Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 17:03 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 17:03 | SYDNEY

Order, justice and Georgia point to China


Hugh White

22 August 2008 12:00

Ouch. Andrew Shearer’s elegant response to my musings on geopolitics and Georgia has surgically exposed the tender spot in my argument: we realists find ourselves acquiescing in the conduct of distasteful regimes, and we forgo opportunities to right wrongs and make the world a better place.

But in the process I think he may also expose a tender spot or two in his own position: a tendency to throw an ideological cloak over our own power-political gambits, and a willingness to be reckless in pursuit of their goals, whether ideological or geopolitical, or both.

It is an interesting reflection of the seriousness of the issues tied up in the current Georgia crisis that it does draw us so quickly into the deep questions of the nature of international affairs. The sadness of our trade is that we so often find ourselves facing choices like the ones Andrew and I have been debating, choices ultimately between order and justice. I think it was one of the key insights of the great students of these questions — think of E.H.Carr and Hedley Bull — that we will only get international affairs right if we recognise that this kind of choice does have to be made.

We get into trouble when we allow our selves the agreeable illusion that we can have it both ways at once — that we can reorder the world as we would like it to be without risking a terrible price, paid in death and disorder. Remember Iraq. Realists like me do not denigrate justice, but we do think that peace and order are important too, and urge that the balance between them, of costs and befits, be carefully weighed.

To specifics. Andrew gently reproves me for the sin of imputing moral equivalence to the policies of the West and Russia. I can see his point, up to a point, but I think we need to explore the matter more deeply, in two directions. First, we should ask whether Russia’s motives in seeking to dominate its near abroad are really so different from the West’s, and specifically America’s, in supporting regimes congenial to Washington on Russia’s borders. Is there not in fact just a little moral equivalence in this case, as I suggested in my previous post?

But second, and more deeply, we need to distinguish between moral equivalence and legitimacy. It is implicit in the balance between striving for justice and preserving order that we sometimes need to accept the legitimacy of states and policies even when we find them morally distasteful. So accepting the legitimacy (in the narrow, technical but vitally important sense I am using it here) of Russian policies does not mean that I think they are morally equivalent to the West’s policies. It simply means that I do not think they are so immoral as to be worth risking conflict over — even a small and long-term risk of conflict, when it would involve major nuclear powers. We need to remember how much is at stake here.

Of course this approach leaves open the big question of how bad a country’s policy or conduct needs to be before it does forfeit legitimacy. Where do we draw the line? Well, in keeping with the Carr-Bull precepts I have outlined above, I would say that it depends how much disorder sits on the other side of the balance. How big a risk of how big a war are we willing to accept to stop the actions of which we disapprove? It is a test of proportionality.

Many of the biggest decisions in history, and many of the worst, have swung on this question. Often the decision has been made wrongly, in both directions. Surveying this dismal record it is tempting to think therefore that this is not the kind of decision we should try to make. Easier to assert as an absolute principle that we should regard anything we disapprove of as illegitimate and should therefore be willing to disrupt the global order to stop it. I think this is what those who argue like Andrew tend to do. I do not follow them because I do not think we can ignore the risks and costs of conflict and disorder. It is indeed immoral to do so, as well as impolitic. Peace is a value too.

But then there is the Reagan point. I do find this a tough one, because I share, up to a point, Andrew’s respect for the simple strength that Reagan brought to American strategic policy. I understand why the end of the Cold War seems to many a standing refutation of the approach I am deciding, because Reagan’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Soviet system seems to have been so critical to its peaceful demise.

But let me venture two counter-observations. First, as Andrew says, the happy outcome of the Cold War was not inevitable. But there are two ways in which that is true, and only one of them support Andrew’s point. Yes, the Soviet system might have survived had it not been for Reagan’s refusal to accept its legitimacy. But equally, it might have led to a war of unimaginable horror. It was not inevitable that Reagan’s policy would lead to the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union; there was clearly a heightened risk of war, and had war come no one now would praise Reagan for his strength. So was he wise, or lucky?

Second, we do have to ask whether it really was Reagan who destroyed the Soviet Union. How much difference did he make to the dynamics inside the Soviet system as it neared collapse? Is it not quite possible that the end might have come without the risks of conflict that Reagan courted? Well all that gets us a long way from Georgia. But these questions remain central to many of the biggest questions in international affairs today, including the biggest of them all — how we respond to the rise of China.