Realism, Idealism and Arsene Wenger

This is the fourth in a series of posts attempting to explain football through international relations theory; or international relations theory through football; or drawing tenuous links between both.

The differences between Realist and Idealist international relations theory is rather misleadingly known as the first ‘Great Debate’.  No actual ‘debate’ took place, and the Idealists didn’t actually acknowledge themselves as such.  Nevertheless the distinction persists and are useful to examine the differing ideas people have had about the way international politics works.  These differences focus on a number of issues, the most prominent is the claim that while Realists see the world how it actually is, Idealists see an vision of how they would like the world to be.  The implication being that Idealists are being unrealistic in their thinking and decision-making.  E. H. Carr was one of the first writers to define the Realist style of political thought and to draw dividing lines with Idealist theory.  ‘Idealism’, and ‘utopianism’ were labels applied by Carr to the system of international politics that had been prominent in the aftermath of World War I.  A key point is that ‘Idealists’ didn’t consider themselves to be Idealists, instead the somewhat disparaging term was given to them.  The accusation is that these people do not live in the real world and thus they make bad, and dangerous decisions by not considering the real dangers present in an anarchical international order.

This somewhat long-winded introduction to political theory is my attempt to give some kind of perspective to the trials and tribulations of the current Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger.  IR Idealists take what they believe to constitute a legal, or moral, approach to politics.  I don’t know Wenger but I think he believes he takes a moral and a legal approach to football management.  He has an ideal system that he has in mind both for how the team should play, and for how the affairs of the team off the pitch should be organised.  To these ends he attempts to recruit young, talented players from around the world.  These players should have certain attributes, they should be comfortable in possession, highly mobile, fast and intelligent.  And most importantly they should be willing and able to work within the ‘ideal’ of Wenger’s system.  When Arsenal play at their peak they are a joy to watch.  The passing and movement, and quick, attacking play are very difficult to deal with and defend against.  They are often named as the closest team to Barcelona, the high point in world football.

Off the pitch he is often labelled an ‘idealist’ (see here, here, here & here), accused of blindly following his own vision of what football should be.  For example, purposely not spending large amounts of money on established players.  Many times we are told that Arsenal have the money to spend, and the decision not to use it is the manager’s alone.  While everyone else is spending recklessly Wenger prefers to make minor changes to his team each season, selling players when they become valuable to other teams and buying cheaply.  Wenger has been highly critical of the model in place at Chelsea and Manchester City.  For him this represents unfair tactics by unscrupulous owners, while he is trying to run his team in the right way, morally and legally.   He recently criticised Manchester City for bending the rules of Financial Fair Play, saying this was ‘Platini’s big test’.  When Chelsea spent £71.3m this January on two players, while at the same time endorsing UEFA’s financial fair play regulations Wenger accused them of hypocrisy, and of acting illogically.  Chelsea had just announced an operating loss of £70m shortly before they signed Fernando Torres and David Luiz.  Wenger admitted to taking satisfaction from watching Chelsea spend recklessly while he was fielding a team that beat Everton which cost only £40m to assemble.

However Wenger’s critics are growing louder with every season that Arsenal fail to win a trophy.  Just as the Realists criticised the Idealists, Wenger is accused of not understanding how the world of modern football works.  By not signing big name players his detractors think he is restricting Arsenal’s chances.  By letting Clichy, Fabregas and Nasri leave, as looks likely this off-season, Realists would say he has demonstrated once again that his policy is harmful for Arsenal’s chances, in that it is unrealistic and leaves Arsenal vulnerable to more realistic teams.  As every season passes their best players move on to play for other teams who understand the ‘real’ world.

I suspect though, that like the so-called ‘Idealists’ Wenger doesn’t think of himself in this way (see here, for example).  Instead he may be the only one who is actually living in the real world.  There other teams who spend beyond their means or rely on injections of cash from wealthy owners.  These teams who buy Arsenal’s players, may be the ones who are unrealistic.  The IR Realists are often accused of letting their paranoia over others intentions lead them into poor decision making.  During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union built up huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons, that could have destroyed the entire world many times over, at the time though a large arsenal of nuclear weapons were seen as being necessary to deter attacks.  Eventually leaders realised that this situation was unsustainable and dangerous, and stocks of nuclear weapons are being reduced.  In football the constant merry-go-round of huge transfer fees, players’ wages and managerial changes could be seen as unsustainable, poor decision making.  The frugal method of running a team that Wenger advocates may be the closest thing to the real world in top flight English football.

What is clear from international history is that opinions over which theory is correct change depending on events of the day.  The First World War led to Idealist theory, the Second World War strengthened Realist theory, the Cold War generated a new scientific behavioural approach.  The US president Barack Obama has been called a ‘realistic idealist’, or an idealistic realist, I don’t remember.  The lesson is that no theory is right all the time, instead theories help us to understand why people make certain decisions.  And some theories better explain different periods than others.  Wenger’s brand of Idealism, if it can be called that, is one response to the current financial climate.  This response is more rooted in the real world that faces the majority of football teams who aren’t blessed with billionaire owners.  Whether Arsenal continue to struggle against wealthy teams depends on if others are allowed to continually spend profligate amounts, and with no such regulation on the horizon it appears Arsenal will continue to play catch up to Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United.

I would say that Wenger is an idealist, but he understands the real world all too well.  He wants to win and he wants to do it his way, but his way is unlike most other managers.  He is an idealist in a realist world.  Like all great managers he has a vision for how to play football, and is very good at transferring that to his players.  His method of running his team off the pitch can be categorised as idealistic and realistic, as it represents a realistic response to current events. But he also wants the world to be better, and seeks to transform it into the Corinthian ideal in his mind.

See the other posts in this series here: Football & IR Theory

Also check out Stefano Gulizia’s excellent article, ‘The Lemur’s Tale: Arsene Wenger‘ for more on the trials and tribulations of the Arsenal manager.

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