Last week Stephen Walt wrote a provocative essay in Foreign Policy that made three important arguments:

  1. If only the United States had listened to realists since the end of the Cold War on big issues (NATO expansion, nation-building in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom, ousting Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi), American foreign policy and world politics would be in much better shape.
  2. Despite realism’s superior track record to liberal internationalism and neoconservatism, realists get the short end of the stick on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. According to Walt, “all three publications are essentially realism-free zones, and the Post and the Journal are, if anything, openly hostile to a realist view of international politics and U.S. foreign policy.”
  3. Realists are not hired at these places because they’re the Debbie Downers of international politics.  In Walt’s words:
Why are these three elite outlets so allergic to realist views, given that realists have been (mostly) right about some very important issues, and the columnists they publish have often been wrong? I don’t really know, but I suspect it is because contemporary foreign-policy punditry is mostly about indulging hopes and promoting ideals, rather than providing hardheaded thinking about which policies are most likely to make the United States more prosperous and more secure. And because the United States is already so strong and safe, it can afford to pursue unrealistic goals again and again and let the unfortunate victims of our good intentions suffer the consequences.

As a longtime observer of realists, realist attitudes in the United States, and the “strong, cultivated sense of victimhood” of academic realists, the hard-working staff at Spoiler Alerts feels obliged to make a few comments on this argument.

I’m not going to debate Walt’s first point, because down that road lies counterfactual madness. I’d contest his second point a wee bit. At least one of the op-ed columnists Walt described as “certainly not a realist” has said he’s got a little more realpolitik in him than Walt claimed. And in his sentences on The Post, Walt emphasized the neoconservative contributors but elided more realist-oriented commentators, such as George F. Will and Fareed Zakaria. I hear those guys are pretty prominent columnists.

As to the third point, I don’t so much disagree with it as suggest that it’s a radically incomplete story. Walt is correct to observe that realism offers very little in the way of hope; in some ways it’s an even more severe paradigm than that. Perhaps one reason that realists aren’t on the op-ed pages is that realists, in their heart of hearts, don’t think that op-ed columnists matter all that much. The bible of academic realists is Kenneth Waltz’s “Theory of International Politics,” which argues that the international system imposes powerful structural constraints on state behavior. In that book, Waltz states explicitly that, “The texture of international politics remains highly constant, patterns recur, and events repeat themselves endlessly. The relations that prevail internationally seldom shift rapidly in type or in quality. They are marked instead by a dismaying persistence.” He adds, “Over the centuries states have changed in many ways, but the quality of international life has remained much the same.” For realists, little has changed in international relations since the days of Thucydides.

This belief in the persistence of structural regularities, taken to its logical extreme, creates an internal logical contradiction in the public writings of realists. If systemic forces are really that constraining, then realists should not care about whether they engage the public or not. Structuralists have to believe that columnists have no ability to influence calculations of the national interest. Nonetheless, many structural realists feel the need to enter the rhetorical fray in their public engagement.  As Ido Oren noted a few years ago, “If there is indeed a ‘real’ world that exists independently of theories of international politics, why do leading realist theorists bother to intervene in political debates?” From the perspective of op-ed editors, columns positing that the distribution of power is important but nothing else matters get kinda dull after a point.

Let me suggest two additional reasons that help to explain the paucity of realists in the nation’s op-ed pages. The first is that the academy is producing fewer realists. A quick glance at the 2014 TRIP survey of international relations professors reveals that a lot of current scholars started out as realists but are not anymore. This primarily reflects a shift away from paradigmatic thinking among international relations scholars more generally. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a debate worth having, but it definitely constrains the pool of possible realist contributors.

The second and more troublesome reason is that those people who might hold realist worldviews might be more likely to hold other, more noxious political views. It’s worth observing that, at this moment, the two leading candidates for the GOP nomination hold distinctly more realist attitudes about military intervention than the rest of the field (yes, I’m giving those views more intellectual coherence than they actually possess, but bear with me). The problem for realists is that Sen. Ted Cruz and businessman Donald Trump also hold some opinions that academic realists might view as less than savory.

Indeed, this has been a problem for academic realists for the entire post-Cold War era. One could posit that until 2015, the two most prominent politicians to approximate a realist worldview — Patrick Buchanan and Ron Paul — also held political views that could be politely described as nativist and more accurately described as racist. The problem for realists who want to proudly articulate their worldview is that the political standard-bearers they would have to embrace have been just God-awful human beings.

On reflection, this last point is actually an argument that supports Walt’s plea for the op-ed pages to hire a prominent realist columnist, but not for the reasons Walt articulates. The country could use a strong realist worldview that is not linked to the nativism of Donald Trump or the conspiracy theorizing of Paul.