Jonathan Kirshner on “An Unwritten Future: Realism and Uncertainty in World Politics”

Jonathan Kirshner is Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Boston College, and the Stephen and Barbara Friedman Professor of International Political Economy Emeritus at Cornell University. He is the author, most recently, of An Unwritten Future: Realism and Uncertainty in World Politics, and co-editor (with Peter Katzenstein) of Downfall of the American Order? Kirshner served as director of Cornell University’s Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies from 2007 to 2015, and previously chaired the Economics and National Security Program at the Olin Institute of Strategic Studies at Harvard. His research and teaching interests focus on international relations, political economy (especially macroeconomics and money), and politics and film. He has written numerous books, including American Power after the Financial Crisis, and Hollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society and the Seventies Film in America. Kirshner is also a contributing writer to Cineaste magazine, and is the author of the novel Urban Flight. From Cornell University, Kirshner is a recipient of the Provost's Award for Distinguished Scholarship, and the Stephen and Margery Russell Distinguished Teaching Award.
Arlo Jay '26 interviewed Dr. Jonathan Kirshner on April 3, 2024.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Jonathan Kirshner.

In your last book An Unwritten Future: Realism and Uncertainty in World Politics, you write that while paradigms are inescapable, paradigm wars like those between liberalism and realism are vacuous and unproductive. With many scholars growing increasingly polarized in discussions on global politics, is there a way to find a middle-ground that allows us to draw from a multitude of theoretical perspectives?

My answer is twofold. First, all work is actually paradigmatic in some way, meaning that all work derives from a paradigm. Some scholars say they “don't do paradigms,” but actually their work is usually operating from a cluster of underlying assumptions, and those select in certain types of variables and approaches and select out other types of variables and approaches. It's important to be aware of the paradigm you're working in so you understand the strengths and weaknesses of the perspective and what its natural affinities are. Second, paradigms are not theories, they are dispositions, points of departures, even philosophies. Thus, asserting that “my paradigm is better than your paradigm,” a common claim in the 1990s, is a waste of time because there is no way to prove or disprove a paradigm. Now, there could be theories derived in a paradigmatic tradition, and they can perhaps perform poorly when tested. That can make us suspicious as to whether this paradigm was actually doing much heavy lifting for us analytically. But again, paradigms themselves cannot be proven right or wrong. Only specific theories can be proven right or wrong. Hence, to your question about “finding a middle ground,” it's not so much about splitting the difference, as in “I'll take something from my paradigm, and take something from your paradigm, and then find some common ground.” Rather, it's about simply recognizing the basis upon which the reasons for which two different scholars working in two distinct paradigmatic traditions might come to different conclusions about things. Often, it will have to do with the fact that their underlying bundle of assumptions will be very different, and therefore point them in different directions.

You write that classical realism should not dominate over all others, but it is still urgently needed for describing and understanding events in world politics. What are some features of classical realism that make it so useful in analyzing global politics?

Once again, I'm going to break up your question into two questions. First, I want to emphasize is that I self-identify as a classical realist, which simply means that's the paradigm that I tend to operate in. Awareness of that is important. And with this book, I'm trying to articulate what classical realism is and how it can be a productive approach to understanding and explaining world politics. But it's not that I want everybody to be a classical realist. In fact, that would be a bad thing. Intellectual monocultures are bad because they tend to lead to everyone sharing the same catastrophic errors. One of the contributing factors of the global financial crisis of 2007-08 was that macroeconomic theory had converged around an intellectual monoculture, one which assumed away the problems that caused the global financial crisis. Had the discipline of macroeconomics been more heterogeneous in its theoretical attributes, we might have had a more vigorous debate about policies that contributed to, and possible safeguards against, the crisis itself. But instead that monoculture contributed to the conditions that led to the global financial crisis. 

So even though I wrote a book talking about classical realism, and why I think it’s nifty, that doesn't mean everybody should stop what they are doing and become a classical realist. Now, having said that, I do have intellectual adversaries. And two of them are very important. One is an intramural fight—the crucial distinction between classical realism and structural realism, which draws on the influential book by Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics. This work has dominated realism, and I argue that it has made basic mistakes that have led realism astray. So I'm trying to reclaim a different type of realism, namely classical realism. Similarly, there's a very influential school of thought, which we can call the rational explanations for war school of thought or the “bargaining model,” which assume a certain type of hyper-rationalism. This approach has been spectacularly influential—but it is also fundamentally flawed. It has as its points of departure assumptions that classical realists argue forcefully are simply wrong and misguided. So, while my message is not that everybody should be a classical realist, nevertheless, classical realism does have intellectual adversaries and it is important to point those out as well. The book is trying to reclaim a certain type of realism, both from the structural realists and the hyper-rationalist school.

As for what makes classical realism useful, in my assessment it does an especially fine job helping a student of world politics look out of the window and see the world, and to be able to understand and describe it, and recognize the likely trajectories of the consequences of different choices that states make. Having said that, there will be elements or episodes or events in world politics that nevertheless surprise a classical realist, and that's just part of the game of studying international relations. It's very, very complicated and no approach is going to be always right.

You write that there are few challenges more unsettling in world politics than the emergence of a new great power in the international system, and indeed many in the U.S. are worried about China’s rise. You suggest that China is unlikely to engage in reckless military adventures, however, so do you think China’s rise should be so worrying for Americans?

Yes, China's rise should be very worrying, but not necessarily for the reasons that people often articulate. It's not necessarily the case that China is just big, bad, and coming our way, as one scholar once said. Moreover, it really has nothing to do with China as China, although Chinese domestic politics have taken a hard, personal authoritarian turn that is unsettling. What I mean is that China is unlikely to make some grand militarized bid for regional hegemony, since that would be counterproductive of China's goals. Classical realists tend to model state actors as more or less rational (though not hyper-rational – that is, they know their preferences and they try and guess the best possible way to advance those preferences). In that context, it is very hard for me to connect the dots as to how a giant militarized bid for hegemony in East Asia is really going to be helpful to China's goals. Again, for a realist, especially a classical realist, the use of military force is only meaningful to the extent that it advances a country's political goals. And if China wants to dominate politically the region of Asia, engaging in big wars in Asia is probably not going to be helpful in achieving that. So, I'm not expecting that –although all classical realists would note that powerful states may do really stupid things, and you can't rule that out. 

On a theoretical level, the problem is that the world is organized in a certain way. There are patterns of behavior; there is recognition of rights and responsibilities and deference to various states in the international system. Those patterns were established, usually by predominant states when they were very powerful. Over time, new powers emerge and change the balance of power, which is a very important variable for all types of realists, structural realists and classical realists. And what happens is that newly emerging or reemerging great powers look around at the status quo and recognize that they had no say in deciding these arrangements. Not only that, but they also know their power has grown and they want more influence over how things are done. They want to have more status and want the world oriented in ways that are more amenable to their political interests. They expect some deference taken into account more clearly in international interactions. Whereas the states that established the status quo kind of like things the way they are. Again, this has nothing to do with the US and China. This is a pattern that you can see throughout history, whenever there's been an underlying shift in the general balance of power between states. The rising states, including the U.S. in the past, tend to be arrogant and annoying and want more. The status quo powers that established the system tend to be governed by an “arrogance-fear paradox.” That is, initially, their reaction is to look at these new powers and say, “we're in charge here, why should we listen to these whippersnappers when we know what's right?” But then, when shifts to the balance of power become too obvious to ignore, they become anxious. They see a state that is now more powerful, but worry that if concessions are made, they might appear weak or encourage more demands. This kind of “arrogance-fear paradox” makes it very hard for the great powers to make smart adjustments to the changes to the balance of power. Throughout history, the rise of a new power in the international system has been the source of tremendous stress and tension, because of the expectations of the rising state, and ultimately, the anxiety of the status quo state. That's why China will want more and want to reach for more. In the articulation and expression of its greater interests in the system it will step on the toes of others.  

The provocative title for your Athenaeum presentation at Claremont McKenna College implies (if not asserts) that the American-led international order is now over. What are some of the most important signs and consequences of the end of the American order?

Well, signs and consequences are two different things. With regard to signs, it is crucial to look at American domestic politics. And here's where, again, classical realism differs from structural realism. For classical realism, history matters, and for classical realism, domestic society matters. And if you look at the past two decades of the American experience, what you see are two long, failed wars, and the global financial crisis and its aftermath. There is also still more economic inequality, which is a serious problem in the United States, politically speaking. And there is the perception of the unfairness of American society, especially since those who were responsible for bringing us the global financial crisis didn't suffer much from it, whereas most Americans struggled with the consequences of the aftermath of that crisis. This narrative well illustrates the difference between structural realism and classical realism: structural realism looks solely at power, whereas classical realism looks at both power and purpose. With regard to the American orchestration of the international order, classical realism asks, is it that the U.S. is no longer powerful enough to do certain things, or has there been some transformation of American purpose? I would argue that the two long wars and the global financial crisis fundamentally altered the taste in America for global leadership. 

That change can be seen by looking at American domestic politics, and in particular the nominating processes in both the Democratic and Republican parties in 2016. The party establishments, both Democratic and Republican, held traditional internationalist views. Hillary Clinton had negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a very important international treaty, passed with the strong support of the Republican Party. But during the nominating processes two wildly outlandish outsiders dominated the primary process. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, who was a socialist, not even a member of the Democratic party, from a tiny state, who was not a known national figure, came very close to wresting the nomination from one of the most powerful political machines in the Democratic Party. One of the things Clinton had to do to assure the nomination was to renounce the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The turn away from internationalism in the Republican Party is even more bizarre. You had the standard order of Republican candidates, five or six of them, plus a game show host with no political experience. And yet this amateur outsider (and, also, not a life-long Republican), a  nativist and nationalist just steamrolled his way through the Republican Party and secured the nomination. It’s easy to forget the fact that someone like Donald Trump could emerge as the candidate of the Republican Party for President would have been seen as almost science fiction, even six, eight months before it happened. In sum, both parties manifested these underlying signs of a fundamental disenchantment with 75 years of American-engaged international leadership. The conclusion of classical realism, in contrast to its structuralist cousins, is that the American order is being transformed not by the erosion of American power, but by a change in American purpose that can only be understood through historical and domestic social lenses.

What might the coexistence of the U.S and China as great powers look like? Is there an ideal path to a bipolar world order that could ensure global stability?

Great powers will have opposing interests, and great powers will often come into conflict. That doesn't mean there will be war between them. It means simply that disagreements between great powers are not misunderstandings. Rather, they come from the clash of preferences. We should expect to see the United States and China butting heads over a myriad of possible international issues, a great power war can be is avoided if the two predominant antagonists come to share a set of understandings about the implicit rules of the road. I don’t think either side is spoiling for a fight. I don't think the US is particularly eager to get into an armed conflict with China. I don't think China seeks militarized conflict with the US. If, indeed, neither side is spoiling for a fight, then through backchannels and third parties, they can come to understand where the red lines are. Take an example in the Cold War. When the Soviet Union invaded and crushed liberalization movements in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Western world lifted not a finger, because they understood that took place within the Soviet sphere of influence. And however regrettable that was, we understood that type of activity was not some new and dangerous and unacceptable type of behavior. Was it good for the Hungarians and the Czechs? No. But if the purpose is to avoid great power war, then having this understanding of the routines is very productive. Now, the problem in this particular case, the US-China case, is that those understandings are still in flux and being implicitly navigated. And there's a real danger point over Taiwan, and there's a potential danger point over naval dominance of the South China Sea. These are the kinds of things that are hard to just “split the difference” on. One can imagine a confrontation over either of those two getting out of hand, even if both sides aren't eager for a fight with the other. But I do think establishing rules of the road helps great powers avoid war—when they want to avoid war. 

Arlo Jay '26Student Journalist

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