, realism is the opposite of American exceptionalism or innocence.

This kind of makes me happy. Chomsky is wrong about basically everything these days, so it's comforting to know that comes from garden-variety ignorance. He just doesn't have even a rudimentary understanding of the topics he's discussing, and it sounds like he hasn't read an IR book since the 1960s. But it is depressing that both interviewer and interviewee view studying international relations to be a misfortune.


Latinamericanist said...

This is quite weak. First of all this
"Walt and Mearsheimer are realists—what are called realists. Realists have a doctrine that says that states are the actors in international affairs and follow something called the “national interest,” which is some abstract ideal which is independent of the interests of the corporate sector. What they see from that point of view is that the United States is supposed to be pursuing its national interest, and they know what the national interest is. The fact that Intel and Lockheed Martin and Goldman Sachs don’t agree with them is irrelevant.

From their point of view, then, somehow the United States is not pursuing what they see as its national interest in the Middle East. So there must be some extraneous factor that’s driving it away from its path of innocence and perfection."

seems to me like a very good synthesis of the underlying theoretical motivation of the W&M book - and it may simplify things a little, but it actually shows a pretty solid understanding of IR theory.

I'm not sure he's right about American Exceptionalism, but he's making a much more nuanced point about the history of ideas (and he is probably right that IR Realism's founding father all believed in American exceptionalism).
And you can't actually believe that the Realism of post-war International Relations is the same as that of Thucycidides and Clausewitz??? (for the former, see e.g. here: )

Kindred Winecoff said...

I didn't get into all of this in the post, although I winked at it when I wrote "they should dislike it because it is neither realist nor IR", but here's my problem with both Walt/Measheimer and Chomsky's take.

W/M may be realists, but that book is not. The fundamental assumption and argument of realists is that states are atomistic actors that pursue the same interest regardless of regime type or other national characteristics. The fundamental assumption of The Israel Lobby is that the US is not pursuing its national interest because of domestic politics. So The Israeli Lobby is an effective argument against realism if it's an effective argument at all.

Chomsky grasps part of this, as you point out, but not its implications for IR theory. And I think it's because he doesn't understand realism. He also doesn't seem to understand that IR theory is not just realism, but that may be a product of the question he was given.

Of course what Chomsky really wants to do is map his own structural theory on top of W/M, by saying that the problem with realism is that it uses states (and lobbyists, in W/M's case) as the unit of analysis, rather than the corporations that control those states and lobbyists. In that case, "realism" of the W/M variety is a useful foil for him, but he never questions why. The reason is because W/M isn't realism.

No, I don't think the realism of Thucydides or Clausewitz maps perfectly onto post-war realism. But it's not perfectly divorced from it either. The broader point is that realism as a theory in either its historical or post-war forms does not require nor does it support American exceptionalism. That's the whole point of phrases like "functionally undifferentiated".

American "innocence"? Realism is notoriously (and proudly) amoral (even if Thucydides wasn't). I agree that he's trying to make a broader history of ideas point, but I think he's just got it wrong. Realism didn't spring fully-formed from the head of Morgenthau, nor did it stop with him.

Realism =/= American Exceptionalism
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