Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 16:57 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 16:57 | SYDNEY

Realism, order and justice


Hugh White

12 February 2009 08:51

Well, thanks to Edward for coming to the defence of we amoral realists.  Actually, I have a little sympathy with Scott’s views of realism, if by realism one means – as most IR types do – the strange cold conceptions of Morganthau. 

For me, such stuff is very much a product of its time: in the aftermath of the Second World War and under the shadow of the Cold War, these guys wanted to correct the excessive, and in the end catastrophic, idealism of the inter-war era, and provide a more ‘realistic’ basis for managing relations between states. But they went way too far the other way, and produced an account of the way the world works which is not only amoral, but itself highly unrealistic.

So let’s skip labels for a minute and look at cases. Scott cites Australia’s decision to acquiesce in Indonesia’s incorporation of East Timor after 1975 as an example of amoral decision-making. It’s a telling example. But let me use it to demonstrate Edwards’s point - that ‘realists’ may simply be making different moral judgements than non-realists. 

Those who argue that acquiescence was wrong point to the terrible injustices done to the East Timorese by Indonesia. These cannot and should not be denied. But those who argued in favour of acquiescence had moral considerations of their own. They placed a moral value on preventing the development of a hostile relationship with Indonesia, because such a relationship could have led to war between us. 

In retrospect, it is hard to take such unrealised risks seriously; having acquiesced, our relations with Indonesia were generally very positive, and it is easy to assume that they would always have been. But those who took the decisions back then could not know that; the risk was real, and they would have been quite justified in placing a lot of moral weight on it. It's not to say they were right; it is to say they had moral consideration on their side.  

This example suggests that what distinguishes real realists (as opposed to unreal realists, like Morgenthau) from the non-realists  is that the realists place most moral weight on the need to keep the peace between states, because they have a vivid sense of just how bad war between states can be. Non-realists tend to put more moral weight on justice. As I mentioned last year in a post about Georgia, the balance between peace and order on the one hand, and justice on the other, is at the heart of many of the choices we face in international affairs. Neither side is clearly right or wrong, moral or immoral. 

Finally, a separate point: Scott’s comments on the moral basis of choices about the Iraq surge seem to assume that if the original invasion was immoral the surge must be as well. I don’t think that is necessarily true. It would be easy to argue that the invasion was immoral, but having invaded, the US and its partners had a moral responsibility to fix up the mess. 

Photo by Flickr user SteveC77, used under a Creative Commons license.