Taking Uncertainty Seriously: Classical Realism and National Security

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If we can’t reliably predict the future, how can we be wise when preparing for it? Examining the UK’s ‘Strategic Defence and Security Review’ of 2010, I demonstrate that though planners often rightly invoke uncertainty, they also imply a highly certain ideology about Western power and foresight. Modern ‘national security states’ describe the world as dangerously uncertain, yet fall prey to a misplaced confidence in their ability to anticipate and prevent threats. I argue that classical realism, especially that of Clausewitz and Morgenthau, is a valuable resource for handling uncertainty more reflexively. Classical realism counsels that governments should go beyond attempts to improve foresight. They should try to check against the fallibility of their assumptions, marshal their power more conservatively, insure against the likelihood of predictive failure by developing the intellectual capability to react to the unknown, and avoid misplaced confidence in their ability to bring order into chaos.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)239-260
Number of pages21
JournalEuropean Journal of International Security
Issue number2
Early online date4 Apr 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2016


  • classical realism
  • national security
  • Carl von Clausewitz
  • Hans Morgenthau
  • uncertainty


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