Friday, January 27, 2012

The ethical bases of classical realist thought

Realism and especially classical realism is the only political thought to have a life time of nearly 2.500 years. The main representatives of realism are Thucydides, Machiavelli, Carl von Clausewitz, Waltz and Hans Morgenthau. This theory had time to mature, showing that the main actor in politics is the state. The ethical bases of classical realist thought are power, order, stability, balance of power, interest and justice. All realists use these to explain their theories and express each one according to the events of their time, in the international and domestic scene.


Power and the balance of power play a grand role in realism, since in the international anarchical arena there is no place for error. Each state should have power and if deemed necessary should try to maximize it, if this helps with the stability and the survival of the state. This seems to leave little space for morality, especially in difficult situations where survival is more important than morality. Politicians need to choose between the evils they face, choosing the lesser evil each time. Machiavelli believes that the Prince should act with good deeds but if deemed necessary, he should be willing and ready to act in a wicked way for the benefits of the state. This is the bases of raison d’état (i.e. national interest over morality). Hobbes on the contrary dismisses the idea of morality in international affairs. As Thrasymachus (in Plato’s Republic), Schmitt and Hobbes believe “might makes right”.[1] So we acknowledge that through Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes, international relations is understood as being amoral, where ethics cease to exist. Cohen on the other hand believes that ‘universal moral rules do apply to international relations’[2], for example one state cannot go to war against a state that is not a threat.    

Order is a theme dealt by the central governing authority. Domestic and international politics do not seem to be separate since they interact towards one action taken by the state, for example war. Thucydides and Morgenthau agree with this idea. Without order the community is easily driven to anarchy; as Aristotle observed ‘law has no power to compel obedience beside the force of habit’ (Politics 1269a20).[3] This is why stability needs to be insured domestically but also internationally. Stability brings peace and development.

Another factor in classical realism is the balance of power which can be achieved with the military capability of each state and its alliances. This is a universal element in international politics. We see through history that imbalance of power and alliance can provoke war. This is a phenomenon which is seen especially with great powers. When one great state shifts the balance towards its interests, then the other superpower believes it is threatened, directly or indirectly. This is the case with Athens and Sparta. Athens tried to maximize its power by conquering islands (e.g. Melos, Melian Dialogue- where the strong do what they will and the weak do as they must) and by increasing its allies. This is what triggered Sparta in to going to war against Athens, believing that this would ensure her existence. This is known as the Peloponnesian War, written by Thucydides. Morgenthau also sees the necessity of balance of power. Without it, states would go to war all the time. On one side there would be rising states who would be arrogant enough to go to war, overestimating their powers, and on the other hand states trying to keep the status quo who would be defending there sovereignty. Politics for both Morgenthau and Thucydides is a race of achieving great power domestically and internationally. 


   Interest and justice go together for one main reason, without justice interest is groundless and can drive a state to total disaster, due to its overconfidence. This is the main factor that led Athens to its destruction, giving Sparta the satisfaction of winning the war. This is an imperialistic mistake of many empires and states which have fallen in the past, but also the reason why states in the future will perish. Political actors should always be fair, especially hegemonic powers and leaders. If they lose this virtue then they will not only misplace its peoples’ trust but also the international community’s too. This can only be achieved by worthy leaders who know the states’ limits and what benefits its interests. Justice is important for all the states, not only for the powerful ones. With it they can influence other actors, especially smaller ones. There are many ways of achieving this but maintaining justice is the biggest benefactor in international relations, creating a good relation between state and people. It also helps the states to maximize interest, for example economic benefits. Self control is important making world politics a stable and peaceful arena where states can improve in every respect. Without it political actors reach hubris, which leads inevitably to catastrophe, as it did with Napoleon and Hitler.

Another main factor in international relations is prudence. Morgenthau believed that this is “the supreme virtue of politics”.[4] With it politicians see clearer the consequences of their actions and also try to make the proper decisions, without this meaning that they do not try to satisfy their interests. Prudence is not a weakness but a virtue.

With all of these being the ethical bases of realism we are able to understand realism in depth but also understand its representatives who through experience have examined international politics, giving us theories and ways of understanding the world around us; why for example the tension between the two super powers during the Cold War escalated, or why the USA invaded Iraq. Realism shows how the world has functioned for more than 2500 years, confirming historically the repetition of events and actions.     


[1] Stefano Racchia, “Restraining Imperial Hubris: The Ethical Bases of Realist International Relations Theory”, Constellations Volume14, No4, The Author. Journal compilation (2007), p. 533
[2] Stefano Racchia, “Restraining Imperial Hubris: The Ethical Bases of Realist International Relations Theory”, Constellations Volume14, No4, The Author. Journal compilation (2007), p. 535
[3] Richard Ned Lebow, International Relations Theories, (Oxford, Oxford University Press 2007),  p. 55
[4] Stefano Racchia, “Restraining Imperial Hubris: The Ethical Bases of Realist International Relations Theory”, Constellations Volume14, No4, The Author. Journal compilation (2007), p. 542

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