Monday, April 21, 2014

Being Realistic about Realists

George Kennan stands out in the intellectual history of American foreign policy and a tremendous influence on IR scholarship.  He helped set the terms of the cold war via his recommendation of containment of the Soviet Union.  As a practitioner of Realism, he set a particular model for those who followed--that dispassionate weighing of interests should be the focus, not ideology.

Yet it turns out that he was just a wee bit misanthropic if you believe what was written about him ... by himself.  Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-semitic.  Actually, it looks like he had contempt for everyone, but labels existed for certain folks.

This was known before to some degree, but proven quite decisively with Kennan's diaries now being published.  I cannot be the only one who read some of Kennan's stuff while in college, and pondered whether I could follow his path.  So glad I have not, for a variety of reasons.

The question then becomes: are all Realists who advocate for dispassionate analyses of International Relations misanthropes? Is it inherent in Realism as an outlook?  Certainly, some make it appear to be the case (what is the blog equivalent of a sub-tweet?).  Yet those who encountered Ken Waltz, the scholar that shaped academic Realism as much or more than Kennan shaped the policy world's version, would say no.  Waltz may have had his fights with his colleagues, but he sure seemed like a nice person to most of the folks who interacted with him.  Critical?  Sure.  Stubborn?  Of course.  But misanthropic?  Not so much. [Oh, and see here for a previous Spew on Realism]

Of course, I could say that I have some friends who are realists and they don't seem so bad....  And, yes, I have some Realist streaks in my thinking--that power matters in shaping outcomes.  I just don't think it matters as much in shaping interests. 

Kennan was exceptional in many ways.  A self-identified Cassandra, who uttered many warnings that others did not hear.  Ok, that is not so exceptional.  But the average Realist these days is not the misanthrope that Kennan actually was.  That makes him an exception.  Not all Realists have hearts of gold, of course.  They vary as much as countries in the world, even as they ascribe to these various countries some kind of homogeneity.  I refuse to do the same to Realists--they are many different kinds.  And that is a good thing.


Vladimir said...

Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-semitic. Can't we say this using contemporary standards about many of Kennan's generation? Kennan was clearly an elitist though we should note he has plenty of comments later in his career expressing his desire that his country act in a moral way -- Hans Morgethau also discovered morality. I would point to Robert Jervis and the Logic of Images in IR. He has a couple of passages related to signalling: both explained using sexual situations. In the first a man (the boss) is making a subtle advance on his secretary (a woman)- the lesson being how two parties send signals in such a way that they can deny that anything was ever meant. The second "asking for a light" in a "gay bar" is a come on but the speaker doesn't know that. Either of these examples could be called sexist or homophobic. I see no reason to make those charges directly about Jervis. Many of his generation writing circa 1970 would have used similar examples. I do wonder what female or gay students made of it all.

Steve Saideman said...

The old battle of the sexes game can be seen as sexist--that man wants to do one activity, woman wants to do another. But that is of entirely a different order of magnitude than the stuff reported in Kennan's diaries. Some of the passages that are highlighted are not that old (although kennan was), like the way he referred to Monica Lewinsky.

It is one thing to be somewhat ignorant, another thing to be very hateful. Kennan was the latter. Your examples very much the former.