Being Realistic about IR’s Realism

By Daniel Clausen - 28 February 2022
Being Realistic about IR’s Realism

What do we mean when we talk about “realism”? Do we mean the Realism of IR, the realism of mature adults, or realism as many scientists understand the term?

In 2007, Ken Booth published his seminal work Theory of World Security. In the book, Booth makes the case for a new approach to security that emphasizes cosmopolitan democracy, cosmopolitan states, cooperative approaches to global issues, and the security and freedom of individuals. Booth described his approach as a new form of realism – emancipatory realism. One of the key insights of Ken Booth’s study is that Realism as defined by IR scholarship is no longer realistic. In the context of the book, Booth finds it unrealistic to ignore or minimize problems of climate change, inequality, accidental nuclear war, and other issues that fall outside of state competition, strategy, and the status quo of security discourse. In the context of these global threats, fatalism about great power conflict, security dilemmas, and the limits of cooperation within the state system are unrealistic. Thus, two of the goals of Theory of World Security are de-bunking IR Realism (a theory about power, by the powerful, for the powerful), but also, capturing the realist discourse away from traditional IR.

Despite its many merits, there is a crucial problem with Booth’s formation of emancipatory realism: it adds to the confusion over discussions of security and peace. In my experience, part of the problem of discussing IR’s version of realism, both in scholarly forums and in classrooms where students might be unaware of the theory’s history and baggage, is that participants quickly become confused and begin discussing different conceptions of realism. In particular, three kinds of “realism” are often confused: the philosophy of science’s form of realism (that there are phenomena independent of us and that we can know them), the IR form of Realism (which prioritizes the fear of people and states and the need for survival in a competitive world), and the way people without extensive reading in IR or the philosophy of science usually use it (looking at facts without the burden of fantasy).

People typically want to be “realistic” in some form but are confused (or confusing) about what they mean. Certainly, Booth’s conception of “emancipatory realism” is a theoretically rich addition and worthy of further debate. But by marrying concepts from the Frankfurt School, peace studies, development studies, feminism, and other traditions to the term, his move risks further confusing debates that would benefit from clarity and simplicity.

Perhaps a better way out of the trap of traditional IR Realism is to examine other usages of the term, such as the way it is used in everyday vernacular and the way philosophers of science understand realism. In common usage realism often means an accurate assessment of the situation at hand. It also means being mature about our relationship to the outside world. When an adolescent tells their parents that they want to be an actor or actress, a typical response from the parent is “Let’s be realistic,” as in “You are overestimating your chances of success and/or underestimating the consequences of failure.” This vernacular realism urges children and fools to avoid dangerous utopian thinking. Realistic people do not make bad decisions by being over-optimistic or engaging in wishful thinking.

The term realism as used by philosophers of science on the other hand is very different. This kind of realism purports the existence of phenomena, both observable and unobservable, outside our thoughts about them and finds guarded optimism that our understanding of these phenomena can be improved over time (see this short article by Anjan Chakravartty). In contrast to approaches such as constructivism and postmodernism, which highlight the role of human ideas and discourse in the making of the world, scientific realism tends to be more optimistic about the role of science and inquiry to know and change the world.

As someone who has studied IR and the philosophy of science but tries as much as possible to be a “realistic person” in the real world, I believe the best version of realism should give priority to the common vernacular notion of realism (looking at facts without the burden of fantasy) and the scientific form of realism (that there are real objects independent of us and that we can know them) before drawing from IR Realism’s theoretical tradition. Such a reconceptualized version of realism has two benefits. It would engage a wider audience, both outside the disciplinary boundaries of IR and academia, and it would add to the debate by subtracting forms of scholarship that are not “realistic,” i.e. having nothing practical to say about planetary survival or helping those who are suffering or insecure.

A merging of scientific realism, IR Realism, and realism as common people understand it is beyond the scope of this short article, but perhaps the best way to begin is not by adding elements from other theoretical traditions, but rather by eliminating the unneeded elements in the three traditions mentioned above. It would begin by examining the failures of international relations practitioners and how they have had to adapt to those failures. It would also examine why potential supporters of Ken Booth’s idea of world security (people who have instead found solace in populism and post-truth fantasies) see the message of cosmopolitan solidarity as “unrealistic.”

Sometimes in theory, just as in practice, simple is better and less is more. Perhaps it is time to be realistic about realism.



Daniel Clausen is a full-time lecturer at Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies. He is a graduate of Florida International University’s Ph.D. program in International Relations. His research interests vary widely from Japanese foreign policy to English language teaching. His research has been published in Asian Politics and Policy, e-International Relations, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, The Diplomatic Courier, and East Asia Forum, among other publications.

Photo by Diego Caumont from Pexels

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