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The Main Challenges to the Hegemonic Position of Realism During the Cold War

Essay 2006 10 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Allgemeines und Theorien



1 Introduction

2 The Growth of a Discipline through a Series of Debates: Assessing the Impact of Substantive and Methodological Challenges to the Realist ‘Post-War Synthesis’
2.1 The Second Great Debate: Scientific Method versus the Hermeneutical View
2.2 The Third Great Debate: State-Centricity versus Global Interdependence versus Neomarxist Theory
2.3 Is There a Fourth Great Debate? The ‘Neo-Neo Consensus’ versus the Constructivist ‘Middle Ground’

3 Conclusion: Acknowledging the Overall Success and Adaptability of Realism’s Core Concepts


‘It may well be that certain things about human beings do not change, and so, say, Thucydides or Hobbes are still useful guides to the darker side of social life—but it would be truly extraordinary if the momentous changes in the way ordinary people live throughout the world did not have some impact both on international relations and on the theories we develop to understand these relations’ (Brown, 2005: 164).

1 Introduction

Proponents of a ‘neo(realist)-neo(liberal) consensus’ within the academic field of International Relations (IR) hold that, despite the occurrence of numerous intra- and interdisciplinary challenges over the past decades, the core assumptions of realism still constitute a dominant paradigm in the study of world politics (Schmidt, 2002: 15). According to these analysts, the collective impact of alternative approaches which have attempted to contest the validity of the ‘post-war synthesis’ (Brown, 2005: 28-31) can be described as rather modest. This essay argues that such an overall judgement might be appropriate if it is meant to reflect the long-term adaptability of realist thought—although some qualifications have to be made as to what rival theory has achieved what degree of relative success in questioning realism’s intellectual hegemony. The lasting power of realist propositions to shape the internal discourse in IR and to interpret external developments in the social world will be examined in this regard.[1]

First, concerning the issue of internal success, it is striking to note how many elements of the rationalist/positivist epistemology embodied by neorealism have found their way into neoliberal as well as constructivist theories of international politics (Keohane, 1988; Wendt, 1999). Ontologically, the adequacy of realism’s classical formula that ‘international relations is about states pursuing interests defined in terms of power’ (Brown, 2005: 30) has indeed been doubted by various advocates of interdependency (Keohane/Nye, 1977) and globalisation (Held et al., 1999). But in the long run, even those accounts seem to have been absorbed by the dominant ‘neo-neo consensus’. It would certainly be difficult to deny the fact that state preferences and military power continue to be crucial variables in international politics, regardless of the question whether they articulate themselves through direct inter-state relations or in more complex forms of multi-level bargaining (Putnam, 1988; Moravcsik, 1993).

Second, pointing to the issue of external success, the ongoing empirical relevance of (neo)realist thought is reflected by the huge influence of state-centric and security-oriented reasoning as it is routinely applied by major policy consultants and think tanks, especially in the US (Schmidt, 2002: 10). As a result, it might be safe to say that many policymakers still base their judgements on a worldview that is essentially realist in nature. Even in highly integrated regions like the EU, popular images of a ‘borderless world’ which may have transcended political conflict and power struggles are inherently contestable (Brown, 2005: 164). International cooperation surely is desired and possible, but notoriously fragile in the sphere of ‘high politics’ (Wagner, 2003).

In sum, a variety of assumptions first advanced by the realist paradigm have remained quite unaffected by outside competitors, and the basic ideas of this mainstream approach have proved to be astonishingly stable. To demonstrate this, I will carry out a brief analysis of the main substantive and methodological criticisms of realist theory, using the conventional notion of three post-war ‘debates’ in IR (Section 2). Drawing on these insights, I will conclude that none of the rival approaches has been decisively successful in challenging realism’s fundamental claims on a broad basis. Yet, some exceptions to this general finding will have to be addressed as well (Section 3).

2 The Growth of a Discipline through a Series of Debates: Assessing the Impact of Substantive and Methodological Challenges to the Realist ‘Post-War Synthesis’

The advantages and disadvantages of sketching the history of an academic discipline in the form of subsequent debates have been discussed on many occasions.[2] For the purpose of this essay, however, the practical usefulness of such a categorisation is generally accepted. Though it appears to be plausible to concede that ‘contemporary approaches are often reincarnations of past discourses’ (Schmidt, 2002: 4), the identification and scrutiny of different debates may serve as a heuristic framework of analysis, allowing the researcher to trace both longitudinal developments (the issue of long-term continuity or change within a given paradigmatic system) and cross-sectional adaptations (momentary ‘snapshots’ of inter-paradigm exchange).

The legacy of the First Great Debate in IR already hints to a remarkable convergence between liberal/idealist and realist ideas before and after the critical juncture of 1945. Notwithstanding a number of major differences regarding the anthropological foundations of human behaviour and intentions in both schools of thought[3], we can observe that ‘[t]he “settled norms” of the contemporary international order are still essentially those of 1919— national self-determination, non-aggression and respect for international law combined with support for the principles of sovereignty ’ (Brown, 2005: 28; my italics). The post-war synthesis therefore did not result in a complete ‘defeat’ of pre-war liberalism; it rather bore witness to realism’s first successful attempt to incorporate and assimilate ideas which had originated within a rival theory.


[1] Internal success denotes the ability of a given paradigm to influence other schools of thought and to adapt key claims of rival approaches to its own epistemological and ontological structures. Conversely, the idea of external success is used here to express the degree to which a given paradigm is able to reflect (and perhaps even predict) empirical phenomena in contemporary international relations.

[2] Schmidt (2002: 12) expresses many doubts as to whether ‘the stylized versions of the debates […] do justice to the nature of the controversies that were in fact taking place’. In a similar vein, some authors suggest that the concept of clear-cut disciplinary debates is sometimes too artificial because it cannot account for the subtleties and idiosyncrasies of various sub-approaches (Brown, 2005: 20).

[3] A fundamental feature of idealism is its optimistic view of human nature, leading to the assumption that international cooperation is possible and that war can be avoided if international law is consolidated. This position was vehemently opposed by classical realists and their staunchly pessimistic view of the war-prone animus dominandi in Man, implying that international cooperation will always be elusive.


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London School of Economics – Department of International Relations
main challenges hegemonic position realism during cold



Titel: The Main Challenges to the Hegemonic Position of Realism During the Cold War