There is a funny story today on Mcsweeney’s (http://mcsweeneys.net) called “The Legend of Me” by Jack Handey. Now we recommend everyone read this story. It is funny, yet Handey is on to something important, especially in international relations thought.
There is a school of thought that likes to think of themselves as distinctly non-realist who say we should not react to threats because those threats are the byproducts of our interpretations and not of reality. For example, Chinese military modernizations need not be countered with more militarism because we interpret Chinese modernization as hostile, when instead it is merely a buildup of defensive means. The same has been said of Iraq, North Korea and even Iran. Now this article is not a pithy dismissal of these authors as naive or sophomoric because for the most part we think they may be correct and at worst have something valuable to give us pause.
However, the fact that these aggressive actions may simply be the byproducts of our own aggression does not mean that we need to sit idly by. Let us return to the opening metaphor. Maybe the Mummy is not a monster but yet a misunderstood, ugly, foul-breathed soul. So, we should consider it. But, it is the naive mother that when seeing the Mummy approach does not usher her children inside for safety’s sake. Just in case the Mummy is not misunderstood at all, or maybe it is just a bad day or maybe his halitosis really is that bad.
Here is the thing with the critique of realism: even though we cannot accurately obtain reality that does not mean all ends well. There are still dangers out there. Sometimes they are our own creation. For example, while it may be true that the Second Reich was created by abusive conditions set upon Germany at the conclusion of World War I, that does not mean we should have sat idly by allowing Hitler to rampage. Maybe we did create the monster, but once the monster breaks out of the closet it is time to act, and often violently.
Iraq had demonstrated a history of violence to the international order (although dispute about which actions were actually violent is credible) but what Iran and North Korea have done to be deemed belligerent we are unsure. It does seem that these nations’ modernization programs (not just nuclear weapons) are defensive in nature. These might be prime examples of where a moment of reflexivity is the prudent action instead of instant demonization and opprobrium.