The Realist Tradition – A Review and Commentary

Daniel W. Drezner, in his 2007 research paper, “The Realist Tradition in American Public Opinion,” poses the following hypothesis,

For more than half a century, realist scholars of international relations have maintained that their world view is inimical to the American public. For a variety of reasons—inchoate attitudes, national history, American exceptionalism—realists assert that the U.S. government pursues realist policies in spite and not because of public opinion. …Survey and experimental data on the mass public’s attitudes towards foreign policy priorities and world views…suggest that, far from disliking realism, Americans are at least as comfortable with the logic of realpolitik as they are with liberal internationalism. The persistence of the anti-realist assumption might be due to an ironic fact: American elites are more predisposed towards liberal internationalism than the rest of the American public.

To some, this may be obvious. However, Drezner is speaking to his elite peers. His insight does explain what we see on the national and global stages when certain parties are in power. He has constructed a very useful table of “testable predictions about American preferences.” These distinctions, too, are very useful, though obvious to those who are paying attention.

Issue area

Realist policy preferences

Liberal internationalist policy preferences

Foreign policy priorities and world views

• Pessimistic or Hobbesian appraisal of international environment

• Pursuit of national interest

• Homeland security and territorial integrity come first

• Balance against rising powers

• Cautiously optimistic or Lockean appraisal of international environment

• Pursuit of interest through international law

• Promotion of democracy, human rights

• Reliance on multilateral institutions to regulate conflict and power in world politics

Justification and support for the use of force

• Self-defense

• Violation of state sovereignty

• Containment of a rising power

• Tolerance of costs if the opponent suffers more

• Self-defense

• Humanitarian intervention

• Promotion of self-determination/democratic regime change

• Extreme sensitivity to costs of war

Foreign economic policy

• Emphasis on relative gains

• Suspicion of economic interdependence leading to vulnerability

• Hostility to foreign ownership of strategic assets

• Emphasis on absolute gains

• Support for economic interdependence, liberalization

• Acceptance of foreign ownership

He defines the elite to which he refers as those “knowledgeable about foreign affairs and [having] some access to foreign policy decision-makers.” Members include “high-ranking members of the executive branch, members of Congress and their staffs, lobbyists and interest group representatives, journalists, academics, and leaders of labor, business, and religion.” The “members of the executive branch” he mentions are less those of the presidency than those in the administrative state apparatus.

Drezner, after examining surveys and studies, concludes that the hypothesis that Americans are anti-realist is false. Americans “hold some liberal aspirations for their conduct across the globe and believe that morality should play a role in foreign affairs—in the abstract.”

Restating his hypothesis as a question, Drezner writes,

…If American attitudes towards foreign policy have been consistent for decades, and those attitudes are receptive to a realist world view, then why does the anti-realist assumption persist within the academy and the policymaking worlds?

Drezner conjectures that realist policy makers make the mistake of confusing the views of elites with which they associate with those of the mass of the American people,

The liberal internationalist trend is strong among the elites that realist scholars interact with the most—other international relations professors. …It is possible that realists believe that most Americans do not like realism because the Americans they interact with the most—their professional colleagues—are hostile to the paradigm.

This, I think, is a result of self-segregation by class both here in America and the world over that will only increase as globalization reaches its apex. What happens after that has been rehearsed many times in the past (e.g., the Late Bronze Age Collapse.) Complex and efficient supply chain systems collapse under stress.

Every major empire that has fallen was an attempt at globalization. In our recent past, we’ve seen at least two excursions towards a global economy and culture. Some say the book of Revelation is a summary picture of these recurrences and their final denouement.

This is the biggest threat to America: Domenech, 11 minutes, YouTube, December 30, 2021, Fox News