Realpolitik and World Peace

Introduction to December 2009 IJWP

Realpolitik is a term derived from German. It refers to a politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives (Merriam-Webster dictionary). Historically, many political platforms have been based on theoretical, religious, ideological, or moral arguments.

Most visions of ideal societies, as disparate as Plato, Confucius, Jesus, and Marx, all rely on changing basic human behavior. If we can only learn to love one another, to share with one another, to accept a Christian, Muslim, or socialist theory of justice, or change our selfish and exploitative behavior in some way, then we can create an ideal world. As we recently learned from the efforts of the Soviet Union to create a “new man,” one that is rational and scientific, the laws of nature are not easily trumped. Instead of getting a “new man” who gives according to his abilities and receives according to his needs, the Soviet Union got the Nomenklatura, the”old man” in a new bureaucratic class, who used position and power in the Soviet political system for personal and selfish desires.

Realpolitik assumes that everyone is out to maximize their own interest, and that states are out to maximize their interests as well. Post-World War II political philosopher Hans Morgenthau wrote his Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace to promote political realism in international politics. After all, the ideals of the League of Nations and international law had failed to stop Mussolini from invading Ethiopia or Hitler from invading neighboring countries in Europe. The United Nations was created with the idea that the Security Council had to have overwhelming force available to stop such aggression; no social ideals or pious platitudes would stop it. Even Gandhi’s theories of non-violence would only work with men of conscience, not with men like Hitler or Stalin.

The problem with political realism and neo-realism is that it discounted the value of social ideals altogether, treating them as insignificant and as wishful thinking. Hence they urged and assumed a Nietzschean-type of quest for power as the norm or standard of international behavior. The result was a theory of international anarchy that required a balance of power, whether bi-polar as during the Cold War, or as multi-polar after the emergence of the European Union, the rise of China and India, and the reduced influence of Russia and the United States.

While it is correct to assume that many people and states will attempt to maximize their own self-interest at the expense of others, it is wrong to advocate this as a goal. The goal should be to live for the well-being of others and the whole of society. However, we cannot be so naive as to assume that everyone in a position of power will become immune to the temptations of that power through moral injunctions.

Reinhold Niebuhr explained the relationship of love, power, and justice quite well before Morgenthau ever wrote his Politics Among Nations. Niebuhr argued that the ideals of justice can never be realized by norms of justice alone; we will always fall short of justice because human beings will always fall short of perfection. Rather, love completes justice. When you have more people sacrificing for the sake of others than you have people sacrificing others for themselves, then the norm of love can make the goal of justice possible in history. However, the goal of realizing the norm of love universally in history is not possible because some people will always fall short. And, there is no higher norm than love which could complete the amount love falls short, whereas love can make up for the justice that falls short.

Unfortunately, while individuals are capable of love, institutions are not able to manifest this trait. You can find many individuals contributing large amounts of aid to victims of natural disasters, but it is much harder to find social institutions or nations capable of humanitarian aid. This poses a great problem because, in our contemporary society, we frequently look to nations, the United Nations, or other social institutions to reflect compassion and solve problems of injustice. However, we generally find instead that where power is concentrated it is more likely used to exploit and oppress others rather than serve them.

It would be useful for the readers of this issue of International Journal on World Peace to keep in mind the relationship of love, power, and justice as they read the articles in this issue. The first article on”Islamic Realpolitik” in Iran argues that despite the moral ideals of Islam, when push comes to shove, Iranian political leaders can be assumed to behave according to self-interest more than from moral norms. It is useful to note that immediately after the religious revolution in Iran, Iraq saw the political weakness of religious leaders as something to exploit, and Saddam Hussein attacked Iran.

Despite the fact that moral values and altruism are required for a just peace to be realized, international political institutions must be able to check the accumulation and misuse of power. This can only be done with concentrations of power that are rooted in higher principles. This was the philosophy of the original US Constitution. “Diplomacy” is valuable, but, by itself, cannot create the conditions of peace. Goodwill towards other nations is a positive value that must be backed by some form of force that is not based on national self-interest, but rather that is committed to “self-evident truths” that transcend human existence.

Our next article, “Last Resort: Bridging Protection and Prevention,” examines the problems caused by making a system of sovereign, and self-interested, nation-states a norm in the UN Charter. Dave Benjamin notes that the violation of human rights and contests between within-state groups over the institutions of political power have caused severe harm. There is a naive assumption in Article 2(4)(7) that leaders of states will be genuinely concerned with the welfare of their people, or that they are capable of controlling gangs and ethnic groups within their jurisdiction.

Before the establishment of the United Nations, state leadership required legitimacy in the eyes of the ruled. After the creation of the new world order of sovereign states, legitimacy on the international stage became more important to leaders than legitimacy at home. This is because leaders of many poor countries had more opportunity to gain wealth through international aid and loans provided in the name of development, than through taxation of their own people.

Over the years, the General Assembly has come to represent the defense of state sovereignty, because representatives are members of the ruling elite. The Security Council, on the other hand, has usually been the body to intervene in state sovereignty because of its role in preventing war. Benjamin argues that government has a primary duty to protect citizens and that too often this duty takes a back seat to other political pressures.

Finally, we have an article by Solomon Hailu on the attempt in Africa to replace one failed security system, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) with a new system called the African Union (AU). After a very fine explanation of the goals of the African Union and the need for it, Hailu nevertheless sees no way of getting the African Union established without the help of the United Nations or Western countries. This is a tacit affirmation of Niebuhr’s thesis that the norms of justice cannot be achieved without some extra input based on altruistic support that goes beyond justice.

However, is it naive to expect that the United Nations and the Western countries will really act for the benefit of African countries, or will they be more likely to attach strings to their aid in some form of neocolonialism? Realpolitik would argue that it is unlikely aid from international financial institutions, states, or the United Nations will provide the extra support to make African nations self-reliant. Rather, altruistic individuals, whether they be wealthy philanthropists, Peace Corps workers, religious missionaries, school teachers, or doctors are more likely to provide the extra input that can enable African countries to stand on their own, and provide their own security and development.

Hegel’s ideal of the state as the embodiment of the absolute in history has about run its course. Reliance on a state to provide human welfare and happiness has been one of the grandest illusions of the modern period. The power of the state can be used to secure ordered liberty within which people can pursue happiness, but it cannot produce the people it needs to implement that order. It can redistribute goods to the poor through taxes, but it cannot produce those goods. A state is only as good as the people in it. For any state to function, more need to sacrifice for it than those who take from it.

When everyone looks to some external institution like the state as their savior, they may as well be looking for the Lone Ranger to come and provide them an ideal. Such hopeful wishes reflect a denial of personal responsibility, and the end result will be like that realized by Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.


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