Home > News > Realism, schmrealism
147 views 7 min 0 Comment

Realism, schmrealism

- February 16, 2011

Stephen Walt writes a “quite odd post”:http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/02/15/can_ir_theory_predict_the_future_of_the_euro on realism, liberalism and the future of the euro.

bq. Over the past few months, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have been negotiating a joint proposal for deepening economic coordination within the EU (and especially the eurozone) in an attempt to solve some of the problems that produced the crisis in the first place. … Not only does this question have obvious implications for politics and economics in Europe itself, but it also raises some fundamental questions about IR theory and might even be a revealing test of “realist” vs. “liberal” perspectives on international relations more generally. Realists, … have been bearish about the EU and the euro since the financial crisis, arguing that European member states were more likely to pursue their individual national interests and to begin to step back from some of the integrative measures that the EU had adopted in recent years. … By contrast, “institutionalists”:http://www.newsweek.com/2009/07/31/europe-defies-the-skeptics.html, and EU-philes more generally, have suggested that the only way forward was to deepen political integration within Europe. … So what we have here is a nice test of two rival paradigms, and students of international politics should pay close attention to how this all plays out.

Now Stephen Walt is a smart guy, famous, and all those good things. But this post seems to me (and “not only me”:http://ipeatunc.blogspot.com/2011/02/misc.html ) to be completely wrong-headed. For one, his lumping of people into one or the other side of the debate is peculiar and artificial. Andrew ‘powerful states, not institutions, determine the course of European politics’ Moravcsik is a decidedly unorthodox representative of international relations ‘institutionalism.’ Walt’s second pick, Barry Eichengreen is hardly any better; he argues in the “piece”:http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/02/07/an_ever_closer_union that Walt links to that:

bq. France and Germany are always the drivers of the process. Decisions may require consensus among the member states, but France and Germany have always been the ones shaping that consensus.

Moravcsik and Eichengreen’s beliefs about EU integration stem exactly from their arguments about powerful states’ national interests, not from some belief that institutions e.g. are designed to reduce transaction costs, and are largely innocent of state interest and power relations. This comes out less clearly in the specific Moravcsik piece that Walt links to – but it is pretty clearly outlined in the rest of his work.

But then, Walt’s own arguments are not realist arguments either, except under the most anodyne possible definition of realism. He claims:

bq. As you’d expect, I’ve tended to be among the bears, in part because I don’t think greater “policy coordination” between the member states can eliminate occasional fiscal crises and because I think nationalism remains a powerful social force in Europe. European publics won’t be willing to keep bailing out insolvent members of the eurozone, and the integrative measures that have been proposed won’t be sufficient to eliminate the need.

Fiscal crises, nationalism, the preferences of national publics, and functional economic needs all fit very poorly with modern realist theories of international relations (Walt’s sometime co-author, John Mearsheimer, has a realist theory of ‘hypernationalism,’ but it isn’t at all a good one). For realists, international politics is supposed to be driven by what happens between states, not what happens within them. And this is the problem with Walt’s supposed ‘test of rival paradigms.’ They _aren’t_ rival paradigms (and if they were, they couldn’t really be tested against each other anyway). They’re different arguments in different stages of development about the domestic sources of national interests. If (as Walt seems sometimes to be suggesting in this post), realism is nothing more than the claim that national interests predominate in explaining international outcomes, then realism is theoretically very nearly vacuous. Moreover, the candidate ‘rival paradigm’ explanations are, under this broad definition, actually realist too. They have quite as much to say about state interests, and perhaps more to say about power relations than Walt does. If Walt has an _actual_ realist explanation of what is driving European states apart – one that would presumably be rooted in the security dilemma or some other systemic phenomenon – it would be very nice to know what it is. He certainly doesn’t tell us about it in the post as it stands.

There aren’t very many realists in international political economy. I personally think this is a shame (I think that there is space in particular for neo-classical realist accounts of economic outcomes). But this post does not make a good case for realist IPE. The realism that it portrays is, it seems to me, nothing better than a realism-reasoning-backwards – that is, a version of realism which starts from the postulated consequence that cooperation must necessarily fail, and looks back to see what possible causes might lead to this result, regardless of whether they are system-level, state level or some not very satisfactory mixture. For a variety of reasons, this does not seem to me to be a theoretically useful way of reasoning about politics. Walt usually does a lot better than this.