The purpose of this paper is to examine which of the two salient versions of realism in international relations (IR) theory can provide us with a better representation of international politics today. Both Morgenthau’s Classical Realism and Waltz’s Neorealism were considered to be the dominant theories in the IR academic world in their day. However, with the end of the Cold War and the rise of postpositivist approaches, their academic dominance has gradually turned into an existential crisis. Constructivism as the most important – and moderate – exponent of this postpositivist school of thought posed a serious challenge to these two versions of realism. This dialectic between different approaches and schools of thought, combined with a general challenge to the traditional theories of the field, can only have a positive influence on it. However, there is a misunderstanding regarding our case: a popular tendency to equate classical realism with neorealism as positivist and materialist state-centered theories. In contrast, we’ll highlight the differences between these two, arguing that Morgenthau’s classical realism is much broader and has several similarities with constructivism. To that end, we will first underline the epistemological and methodological gap before analyzing the different conceptualizations of two terms that both scholars focused on: balance of power and power. The European concert and the balance it struck in 1815 will be our case study to bolster our point of view.
Epistemological and methodological gap: a search for causality
The fundamental difference between classical realism and neorealism is epistemological and therefore methodological in nature: Waltz pursued a neopositivist approach based on a scientific method. His neorealism was an important example of the positivist revolution that arose in the social sciences in the decade of 1970 as a general search for the explanation of social phenomena by objective laws, similar to the case of the natural sciences. This revolution signaled a growing instrumental perception of knowledge (Almond & Genco, 1977).
For Waltz, knowledge should be useful and not true (Kurki & Wight, 2013: 22). As a result, anything that cannot be measured should be excluded from the methodological process as an obstacle to the construction of a suitable theory. On the other hand, although Morgenthau has often been treated as a primitive positivist, there is clear evidence that calls that impression into question. Admittedly, this misjudged criticism is partially justified: after all, it was Morgenthau himself who argued in the first of his six principles of political realism that “politics and society are governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature” (Μorgenthau) , 2005: 4).
However, in order to get a clearer picture of Morgenthau’s thoughts, one should also consider his second most popular book “Scientific Man Against Power Politics” from 1946. The close connection between power and knowledge was first expressed in this monumental work. Morgenthau called those who strive to fully understand politics through scientific reasoning “true dogmatists who universalize cognitive principles of limited validity and apply them to areas inaccessible to them” (Morgenthau, 1946: 220). He also argued that the “scientific man” “whoever would solve the problems of politics through the application of reason is not in a position to tackle these problems successfully” (Barkin, 2003: 331). Even the most radical postpositivist scholar could hardly disagree with such a statement.
In addition to his reluctant confrontation with a methodological problem, there are clear interpretative elements in his approach, which are examined below. Causal explanations based on generalizations are dubious and some room should be left for dangerous and fortuitous events that cannot be regulated. Morgenthau himself cited Blaise Pascal’s remark that “the history of the world would have been different if Cleopatra’s nose had been a little shorter” to underscore the impossibility of regularizing social events, since regularities are not necessarily causes and this is another important contrast between the two scholars (Morgenthau, 1970: 78) (Lebow, 2014).
Theories, however, do not deal with random facts more than regularities, and that was the essence of Waltz’s positivist approach (Waltz, 1990: 27). Criticizing the abundance of omissions in his theory, Waltz argued that “a theory can only be written by leaving out most things that are of no practical interest.” (Waltz, 1990: 31). A strong counter-argument that Morgenthau would have agreed is that a critical difference between the social and the natural world is the role of the agency and the involvement of human actors in their own perceptions, interests and experiences. As we shall examine below, the tension between the agency and the structure is therefore a logical result of the epistemological and methodological intellectual conflict mentioned above.
Agency against structure (reductionist and systemic approaches)
For the sake of simplicity, it could be argued that Morgenthaus inductivity, which emphasizes the interaction of units of behavior as a direct cause of political events, opposes Waltz’s deductivity, where the behavior of units is shaped by structure. The result of such an epistemological The debate about causality and its origins is an absolute distinction between reductionist and systemic theories drawn by Waltz himself (Waltz, 2011: 143-178). In particular, Waltz differentiated between three levels of analysis in his “Man, the State and War” (Waltz, 2001). Any theory derived from human nature and the state level is characterized as reductionist and viewed as insufficient to explain international politics as it tends to generalize something unpredictable about which our knowledge is limited ( Brown, 2009: 14-16). . Waltz cited Lenin’s and Hobson’s theory of imperialism as the main example of a reductionist theory (Waltz, 2011: 64-101).
At the same time, a closer look at its theoretical predecessors leads to exactly the same assumption of reductionism. Thus, all of the main proponents of classical realism have human nature as their common starting point for analysis. In our case, Morgenthau is based on the basic premise that human nature is incomplete. On the contrary, neorealism is not derived from a theory of human nature, but focuses exclusively on the third level of analysis, the systemic. Hence, a problem of continuity and discontinuity arises. One should ask whether neorealism has actually separated from classical. Indeed, the debate between the agency and the structure is an extension of this vast difference in preferred levels of analysis and permeates the phenomenally shared concepts of power and balance. At this point we will examine how the different conceptualizations of these two concepts reflect the epistemological difference between the two scholars.
balance of power
Both scientists viewed the balance of power as a stabilizing factor for the international order despite its anarchic structure. It is their conceptualization of this term that differs significantly, as we shall explore below.
Morgenthau’s balance of power encompasses various levels of social interaction, including states, groups, and individuals. In his writings there are also a multitude of methods of reconciliation (division and rule, compensation, armaments and alliances) that demonstrate the fluidity of the concept and, consequently, the importance of the agency for decision-making (Morgenthau, 2005: 191-). 208).
Waltz presented the foreign policy of states as a mechanical response to a balance of power based on an objective and quantitative distribution of capabilities (Waltz, 2011: 214). As mentioned earlier, the agency’s role is completely left out. As a result, a problematic implication arises: the balance of power is perceived as an almost static situation that forms automatically (Waltz, 2011: 255). Because of the anarchic structure, all states in neorealist theory are functionally the same with similar interests. However, this absolute view has been heavily criticized by some neoclassical realists, who argue that neorealism is deeply pro-status quo (Schweller, 1996). These scholars actually look back on the readings of classical realists like Morgenthau to answer the post-Cold War explanatory deficiencies in neorealism (Baylis & Smith, 2007: 241).
Morgenthau was thus one of the first scholars to differentiate between the status quo and revisionist or imperialist states, since he saw the concept more as a constant process (Baylis & Smith: 241). Although he defines it as a “necessity,” the prescriptive nature of his approach is vital and should not be ignored. Waltz’s criticism that the Morgenthau conceptualization of the balance of power takes place differently and that there is a lack of clarity is justified (Waltz, 2011: 251). Despite the ambiguity of the term in Morgenthau’s writings, one essential difference should be made: balancing should be conceived as both a principle and a practice. It is the second meaning that is subject to the statements and decision-makers and whose theory owes its prescriptive character (Lebow, 2003: 225-230).
In Brown’s words, Morgenthau is about showing how states should behave in order to create power relations, a concern that would be meaningless if power relations were actually self-creating through a “necessary” process, while Waltz conceptualized the term I only have warned that anyone who ignores systemic imperatives is condemned to punishment (Brown, 2012: 40). This is the main reason why classical realism has been associated with the recent “Practice Turn” in IR, an emerging academic approach that emphasizes the role of the agency and the notion of practical reason and goes directly to Morgenthau’s “cleverness” (Brown) related, 2012).
In addition, Morgenthau’s perspective reveals an interpretation of the balance of power as something flowing, which is constructed by people and states and is subject to both the human ability to act and their perception of this balance. This conceptual fluidity can be related to the constructivist approach, in which reality is constructed by social actors (Wendt, 1992). Classical realism is a prescriptive rather than a descriptive theory, and encourages leaders to be prudent to avoid reckless behavior that could lead to what the ancient Greeks called “hubris”: the case where cocky pride, combined with arrogance, is persecuted by punishment (“nemesis”) (Morgenthau, 2005: 14-15). “Hubris” does not only occur when a great power shows greedy behavior and decides to overstretch its military influence by disregarding the balance of power and the international order: “Hubris” is also related to the way (“how”) to exercise that power. This leads us to the last major distinction between classical realism and neorealism: the opposing conceptualization of the concept of power itself.
Power plays a dominant role in both theories. The assumption of the centrality of power, however, applies mainly to Waltz and the neorealists, who have reduced it to purely calculable and quantitative measures. Power, therefore, enjoys a much broader conceptualization in the writings of the classical realists, and in particular in Morgenthaus (Jervis, 1994: 856). Despite the frequent use of the centrality of power in Morgenthau’s thoughts and writings, he avoided restricting its use. As Thucydides first pointed out, power for its own sake is doomed to be “hollow” (Lebow, 2001). Morgenthau took this up as he admitted that without morality, people would not accept power. Similarly, Herz reminds us that Morgenthau, in “The Purpose of American Politics,” recognized the dangers of a cynical foreign policy based solely on power calculations, in which the only goal becomes power for power’s sake (Herz, 1981: 184). ΜMorality as a motivational force works in combination with the quantitative elements of national power.
As a committed critic of the Vietnam War, Morgenthau wanted to emphasize that, despite its paramount importance, power must be exercised carefully, taking into account ethical concerns. This broader conceptualization is also an admission of the subjectivity of power and the fact that power is mistakenly understood in the strict sense as a demonstration of material ability. In contrast to the neorealists, power has a much broader meaning in classical realistic thinking and includes intangible components such as psychological factors (morality of people) and above all the quality of diplomacy (Lebow, 2003: 226-230). Lebow used the metaphor “rock, scissors, paper” to prove the relational nature of power in Morgenthau’s realism, in contrast to Waltz’s over-simplification of the character of power and its functional equality of states (Lebow, 2003: 232-233). This relational conceptualization of power is compatible with the constructivist approach, since it is mostly a question of perception in which inter-subjectivity predominates (Guzzini, 2013: 5).
However, this element of morality in the exercise of power should not be misunderstood as a pro-liberal idealistic approach. His perception of morality was state-centered and contradicted any universal representation of moral values and principles (Morgenthau, 1949: 207-212). In contrast to the moral absolutism of the American establishment, Morgenthau advocated a relativistic, translated into a consequentialist ethic: a moral foreign policy should be measured by its results, not its intentions, based on a hierarchy of decisions, especially the choice of the lesser Evil (Morgenthau, 2005: 6).
Case Study: The Concert of Europe
The example of the “Concert of Europe” serves as a typical historical example of a broader and broader interpretation of the concept of the “balance of power”. As this case has shown, normative consensus can partially limit the ambitions of potential hegemony. It was founded and adopted by the winners of the Napoleonic Wars (Austria, Russia, Great Britain, Prussia) after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. It was a dispute settlement system that was based not only on power controls, but also contained certain common principles and rules that had to be followed. Norms, principles and a common sense of justice and legitimacy served as a connecting link between heterogeneous parties such as a constitutional monarchy (Great Britain) and an absolute (Tsarist Russia).
These states internalized these norms and pursued a foreign policy based not only on estimates of raw power, but also on the perception of enmity and friendship. It is this relational conceptualization of power that both classical realists and constructivists share. As Jervis notes, for Morgenthau “a certain degree of moral consensus among nations is a prerequisite for a well-functioning international order” (Jervis, 1994: 865). They have all recognized their responsibility to ensure lasting stability on the continent (Lascurettes, 2017: 5-8). This commitment to a certain balance was more the result of a common culture and not just arose from the conflict of competing interests, as Kenneth Waltz’s theory suggested. Hence, these states shared a common hostility towards nationalist, revolutionary and potentially destabilizing movements on the shattered meta-Napoleonic European continent. All members of the European Concert made several concessions for reasons of peace and stability, motivated by shared historical memories of a destructive war (Jarrett, 2013: 361).
Regarding raw power and materialism, it should be noted that the balance was rather asymmetrical, favoring Tsarist Russia and Britain. Instead of impersonal calculations or a mechanical balancing act, it was the wisdom, self-control and a sense of shared responsibility between these two powers that sustained this system. Likewise, power should be both masked and embedded, since legitimacy is an essential additional element to material superiority and these two powers seemed to take this into account well (Lebow, 2008: 26).
Additionally, the agency’s role in orchestrating the way the concert worked was of great importance. Personalities such as Metternich and Talleyrand played a catalytic role in the formation of this system of checks and balances, or “political balance,” as recently characterized by modern historians (Schroeder, 1994: 580). Regardless of their anachronistic and anti-liberal ideological worldview, the architects of the European Concert were statesmen whose wisdom and sense of proportion could not be denied. Hence, at this time, it was the quality of diplomacy rather than raw material skills that mattered most, and Morgenthau’s classic realism provided a meaningful case study against Waltz’s purely materialistic neorealism.
Overall, this essay sought to prove that classical realism appears to provide a broader understanding of international relations, encompassing not only the interplay between agency and structure, but also between morality and power. By analyzing Morgenthau’s classic realism with a constructive lens, the paper came to the conclusion that the internal divisions within the realistic school of thought are greater than one might have initially suspected. Phenomenally, given the contradicting concepts of ideas and materialism that are key features in these theories, the constructivist approach is totally opposed to the realistic. Indeed, constructivism emerged by criticizing neorealism that emerged from classical realism. The main point of the constructivist argument against realism is that it is a theory that is inconsistent with intersubjective epistemology and methodology. This widespread view, however, shows the latent intention to balance the two versions of realism. Despite its almost metaphysical attachment to the nation-state, classical realism clearly shows shades of constructivism, and Morgenthau was the first to recognize the limits of knowledge. We are not trying to equate the understanding of classical realism with that of constructivism, but rather to emphasize its more flexible nature.
It is not surprising that one of the most persistent arguments against neorealism is the inadequacy of addressing political change, a criticism that is empirically based on the end of the Cold War. The static of neorealism is based on the deliberate omission of the agency and intangible factors such as morality, justice and ideology from its paradigm. Waltz was trapped in his cognitive realism and led his theory to a deterministic dead end. Despite theoretical purity and clarity, the social sciences seem to miss their own existential goal: to give us a better understanding of the complexity of the social world. On the contrary, Morgenthau left more room for inter-subjectivity, and therefore half a century later his theory looks more resilient to the criticism of postpositivism from achievement, thanks to its interpretative elements, which are evident in his conceptualization of power and balance from. This dual conceptualization proved more sufficient when tested in one particular case, the 19th century European concert. Above all, he knew that heads of state are not just prisoners of larger uncontrollable forces.
Realism should not be perceived as a doctrine but rather as an “attitude”. His timeless wisdom and teaching can be a practical guide in a complex and imperfect world of contradictions as well as a theoretical guide against simplistic assumptions and aphorisms (Betts, 2015).
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Written on: King’s College London, Department of War Studies
Written for: Professor Mervyn Frost
Date written: January 2018
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