While few academic fields are better than International Relations (IR) at inspiring ideas of fundamental change, resistance to fundamental change remains one of IR’s most consistent and remarked upon features. This paradox appears to underly Ethan Kapstein’s remark that Realism “continues to define the discipline” even as it remains “deeply and perhaps fatally flawed.” The great strength of Realism is its ability to rise above the morass of allegedly new actors and issues that populate discourse about world politics, something accomplished by its insistence on state centred analyses, and highly efficient reduction of all actual or potential political action to concerns about power and national interest. But this is also the Achilles heel of Realism, an approach easily reduced to caricature or dismissed as “an anti-political apology for brute force and cynicism” (Rob Walker). Realism, while a seemingly natural view can, even when it seems most relevant, induce feelings of shame in its advocates.
But to what extent does Realism remain “a cornerstone of International Relations theory”? The evidence in this regard is mixed, and a major survey of the relationship between pedagogy, scholarship, and international policy finds that only 16% of American political scientists (and 16% globally) self-identify as Realists, as compared to 20% constructivist, 20% liberal, and 26% non-paradigmatic. This stands in contrast to the survey’s identification of a high literary output devoted to Realism, suggesting that some political scientists may be publicly embarrassed by their Realism, but privately committed to its salience.
But to what extent have academic Realists shied away from endorsing political figures and policies that, in theory, are consistent with a Realist worldview, and is such reluctance a function of the embarrassing reality that such postures and politicians are likely to package politically realist pronouncements on foreign policy with politically embarrassing, socially questionable, and controversial pronouncements in general? Two almost prototypical examples of this phenomenon are Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Realists (e.g. John Mearsheimer) have embraced Putin as a Realist despite his controversial leadership. Trump, however, is another matter who, despite a remarkable rise to political prominence, ability to capture the attention of an American public increasingly worried about national security, and emergence as the only presidential candidate in recent memory to articulate a consistently Realist foreign policy, has yet to be taken seriously by academic Realists.
Yet it is possible to identify an increasingly and specifically Realist content in Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements, albeit packaged with “massive unfavorables” (Drezner) that mean academic Realists will likely be too embarrassed to endorse, or openly help to shape, a feasible Trumpian Realist foreign policy any time soon. The contrast with Putin is useful, and suggests that it is easier for American Realists to embrace or identify with non-American practitioners of their craft, opening the door to exploration of the distinction between what is politically viable, and what is politically correct.