What Samuel Barkin got wrong about structuration in realism


Samuel Barkin’s “Realism, Prediction, and Foreign Policy” (2009) makes an honest attempt at deriding contemporary political realism. In it, Barkin makes a clear case that modern realism is essentially overreaching, moving too far beyond the classical realist’s original positions on normativity, subjectivity, and policy prescription. Rather, realism as it currently stands is concerned primarily with the opposite: the deduction of objective laws and observing the deterministic nature of international structures.

At its core, Barkin’s argument asserts that there is an internal contradiction found in the neo-realist doctrine; that is, that international politics is both predictable, given the causal power of structure, and prescriptible, given the relevancy of the agent. In order to be ontologically consistent he contends that realism must respect the foremost insight of classical realism: an embracing of realism’s original reflexivity and, ultimately, using it to guide foreign policy, rather than predicting the outcome of international relations. To do both, according to Barkin, would result in doing neither very well.

Early on Barkin makes the assumption that Morgenthau’s original position recognised the complexities of the world insomuch as they interfere with the accuracy of policy prediction. This required attention to be paid to the specific context in which the actor found themselves; this lends itself directly to the practice of policy prescription, and the contours of social scientific traditionalism more broadly.

Barkin’s positive contribution relies largely on his criticism of Kenneth Waltz’ structural realism. Waltz’ neorealism is said to adopt the power politics of classical realism and apply it within a systems-theoretic framework that is, apparently, more likened to liberalism than realism due to its reliance on the logic of the “ultimate liberal institution”: the market (p. 240). Waltz denounces realism’s foundation as a theory of foreign policy, and instead considers it a theory of systemic constraints, thus endowing realism with a deterministic—and predictable—set of general expectations that undermine the value of agency and the idiosyncrasies of the state (p. 242). Barkin calls for reflexivity—or introspection—in order to reaffirm realism’s original favouring of agency over structure, judgment over determinism, and cautioned prudence over pre-calculated politics.

It is important, however, to redirect this very prudence on itself. We should be skeptical of Barkin’s narrow interpretation of structural determination. Although Barkin rests on fair assumptions in explicating the social scientific turn of classical realism, one has to consider the possibility of a compatibilist ontology within the structuralist’s framework. To that end, Barkin maintains firm opposition on the grounds that Waltz espouses a closed-off, recursive account of international systemic structures that overconfidently determines—that is, governs—state behavior. If this were true, what then, Barkin asks, is the point in making policy prescriptions?

In response, one should imagine that neorealists may in fact have good reasons for doing so, because, perhaps, structure is not the only operative factor. Waltz and Mearsheimer certainly do not dismiss the relevancy of agents. More precisely, they support a system of constraints and motivations that allow for predictions according to those “general expectations”. They do not, however, make claims to their sacrosanct application nor their causal power vis-a-vis state behavior.

This gives rise to questions regarding whether a more lenient interpretation of the role of systemic structures is actually incompatible with the classical realist ideals of reflexivity and policy prescription. Conveniently for him, Barkin has left these questions unanswered.

Reopening the struture-agency debate is a tired pseudo-metaphysical discussion that has little usefulness as a heuristic in IR. As long as international relations are the domain of human beings with material interests and material foreign policy instruments, we will continue to see agency co-determine structure. As outsiders, our job isn’t to discern these dividing lines but to colour between them.



What Samuel Barkin got wrong about structuration in realism

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