Time for moral realism?

News & Politics

The word "realist" evokes images of loathsome amoralists like Henry Kissinger -- or from my post-graduate days, scholars like Kenneth Waltz -- who champion a Darwinian version of foreign policy. Andrew J. Bacevich in the Boston Globe, however, argues that there is a rich tradition of American realism that embraces moral calculations.

What's the essence of this tradition? To begin with, realists see politics as a never-ending competition for power. The president of the United States may be the Most Powerful Man in the World, but he can no more change the nature of politics than he can eradicate original sin. As a result, realists view ''world peace'' as a chimera. Saving the world is God's work. The statesman's obligation is to avoid cataclysm and to place limits on the brutality to which humankind is prone.
The result is a worldview that prizes modesty of purpose:
Not surprisingly, the realist prizes stability, recognizing that the alternative is likely to be chaos. This does not provide an excuse for inaction and passivity in the face of distant evils. Rather it counsels modesty of purpose and an acute sensitivity to the prospect of unintended consequences. For realists, the notion that globalization (according to Bill Clinton, channeling the neoliberal New York Times columnist Tom Friedman) will produce global harmony or that American assertiveness (according to George W. Bush, channeling Bill Kristol, editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard) will ''transform'' the Greater Middle East is pure folly.
Rejects American exceptionalism:
Realists likewise refuse to don rose-colored glasses when considering the United States itself. As a consequence, they understand that ''American exceptionalism'' is a snare. Realists reject claims of American innocence-the conviction, as Niebuhr wrote in the same book, that ''our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of our actions.'' ...
To pretend, as George W. Bush does, that the United States differs from all other powers in history-that it acts apart from calculations of power and self-interest-gives Americans an excuse to avoid thinking seriously about the forces actually motivating US behavior. Realists see that as a particularly dangerous tendency. The role of oil in shaping US policy offers a case in point.
And views war as the measure of last resort:
Determined to husband power, realists cultivate a lively awareness of what power-especially military power-can and cannot do. They agree with Kennan, principal architect of the Cold War strategy of containment, who wrote in his book ''American Diplomacy'' (1950), that ''there is no more dangerous delusion...than the concept of total victory.'' At times, war becomes unavoidable. But realists advocate using force as a last resort-hence, the dismay with which they view the Bush doctrine of preventive war.
To the extent war can be purposeful, realists see its utility as almost entirely negative. War is death and destruction. Politically, it can reduce, quell, eliminate, or intimidate. But to wage war in order to spread democracy, as President Bush says the United States is doing in Iraq, makes about as much sense as starting a forest fire to build a village: It only gets you so far, and the costs tend to be exorbitant.
I agree with Bacevich, but only in so far as it relates to statecraft, i.e. foreign policy, where this kind of moral realism is far preferable to either humanitarian interventionism or empire-building. For when it comes to changing the world, I'd rather put my faith in grassroots movements around the world than governments, which tend inevitably to mirror the power calculations of an elite few. The movements, however, by their very nature cannot but be idealistic for there is nothing very pragmatic about a bunch of ordinary citizens getting together to challenge a powerful status quo.

Am I contradicting myself? Maybe so, but I'm trying to express a certain skepticism that the state -- by its very nature that concentrates an enormous amount of power -- is capable of fully moral action. Care to help me think this through? [LINK via Arts & Letters]

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