Are apes capable of speech, according to realist IR academics? It’s an absurd thing to ask. Many psychologists from the previous century, however, would have jumped at the chance to praise studies in which apes mimicked human speech. As realism is embroiled in controversy over the Russo-Ukrainian War, the story of ape language research and its eventual academic downfall is worth remembering.
Researchers in the 20th century attempted to teach other primates human languages such as American sign language. The reasoning behind this was based on the intuitive understanding that our close evolutionary relatives could learn languages with enough exposure to the language and practise. Koko the Gorilla and the other test subjects became famous after they interacted with famous people like Mr. Rogers and Robin Williams using sign language and small talk.
It was discovered that the company had run out of money. Interestingly enough, apes like Koko often fumbled their way through interactions with human researchers in order to get more food because they didn’t understand the meanings we humans associate with language.
The real kicker, though, is that many bright people thought these apes were acquiring language skills for years. Some scientists could not help but attribute human-like meanings to the apes’ haphazard sign use.
Sometimes I think of these scientists when I think of realist IR scholars. Akin to their Koko is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
A long-standing chasm between realists and alternative approaches to international relations and foreign policy has been reopened by the conflict in Ukraine. Great Illusions or Great Transformations? is still a hot topic of discussion in the post-1945 era. This discussion is vital.
Instead of rehashing old arguments about realism, I’ll instead use the history of “ape language” studies as a metaphor for the current state of realism. I provide an angle that goes beyond the usual, unhelpful criticism to explain what makes realism so appealing to its proponents and so frustrating to its detractors.
Instead of focusing on realism per se, I want to cool things down by illuminating the personalities of the experts who are having the heated debate.
Ukraine and Realism
In 2020, Robert Keohane opined, “Realism,” with its “emphasis on conflict,” was “undergoing a revival…” The Russian invasion of Ukraine in all its bloody glory in February 2022 convinced realist Stephen Walt of the “enduring relevance” of this perspective with regard to the anarchic nature of the world, “where there is no agency or institution that can protect states from each other…”
However, realism is frequently viewed negatively. Known as “the curmudgeon of international relations thought” by expert Paul Poast, it serves as a constant reminder of “the gravity that undercuts human attempts to fly.” Realists often use the word “tragic” to describe the interplay of the world’s major powers. The challenge has been issued to face an unappealing but real world, and with it, the dismissal of concepts like the rules-based international order.
The role that realists played in evaluating the Russia–Ukraine conflict raised new concerns about the method’s value. This is in no small part due to the bizarre claims made by academic John Mearsheimer about Putin’s intentions in Ukraine. However, that is not the whole story.
Anne Applebaum, a prominent journalist, is one of those who thinks Russia’s full-scale invasion, and the Ukrainians’ reaction to it, created a clash between Western assumptions about state behaviour and human agency. Edward Luce, a columnist for the Financial Times, criticised realism because it is linked to the “idea that Russia should have its own sphere of interest, including Ukraine and a veto over Nato expansion,” which he saw as immoral and impractical.
Researchers Nicholas Ross Smith and Grant Dawson point out, however, that these and other commentators focus primarily on arguing against structural realism in IR while ignoring its other variants. Is it all just talk at this point, though?
A Shared Base Of Operations
It’s possible that this goes beyond mere theory.
People are both frustrated and enticed by reality. It stimulates thought processes in a way analogous to how apes use sign language. The fundamental principles of realism, such as the possibility of communication between humans and apes, continue to spark heated debate.
This malevolent influence was identified by Kenneth Waltz. After providing a now-classic account of how interactions between states shape state policies, Waltz poses a straightforward question: why does world politics display such “impressive continuity,” given the changing nature of its actors over time?
This is “the striking sameness in the quality of international life through the millennia, a statement that will meet with wide assent,” and it exemplifies “the enduring anarchic character of international politics.”
Realists like Waltz and the scholar Neta Crawford who deny fundamental changes in IR are wrong because they conflate “a somehow-defined timeless human nature with social institutions…” In another place, she claims that Waltz secretly upheld a classical realist view of humanity, in which human traits like hostility and a desire for power are innate and cannot be changed by upbringing or experience.
To be consistent with their theories, realists must, as Crawford correctly points out, hold assumptions about human nature. Crawford, however, falters due to his simplistic reversal of perspectives, insisting that researchers take into account the concept of “human natures” (plural).
Why do realists continue to share a common bias toward seeing underlying similarities in human behaviour?
Linguistic Ape-like Realism
Ape language history has much to teach us. The thought that apes, like humans, are capable of learning language and communicating with one another is incredibly alluring and intuitive. Koko appears to be giving her signs human interpretation. Looking back, it’s easy to make fun of this concept, but for years, researchers worked on it regardless of criticism. The misconception that humans can impart meaning onto apes has persisted for a long time.
Is this the realist view that all foreign policy is basically the same?
It’s likely that some people are attracted to realism because they have a natural tendency to think in such stark terms. The realist perception of fundamental sameness, like the intuitive judgement that Koko is “communicating” or using “language,” is first based on intuition given intellectual justification.
Famous realist Graham Allison makes connections between Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War history and modern IR. When hearing Allison discuss this time period, one gets the impression that little has changed fundamentally from the fifth century BC to the present day. Differences in the past become more manageable and scholars are able to “build bridges over rich swamps of historical detail,” as Andrew Ehrhardt puts it in a related context.
This feeling of essential similarity is primarily a mental phenomenon. Although realist Patrick Porter is correct in saying, “the reaction against realism this year is…about how we see the world, and how we secure ourselves,” what is required is a meta-theoretical stance on this debate, thinking less like intellectuals and more like individuals. Despite the acclaim that Robert Jervis’s Political Psychology of Misperception has received, many realists resist the idea that they are the targets of a persistent psychological misunderstanding.
Perhaps the language of international relations is that of the ape.
What should the next step for realism be?
The practise of realism is not going away, and nor should it. We cannot, either, abandon theory due to the flaws of non-theoretical methods like constructivism.
The purpose of drawing parallels between ape language research and realism in the study of state behaviour is to draw attention to the existence of a very specific perceptual bias in the study of both fields. Similar to how ape language research functioned, such a view can function beneath the surface of intelligent, rigorous, and sophisticated empirical and theoretical research by realist scholars.
Yet, it would be erroneous to assume that the demise of ape language research means the end of realism as well. There are three ways this viewpoint can be reframed for useful purposes.
It’s important to realise, to begin with, that discussions about realism extend far beyond the realms of academia and government. It’s possible that different academics have divergent internal “premises” from which they draw when developing their own theories and arguments. These underlying assumptions in one’s psychology are rarely questioned because they exist entirely outside one’s conscious awareness. This causes even sincere debates to rapidly escalate into sarcasm or hysteria. This is why realism as ape language is both alluring and frustrating.
Furthermore, Crawford is spot-on when he says that realism has always suffered from the same problems of human nature. Attempting to bridge the void with such assurance was a mistake. An understanding of the world’s fundamental workings is at the heart of realism as an ape language. This viewpoint, however, must be addressed head-on and reframed within a more inclusive, and perhaps interdisciplinary, tradition rather than buried.
Last but not least, it’s up to you to make some difficult, individual decisions in light of these considerations. As discussion of the conflict in Ukraine continues, it is instructive to recall that merely stating an opinion does not make it absolute. Scholars should take theory seriously without imputing moral values to it, and an argument about escalation is not an instance of it. Even if realism is an ape language, perception isn’t everything, and we have the option to face it head-on and change it for the better.