Wednesday 26 Sep 2018 | 08:29 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 26 Sep 2018 | 08:29 | SYDNEY

The false choice between realism and morality


Owen Harries

19 February 2009 14:31

Scott Burchill  initiated this exchange about realism and ethics (see here, here and here for subsequent posts) with what he asserted is the key question to be answered by opponents of the Iraq War: 'Was your opposition ethical or strategic?' His assumption was that it had to be either one or the other. But why can it not be both?

I opposed the invasion of Iraq on a number of realist grounds. In no particular order, they included (a) that it would confirm and strengthen suspicion of and hostility towards America, which I continue to  believe is a force for good in the world; (b) that Colin Powell's warning, 'If you break it, you own it', was right; (c) that it did not make sense to fight the 'war on Islamic terrorism' by attacking one of the few secular regimes in the region; (d) that it would strengthen the position of Iraq's main rival Iran, a much more formidable opponent of American interests in the region.

But I also opposed the war on moral grounds, in that it involved a serious and dangerous extension of the claim to the right of resort to pre-emptive attack, a right usually exercised by the strong against the weak. Such a right has long been recognized when an imminent danger of attack exists, but no such danger existed in this case. I also opposed the intervention insofar as it was insisted in its justification that it would result in the installation of a viable liberal democracy in Iraq, of the kind envisaged in the Bush Doctrine. I have never believed that democracy is either an exportable commodity or an easily acquired skill.

I suggest that instead of classifying people as either wholly realist or wholly moral, it might be better to acknowledge that both elements exist in most if not all of us, the nature of the mix depending partly on temperament, but also on experience and understanding of the facts of a particular situation, and of the nature of the international system in general.

In so far as realism stresses the importance of stability and order, it stands for the necessary (but far from sufficient) condition for a moral life; and in so far as it emphasizes selfishness, secrecy and mutual suspicion, it forewarns against unintended consequences (The road to hell is paved etc etc...).

As for the moral approach, that is made more complicated and difficult — and sometimes tragic — than is often assumed by the fact that all morally good ends are not  always mutually supporting or even mutually consistent. Hard choices have to be made, which sometimes requires embracing the lesser evil. Isaiah Berlin said it best:

If, as I believe, the ends of men are many and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other,then the possibility of conflict — and of tragedy — can never be wholly eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition.

I believe the discussion of morality in international politics would benefit greatly if this truth was recognized.