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Neorealists as Critical Theorists: The Purpose of Foreign Policy Debate

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 August 2007

Rodger A. Payne
University of Louisville, E-mail:


The international relations field has recently taken a communicative turn. Social constructivists, for instance, regularly examine frames, persuasion, and other discursive mechanisms by which actors reach intersubjective agreement. Critical theorists add an overtly normative dimension by embracing the transformative potential of public deliberation. In contrast, realists and neorealists claim that outcomes are determined by the distribution of material power—political communication and discursive ideals are virtually meaningless elements in international politics. Put simply, talk is cheap. Given this view, it is puzzling that many prominent realists participate actively in national foreign policy debates and in that context both implicitly and explicitly embrace views about political discourse that are remarkably consistent with those held by constructivists and critical theorists. In the recent Iraq debate, the realists reveal lies, political spin, and other distortions of the debate promulgated by government elites and their allies. They challenge the legitimacy of established policies and critique excessive secrecy. Most importantly, these neorealists seek to transform public and elite consciousness so as to produce social pressures for alternative outcomes. Realists have apparently rejected their own theoretical presuppositions about the meaning and role of political communication, which has important implications for both policy debate and IR theorizing.Rodger A. Payne is Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville and Director of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order ( He would like to thank Josh Busby, Peter Dombrowski, Peter Howard, Jacques Hymans, Piki Ish-Shalom, Avery Kolers, Doug Lemke, John Mearsheimer, Tom Mowle, Stan Scott, and the three anonymous reviewers for offering valuable comments and suggestions. Portions of this paper were previously delivered at the Annual Meetings of the International Studies Association, at Montréal in 2004 and at Honolulu in 2005. Financial and institutional support was provided by a President's Research Initiative Project Initiation Grant from the University of Louisville and by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard.

Research Article
© 2007 American Political Science Association

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