Realists Against the Nation-State

Author:William E. Scheuerman
Position:Professor of Political Science and West European Studies, Indiana University (Bloomington).
Pages:67-105
Realists Against the Nation-State
William E. Scheuerman*
I. INTRODUCTION ........................................................................................... 67
II. WHAT IS THE NATION-STATE GOOD FOR? ................................................ 71
III. THE NATION-STATE AND SOCIAL INTEGRATION ...................................... 73
IV. THE STAYING POWER OF NATIONAL IDENTITY ........................................ 79
V. HOW NATION-STATES DESTROY MORALITY .............................................. 82
VI. ECONOMIC GLOBALIZATION VS. THE NATIO N-STATE ............................... 89
VII. THE POLITICAL AND MILITARY DECAY OF THE NATION-STATE ............. 97
VIII. CONCLUSION ....................................................................................... 103
I. INTRODUCTION
British political theorist David Held recently restated the commonplace
view that, for Realist International Theory, “the modern system of nation-
states is a ‘limiting factor’ which will always thwart any attempt to conduct
international relations in a manner which transcends the politics of the
sovereign state.”1 According to the dominant interpretation, Realists
stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the nation-state’s increasingly obsolescent
character.2 Their dogmatic fidelity to an anarchical international system in
which nation-states remain the dominant political organization makes
Realists congenitally hostile to global reform.3 Rather than treating nation-
states as “limiting factors” militating against reform, Held asserts, we must
*Professor of Political Science and West European Studies, Indiana University (Bloomington).
1 DAVID HELD, DEMOCRACY AND THE GLOBAL ORDER: FROM THE MODERN STATE TO
COSMOPOLITAN GOVERNANCE 7475 (1995). For useful surveys of Realist international thought,
see POLITICAL THOUGHT AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: VARIATIONS ON A REALIST THEME
(Duncan Bell ed., 2009); CAMPBELL CRAIG, GLIMMER OF A NEW LEVIATHAN: TOTAL WAR IN THE
REALISM OF NIEBUHR, MORGENTHAU, AND WALTZ (2003); JACK DONNELLY, REALISM AND
INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS (2000); JONATHAN HASLAM, NO VIRTUE LIKE NECESSITY: REALIST
THOUGHT IN INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS SINCE MACHIAVELLI (2002); RICHARD NED LEBOW, THE
TRAGIC VISION O F POLITICS: ETHICS, INTERESTS, AND ORDERS (2003); ALASTAIR J. H. MURRAY,
RECONSTRUCTING REALISM: BETWEEN POWER POLITICS AND COSMOPOLITAN ETHICS (1997);
VIBEKE SCHOU TJALVE, NIEBUHR, MORGENTHAU, AND THE POLITICS OF PATRIOTIC DISSENT:
REALIST STRATEGIES OF REPUBLICAN PEACE (2008); MICHAEL C. WILLIAMS, THE REALIST
TRADITION AND THE LIMITS OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS (2005); REALISM RECONSIDERED: THE
LEGACY OF HANS J. MORGENTHAU IN INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS (Michael C. Williams ed., 2007).
2 JÜRGEN HABERMAS, THE DIVIDED WEST 16693 (2006).
3 Id.
68 TRANSNATIONAL LAW & CONTEMPORARY PROBLEMS [Vol. 20:67
see the nation-state for what it is: a contingent product of specific historical
circumstances, and thus necessarily subject to far-reaching changes.4 Like
the city-states of Classical Antiquity and Renaissance Europe, the modern
nation-state is increasingly ill-adapted to the tasks of governance in the
context of intense globalization. From the perspective of Held and many
others, Realism suffers from institutional conservatism: given international
anarchy, states in the Realist view are supposed to do little more than pursue
a narrow interpretation of their “national interest.”5 Even if Realists admit
that achieving world government might prove morally desirable, the basic
dynamics of an international system in which rival units compete
unceasingly for power and security render any attempt to establish it
utopian. This is why Realists, we are repeatedly told, remain committed to
maintaining the institutional primacy of the nation-state, despite massive
evidence that the ongoing process of globalization undermines both its
efficacy and legitimacy. Not surprisingly, Held opts to join forces with an
increasingly vocal group of defenders of global or “cosmopolitan” law and
democracy, who seek to replace interstate anarchy with robust forms of
democracy and the rule of law, first at the regional (e.g., European) and then
eventually at the global level.
At first glance, Held’s critical comments about Realism seem
uncontroversial and perhaps even commonsensical. After all, they are widely
shared by reform-minded Cosmopolitan political and legal thinkers.6
Prominent recent political figures (e.g., Henry Kissinger and Condoleeza
Rice)7 and scholars (e.g., Kenneth Waltz and Danilo Zolo),8 who accept the
“Realist” label, are indisputably hostile to far-reaching global reform, let
alone anything approaching Held’s vision of a global law-based democracy.
Today, self-described Realists rarely even bother to take international law or
international human rights seriously. On the rare occasion that they do, their
analysis seems hostile and dismissive of both international law and human
rights’ accomplishments and normative potential.9
4 HELD, supra note 1, at 7475.
5 For the origins of this view, see HANS J. MORGENTHAU, IN DEFENSE OF THE NATIONAL INTEREST
3339 (1951).
6 See DANIELE ARCHIBUGI, THE GLOBAL COMMONWEALTH OF CITIZENS: TOWARD COSMOPOLITAN
DEMOCRACY 12631 (2008); CHARLES BEITZ, POLITICAL THEORY AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
1150 (1979); SIMON CANEY, JUSTICE BEYOND BORDERS: A GLOBAL POLITICAL THEORY (2005);
MICHAEL W. DOYLE, WAYS OF WAR AND PEACE 106 (1997); HABERMAS, supra note 2, at 16668;
CHARLES JONES, GLOBAL JUSTICE: DEFENDING COSMOPOLITANISM 11415 (1999).
7 MICHAEL JOSEPH SMI TH, REALIST THOUGHT FROM WEBER TO KISSINGER 192217 (1986)
(discussing Kissinger’s Realism); ANTONIA FELIX, CONDI: THE CONDOLEEZZA RICE STORY 9394
(2002) (discussing Rice’s intellectual debts to Morgenthau).
8 See KENNETH N. WALTZ, THEORY OF INTERNATIONAL POLITICS (1979); DANILO ZOLO,
COSMOPOLIS: PROSPECTS FOR WORLD GOVERNMENT (1997).
9 For an example of Realist theoretical indifference to international law, see JOHN
MEARSHEIMER, THE TRAGEDY OF GREAT POWER POLITICS (2001). For an example of Realist
Spring 2011] REALISTS AGAINST THE NATION-STATE 69
In light of the ubiquitous assessment of Realism as both institutionally
conservative and normatively numb, should Barack Obama’s apparent
intellectual affinity for Reinhold Niebuhr (18921971), probably the most
important U.S. theoretician of Realism, worry those of us who hope to
strengthen international law and ultimately advance far-reaching global
reform?10 Should we expect little more from President Obama than a “soft” or
simply more genteel version of the rather uninspiring foreign policies of self-
described Realists like Kissinger and Rice?
Perhaps not. Fortunately, Realist International Theoryespecially as
represented by its most notable mid-20th Century theoretical representatives
(e.g., Niebuhr, E.H. Carr (18921982), John Herz (19082006), Hans J.
Morgenthau (19041980), Frederick Schuman (19041981), and Georg
Schwarzenberger (19081991))is intellectually richer and more politically
multifaceted than critics typically acknowledge.11 To be sure, mid-Century
Realism, like any significant theoretical current, was always a complex and
unwieldy intellectual creature. Realism was largely influential in the United
States from the late 1930s well into the 1960s; its ranks included theologians
(like Niebuhr), active as well as former international lawyers (such as Herz,
Morgenthau, and Schwarzenberger), and historically conscious political
analysts of a radical political bent (e.g., Carr, Schuman). The theoretical
influences on them were no less wide-ranging. Niebuhr, for example, was
intellectually and politically linked to the socialist German émigré theologian
Paul Tillich,12 as he struggled in the 1930s and 1940s to synthesize a
fundamentally Augustinian Christian system of ethics with radical currents
in social thought. Carr was a great admirer of the work of Karl Mannheim.13
Morgenthau drew on a diverse collection of voices, including his Realist ally
Niebuhr, Hans Kelsen, Carl Schmitt, Max Weber, and especially the left-wing
Weimar legal sociologist and labor lawyer, Hugo Sinzheimer.14 Herz was a
doctoral student of Kelsen’s and initially a devotee of his teacher’s “pure
theory of law,” while Schwarzenberger worked with Gustav Radbruch before,
enmity to international law, see DANILO ZOLO, VICTORS JUSTICE: FROM NUREMBERG TO
BAGHDAD (2010).
10 In 2007, during a widely reported interview with conservative New York Times columni st
David Brooks, then-Senator Obama report edly told him that Niebuhr was his “favorite
philosopher.” A recent reissue by the University of Chicago Press of Niebuhr’s Irony of American
History includes an appreciative cover blurb from the President. See Obama’s Theologian: David
Brooks and E.J. D ionne on Reinhold Niebuhr, Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett, NATL
PUBLIC RADIO (Fe b. 19, 2009), http://being.publicradio.org/programs/2009/obamas-theologian/
[hereinafter Obama’s Theologian].
11 DONNELLY supra note 1; HASLAM supra note 1; SMITH supra note 7.
12 PAUL MERKLEY, REINHOLD NIEBUHR: A POLITICAL ACCOUNT 7785 (1975) (discussing the
nexus between Tillich and Niebuhr).
13 CHARLES JONES, E.H. CARR: A DUTY TO LIE 12143 (1998) (discussing Carr and Mannheim).
14 WILLIAM E. SCHEUERMAN, MORGENTHAU: REALISM AND BEYOND 1139 (2009) [hereinafter
SCHEUERMAN, MORGENTHAU: REALISM AND BEYOND] (discussing Morgenthau and Weimar
thought).

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP