Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 05:34 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 05:34 | SYDNEY

Realism and politics


Sam Roggeveen


13 February 2009 13:55

Hugh and Scott both attack realist straw men. The entirely amoral/immoral realism they object to exists mainly in international relations textbooks, and is an ideal type from which actual realists diverge to varying degrees.

Morgenthau, for instance, devoted a long section of his Politics Among Nations to lamenting the decline of a universal moral order. Kissinger has also described the benefits of a shared moral order. Here he is on the Concert of Europe:

...this international order, which was created more explicitly in the name of balance of power than any other before or since, relied the least on power to maintain itself. This unique state of affairs occurred partly because the equilibrium was designed so well that it could only be overthrown by an effort of a magnitude too difficult to mount. But the most important reason was that the Continental countries were knit together by a sense of shared values. There was not only a physical equilibrium, but a moral one. Power and justice were in substantial harmony. The balance of power reduces the opportunities for using force; a shared sense of justice reduces the desire to use force.

For me, the key characteristic of realism is not its alleged amorality. Rather, it is its belief that the international sphere is solely one of power. As I have tried to argue before, the Clausewitzian dictum that 'war is the continuation of politics by other means' is at the heart of the realist worldview.

But to argue that politics and war are synonymous is to corrupt the term 'politics', since it leaves no place for law.

Politics in the domestic sphere is all about making and refining law, but that is because questions of authority have already been settled. We think of 'politics', then, as something that happens once the question of war and peace has been settled and the authority of the state is recognised by its citizens.

What makes the international sphere different, of course, is that the question of authority remains perpetually unsettled. Realists rightly point out that this condition makes the international sphere anarchical. They then point to this perpetual anarchy to argue that nothing of what we recognise as 'politics' on the domestic level is applicable to the international sphere.

Kenneth Waltz, for instance, argued (in a Clausewitzian vain) that politics, properly understood, is the struggle for power. For Waltz, because the international realm is anarchical (meaning that power is in dispute), international politics is politics in its purest form:

National politics is the realm of authority, administration and of law. International politics is the realm of power, of struggle, and of accommodation. The international realm is pre-eminently a political one. (Emphasis added.)

As I said, the implication of the idea that politics and power are synonymous is that law becomes, at best, mere window-dressing.

But I would argue that, although law has a weaker place in the international sphere than in the domestic one, it nevertheless has a critical, constitutional place in the practise of international relations, despite the anarchical nature of the international sphere (I use 'law' in the broadest sense here, to include not only written statutes but the practices and traditions of international society, much as a combination of written statutes and unwritten practices make up what Britons call their constitution).

This view too has implications, namely that it leads to the very opposite conclusion to that of Clausewitz. If one understands the international sphere this way (ie. as a 'political' realm, because it recognises the authority of law, however fitfully), war becomes the renunciation of politics, not its continuation.

So where does that leave us on practical matters? While I don't believe realism is inherently warlike, nor do I agree with Hugh that realists have especially vivid insights into the tragedy of war. In fact, while particular realists may have an acute sense of the human and material consequences of war, their realist beliefs tend to blind them to the constitutional consequences of it. For even when fought for the right reasons, war weakens the very delicate and fragile fabric of international society.