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Realism and fear in IR - Adarsh Badri

Review: Arash Pashakhanlou Realism and Fear in IR

How has fear influenced the realist theory of international relations? Several intellectual traditions have employed the apparatus of fear to explain international politics. However, emotion has become synonymous with the realist school of thought since the inception of the academic discipline. This view appears realistic at first glance, given the “pessimistic worldview” that the approach promotes.

Even though a large body of literature exists on the realist tradition, there is hardly any work on the relationship between realism and fear. In this book, published in early 2017, Arash Heydarian Pashakhanlou sets out to decipher the role of fear in political realism by researching Morgenthau, Waltz and Mearsheimer’s writings.

Brief Introduction: Fear and Realism

Pashakhanlou conducts an extensive investigation of “237 of Morgenthau’s, 54 of Waltz’s and 109 of Mearsheimer’s texts,” deeming it one of the most comprehensive assessments of their writings to date (p. 4).

The book is systematically designed to discuss the conception of fear in the writings of the scholars mentioned above, its theoretic role, empirical dimension, and the logical necessity and consistency with their theories. The monograph is divided into six chapters, with three chapters dedicated to the conceptions of fear in the writings of Morgenthau, Waltz, and Mearsheimer. The rest of the chapters complement them.

In the second chapter, Pashakhanlou provides a brief biographical portrait of these realist scholars to explain the context in which they wrote. Based on the content analysis findings, the author underlines the number of times these realist thinkers employed fear—and its synonyms—in their writings.

Morgenthau began his career in international law in Europe and then shifted his focus to international politics as a primary research area. Morgenthau “identifies fear as the underlying cause of war between status quo powers” (p. 27). In contrast to Morgenthau, Ken Waltz majored in political philosophy and wrote about international politics mainly in English. Waltz dealt with fear primarily in his “writings on nuclear weapons” (pp. 30-34).

Unlike his contemporaries, Mearsheimer specialised in international relations and extensively wrote (and continues to do so) on policy-relevant problems. Fear is essential in most of his writings (pp. 37-38).

Hans J. Morgenthau, Realism and Fear

Hans J. Morgenthau considers the prevalence of “fear as an emotion in international politics,” even though he does not define the term “fear” in any of his writings (p. 45). In Morgenthau’s theory, fear plays only a peripheral role, which aims to “explain the growth of war between status quo nations through security dilemma dynamics.”

However, he empirically assigns a prominent role to fear while accounting for major international events. His notion of fear stems from animus dominandi, or man’s desire for power. This desire is traversed to states, allowing them to maximise their relative strength. Pashakhanlou argues that Morgenthau does not logically need this emotion in his theory. It is valid for two reasons.

Since animus dominandi drives all states, there is no scope for security dilemmas or status quo states. Morgenthau believes that fear is illogical and that if this is true, fear has no place in his rational theory. As a result, Morgenthau’s classical realism is “logically counterproductive” to fear (pp. 60-63).

Kenneth N. Waltz, Realism and Fear

Kenneth N. Waltz’s Theory of International Politics is based on the “essential structural quality of the system is [read: as] anarchy—the absence of a central monopoly of legitimate force.” Anarchy is the driving force in shaping “the motives and actions of states” in Waltz’s world (p. 75).

While Kenneth Waltz acknowledges that “fear can be both imaginary and real, and trumps economic factors,” he does not attempt to define the term “fear” in his writings (p. 72). Furthermore, Waltz does not explicitly include “fear” in his theory. However, in his view, fear could be given a peripheral status, but not as a driving component like “anarchy, states, survival, the balance of power and war” (p. 78).

Waltz’s defensive realism consists of “fear” in three statements: first, Waltz admits “exceedingly insecure states may pursue absolute rather than relative gains”; second, that “fear of unwanted consequences propels states to act” according to the balance of power principles; and third, Waltz notes that “fear of common adversary brings states into each other’s arms” (pp. 32-33).

Waltz’s appraisal of nuclear weapons and their ability of mutually assured destruction (MAD) has the logic of fear. He points out that nuclear deterrence depends not on “rationality” but fear. However, Waltz notes that nuclear weapons must be seen as “instruments of peace and argues that their spread should be welcomed rather than feared” (p. 33).

In discussing the logical need for fear in Waltz’s theory, Pashakhanlou looks at the assessment of Cynthia Weber and Randall Schweller. Weber notes that Waltz’s defensive realism is dependent on fear. As it is, this emotion, rather than structural properties of the international system, helps make sense of the balance of power logic.

Using the example of Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” Weber highlights that the inclusion of “fear” helps make sense of why states behave the way they do in anarchic conditions (pp. 80-82). Schweller, concurring with Weber’s assessment, notes that “if all states merely want to survive”, why should they pose a security threat to one another?

In his words, Schweller writes, Waltz “describes a world of all cops and no robbers, that is, all security-seeking states and no aggressors.” He argues that “Waltz needs to bring in revisionist goals” to make his theory work and claims that Waltz cannot do so since it would require incorporating unit-level factors (p. 82).

While Pashakanlau acknowledges the logical consistency of Schweller’s argument, he notes that “in an anarchic world where all states can harm one another, mutual fear can ensue.” However, Pashakhanlou argues that it is not fear but “uncertainty and misperception that are the essential missing pieces in Waltz’s theory.” He writes,

In other words, uncertainty rather than fear is needed to promote conflict. Under present and future uncertainty, states can never fully know whether other states also have survival as their highest-end and do not harbour aggressive feelings toward them (p. 84).

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Pashakhanlou is correct in characterising Waltz’s structural theory as driven by uncertainty and not fear, as the concept of “fear” would become a unit-level factor. Like Morgenthau, the author argues, Waltz should have introduced misperception “to impel states to behave in suboptimal ways to generate competition, conflict and war” (p. 85).

Arguing for adding “fear” into Waltz’s theory will be logically inconsistent with his defensive realism, as his theory is structural and does not consider unit-level attributes. Since Waltz attributes “fear” to either the first and/or the second image and not to the third image structural theory, incorporating fear into Waltz’s framework will create significant internal inconsistencies.

John J. Mearsheimer, Realism and Fear

John J. Mearsheimer makes a few broad generalisations regarding “fear” in his writings. In his theory, Mearsheimer has written extensively about the role of fear, identifying MAD, large water bodies, and balance of power as its drivers. Contra Morgenthau and Waltz, Mearsheimer argues that fear is essential in his hypothesis.

“Fearful states maximise their relative power in a self-help system since power preponderance provides the strongest assurance for survival in these settings,” he asserts (p. 98). He notes: “Specifically, higher levels of fear make security competition more intense and war more likely. The lower the level of fear, the more peaceful interstate relations become” (p. 96).

Fear is empirically rooted in his assessment of anarchy, survival, nuclear weapons, and security competition. Fear is “used to explain irrational behaviour” in international politics, according to Mearsheimer, who “identifies various empirical scenarios where fear promotes restraint rather than aggression” (p. 111).

However, Pashakhanlou points out that Mearsheimer’s usage of fear in his framework is harmful to his evaluation because “fear is a defensive mechanism where restraint is favoured if the circumstances allow it” (p. 111). Furthermore, fear encourages “his rational status quo states to shy away from confrontation rather than actively seeking it”.

As a result, fear is a defensive mechanism, and aggression is offensive. Moreover, as Waltz’s assessment shows, fear is a unit-level factor and does not perfectly accommodate a structural theory of international politics.

A Critical Assessment of Realism and Fear

When the conceptual, theoretical, empirical, and logical components of fear are compared and contrasted in the writings of Morgenthau, Waltz, and Mearsheimer, it is clear that fear is logically counterproductive in each of their theories, as the author of this monograph has demonstrated.

While, empirically, all realist theorists use “fear” to explain major international events, the author argues that Mearsheimer’s overreliance on emotion causes logical inconsistency. The author provides a roadmap for how realists can accommodate the emotion of fear in their theory-building exercises.

Realism must update its “conception of rationality” for “fear” to be compatible with realism, he writes, and “realism must become more ideational” (p. 135). Pashakhalou’s monograph provides an exciting outlook on fear assessment in the realist theoretical tradition.

Interestingly, Pashakhanlou’s book places fear at the forefront of the realist framework and assess the theory based on whether the use of fear is consistent with the ideas of Morgenthau, Waltz and Mearsheimer.

While Pashakhalou looks at fear from the three essential scholars’ viewpoints, multiple scholars are left out in his assessment. Even with that limitation, the author of this monograph enables us to understand the role of fear in realist theories.

Conclusion: Realism and Fear

Given that realism itself is a rationalist theory, it considers tangible elements of material capabilities, security, anarchy, and power at the core of its assessment. Even while realists have looked at fear as persisting at the unit level, it is interesting to see if the element of fear could be incorporated into the theory-building exercise.

Pashakhanlou also makes a compelling case for realists to take fear “far more seriously” and evaluate it in “relation to their entire framework” (p. 135). Lucidly argued, the author makes a compelling case for reconsidering fear in a realist framework. Pashakhanlou’s monograph is essential to the study of affective elements in realism.

Note: This review was submitted as a part of the PhD coursework for “Realism and World Politics” at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


Realism and fear in international relations: Morgenthau, Waltz and Mearsheimer reconsidered. By Arash Heydarian Pashakhanlou. Palgrave Macmillan. 2017. 177 pp. eBook


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