Michael Williams is Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. His research interests are in International Relations theory, security studies, and political thought. His most recent book (with Rita Abrahamsen) is Security Beyond the State: Private Security in International Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Realism remains perhaps the dominant approach to world politics; yet there is little agreement on what Realism is. Returning to realism’s role in the founding of International Relations as “an American social science” in the post-war era, this paper argues that this “Realist gambit” did not attempt to found the new discipline of IR upon securely “scientific” foundations, nor simply to teach it yet again the conservative verities of realpolitik – myths that continue to bedevil our understanding of the issues involved. On the contrary, Realism was conceived as a deeply and self-consciously political bulwark standing in opposition to the emerging hegemony of American political “science”. Most importantly of all, this opposition was not – as is usually assumed – the assertion of Realism in opposition to liberalism: it was the defence of a particular kind of liberalism.