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Excerpt: Foreword to Barry Zellen's The Realist Tradition in International Relations: Foundations of Western Order
Joel M. Ostrow, 10/1/2011

There are those for whom CCS web commando and editor Barry Zellen’s four-volume treatise, The Realist Tradition in International Relations: Foundations of Western Order (Praeger Security International, August 2011), is long-awaited.

When I arrived at the University of California at Berkeley as a PhD candidate two decades ago, IR luminaries Kenneth Waltz and Ernst Haas inquired about their wayward bright young star who had left the Bay Area for the cooler pastures of the Arctic in the early-1990s. Readers will quickly understand their interest: Zellen’s passion for international relations theory never waned, nor did his capacity for serious academic thought.

In this multi-volume opus, he offers unique insights into the entire concept of the nation-state. This is a massive journey, in its entirety not for the faint of heart! Yet there is something in here for everyone. One can gain from his history of the development of realist thought. Or his explication of the essential tenets of realism. Or simply his elucidation of constructive realism.

Similarly, the four volumes can also stand on their own. One can focus on the historical rise of the state, or its contemporary challenges. Though doing so will deny the reader of the full flavor of the important connections, which inform the remainder of my thoughts here.

Most interesting to students of IR theory will be Zellen’s development of constructive realism, which grounds the thoughts and actions of the Neocons who dominated American foreign policy making in the first decade of the twenty-first century in several millennia of international relations theory. Zellen is impressed with the importance of Kenneth Waltz’s first image, the role of the individual in politics or, as he puts it in his typically engaging style, “the strategic value of brains . . . in the political arena.” People try to shape events, rather than being channeled by structures and system into automatic responses. This is Zellen’s basic critique of neorealism. But the critique can just as easily be applied to the entire Political Science discipline, for in this most essential approach it can most assuredly be said the Political Science discipline is of late woefully deficient, having lost its way in mindless mathematical formulae and methodology. People matter, and it is in people that politics lay.

Constructive realism, then, goes beyond the Neocons, and his concept may well have broader implications. Zellen demonstrates how the Neocons deviated from the requirements of constructive realism, and finds a lesson in their disastrous blunders in the Middle East, which offer “proof of the danger that comes from applying a strategic theory that is removed from historical realities.” His treatise will help us to place and critically understand the thinking of influential decision-makers who will continue to play a role in world affairs in coming years. Moreover, all will benefit from his incisive analysis of the rise of the nation-state and the challenges and crises it currently faces. His perusal of the growth and development of the state is highly illuminating in its own right and richly grounded in fresh and highly instructive theoretical insights throughout. Zellen grounds his approach in the great philosophers of antiquity and the intellectual giants of modernity, from Thucydides to Clausewitz. He is impressed by their triumph, in the sense that their ideas hold sway in ways that their contemporaries could never imagine. And it is testimony to the power of ideas, of individuals to shape events over the truly long term.

The story linking Socrates to Hobbes to sovereignty is a unified one, as is the story linking Alexander to Napoleon and Hitler. And these stories are in no way separate, indeed they are intricately intertwined, though not always as either thinker or practitioner intended. For those who have tried to connect war and policy, force and statecraft, political violence and political change have not always understood the nature of the ideas they were trying to connect. Again, the failures of the Neocons need not spell the failings of constructive realism —indeed, Zellen argues just the opposite. This is the singular insight and lesson that Zellen lays out in the first volume, State of Hope. For, Zellen persuasively argues, what realists seek is what they have always sought, and it has never been different from what liberals or other idealists have sought: order, security, peace instead of disorder, fear and chaos.

Zellen does more, however, than most IR theorists. In State of Hope, he locates theorizing and language in linguistics and science, in philosophy and human development. At just the time when he, correctly, anticipates that much of his audience would tend to skepticism about a theory linked to those responsible for policies contemporaries roundly condemn, he needs to—and does—locate the theory in convincingly sound intellectual, historical, philosophical and, yes, political ground. He richly details the content and application, and misapplication, of the ideas of each of these greats along the route to the rise of the modern nation-state, with particular emphasis on the impact of Machiavelli and Hobbes in volume two, State of Fear, as the immediate fathers of modern realist thought.

Volume three, State of Awe, chronicles strategic thought during the age of total war. Created out of a desire to escape chaos and fear, nuclear weapons and new concepts on their use or non-use posed the same set of questions for international relations thinkers: how should these things behave to create international order and security, instead of disorder and fear. The disorder and fear, of course, never went away. With particular and insightful emphasis on strategy during the Cold War, Zellen traces the development of constructive realism just as he traced its rise, with detailed discussion of its detractors and its transformations as technology and human development changed the context in which the nation-state has existed. With the perspective afforded by hindsight, more than fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and, with it, of bipolar political stability, Zellen’s chronicle of strategic thought in the nuclear age is insightful and instructive. The security and stability that arose did so with the help of strategic thought. While the concept of total war, bred in the world wars, created particular fears and particular threats of ultimate insecurity, particularly in the nuclear age, the underlying purpose of theorists did not. Fearing nuclear chaos and annihilation, they sought the principles of order and stability. The theorists whose ideas helped forge a connection between assured destruction and strategic stability, Zellen reveals, had themselves identified explicit links to antiquity. Brodie was a fan well-versed in Socrates and Plato; again we see a unified strain of thought. Similarly, Zellen traces a unified connection between thought and policy, or at least attempts to create such connections.

Zellen examines nuclear strategy and the shift from deterrence to preemption, and grounds this shift in the same intellectual basis as the rise of deterrence: constructive realism and the search for order out of chaos. The discussion is likely to be controversial, but the analysis is thorough and convincing. Zellen confronts head-on his dispute with system-level theory and its rejection of the role of the individual strategic thinker, or statesman, to shape action. This last section of State of Awe is the heart of Zellen’s entire opus, at least where contemporary IR theory is concerned, and is perhaps the most essential read of all. He spells out the details in his introduction to his series, and I have alluded to it above. But one must read Zellen’s critique of Waltz to fully appreciate his admiration and his particular insight. Indeed, his revealing of the double-entendre of “balance” at the heart of “balance of power” puts into print an approach I have taught to undergraduates in my Introduction to International Relations for more than a decade. It is refreshing to see this in print, and it reveals quite a lot about the debates over the utility of realist theory.

Clearly, in the uncertainty borne of the collapse of the bipolar system, the creation of order will require action. One can see several attempts already—the rise of regional blocs, from the European Union to NAFTA, the creation of global networks both for and against terrorists, and the attempt to forge something truly global at the heart of the ideas behind and policies associated with globalization. All, according to Zellen’s basic point, are intentional policies made possible by the intersection of theorists and political actors, driven by the essential point that intentional action by individuals can shape the world, can enhance order where it is lacking and create stability where fear is high. The collapse of the bipolar nuclear stability brought the rise of a new uncertainty and fear. This reality bridges State of Awe with his fourth and final volume, State of Siege on insurgency and asymmetrical warfare.

In State of Siege, Zellen explores reactions against the nation-state, dramatically evidenced by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This is perhaps the most broadly satisfying of his tale, as he offers an innovative and intuitively appealing comparison between Maoist, non-violent, guerrilla and contemporary terrorist forms of insurgency. While carefully depicting their differences in tactics, Zellen insightfully explores the fundamental underlying similarities behind all insurgencies, particularly in the basic causes of the disaffection motivating such uprisings. Most satisfying, he gives a clear-eyed and common-sense rejection of those neorealists who over-emphasize the supposed pacifying tendencies of nuclear weapons. Equally rejecting naive expectations of either the positive effects of the weapons or of the rationality of fanatics, Zellen goes for the cautionary approach that it is best if we succeed in preventing certain entities from ever attaining certain weapons. And thus the rise of the strategy of preemption, in which the Neocons find their support in Zellen’s constructive realism. Zellen perceptively locates the current strategy in U.S. history, dating from the insurgent roots of the Revolutionary War through a long history of counter-insurgency through the Vietnam War. Zellen sees hope in America’s adaptability, its willingness to learn from mistakes, and efforts to learn in the midst of them to avoid worse mistakes.

The outcome of the Global War on Terror will indeed, as Zellen puts it, drawing perhaps even subconsciously on Ernie Haas, depend on who proves to be “the best learner.”

Joel M. Ostrow is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois. He is the author of The Consolidation of Dictatorship in Russia: An Inside View of the Demise of Democracy (Praeger Security International, 2007) with Georgiy A. Satarov and Irina M. Khakamada, and Comparing Post Soviet Legislatures: A Theory of Institutional Design and Political Conflict (Ohio State University Press, 2000)


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