In Defense of Variable Paradigms: Realism Under Siege From Within and Without

by Howard Fienberg

January 25, 1996 for Professor Mark Neufeld (PO420: IR Theory)

In discussing neorealism, a great many of the theorists encountered have criticized its approach. Neorealism was supposed to be a step forward, being the evolution from the former generation's style of realism, now classified as classical realism, to a more clean, and scientific approach. J. Ann Tickner and Richard Ashley both call neorealism into question, for somewhat similar reasons, but using different methods. They are also presenting a critique of classical realism, although Tickner is offering a real revision of both kinds of realism.

In Politics Among Nations, Hans Morgenthau states that he has attempted to develop a scientific formulation of realist political theory, one that is both ``empirical and pragmatic.'' (3) In the process, he presents six points which he considers to be the fundamental principles of his conception of realism, which will be referred to as classical realism. These six points must be examined, and posited against the views of: Kenneth Waltz, representing the neorealist strain; Richard Ashley, from the radical perspective; and J. Ann Tickner, for the feminist perspective. In so doing, one hopes to achieve a further understanding of the clash of paradigms present.


Morgenthau declares, for his first point, that politics "is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature." (4) This supposes that politics is essentially a science, and that it can be discovered through the use of scientific method. At the same time, he finds that the laws of politics are "grounded in human nature." (4) As such, both human nature and science have their place in theorizing in the classical realist paradigm.

Waltz would have mixed reviews on this point. While agreeing that objectivity is required, and a scientific approach should be utilized, as a neorealist he would not agree with politics origin in human nature. Humanity, to the neorealist, is an irrelevant sideshow, and laws are grounded in science alone. Also, Waltz would find some fault with Morgenthau's exposition on statesmen. By focusing on statesmen, Morgenthau is giving his theory a decidedly reductionist tinge. This conception of international politics equating to the sum of all nation's foreign policies runs directly counter to the neorealist conception, where the system and structure are more important than the actors themselves.

Ashley finds fault with the idea of objectivity as a whole. "The illusion of objectivity" has been shown by the radicals as a form of subjectivity which fails to recognize its own bias. In so doing, it is imposing a hegemonic conception of reality on others. Ashley would quip that the radical paradigms are better positioned to decide truth because they can recognize their own bias and accept it as such. Positivism is simply support for the status quo, and is biased towards the elites in power in a manner in which most people are unaware, since "knowledge is always constituted in reflection of interests." (207)

In his exposition on Jurgen Habermas, Ashley highlights three general cognitive interests. The technical cognitive interest, that of the interest in controlling nature, is utilized to describe the interest of Waltz, and Waltz's utilization of a purely scientific approach. While allowing for a minimal amount of thought, mostly it is for the purpose of utility, a problem-solving mind-set. Since Waltz's neorealism has only the technical, and ignores the practical cognitive interest, it is of an extremely limited value.

Objectivity is not only considered the legitimation of the status quo interest, in its usual conception it is also an imposition of masculinity, according to Tickner. Science, objectivity and reason are considered the pathos of the masculine gender, with emotion and subjectivity reserved to the feminine. Since human nature encompasses both the masculine and the feminine, politics requires what Tickner has dubbed "dynamic objectivity," an outlook "with less potential for domination." (349)

This same modern scientific approach also takes the blame for the destruction of the environment, in Tickner's view. Since science is driven to explore and discover, regardless of the interest of morality, it has, in due course, systematically demolished the global ecology through not only weaponry like the atomic bomb, but also through seemingly positive achievements, such as industrial and technological development. (348)


With the method discovered, Morgenthau elaborates in his second point that interest may be defined in terms of power. He examines it historically, and concludes that there is no "exact and necessary correlation" between moralistic motives and foreign policy. (6) Finding such, he ventures that, although it cannot always be true, a rational order is an abstract which can never be fully achieved. It is simply what must be seen as an ideal to be striven for, rather than a straight reality.

Waltz would heartily agree with Morgenthau's conclusion here, but would have grave misgivings with his methodology. Again, Morgenthau utilizes a reductionist angle, focusing more on the actors than the structures. As well, he appears to be using more historical case presentation than scientific discovery, and the inclusion of a state's moral purposes, as if these could exist, which they could not in a neorealist's gaze, render Morgenthau's methods corrupt.

Interest in terms of power does not concern Ashley, except as a motive for the dominant elite, who would wish to protect and sustain their power and control. This control is not limited to the sense of simple leadership, but extends to the limitation of disciplines and communication. According to Elshtain, in "the Discourse of War and Politics", the hegemony imposed by realism "means that alternatives are evaluated from the standpoint of realism" and are never given a fair and independent hearing. (Elshtain 87)

Referring back to Habermas, Ashley effectively chastises Waltz as regressing. Whereas neorealists perceive themselves as the necessary and good evolution of classical realism, Ashley says that they have taken a step backwards. Denying their heritage, neorealists have forsaken the practical cognitive interest and have fully embraced the technical. In doing so, they have neglected what Ashley considers the more important interest, the interest in reaching consensus among actors of different traditions; in essence, understanding and communicating with those that think differently. With Morgenthau's classical realism encouraging at least an uneasy dichotomy between the two, there remains the capacity for critical thinking as opposed to mere problem-solving. However, he would diverge from the classical realists in advocating the ejection of the technical interest as a whole.

Tickner understands and admits to power being an interest, but her gaze allows for more. A multidimensional interest, one which includes morality is both understood and set as a goal. Towards this goal, Tickner supports international relations of a cooperative nature, opposing the overly simplistic zero-sum view of politics. In his chapter on the balance of power, Morgenthau comes across as somewhat compatible with her. He advocates an international moral consensus as opposed to an unstable balance of power which has been seen to cause arms spirals into war, rather than actually keeping the peace. this argument, however, digresses into the nature of power, his third point.


Power is "anything that establishes and maintains the control of man over man," according to Morgenthau's third principle. His definition of power covers not only the intrinsic power of capabilities ("physical violence" or the threat thereof), which is all that Waltz recognizes, but also that of contingent power ("subtle psychological ties and mental control"). (9) "National character... morale and the quality of government" are found by Morgenthau to be even the most important components of power, even more so than the intrinsic capabilities. (211)

Power as control is inherent in both strains of realism and it is fittingly pointed out by Ashley that this control extends to the limitation of the definition. Waltz states that the "urge to explain" is produced from the desire to control. (Keohane 33) Once more, the focus is on controlling not only within the definition, but through that very definition, the realist limit and control the discourse. The technical interest is here impeding the practical interest in communication.

The universal validity of the two realist definitions is questioned by Tickner. She claims that feminism should seek a definition of power encompassing both masculine (domination and control) and feminine (collective empowerment). In reference to the latter kind of power, Tickner perhaps reflects the proper embodiment of the emancipatory cognitive interest. As opposed to Herz, who periodically reflects on his own paradigm, Tickner has in fact concluded a portion of her self-reflection and conceived of an emancipatory alternative. She has elucidated that power cannot remain stratified by gender.


Morgenthau, in his fourth principle, attempts to find a place in his theory for morality. Although his theory attempts to allow for the interplay of morality in international schema, it is on a subtle level, and cannot truly supersede the national interest.

Waltz would most likely scoff at this whole principle. neorealism does not take morality into account, and makes no attempt to integrate actors' behavior into a wider moral model.

Morality is, unfortunately, a normative concept, and Ashley, once having trashed Waltz for ignoring the idea completely, would attack Morgenthau's linkage of the national interest to morality. This is not to say that the national interest should not pursue morality, but that Morgenthau has decreed the survival and protection of the nation-state as a moral end. Morgenthau follows in the footsteps of Machiavelli, subordinating the individual to the state. With Machiavelli's 'virtu' in hand. Morgenthau elevates the state above humanity, not merely in a sense of focus and study, but in one of moral high ground. "Fiat Justitia, pereat mundus," becomes a phrase for the radical, who eschews the state.

According to Tickner, it is impossible to separate the moral from the political. With realists attempting to moralize order over justice, "all political action has moral significance" (350)


Hubris becomes the focus of Morgenthau's fifth principle. Classical realism will not equate one nation's morality or ideology with universal morality. Not only is such hubris "morally indefensible", it is also foolhardy in a very real sense. (11) Even as far back as Thucydides, the quality has been shown to have alienated erstwhile allies from Athens; more recently, American hegemonic control was shattered by defeat in the expansion of its supposed universal ideology into Vietnam.

Not only does Waltz refuse to acknowledge morality as a motivator, but also as a primer for ideology and legitimacy, a concept of power for which a neorealist has no use anyhow. Since universal laws are not grounded in human nature, but in science, they cannot be affected by morality.

Ashley would stand with Morgenthau on this point, though rejecting the notion of universal laws in addition as mere expression of hegemonic influence.

While Tickner does recognize that one nation's ideology cannot be superimposed on the remainder of the global order, she does advocate a new universality. This new common ideology, human- rather than state-oriented, must be advanced in order to build a new international community.


The sixth and final point of Morgenthau is that, while recognizing political man as one among many, realists cannot help but subordinate the other types in their study. "the political realist is not unaware of the existence and relevance of standards of thought other than political ones. as political realist, he cannot be subordinate these other standards to those of politics." (12)

Humanity does not come into play in Waltz's terminology anyhow, and this approach would be found irrelevant. Science is what matters to neorealism.

The differing types of man, which classical realism subordinates to the political, are all considered important by Ashley. Since politics is not to be studied in a vacuum, all perspectives must be included and recognized.

Tickner elaborates on Ashley's point that the political self is not autonomous. She sees the concept of "autonomy" as "associated with masculinity." (350) Carrying the classic feminist battle-cry of 'the personal is political', she conceives of politics encompassing all facets of societal intercourse. Focusing on the political man ignores the strength of the feminine facets.


In conclusion, one finds numerous overlaps among the four perspectives. Much of the critique furthered by Ashley and Tickner of neorealism is similar to that found in Morgenthau's work. With this in mind, one must question the insistence on stringent relation to paradigm, and work towards a more 'emancipatory cognitive interest' in freeing debate from these limited archetypes.


Return to Howard Fienberg's home page