What We Find Interesting: Reply to Noah Millman on Obsolete IR Realism

Responding to the blog comment that I expanded upon in the prior post, Mr. Millman asks two questions which I will append in full below.1 Millman asks specifically whether the Realist definition of national interest is “definitional or axiomatic,” by which terms, as his follow-up post seems to confirm, he appears to be aiming for the distinction between descriptive, or analytical, and prescriptive, or political, Realism. He also wonders whether “national interest” is something artificial, effectively a product of politics or political processes, or something “independent” and “objective,” in other words beyond politics in the narrow sense. In his second question, he specifies an assumption about “the state” – what the state is or how we should conceive of it – that we have frequently discussed at this blog, as in our recent posts on libertarianism as well as on the subject of neo-imperialism, and in intermittent discussion of Hegelian concepts of the culture-state.2 For present purposes, this question of the state is, I think, better answered in the context of answering the first question. In other words, the two questions can be answered together.3

Under the theoretical framework I was outlining in my prior remarks, the Realist notion of finally determinative national interest would be both definitional and axiomatic within an obsolete, yet still significantly operative, nation-state concept. The Realist national interest would also tend to refer to durable, often geographically as well as demographically defined and in that sense very natural interests that will or would tend to arise for any state formation or political regime in an homologous position, under the kind of “geographical determinism” generally associated with Montesquieu. In this sense, national interest is a geopolitical notion, and the idea of “enduring national interest” is typically invoked for ideas or aims beyond but tending to underlie and shape any particular government’s policies, since they rest on facts of life that are relatively highly insusceptible to political change, though they may be eclipsed by it. For example, an ideal Polish interest in weak or contained or otherwise-involved neighboring powers can be seen to have existed even during the extended historical periods during which the Polish political identity was almost totally submerged. Similarly, geography and geography in history would have given us the shape of determinative Israeli national interests ahead of the actual re-establishment of the Israeli state, interests unlikely to be sacrificed willingly, but subject also to being overwhelmed in the future as they have been in the past.4

National interests are therefore typically transcendent interests, but not eternal or indefeasible ones. Even geography itself does undergo transformation within human-civilizational time scales: The Sahara was arable, once upon a time, and we are told that many alive today may witness the inundation of many of the world’s most important ports and much of its most valuable coastal real estate. Technology may also make things possible or merely inconvenient that previously might have been impossible or inconceivable: The ability to observe events and project power from 1,000s of miles away would once have been an attribute possibly of a deity, but never of a mere mortal. Necessity is also the mother of such historically significant, precisely because interest-transformative, invention: The task of settling and exploiting North America was well beyond the capacities of the 13 British colonies. Going ahead anyway necessitated, and greatly accelerated, technological and political change both locally and globally, and turned the history of the last two hundred years into a reverse invasion of the Old World by the New – a turning inside out of history that was at the same time, or as historical time itself, fulfillment of an always existent potential, a simple progression of history.

Among the cultural achievements associated with this straight-line progress of history is a sophisticated critique of all such concepts of straight-line progress of history, but we will have to leave that discussion to some other day. What we are specifically interested in here is the definition of particular American interests in relation to global interests, and whether they tend to undermine or point beyond the nation-state Realist framework. In this connection, parallel observations on concepts forced beyond their prior limits will apply to the definitional assumption underlying Millman’s second question, of the “state” as a geographically or, to be somewhat more precise, territorially limited entity (or set of political-administrative institutions) with a monopoly of force (among other monopolies), or in short the state as “sovereign state power.” A state for everyone and everyone in a state provides a convenient way to “organize the world,” but any given day’s headlines will reflect challenges to the concept or the overall result, and our current epoch in global politics or global political economy seems very much defined by exceptions (and people taking exception) to the rule, including those of the type Millman mentions – religious and commercial organizations, for example – whose alternative quasi- or crypto-state concepts, as Millman points out, pre-existed the era of the nation-state and may yet outlast it.

To reduce international and especially interstate relations to national interests (whether descriptively or prescriptively or both) without defining those national interests would be to reduce inter-state relations to nothing at all and to say nothing at all, or, as is common, to revert to and reiterate unstated presumptions about what we really do find “interesting.” Understanding the actual and arguably the desirable role of the United States of America in the world system, and specifically as realized under Obama foreign policy, would therefore also require understanding the difference between the American state concept, which cannot be separated from unique geographical circumstances, and “everyone else’s.” As a further complicating factor, what would make the U.S.A. a world-historical nation, and constitute proof of the concept, would be that “everyone else’s” concept has been gradually converging with the American one, though it remains of great difficulty for most observers to view this argument impartially, or even view it at all: It is often immediately mistaken, for instance, for the kind of “American Century” exceptionalism, or the vulgar exceptionalism of the Republican right, that some in the vicinity of The American Conservative magazine, among other spots across the conventional political spectrum, from one extreme to the other, have dedicated their careers or large portions of them to combating.5 A common and often overlapping alternative is to mistake neo-imperialism for the kinds of imperialism practiced in, and practicable during, other eras (and somewhat definitional for those eras historically, even in our epoch of historicized history).

If any serious attempt to define the American national interest leads us to an over-determining or geographically, political-economically, and ideologically mutually conditioning internationalism or transnational impetus, borne out in the great events and ideas and seemingly inexorable material processes of the last two centuries, resulting in the state of the world as we know it, then nation-state Realism in relation to America turns itself inside out or upside down. The uniquely American national interest and the global interest that both produced America as we know it and that America as we know it has produced, also a simultaneously material interest and ideal interest, tend to converge, and that convergence is itself an independent axis of simultaneous national and global interest. That interest or convergence of interests may not be in any sense the only interest, or be perceived as such by all participants, or be the most salient interest in every local conflict or circumstance, but we will also find that it appears wherever we look, in part because the very fact that we are “there” actively looking is itself a typical product of the same convergence process. Similarly, the very rejection, or asserted rejection, of that double interest will tend to take the form of recapitulation of its operative principles – as in the invocation of democratically validated free self-determination against the neo-imperialism of democratically validated free self-determination.

From this perspective, Realism is not wrong, nor is it irrelevant, it just tends to supersede itself, both conceptually and historically, and specifically in relation to the American idea in history: of geography overcoming geographies (overcoming geography itself), history overcoming histories (ending history itself), the nation-state overcoming nation-states (or the nation-state itself), politics overcoming politics itself, identity overcoming identities, and, finally, of the real overcoming of the real. Put paradigmatically, this series of convergences finally of the real and the ideal may, or perhaps ought to, appear in the end as uselessly ideal or idealized as it has proven or been realized as endlessly useful.


  1. Full questions from Noah Millman:

    First, is that “fully determinative complex” a definition or an axiom? In other words, are we defining the national interest as whatever constitutes the resolution of internal interest group politics within a state? Or are we assuming, for the sake of argument, that in well-functioning states (which Great Powers are presumed to be), they are roughly congruent, but defining the national interest according to some independent objective measure? I had always assumed the latter. If it’s the former, then there’s not much content to realism, is there? It kind of collapses into a tautology, doesn’t it?

    Second, I assume a “state” is an entity with a functional and legal monopoly of force within a geography. According to that definition, arguably there has been a breakdown in certain geographies where no monopoly exists, and hence no state. But no supra-national entity has state-like powers because none is capable of initiating violence. And if the mere existence of powerful supra- or extra-national entities complicates the realist framework, then what about the Catholic Church, which pre-existed the state system? What about the emergence of powerful trans-national corporations, which came into being along with the state system, some of which have, in the past, even had the power to initiate violence directly (e.g., the British East India Company)? If the U.N. and Exxon are a problem for realism, then hasn’t realism always had a problem?


  2. Any even rough taxonomy of state and crypto-state concepts will tend to replicate the taxonomist’s own most privileged state concept, will already be an ideology and an anthem for an idealized state of states. The militarist focuses on configurations of force; the intellectual historian discovers in history a mirror of his or her own intellect; the patriot discovers essential patriotism; the economic materialist knows that materialist economics are where the action only ever really is; the messianic believer knows the state in relation to God. The state, as one of our highest abstractions, absorbs the views on the true state that together would constitute the true state. []
  3. I made an initial attempt in the comment thread under Millman’s post. The current post is another expanded version of a comment. []
  4. George Friedman’s “The Geopolitics of Israel: Biblical and Modern” provides an accessible, modern, and detailed example of this Montesquieuvian approach to national-as-geopolitical interest. []
  5. A not entirely useless recent anthology of essays on the subject – that is, dedicated to explaining why the anthology itself must not have been necessary – was published last year: The Short American Century: A Postmortem. []

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2 comments on “What We Find Interesting: Reply to Noah Millman on Obsolete IR Realism

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  1. Fine post – a lot is packed in here and I’m not sure if I’ve unpacked enough to comment usefully. Also I hesitate to launch into my first reaction to any use of “Real” “Realism” etc. Frequently, larger implications of these words are not particularly helpful to whatever discussion is at hand.

    But as you note in one of these rcent posts, one’s perspective plays an important part in how one sees “the national interest”. Point of view is in fact a necessary component of rationality and for this reason alone the convergence of the rational and the real is open to question. The problem with POV is that it proliferates.

    In some Buddhist discussions of emptiness, the term “valid cognition (of conventional reality)”is used to cover much of the territory we might ordinary cover with naive realism. So discusiion in terms of the valid cognition of Polish national interests can proceed without making ontological claims.

    So we can then discuss a time priviledged perspective of Polish national interests covering the first arrival of humans in Middle Europe to the present or even near future. Separatly, if we wish, we could use a space priveledged perspective focussing of the array of objects (broadly defined) existing right now in some kind of cause/effect repose to Poland. It my be that the resulting discsussions end up with differing notions of Polish national interests – the defense of borders for instance might be viewed differently.

    All that is required in the valid cognition structure is that the participants to the discussion agree the resulting arguments start from defensible cognitions.

    I’m afraid this is as far as I can take this now. I’m uncertain how useful it is. At any rate, these recent posts are quite good.

    • bob, just sat down to toss off some rambling notes in reply to the above, and soon found myself working on a couple thousand words relating “valid cognition of conventional reality” to Schmitt’s “concrete order thought” – a term he developed while a Nazi, and never returned to, to my knowledge, but expressing an insight that informed much of his best later work, in my opinion. Very problematic however, just like Schmitt himself, even when rendered in more ecologistic terms, since it remains a thought beyond good and evil, and therefore also beyond or seemingly pointing beyond our central and indispensable moral-political determinations.

      Anyway, if and when I can find the time (which is really money, of course), I’ll try to blow up this tire again, and we can maybe see how it rides. But feel free to continue thinking out loud if the spirit moves or emptiness entices you.

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

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The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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