Realism Is Right

OWU Professor Sean Kay Analyzes Realist/Liberal Tension over NATO in Security Studies Article

By Cole Hatcher

Sean Kay, Ph.D.

It is considered one of the most significant debates in international relations theory: Do the tenets of realism or liberalism better explain the importance and impact of global security institutions?

In a new article published in the prestigious Security Studies journal, Ohio Wesleyan University professor Sean Kay settles the argument as it pertains to NATO, The North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“Much of the decades-long debate stems from the scholarly work of John J. Mearsheimer and Robert O. Keohane, representing the realist and liberal views, respectively,” said Kay, Ph.D., OWU’s Robson Professor of Politics and Government.

“We now have measurable outcomes,” he said, explaining how he researched the issue and reached his attention-grabbing conclusion.

“NATO has fought wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya – each fraught with major difficulty; illiberal governments run a number of member states; Russia is parked in Ukraine; and new NATO allies like the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) must wonder: Will America risk nuclear war with Russia to defend them? The American president, Donald J. Trump, questions the value of NATO and embraces Russian leader Vladimir Putin. French president Emmanuel Macron calls NATO ‘brain dead,’ ” he said.

All of these historic happenings mean one thing, explained Kay, whose many books include “NATO and the Future of European Security,” “America’s Search for Security: The Triumph of Idealism and the Return of Realism,” and “Global Security in the Twenty-first Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace.”

“The evidence shows liberal understandings of NATO rested on incorrect assumptions about institutions and security,” Kay said.

“This evidence settles an important part of one of the most intense debates in international relations theory – the realist/liberal divide over security institutions represented, respectively, by Mearsheimer and Keohane,” he continued. “The realist challenge to liberal views of NATO demonstrates predictive value and exposes potentially dangerous policy assumptions and faulty scholarly analysis – Mearsheimer was right.”

And what is the significance of settling the issue?

“Given dangers now lurking in modern Europe,” Kay said, “a return to realism as a baseline challenge to these considerations is an imperative.

“Liberal scholars are challenged to do better at incorporating realist methodology to test institutional relevance and how variations in institutional form can affect security outcomes,” he said. “The stakes are high, for if a new realist/liberal balance is not achieved regarding our understanding of security institutions, Europe risks another period of institutional disconnect from realities of geopolitics, as happened during the League of Nations.”

Kay, a member of the Ohio Wesleyan faculty since 1999, also is a Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at The Ohio State University, and he has served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of State, and the National Intelligence Council.

In addition, Kay is the 2020 recipient of OWU’s Welch Award for Scholarly Achievement, recognizing “distinguished scholarly or artistic achievement among Ohio Wesleyan University faculty members.”

Learn more about Kay and his background at

Founded in 1842, Ohio Wesleyan University is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts universities. Located in Delaware, Ohio, the private university offers more than 90 undergraduate majors and competes in 24 NCAA Division III varsity sports. Through Ohio Wesleyan’s signature OWU Connection program, students integrate knowledge across disciplines, build a diverse and global perspective, and apply their knowledge in real-world settings. Ohio Wesleyan is featured in the book “Colleges That Change Lives” and included in the U.S. News & World Report and Princeton Review “best colleges” lists. Learn more at