You Can't Get There from Here: On the Gap Between Realist Theory and "Realist" Foreign Policy | 2022 | Events

You Can't Get There from Here: On the Gap Between Realist Theory and "Realist" Foreign Policy
Andrew Kydd
Andrew Kydd
University of Wisconsin-Madison
November 30, 2022


Scholars identifying with the realist school of international relations theory are among the most vocal critics of U.S. foreign policy. They seek to bolster the legitimacy of their critiques by emphasizing their status as adherents to the realist tradition, which purports to offer a deeper understanding of international relations than that generated by other traditional viewpoints or modern social scientific research. However, there is a persistent gap between realist theory and realist foreign policy critiques. Realist theory argues that state motivations are difficult to discern, symmetrical across states, and concerned with power and that domestic politics plays a secondary role in determining state behavior. Realist foreign policy critiques posit that other states are defensively motivated security seekers, while the United States is irrationally aggressive because of domestic political pathologies. As a result, realist foreign policy is substantially more dovish than realist theory warrants. While realist critiques may be correct in certain instances, they should be granted no authority based on an imagined derivation from realist theory. I illustrate the argument with a simple game theoretic model of NATO enlargement and then trace this pattern from Morgenthau's opposition to the Vietnam War, to the nuclear debates of the 1980s, to recent debates over grand strategy, "liberal hegemony" and "restraint."


Andrew Kydd received his Ph. D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago in 1996 and taught at the University of California, Riverside and Harvard University before joining the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 2007. His interests center on the game theoretic analysis of international security issues such as proliferation, terrorism, trust and conflict resolution. He has published articles in the American Political Science Review, International Organization, World Politics, and International Security, among other journals. His book, Trust and Mistrust in International Relations, was published in 2005 by Princeton University Press and won the 2006 Conflict Processes Best Book Award.