How Should the Left Think About Realism in Foreign Policy?

Daniel Bessner

Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a fierce debate over realism as an approach to thinking about foreign policy. Historian Daniel Bessner tells Jacobin what socialists can learn from realism and what they should reject.

A residential building in Kyiv, Ukraine, after shelling on March 14, 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Emergency Service of Ukraine / Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Branko Marcetic

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has opened a pandora’s box of contention over the past three months, not least over the question of “realism” in foreign policy. Realist international relations scholars like John Mearsheimer have been fiercely attacked for supposedly justifying the invasion or deferring excessively to Russia’s positions. Other realist thinkers like Stephen Walt have hit back, defending Mearsheimer and the realist framework from critics.

But what exactly is realism, where did it emerge, and what aspects of it should the Left seek to learn from — and what should we reject wholesale? To find out the answers to these questions and more, Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic spoke with Daniel Bessner, associate professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and the cohost of the American Prestige podcast.

Branko Marcetic

What is realism, and what do you think has made it an attractive framework for people, including some on the Left?

Daniel Bessner

Matthew Specter has recently traced the origins of what might be termed a proto-realism to the imperial competition between Germany and the United States that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And while it is true that proto-realisms of this kind existed, realism doesn’t become a coherent philosophy or intellectual approach until the late 1940s, and it’s really embodied and instantiated by the Jewish German émigré Hans Morgenthau.

In his influential 1946 book, Scientific Man Versus Power Politics, Morgenthau argues that it is a liberal fantasy to believe that you will be able to manage international relations or international politics. That things like science, things like rational management — things that emerge in the project of people like Woodrow Wilson, who try to use political science to basically order international affairs — were doomed to fail because politics was not something that was rational at its core, that at its core it was ultimately about power.

People like Morgenthau, oftentimes German émigrés, were very disheartened by the 1930s. The promise of the first half of the twentieth century was that human reason would be able to tame power politics. And probably the most important instantiation of that is the League of Nations and the advent of a serious form of international law, which had been going for centuries and really got off the ground in the middle of the nineteenth century. But after the conflagration of World War I, international law and the League of Nations in particular become very important. And the problem, of course, was that neither international law nor the League of Nations prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler, the rise of Benito Mussolini, the expansion of Imperial Japan, and so on.

So there’s a gigantic disillusionment with liberal approaches to international relations that begins in the 1930s and reaches its apotheosis in World War II. Morgenthau poses this critique in 1946, right after World War II, even though the lectures, I believe, are given during World War II itself, which says, “Listen, power politics is what really matters.” Then in 1948, he publishes his magnum opus and one of the major books of the twentieth century, called Politics Among Nations, where he really tries to arrive at the “laws of international relations”: what policymakers need to know in order to make wise foreign policies. And the core belief of realism, at least in this Morgenthau form, is that humans have what he calls an animus dominandi: a will to dominate.

Because human nature is defined by a will to dominate, there’s a tendency of states to expand, there’s a tendency of states to focus on their security, and so you need to understand this basic fact of international relations if you want to make good policy. That comes to form the core of what is called classical realism, which helps found the discipline of international relations.

But over the course of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the American academy is hit by a new intellectual approach focused much more on quantification and modeling. An international relations theorist named Kenneth Waltz develops a strand of thinking that comes to be called neorealism. His major insight is that the fact of international anarchy — that is, the fact that there is no body above the level of the nation state able to legitimately coordinate things, including the United Nations — means that war is endemic to human life. You don’t actually need human beings in Waltz’s theory of international relations. It’s the system itself. And so implicit is that the only way that we’ll be able to overcome war is if international anarchy is solved.

International anarchy could be solved in various ways. It could be solved by a hegemon like the United States taking over everything. It could be solved by a more democratic world state. But the important thing to realize is that if international anarchy continues to exist, there is going to be war.

Then the next major realist thinker in our own day is John Mearsheimer, who develops a theory called offensive realism. It’s basically a form of neorealism, which is also called structural realism, because it is focusing on the structure of the international system. So that is the potted history of realism. And if anyone wants to know more, I would point them to Nicolas Guilhot’s book, After the Enlightenment, which is the major book on realism.

Branko Marcetic

What are the aspects of realism we on the Left can learn from or adopt, to navigate this anarchic world order?

Daniel Bessner

It’s a simple insight, which is that power is the fundamental currency of international relations. At its base, in a Marxist sense, international relations is about power.

Take the UN. Why doesn’t the UN work? Because of the Security Council. What does the Security Council reflect? The actual power distribution, or at least as it was in 1945 — now it’s essentially the United States, its two little buddies Britain and France, and Russia and China. And the reason those states have veto power over most of the things that the UN could do is because it reflects power relationships. I think that sometimes on the Left, we tend to overemphasize ideology or we tend to overemphasize other factors, when really power is the fundamental feature of international exchange. It interacts, I would say, with the capitalist political economy in interesting ways.

One lacuna that we have on the Left is that we don’t have a great understanding about how these two spheres interact. Oftentimes we reduce things to the political economy when we’re talking at the international level, and we don’t take power — and by this term, I really just mean military power, the power to kill — into account. To fully understand the system, I think they have to go together, and realism provides probably the best mainstream place to start when one is trying to think in large macro terms about international relations.

Branko Marcetic

How did realist concepts figure in the Cold War?

Daniel Bessner

I actually think for most of postwar history, realism didn’t really have an effect on policy. When you look at the actual decisions of policymakers, they’re not thinking in the terms of realism, they’re not thinking about international anarchy. Probably the closest that it came — and there’s debate about this, but I think he was probably a realist at heart — is Henry Kissinger and détente with the Soviet Union. Kissinger really was into détente because he thought:

The United States and Soviet Union are two great powers. Neither of them is going to win. The struggle that we’ve been waging over the course of the ’50s and the ’60s has wasted a lot of resources on basically minor wars, so let’s just reach détente, and we’ll sort of give each other our various spheres of influence.

There’s a long history of spheres of influence dating back well before realism, but it becomes an important part of the realist approach.

So, détente, which is a policy that I think was good — not to excuse Kissinger’s many crimes, particularly during the Vietnam War — but I do think it was a good policy, and I do think it was a policy that was legitimately influenced by realism. Beyond that, realists standing outside of power have generally been good on critiquing American imperial misadventures, particularly in places like Iraq. A lot of realists were against the Iraq War. The problem is that today, a lot of realists want the United States to fight China, which is not something that I’m in favor of, and that comes out of the problems with realism.

Branko Marcetic

What do you think we should reject from the realist framework?

Daniel Bessner

One thing that I want to underline is that realism is often a reactionary ideology, rejecting the Enlightenment notion that reason could be used to advance human affairs. Now, I think there’s some truth in that view. I think the Progressive fantasy — I mean the actual Progressive movement, Woodrow Wilson–era Progressivism — was that you would be able to manage international affairs. That was, I think, wrong. The realist critique of that is right. You cannot manage things in that way. And I think on the Left, we should learn from those insights.

But the biggest problem with realism is that it is too linked to its moment of historical origin. It is just too pessimistic about the capacity of humans to use reason to manipulate the world or to move beyond power. For realists like Mearsheimer, it’s always 1939. You always have to look out for a Hitler. And I think the problem is that Hitlers are actually relatively rare, particularly in the twenty-first century.

The problem with realism is that it assumes a sphere of international relations that I think is atavistic and ignores that human beings are actually primarily social and are actually able to work together to move beyond these power differentials and create a better society. Marx, more than anyone, believed that reason could be used to divine the deep structures of human affairs. I’m a bit skeptical about the sort of scientistic elements of Marx; he very much was a nineteenth-century thinker. But I think the view that reason could be used to make the world better is correct.

Realists, at a basic level, don’t think that. They are much more embedded in a tragic understanding of human nature and human history. And there is some truth there, in that that is how things have largely proceeded, but it’s not how things necessarily need to proceed. I think that is my main critique of realism.

And I think that in practice, realists tend to say, “The agent of history is the United States.” It’s the United States that needs to do X or Y, and that’s also problematic.

Branko Marcetic

In the Boston Review, you mention US entry into the Vietnam War, which thinkers like Stephen Walt explain in terms of security interests. That was part of it of course, in that there was a hawkish, paranoid element within the US elite terrified of a communist takeover, but you also point out that the man who made the decision, Lyndon Johnson, was also very much driven by domestic political concerns.

Daniel Bessner

That’s the reason we fought Vietnam. Fred Logevall has convinced me on this. In the book Choosing War, he painstakingly goes through ’64, ’65. The reason that Johnson escalated was because of domestic politics. So realism doesn’t get you that answer.

Branko Marcetic

In a recent piece, Stephen Walt argued that realists do believe in international cooperation. But is such cooperation actually compatible with the kind of framework realists have set out?

Daniel Bessner

No. I think the problem is that once realists are talking about policy, they’re not realists anymore, and I think the biggest example of that is Walt and Mearsheimer’s book, The Israel Lobby, which is all about domestic politics.

The problem that realism has confronted since the end of the Cold War in particular is that its framework doesn’t really explain very much, so realists wind up going into domestic politics. Realists themselves have different policy positions, but realism as a philosophy — it would lead to things like alliance systems, that form of international cooperation, but it wouldn’t lead to the form of international cooperation that would allow us to transcend realism itself.

It’s actually interesting when you look at the first generation of realists, particularly Hans Morgenthau. By the 1960s, he begins advocating a world state. That’s his solution to international anarchy. And this is where a lot of these realists wind up at the end of their careers.

Branko Marcetic

In your critique of Mearsheimer, you wrote about not giving up on transformational politics and falling entirely into this pessimistic worldview that realists adopt. How do we do that in a system that is anarchic and still dominated by the powerful? Can we really transform the global order?

Daniel Bessner

I think you have to take the realities of people’s own individual subjectivities. I’m an American citizen, and I think one of the things that’s going be crucial to this is that there can’t be a world empire. You’re not going to get the type of world state that would transcend anarchy with an American empire. I think that’s been proven pretty decisively. So the first thing to do would be to reduce the US empire, the 750 military bases, the incredible defense spending, things along those lines. That’s something that as an American citizen, I could help contribute to.

There’s also the fact of educating people about the large structural transformations. I think Mearsheimer is profoundly mistaken that the United States with enough gumption will be able to remain hegemonic in East Asia. It’s, I think, just flat out wrong. So it’s also accommodating oneself to different structural realities of international relations.

It’s also giving up on the project to try to make other states into a mirror image of what the United States imagines itself to be. This is something that has failed time and again, and it’s certainly going to fail when you’re talking about China or Russia, gigantic states that are extraordinarily powerful. So it’s allowing, at least in the imagination of people who are in the empire, other nation-states to choose the form of politics that they wish to abide by but not allowing that form of politics to get in the way of the types of international cooperation that are needed to address things like climate change or pandemics or population movements engendered by various impending crises. It’s a lot of giving up on the fantasies of the twentieth century that have failed time and again.