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DOI: 10.1177/1354066113495477
2013 19: 647 European Journal of International Relations
Michael C. Williams
International Relations theory
In the beginning: The International Relations enlightenment and the ends of

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European Journal of
International Relations
19(3) 647 665
The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1354066113495477
In the beginning: The
International Relations
enlightenment and the
ends of International
Relations theory
Michael C. Williams
University of Ottawa, Canada
The question of endings is simultaneously a question of beginnings: wondering if
International Relations is at an end inevitably raises the puzzle of when and how it
began. This article argues that International Relations origins bear striking resemblance
to a wider movement in post-war American political studies that Ira Katznelson calls
the political studies enlightenment. This story of the fields beginnings and ends has
become so misunderstood as to have almost disappeared from histories of the field
and accounts of its theoretical orientations and alternatives. This historical forgetting
represents one of the most debilitating errors of International Relations theory today,
and overcoming it has significant implications for how we think about the past and future
development of the field. In particular, it throws open not only our understanding of
the place of realism in International Relations, but also our vision of liberalism. For the
realism of the International Relations enlightenment did not seek to destroy liberalism
as an intellectual and political project, but to save it. The core issue in the invention
of International Relations theory its historical origins as well as its end or goal in
a substantive or normative sense was not the assertion of realism in opposition to
liberalism: it was, in fact, the defence of a particular kind of liberalism.
realism, liberalism, enlightenment, Morgenthau, Niebuhr
History isnt the lies of the victors I know that now. Its more the memories of the survivors,
most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated. (Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending)
Corresponding author:
Michael C. Williams, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON
K1N 6N5, Canada.
Email: michael.williams@uottawa.ca
495477EJT19310.1177/1354066113495477European Journal of International RelationsWilliams
648 European Journal of International Relations 19(3)
Writing about endings is both provocative and attractive. The idea of something ending
often unsettles and disturbs, particularly when it involves questions of politics or the
status of a body of knowledge and the future of a profession such as International
Relations (IR).
Yet the idea of endings is also attractive, not least because it allows us to
re-examine settled assumptions, convictions, and commitments; to ask where we are and
where we are going, but also how we got here. The question of endings is thus simultane-
ously a question of beginnings, and wondering if something is at an end inevitably raises
the puzzle of when and how it began.
If this is the case, then any discussion of the end of IR theory must inevitably ask:
when did IR theory begin?
Here, of course, there is no shortage of answers, with names
including Sun Tzu, Augustine, and Machiavelli, and dates ranging from 1648, and 1789,
to 1919 marking only a few of the candidates jostling for pride of place. This article
seeks to provide a rather different view. The beginnings of IR theory, I suggest, do not lie
in the timeless wisdom of classical thinkers; nor do they lie in the origins of the modern
state and states-system, or the carnage and aftermath of World War I although all of
these play a role. Instead, these beginnings can be found in the United States in the wake
of World War II, and center on the activities of a group of post-war thinkers whom we
now often call classical realists. In Nicolas Guilhots apt phrase and revealing analysis,
these thinkers sought self-consciously to invent IR theory as a distinct enterprise
(Guilhot, 2011). The new beginning advocated by this disparate group was not an attempt
to found the discipline of IR upon securely scientific foundations, nor simply to teach
it yet again the conservative verities of realpolitik myths that continue to bedevil our
understanding of the issues involved. On the contrary, as Guilhot shows, this act of
beginning conceived of IR as a bulwark standing against the emerging hegemony of
American political science. Most importantly for the case I want to make here, this
opposition was not simply methodological: it was deeply and self-consciously political.
Indeed, as I shall try to show, the goal of the realist gambit (Guilhot, 2008) was not, as
is often assumed, the destruction of liberalism, but its salvation. The core issue in the
invention of IR theory its historical origins as well as its end or goal in a substantive
or normative sense was not the assertion of realism in opposition to liberalism: it was,
in fact, the defense of a particular kind of liberalism.
In their foundations, aspirations, and historical misrecognition, these origins bears a
striking resemblance to a wider movement in post-war American political studies that Ira
Katznelson (2003) has sought to recapture under the label of the political studies enlight-
enment. Indeed, the affinities are so strong that it is revealing to see the beginnings of IR
theory as an International Relations enlightenment analogous to the post-war political
studies enlightenment traced by Katznelson. As IR has over the decades moved ever
further away from these origins and closer toward political science, particularly in the
United States, this story of its beginnings and ends has become so misunderstood as to
have almost disappeared from histories of the field and accounts of its theoretical orien-
tations and alternatives. This historical forgetting constitutes one of the most debilitating
errors of IR theory today, and overcoming it has significant implications for how we
think about the past and future development of the field. In particular, it throws open not
only our understanding of the place of realism in IR, but also our vision of liberalism. For
Williams 649
while the liberal realism of the IR enlightenment has been largely overlooked, the lib-
eralism that defines large parts of the field today is precisely the form of liberal rational-
ism that the IR enlightenment opposed not in order to destroy liberalism as an
intellectual and political project, but to save it. In the beginning, these ends or goals
defined IR theory as a substantive political project.
The political studies enlightenment and the IR
What was the political studies enlightenment? In Katznelsons reconstruction, it can be
brought into focus by recognizing how a diverse group of thinkers across the spectrum
of post-war American political science:
whose biography had placed them perilously close to Europes abyss joined others fortunate
enough to have been protected by distance to defend liberality and systematic thought while
insisting the tradition of Enlightenment required a new realism, a good deal of repair, and much
fortification. Constituting a distinctive approach (though not a school, since they were not
bound together self-consciously), these historians and social scientists understood that a simple
reassertion of liberal modernism had become radically insufficient.
In this group, Katznelson places individuals as varied as Robert Dahl, Richard
Hofstaeder, Harold Lasswell, Charles Lindblom, Karl Polanyi, David Truman, and
Hannah Arendt. Profoundly shaken by the desolation of the previous half-century
and its
apparent refutation of Enlightenment promises of progress, peace, and the reign of reason,
the thinkers of the political studies enlightenment sought to account for the sources of
modern barbarism by looking deeply into the limits of the Enlightenment itself. Declaring
the need for a new realism that could address the devastation that left a century and a half
of increasing rationalism within the Enlightenment tradition at wits, end, they:
insisted on critical adjustments geared to shade the Enlightenments philosophical anthropology,
thicken its defenses against evil, deepen its capacity to reason, and restore full sight to an Enlightenment
that, in the face of disaster and loss of self-assurance, had become color-blind. Confronting their
periods dashed hopes for reason and knowledge, they asked not just whether the Enlightenment
should define modernity, but which Enlightenment we should wish to have. (Katznelson, 2003: 2)
Far from simply rejecting the Enlightenment in the face of the barbarism and desola-
tion, the political studies enlightenment held that to understand the calamities of the
period, it was necessary not to treat them as simple irrationality erupting inexplicably
into the otherwise placid, progressive, and rational world of the Enlightenment, but to
see instead how they were specifically modern, arising in important aspects from the
Enlightenment itself, and representing key weaknesses within it. Multiple themes were,
of course, at work across such a wide range of thinkers and orientations, but four related
aspects are particularly worth highlighting: the need to engage the question of radical
evil in modernity; the increasing role and dominance of instrumental reason, technol-
ogy, and technical rationality; the rise of mass society and mass politics, and the accom-
panying crisis of classical liberalism and its vision of democracy; and the rise of extreme
650 European Journal of International Relations 19(3)
nationalism and anti-liberal politics as an at least partial consequence of liberal moder-
nity, not as its simple antithesis.
The goal of the political studies enlightenment was to grasp these dynamics philo-
sophically, historically, and sociologically, and to understand how they might be coun-
tered in pursuit of suitably chastened but nonetheless recognizable Enlightenment values
and principles. In Katznelsons rendering, by affiliating disciplined study with norma-
tive purpose, the political studies enlightenment sought to secure a realistic version of
Enlightenment and enlarge its span of sensibility as the best, perhaps the only, humane
option on offer after the disillusioning revelation that its ramparts had crumbled under
pressure (2003: 2).
Importantly, in this context, the United States became the focus of the political studies
enlightenment for reasons that went well beyond its status as the dominant liberal power
at an uncertain and dangerous time. In a discussion of the seemingly divergent thinking
of Karl Polanyi and Hannah Arendt, for instance, Katznelson finds a unifying theme:
At the heart of The Great Transformation and The Origins of Totalitarianism lay the ruins of the
great majority of European states based on a liberal creed. Yet just across the Atlantic, the United
States stable, liberal, enlightened offered, or seemed to offer, the most inviting of alternatives.
For the political studies enlightenment at large, the United States stood tall as the great historical
counterfactual, thus soliciting close scrutiny of its political tradition, fresh accounts of its liberal
regime, and focused inquiry about the singular personality of its liberal state. (2003: 106)
These thinkers, and particularly the two mentioned above, were by no means naive about
the problems and challenges confronting American society and politics, but these needed
in their view to be balanced against its value and potential for a reconstructed liberal
politics. In short, the focus of the political studies enlightenment was on the politics and
destiny of liberalism and enlightenment in the wake of desolation, and its focus on the
United States was driven by these wider concerns.
The invention of IR theory
Katznelsons account of the political studies enlightenment does not include any scholars
in the nascent field of International Relations. However, his characterization of the politi-
cal studies enlightenment captures to great effect the concerns of a number of the most
prominent thinkers in post-war IR, including Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Neibuhr, and
John Herz.
Indeed, a look at these key post-war realists reveals a set of concerns so simi-
lar that this group might well be viewed as part of an analagous IR enlightenment. As a
wide body of recent research under the somewhat ambiguous label of classical realism
has made clear,
post-war realism was not concerned with defeating a facile idealism,

nor was it a simple continuation of the tradition of realpolitik concerned with teaching its
verities to a naively liberal America. Instead, it was engaged in the much more substantial
task of assessing the consequences of political modernity, and in discerning the intellec-
tual and social dimensions of liberalism it found deeply and disastrously insufficient. As
Duncan Bell has emphasized, putting the history of IR in this light changes quite substan-
tially our understanding of its origins from those which trace it to 1648. In his words, In
Williams 651
the Westphalian narrative, the focal point is the emergence of the sovereign state. What
we might call the modernist narrative emphasizes elements only seen in fateful combina-
tion during the long twentieth century (and beyond) it was during this period that real-
ism as a self-conscious body of political thought emerged (Bell, 2009a: 5).
In a similar but more specific formulation, Nicolas Guilhot has compellingly argued
that a (and perhaps the) key intellectual and political context for the invention of IR
theory lay in the defense by these thinkers of a particular vision of politics against the
rising currents of American social science. This group, which Guilhot illuminates through
the device of a 1954 Rockefeller Foundation conference on IR theory, included luminar-
ies such as Paul Nitze, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, and Hans Morgenthau, who
were united by their resentment toward:
the methodological imperialism of the behavioural revolution. They considered the promise of
an empirical science of politics an illusion: for them, politics was not entirely rational and could
not be comprehended by scientific rationalism. For these scholars, the development of a
behavioural science of politics amounted to nothing less than the suppression or, to use
Morgenthaus term, the repudiation of politics. (Guilhot, 2011: 129)
In this view, the theory of international relations was developed by this group as a
way to secure a space for its alternative vision of politics and scholarship. It initially
emerged as a normative statement on what political science should be, not as a discourse
of specialization and, as a consequence, IR theory is thus better understood as a case of
intellectual irredentism, resisting its own integration into American social science
(Guilhot, 2011: 129130).
Crucial to this irredentism, I want to suggest, was the desire to move beyond both
19th-century visions of classical liberalism and its 20th-century progressive forms,
as well as their empiricist or pragmatist epistemologies and models of political under-
standing, in order to provide a more substantial philosophical and sociological founda-
tion for a renewed and reformed liberal politics. This battle was waged by the IR
enlightenment on numerous fronts and in different ways by different thinkers, including
challenges to the idea: that morality could directly take the place of politics; that utilitar-
ian understandings of interest could escape the logic of power and provide a pristinely
rational basis for cooperation and political order within and between states; that a neu-
tral, hierarchical system of international law could resolve fundamental international
or that complete liberal toleration and pluralism could provide the basis for
a viable liberal order.
Within this wider frame, oft-disparaged classical realist concerns take on a different
hue. Consider, for instance, the question of evil. There is no doubt that to speak of evil
sounds suspiciously pre-modern. And then as now, its place in realist thought was seen
by many as pointing to crude forms of biological determinism or assumptions about
human nature that were anathema to proper social science, as well as to most forms of
liberalism (Donnelly, 2000; Freyburg-Annan, 2004). Yet the vision of evil at work in the
most thoughtful parts of the political studies and IR enlightenments had little to do with
such assumptions.
For a thinker as subtle as Arendt, for instance, crude arguments about
human nature held little sway. Yet she insisted that a cogent grasp of evil and
652 European Journal of International Relations 19(3)
particularly of modernitys capacity for radical evil was essential; as she famously
wrote to Karl Jaspers in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, evil has proven
more radical than expected (Arendt and Jaspers, 1992: 166). Radical evil was that which
could not be reduced to utter ruthlessness or self-interest, and utilitarian logics were at
best partial (and often deeply misleading) tools for comprehending the desolation that
political modernity was capable of producing.
While by no means identical with Arendts thinking, the engagements of the IR
enlightenment with evil evince a similar depth of concerns. Hans Morgenthaus con-
nections to Arendt are well documented, and her influence on parts of his thinking are
not difficult to discern. Moreover, his early and substantial engagement with Carl
Schmitt made him all too aware of the importance of the concept of evil in sophisti-
cated debates over political theology in Weimar Germany and beyond.
although Niebuhrs conception of evil is more overtly theological, it too operated in
the context of philosophically complex and politically engaged debates that were far
removed from unidimensional caricatures about human nature to which it has since
often been reduced.
More important for the case I am putting forward here, however,
is the fact that the critique of liberalism that both Morgenthau and Niebuhr developed
through an engagement with evil was not designed to support a conservative politics,
whether in its reactionary modernist form or in the neo-traditionalism of a figure such
as T.S. Eliot. In fact, they viewed this engagement as vital precisely in order that con-
servatism was not seen as the only option in the face of an untenable liberalism.
Niebuhr in particular was at considerable pains to stress, only a liberal politics shorn
of its utopian elements both epistemic and political could avoid this conclusion
and thus be suitably equipped to advance a renewed liberal politics. As he put it in one
particularly powerful call for a realistic liberalism:
There is, in short, no reason why the errors of the Enlightenment should continue to bedevil
progressive political movements, and why liberalism should be identified with illusions
about human nature and history. Sometimes the foes of liberalism insist that the illusions are
inherent in the policy. There are even some belated liberals who darkly insinuate that a realist
who professes to be a liberal in social policy must be a crypto-conservative who has yet to
reveal his true colors. These confusions could be eliminated if the clear evidences of history
were presented to prove that the liberal illusions are not necessary for democracy, and might
actually have a baneful influence upon its life. (Niebuhr, 1955a)
Although he differed in key respects from Niebuhr on the politics of the Cold War,
Herz demonstrates a similar set of concerns. In the face of the failure of classical lib-
eral idealism, which, for him, included the neo-classical economics of Hayek and von
Mises (Herz, 1951: 43128), he worried about a correspondingly one-sided victory of
a realist power politics and cautioned that the Adoption of this point of view would
mean the ultimate ethical victory of the Machiavellian, power-political, fascist, and
related values over those of liberalism, humanitarianism, pacifism, etc. (Herz, 1964:
131). In light of this unacceptable alternative, Herz called explicitly for the develop-
ment of a Realist Liberalism (Herz, 1964: 132) as a kind of second liberalism (Herz,
1951: 146) which could learn from the failure of its predecessors.
Williams 653
These issues were not simply philosophic concerns: they were seen as vital in political
judgment and debate, and in assessing the implications for politics and state policy,
including foreign policy, posed by the rise of mass politics.
The thinkers of the IR
enlightenment did not take the state as a rational actor for granted. They were instead
deeply concerned with the nature of state action under conditions of political modernity.
In the context of the first half of the 20th century, this question was inescapable for those
trying to understand how mass politics seemed implicated in extreme forms of mass
violence and in the instability of liberal polities rather than generating liberal peace.
These concerns were reflected in assessments of how liberal modernity had produced
conditions for new forms of particularly violent nationalism that differed in vital ways
from the liberal nationalism of the 19th century. For Morgenthau, the particularly destruc-
tive and unlimited nature of modern nationalism was directly connected to its location
within liberal modernity both in relation to modern subjectivity and to modern (liberal,
capitalist, bureaucratic) social and state structures. In terms of subjectivity, the empty
or wholly skeptical versions of 20th-century liberalism had left individuals in an anomic
social condition without meaning. As sociology and political economy, 19th-century lib-
eralism consistently failed to understand its role in forms of domination domestically and
internationally, as well as its place in the social production of anomie and alienation.
Nationalistic universalism in general, and fascism in particular, Morgenthau argued (and
Neibuhr and Herz concurred), were products of liberal modernity, not its simple oppo-
sites. The nation of the new nationalism, he argued, had dissolved the tension between
morality and power by subsuming both under its own universalizing desire and meeting
however destructively the needs of its members for meaning and security in the
world that liberal modernity had produced. As a result, the nation, deeming itself intel-
lectually and morally self-sufficient, threatens civilization and the human race with
extinction. Nationalism by itself, he argued, is no solution to the problem of political
order and justice, as the fate of post-Versailles liberalism all too clearly showed: How
different that world is from the world our fathers thought they lived in! Nationalism, they
thought, meant of necessity freedom, civilization and justice; we know now that it can
also mean slavery, barbarism and death (Morgenthau, 1962: 194).
Like the political studies enlightenment, these IR theorists were interested in the
changing nature of the state and in statesociety relations. In particular, they sought to
theorize and foster a liberal realist culture that could build upon the virtues of the
Enlightenment without succumbing to its potential darkness. To this end, Herz engaged
with the question of culture in mass politics, seeking to confront the conservative charge
(as potent then as now) that liberalism could not provide a cultural and esthetic basis for
a robust liberal polity (1964: 147153). Morgenthau, in turn, took on the question of the
Purpose of American Politics (1966) in notably Arendt-influenced tones, in a searching
enquiry into the pitfalls and potential of American liberal democracy.
Niebuhr, most directly of all, engaged in influential attempts to construct a position
that Eyal Naveh (2002) has nicely captured as non-utopian liberalism, and even
sought to develop a dramaturgical understanding of the self to provide it with a more
robust set of theoretical foundations (Niebuhr, 1955b). His consistent and often vitri-
olic attacks on the progressive liberalism and pragmatism to which he had once been
attracted were not instruments in the service of reactionary conservatism. His realism
654 European Journal of International Relations 19(3)
sought to provide an alternative to both. With its belief in a harmony of interests, lib-
eral rationalism could not grasp domination and conflict domestically or internation-
ally. As liberal pluralism domestically, it could not grasp the weakness of liberal states
in the face of modern forms of alienation, domination, and dislocation, and the non-
liberal political actors and challenges (both domestic and international) that arose from
these dynamics.
These issues were, again, of utmost concern in an era of mass poli-
tics. Unable to grasp the power of non-liberal political programs, and to see their con-
nections to economic and social developments, Enlightenment liberalism was weak to
the point of the destruction of Enlightenment and liberal values altogether. The analo-
gous engagement of realists such as Morgenthau (2012 [1932]) and Herz (1980) with
the key figure of Carl Schmitt was not in order to advocate his vision of politics as an
existential divide between friend and enemy, it was to take on what they saw as the
most formidable opponent of liberal politics in order to grasp its weaknesses, to bolster
its defenses, and to foster its reform.
Whether in the form of Morgenthaus assault on scientific man, Neibuhrs warnings
to (and about) the Children of Light, or Herzs overt attempt to develop a realist liber-
alism in response to the demonstrated inadequacies of classical liberalism and the
unproductive dichotomy of political realism and political idealism, the argument was
never simply about the perils of naivete in the face of power politics. It was also and
always about how Enlightenment modernity had created its own perils; how if liberalism
remained unaware of these dynamics, it was unlikely to be capable of confronting them;
and how a liberalism capable of doing so might be constructed, drawing particularly on
a refashioned understanding of the intellectual, cultural, and material resources (and
deficiencies) of the United States (Tjalve, 2008).
Seen in this light, IR was an American social science in a much deeper sense than is
usually captured by Stanley Hoffmans famous characterization of it as applied
Enlightenment (1977: 219). It did not emerge solely in the context of a struggle over
American foreign policy, or even as part of a contest over the nature of social science. It
was also, crucially, part of a struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment and the nature
and future of American liberalism, including that countrys self-understanding, and the
implications of that self-understanding for American politics and its place and actions in
the world. The IR enlightenments appraisal of America was crucial to its political pro-
ject: it was the nature of American liberal-democracy that was crucial and not only for
America, but for liberalisms future itself.
IR, then, at least in the form of the Realist gambit of the IR enlightenment, was about
creating a theory and an intellectual breathing space where these issues and analyses
could be taken seriously and from which it might have influence. Recognizing this has
implications not only for thinking about the beginnings of the field, but also for the
stories that are told about its development. Consider in this light the device of the great
debates that exercises a continuing hold on renditions of the origins and evolution of the
field. As recent scholarship into this issue has shown, the question of whether there ever
really was an interwar first great debate between Idealists and Realists is open to seri-
ous question. Indeed, as Brian Schmidt (2012) has recently argued, to the extent that such
a debate existed, it did so largely in the retroactive accounts of post-war realist thinkers
rather than in the 1920s or 1930s.
Williams 655
In fact, the first two debates between realism and utopianism, and science versus
traditionalism were in reality two sides of the same debate, at the center of which was
the IR enlightenments attempt to defend its specific vision of liberal politics. As the focal
point and often key protagonists in both these debates, the IR enlightenment sought
to insulate liberal politics and its form of liberal realism from the dangers of rationalist
liberalism in the guise of facile pluralism (the first debate) or naive scientism and rational-
ism (the second debate).
The claims of political science not only confronted the intrac-
tability of human agency, they also overlooked the ways that scientific thinking replayed
the naivete of interwar liberal politics and blithely ignored the role of scientific neutrality
and rationality in the process of desolation of World War II, issues that continued to haunt
the world in an era of increasing destructive capability and nuclear weapons.

Morgenthaus decision to address these issues by returning in his last book (1972) to cri-
tiques of instrumentality that he had first developed more than three decades earlier testi-
fies to this concern. Even more systematic and substantial is Herzs engagement with the
question of technology in areas that we now tend to remember, if at all, in light of nuclear
weapons, but which extended to the wider issues of technology and mass politics that
were seen as central to the fate of liberalism.
What are often in IR treated as two separate
debates were thus in fact two connected battles waged from within the same position
and in important ways at the same historical juncture as the IR enlightenment sought
to defend its desolated form of enlightenment in both these directions.
Like the political studies enlightenment, the goal of thinkers such as Morgenthau,
Niebuhr, and Herz was that: After their encounter with desolation without requital they
treated analytical learning as a pathway to knowledge about how humankind might
secure the benefits of Enlightenment without staggering into unreason. In these ways,
they sought to create a new knowledge base for a more capable political liberalism, and
to create a political studies that could repel anti-liberal predators and help guarantee
battered but cherished values (Katznelson, 2003: 4, 3). In Bells apt characterization,
they sought to create an international political theory that could use a critique of the limi-
tations of the Enlightenment and rationalist liberalism to construct a self-critical liberal
realism which shared realpolitiks concern with order but did so to defend the condi-
tions necessary for the flourishing of liberal states in a brutally competitive world
(2009a: 16).
Finally, like the political studies enlightenment, the IR enlightenment saw the future
of the United States as a key issue. This was not simply an engagement driven by
Americas emergence as a world power, by geopolitics, or an uncritical nationalism. It
reflected a complex belief that the United States was central to any hope for the future of
a liberal politics in its political meaning as well as its geopolitical power. America needed
to provide a non-rationalist liberal alternative with both intellectual and political power
and the discipline of IR needed to support this enterprise. To this end, the IR enlight-
enment did not turn to realpolitik, or to traditional conservatism or elitism. They did not
seek simply to teach European truths about power politics to naive Americans. They
also sought to understand and explain the strengths and weaknesses of American liberal-
ism, to clarify their relationship to international politics and to the United States place in
the world, and to use the United States as the basis for a revived, confident, and yet
chastened and prudent form of liberal realism (Tjalve and Williams, forthcoming).
656 European Journal of International Relations 19(3)
The return of liberal realism?
It is difficult to think about the end of something, or even to use the device of the end
for thinking about our current position, without having some sense of what it was and
is. My goal in reconstructing the liberal realism of the IR enlightenment is not necessar-
ily to defend it, but rather to urge that we cannot know what its strengths and weaknesses
are until we have a clearer and more complete grasp of what it was. The implications of
engaging this history seem to me considerable, and although they cut across issues far
too extensive to be treated in detail here, I would like to touch in particular on their sig-
nificance for the future of liberalism in IR.
Taking seriously the IR enlightenment challenges fundamentally the basic divide
between realism and liberalism that continues to dominate narratives of the origins of the
field and discussions of its alternatives. These paradigmatic divisions have allowed both
realism and liberalism in their rationalist forms to develop as parallel tracks that rarely
intersect substantively, except when one or the other uses their shared underlying ration-
alist assumptions to attempt to subsume one within the other.
Putting the IR enlighten-
ment front and center directly challenges this structure. The issues which dominated
these forms of classical realism were central to liberalism, and in the eyes of many of
the key figures in post-war IR, no serious account of liberal politics could avoid dealing
with them. The liberal realism of the IR enlightenment saw itself as doing more than
rejecting facile forms of liberalism it saw itself as trying to save a form of liberalism
by looking hard at the legacy of desolation and trying to address it. The historical forget-
ting of these concerns has too often allowed a denuded liberalism in IR to continue
blithely on, as if none of the desolation had ever happened, or as if it had little or nothing
to do with liberalism itself. At the same time, it allows large parts of contemporary real-
ism to operate without a serious engagement with either its own historical relationship to
liberalism, or with the revival of powerful currents of liberal thought that remain politi-
cally vital.
Putting the IR enlightenment back into disciplinary history puts this issue
back on the contemporary agenda as well.
The fate of the IR enlightenment also helps us explain what Chris Reus-Smit once
insightfully called the strange death of liberal international theory (2001). In conduct-
ing this post-mortem, Reus-Smit was not, of course, reflecting on the death of liberal
institutionalism in IR. Instead, he wondered what had become of the rich tradition of
liberal thinking about world politics that once existed, and how liberal IR today had
become reduced to a pale shadow of its historical self, largely denuded of its political
edge. As he put it, The new liberalism abandons the political in two ways: it expels
normative reflection and argument from the realm of legitimate social scientific inquiry;
and it embraces a rationalist conception of human agency that reduces all political action
to strategic interaction (Reus-Smit, 2001: 574).
The absence of the liberal realism of the IR enlightenment has been a crucial enabling
factor in the ascendance of this restricted form of liberalism. The relationship between
realism and liberalism, for example, became cast as opposing logics within essentially
the same rationalist vision of explanation and enquiry, even if the two remained opposed
often rather confusingly in disciplinary rhetoric; but the engagement between real-
ism and liberalism lost virtually all of the political content and context of the post-war era.
Williams 657
Reducing realism to a categorical (and often crude) opponent of liberalism by writing the
IR enlightenment out of the disciplines history has allowed rationalist liberalism to insu-
late itself from some of its most substantial and sophisticated theoretical and historical
critics, while at the same time allowing liberal-institutionalism to position itself as the sole
liberal alternative to a narrowly realist power politics. Recovering the liberal realism of
the IR enlightenment may thus, perhaps ironically, provide support for a wider, revivified
liberalism in IR or at least a more productive critical engagement with it.
Finally, as IR moved ever closer toward rationalist political science, it became blind
to the issues of the IR enlightenment in precisely the ways that the latters advocates
feared it would.
IR lost its previous skepticism toward social science and became in
many ways a standard-bearer for precisely the kinds of political knowledge that the IR
enlightenment had been at pains to reject and which they sought to construct the field of
IR in opposition toward.
Indeed, if one wished to be particularly provocative, it is pos-
sible to say that from this perspective, what is often taken as the defining moment in the
invention of IR theory the publication of Kenneth Waltzs Theory of International
Politics actually marked the culmination of a move away from the fields beginnings
and represents the end of IR theory as conceived by the IR enlightenment. From that
point onward, the irredentist analytic and political concerns of its earlier beginnings were
almost fully eclipsed. The concerns of the IR enlightenment, with its complex sociologi-
cal and philosophical enquiries into liberal modernity, its engagement with the nature of
the modern state, and its concern with mass politics, almost disappeared as IR was re-
subsumed within the conventions of American social science that the proponents of post-
war liberal realism had opposed and sought to avoid.
And so it seemed likely to stay; yet recent years have perhaps surprisingly seen clear
signs of a revival of this realist sensibility from within IR and intriguingly, but less
well recognized from outside it. The first revival came from two often, but not neces-
sarily, related sources: disciplinary history (including that of realism) and the upsurge in
interest in non-rationalist theory.
For the first, the goal has been to replace the shibbo-
leths that for so long (and still) passed as accounts of the history of the field with properly
historical accounts of its development, concerns, and context. The goal was to tell
the story of IR not as a continuous narrative of an undifferentiated realism, or of the
social-scientific triumph of rationalism, but to uncover the real concerns of these thinkers
and to use serious disciplinary history to rescue them from disciplinary hagiography.
However, this interest was never purely historical it was often part of the wider
methodenstreit that emerged in the mid-1980s, and was an important part of the meth-
odological critique of rationalism as IRs theoretical foundation. Here, resuscitating clas-
sical realism, and arguing that it has not reached its end, has become a means of
attempting to widen the debate over the future of the field.
A second source of revival emerges from developments in political theory. While
numerous analyses of classical realism in IR have traced its gradual marginalization in
the field at the hands of rationalist political science, it is less often noted how a second
dimension of this estrangement from political studies occurred as political theory an
area with which realism was once quite closely identified became increasingly nor-
Whether this took the form of abstract normative enquiries under the influence
of rights theorists such as Rawls, or the deliberative turn of much democratic theory,
658 European Journal of International Relations 19(3)
the increasingly abstract and ideal forms that came to dominate political theory provided
little ground for engaging with the concerns of the IR enlightenment, and were often cast
in (largely misrecognized) opposition to its very principles.
There are intriguing signs that this may now in some ways be changing with the
development of a revived realism in political theory.
As William Galston has argued,
this diffuse yet identifiable new realism has emerged in reaction to the high liberalism
of figures such as Rawls and Dworkin, and is united by the view that high liberalism
represents a desire to evade, displace, or escape from politics (Galston, 2010: 386).
his view, this realism is defined by three generally though not universally shared
principles. First, that political life is inescapably pluralistic, with little possibility of
agreement on what it means to live well - a problem that cannot be resolved in Rawlsian
terms by shifting focus from the good to the right because agreement on justice is not
to be expected either. In consequence, realists believe that the agreement needed to
launch and sustain politics lies on another plane entirely, one in which individuals must
agree that the core challenge of politics is to overcome anarchy without embracing tyr-
anny. For if we do agree on this, we can create an arena of contestation over the terms of
a common life that contains conflict short of war (Galston, 2010: 391).
Second, much realist political theory stresses that politics is an autonomous
domain, one that requires the exercise of judgment, which is undetermined by any
principles economic, legal, moral one may accept (Galston, 2010: 391), and
follows the identifiably Machiavellian injunction that many reasons that are legiti-
mate within their own sphere would be inappropriate as bases of political judgement
political morality is not the same as individual morality and may often contradict it
(Galston, 2010: 392). This realism is thus resolutely anti-utopian, stressing that
morality must not only take into account the feasibility of principles under existing
political circumstances, but must operate in frank acknowledgment that not all actors
will agree with given moral principles or act according to them. Realist political theory
thus tends to prioritize avoiding the worst rather than pursuing the ideal, and it assumes
neither virtuous action nor full compliance.
Finally, Galston argues that realisms treating politics outside the confines of nar-
rowly moral or dialogical categories has important implications for political conflict.
Drawing particularly on Bernard Williams, he claims that treating our adversaries as
opponents can, oddly enough, show more respect for them as political actors than treat-
ing them simply as arguers whether as arguers who are simply mistaken, or as fellow
seekers after truth (Galston, 2010: 397; the quote is from Williams B, 2005: 13).
These principles may sound strangely reminiscent of classical realism, and so they
are; for although it has little engagement with IR, the new realism in political theory in
many ways harkens back to the principles of the political studies enlightenment, and thus
to those of its IR counterpart as well. Indeed, William Scheuerman (2012) has gone so
far as to argue that the realism of post-war thinkers in IR is in many ways superior to that
of their contemporary namesakes in political theory. Be this as it may, there is little doubt
that these developments tie the realism of the IR enlightenment directly back into con-
cerns of political theory from which it has too long been excluded. It may well be that the
possibility of reconnecting the IR enlightenment to wider currents in contemporary polit-
ical theory and analysis has rarely been more propitious.
Williams 659
Conclusion: Between past and future
As with the idea of an end to something, the idea of beginnings is fraught with perils. As
Edward Said argued in an astute treatment, beginnings can easily be cast as a quest for
origins, points (like many views of endings) that are final and defining, and that provide
a divine, mythical and privileged position that effectively closes down discussion and
reflection through the declaration of clear beginnings and ends (1985: xiii). However,
this is not the only way to think about beginnings. The question of beginnings can also
act as a spur to reflection on where one is, and where one is going. In this more creative
sense, Said notes, the idea of beginnings is not an arbitrary, sometimes authoritarian, and
ultimately futile quest for absolute origins or terminations, but an opportunity to rethink
ones current position by asking the question of where one began. Beginnings and end-
ings, in this sense, are, in Saids words, an invitation to a constant re-experiencing of
beginning and beginning-again whose force is neither to give rise to authority nor to
promote orthodoxy but to stimulate self-conscious and situated activity (1985: xiv).
While there is, therefore, little doubt that the very idea of endings is in many ways sus-
pect, bringing with it claims of origin and notions of teleology or evolution that inevita-
bly turn out to be arbitrary or biased (declarations of the end, of course, almost inevitably
come hand in hand with attacks upon the illusion of the end), the more substantial
attraction of thinking about endings lies in its capacity to reopen assumptions about
beginnings and to disrupt existing accounts of developments and trajectories and their
associated orthodoxies. It is in this more open, positive, and reflective sense that I have
tried to use the idea of the end of IR theory here.
Recovering the liberal realism of the IR enlightenment runs against the grain of many,
perhaps most, prevailing understandings of the intellectual evolution of the field, as well
as its current categorical and conceptual divides. Like any account of beginnings, its value
lies in what hopefully it reveals, not in its ability to resolve a question of origins
once and for all. Amongst a range of historical and theoretical issues, what I most hope it
reveals is that taking the origins of the field seriously requires understanding that in the
very effort to establish IR as an autonomous sphere of enquiry, the battle over method
was also a battle over politics (Guilhot, 2011). Equally, however, the implications of this
recognition are by no means clear. For Guilhot, for instance, implicit in this (realist)
vision of politics was the idea that policy making should not be the preserve of rationalist
experts, but of men of judgment aware that the truths of international politics could not
be easily accepted by the public of democratic polities. The nascent discipline ensured the
permanence of an elitist and conservative tradition that deeply shaped its politics (2011:
A similar concern has been raised from a different direction by Ian Hall
(2011) who in an astute survey of recent attempts to re-engage classical realism raises the
provocative question of whether the renewed interest in older forms of realism, with their
dark metaphysics and connections to controversial figures such as Carl Schmitt, amounts
to the revival (and perhaps even the triumph) of anti-liberalism in parts of IR theory that
its proponents, perhaps ironically, may not appreciate or anticipate.
These are important challenges, and they raise issues that go to the heart of taking
seriously the political entailments of IR theory. Yet, as I hope to have shown, an appre-
ciation of the IR enlightenment takes the issue in importantly different directions, and
raises concerns well beyond the return to a conservative realism.
The critique of
660 European Journal of International Relations 19(3)
rationalist (and other variations) of liberalism pursued by the IR enlightenment was not
undertaken in support of a relatively traditional conservatism. Here, I think, it differs
importantly from other thinkers with which it is often identified, such as Kennan, Nitze,
and Lippman. Although there were no doubt affinities between these figures, and with
many elements of conservative (and other) forms of thought, the IR Enlightenment was
not straightforwardly anti-liberal, and its critique was designed neither wholly to repudi-
ate Enlightenment principles nor to destroy liberal values. In its origins, IR was consti-
tuted not by straightforward opposition to liberalism, but by complex controversies over
what liberalism was and between conflicting visions of liberalism and what they
demanded politically. The strand of realism that I have traced here in (and as) the IR
enlightenment stands not only in negative relation to liberal rationalism, but in positive
relation to the recognizably non-rationalist liberalism that characterized key members of
Katznelsons political studies enlightenment, as well as later thinkers such as Judith
Here, the IR enlightenment needs to be reconnected to the substantial reconsid-
eration now under way of what used to be disparagingly dismissed as Cold War liberal-
ism (Muller, 2008).
None of this implies, of course, that either the IR enlightenment or the wider political
studies enlightenment of which I have suggested it was a part had all the answers.
However, just as a more serious engagement with these forms of thinking has been taking
place in political theory, a similar engagement could only benefit IR, marking an end to its
decades-long alienation from political theory, and providing links to wider movements in
political science outside rationalist liberalism. Moreover, at a time when the appeal of
classical realism seems to be gaining appeal in many quarters, it is useful to be as clear as
possible about what this post-war realism was, its limitations, and how it differs from
other potential versions of realism and their implications.
While the thinkers of the IR
enlightenment were deeply aware of older traditions of thought, and of their own connec-
tions to them, they were equally conscious of the fact that they confronted a political
modernity that rendered straightforward appeal to older ideas deeply problematic.
These issues may well take on renewed importance today, when speculation about the
fate of liberal states in a rapidly changing global order has once again become common-
place. We must in this setting again reassess the nature of liberal politics. Crusades or
despair, uncritical valorization or reckless denunciation, comfortable naivet and irre-
sponsible panic have all been part of the dynamics of liberal responses to its dilemmas.
At times, the IR enlightenment showed itself susceptible to the worst of them as well.
But at other times, it sought something more substantial. If IR cannot rise to these chal-
lenges, then it may well be facing an end (at least in a political, if not an institutional,
sense) and it would deserve to do so. But this is not a foregone conclusion, and the IR
enlightenment may yet help show us how it might be otherwise.
For very helpful comments on earlier versions of this argument, I would like to thank Rita
Abrahamsen, Duncan Bell, Nicolas Guilhot, Adam Humphreys, Casper Sylvest, Vibeke Tjalve,
and Srdjan Vucetic, as well as the Editors of the EJIR, reviewers for the special issue, and partici-
pants in sessions on this issue at the 2012 meetings of the International Studies Association, and
the British International Studies Association.
Williams 661
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors.
1. Consider the endings of philosophy (Heidegger, 1993 [1964]), of Man (Foucault, 1970), of
History (Fukuyama, 1992), and of the West (Ikenberry, 2008; Marquand, 2011); needless to
say, the list could be enlarged massively.
2. In what is now a substantial and revealing body of disciplinary history, see Dunne (1998),
Guzzini (1998), Hobson (2012), Jahn (2005), and Schmidt (1998, 2002). For an excellent
overview, see Bell (2009b).
3. It is their common commitment to this challenge, as well as their choice of history and social
science as instruments, that binds these figures together (Katznelson, 2003: 5).
4. Including not only two world wars, but also (for Arendt) colonial violence, and for many of
the others (to differing degrees), economic crises.
5. For a variety of reconsiderations of these thinkers and realism as a whole, see Bell (2009a),
Booth and Puglierin (2008), Lebow (2004), Molloy (2006), Scheuerman (2009a, 2011),
Tjalve 2008), Pedro (2011), Sylvest (2008), and M.C. Williams (2005, 2007).
6. The label is somewhat misleading in that these thinkers were self-consciously operating
within the parameters of political modernity, thus marking them off from earlier thinkers
often identified with realism, however much the post-war realists may have drawn on the
insights of older traditions.
7. As Barkin (2012) and has pointed out, they in fact rarely used the term.
8. See Jutersonke (2010; Koskenniemi (2001).
9. This theme is developed further in Williams (forthcoming).
10. For further explorations of the idea of radical evil, which can be traced back to Kant, see
Benhabib (1996), Bernstein (2002), and Kateb (1984). The increased interest in Arendt in IR
is evident in Owens (2007) and Lang and Williams (2008).
11. See Morgenthau(2012 [1932]), Guilhot (2010), and Scheuerman (2011).
12. As demonstrated by Niebuhrs (19/64 [1941]: 120) engagement with Kant on the issue of
radical evil. See also Pedro (2011)
13. See Niebuhr (1940). Niebuhrs critical engagement with Deweys pragmatist liberalism is
traced in Rice (1993); Dewey (1935) provides a good indication of his position.
14. As Daniel Rice puts it, having come through a period of rejection of liberalism, Niebuhr
returned as a household critic whose criticism went deeper than most and who did not
hesitate to draw on the wisdom of classical conservatism in bringing about his own liberal
reconciliation (1993: 193); Humes influence is suggested at (1993: 201205). See also
Fox (1966, 1985).
15. This saw itself as quite different from the new liberalism of the early 20th century; on the
latter, see Freeden (1978) and Simhony and Weinstein (2001); in IR, it has been insightfully
treated by Hobson (2012), though I suspect that a fuller engagement with liberal realism out-
lined here significantly complicates his analysis of both (see also Boucoynannis, 2007).
16. For a wide survey, see McCormick (2002).
17. A useful, brief tracing of the wider context is Rossinow (2012). Herz suggests that this liber-
alism can draw upon the open horizon provided in Husserls philosophy; for an insightful
survey of this horizon in recent reappraisals of realism, see Hom and Steele (2010).
18. For assessments, see Scheuerman (2009a) and Williams (2004).
19. See the chapters in Schmidt (2012) and Quirk and Vigneswaran (2005).
662 European Journal of International Relations 19(3)
20. The role of non-US scholars in this debate Butterfield, Carr, and later Bull would add
layers to this story, and their connections to (and differences from) the IR enlightenment tells
us a great deal about the differences between post-war British realism and its American
21. A different way of formulating this would be to say that the IR enlightenment took seriously
questions of political theology that liberal rationalism ruled out of court; for an exploration,
see Guilhot (2011).
22. See particularly the excellent treatments in Sylvest (2010) and Scheuerman (2009b); for the
broad context, see McCormick (2002).
23. As, for instance, in both the neo-neo debates of the 1980s and 1990s, and the controversy over
whether anyone was still a realist? initiated by Legro and Moravscik (1999).
24. For a pointed and somewhat analogous critique of liberal IR today, see Moyn (2011). In
terms of realism, this weakness has in the recent past been manifest most clearly in its reac-
tion to the rise of neoconservatism, whose roots lie identifiably in many of the dilemmas of
liberalism addressed by the IR enlightenment in the 1950s (see Drolet, 2010; Williams MC,
2005, 2007).
25. An attempt to trace the wider context is Amadae (2003).
26. For accounts and evaluations of this process, see Guzzini (1998), Molloy (2006), and Guilhot
27. For different surveys, see Steele (2007), Hom and Steele (2010), and Hall (2011).
28. Interestingly, this is a movement that has arguably had greater success outside the US than
within it, something that has important implications not only for thinking about whether the
field is at an end, but where.
29. Gunnell (1993) has called these developments the descent of political theory.
30. A telling formulation is Cohen (1984).
31. Significantly, it has also come along with a re-evaluation of Cold War liberalism with which
the IR enlightenment is often identified (see for instance Muller, 2008, 2011).
32. His survey includes, amongst others, Geuss (2008) and Bernard Williams (2005).
33. Bell (2009a: 4) terms these forms of realism Thucydidean, in a usage that widens consid-
erably IRs traditional evocation. For a remarkably similar formulation, see Morgenthau in
Truth and Power (1970).
34. For a similar concern that sees post-war realism as an expression of reactionary modernism,
see Mirowski (2011).
35. The most sustained attempt to articulate a progressive realism is Scheuerman (2011).
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Author biography
Michael C. Williams is Faculty Research Professor of International Politics in the Graduate School
of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, Canada. His research interests are
in IR theory, security studies, and political thought. His most recent book (with Rita Abrahamsen)
is Security beyond the State: Private Security in International Politics (Cambridge University
Press, 2011). His previous publications include The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International
Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Culture and Security: Symbolic Power and the
Politics of International Security (Routledge, 2007).