Friday, 15 April 2011

The Realism Deficit 1

Little humour here I’m sorry to say, as the following post is an attempt to lay out a simple and hopefully robust argument on idealism and Realism in international affairs.


The ‘Realist’ point of view on international relations, as I understand it (comments welcome), sees all international conflicts as being driven by competing national interests, and believes that idealism is a  diversion, a mask, an illusion obscuring this fundamental truth.

The Realist sees a risk that idealism can lead a government to act against the national interest, and is therefore hostile to any humanitarian intervention, and to human rights playing any serious role in deciding foreign policy.



So then if one nation, Nation X, has an interest in another, Nation Y, then the government of Nation X should seek an alliance with Nation Y to serve that interest, even if Nation X is a democracy and Nation Y is under undemocratic and repressive rule.

For Nation X to promote democracy in Nation Y, or for it to raise issues of human rights in Nation Y, would be unwise in the Realist view, threatening an alliance that serves a national interest.

Following this reasoning, even promoting democracy and human rights in nations where Nation X has no interest is unwise, as it can set a precedent damaging to relations with Nation Y, and as it is unnecessary to the national interest of Nation X and therefore a waste of finite resources, even where this doesn’t involve military action.

The only justifiable military action then in the Realist view is action against threats to national interests. A despot useful to a national interest should not be attacked, and a despot who presents no threat should not be attacked.


In the face of this, some supporters of the concept of humanitarian intervention, and of the Responsibility to Protect, reject Realism outright as inhumane, but others argue against it on narrower grounds.

One kind of narrow argument is to say that the general promotion of democracy and human rights is in the national interest, and an even narrower course is to argue that a particular humanitarian crisis threatens a national interest. A third argument is that for a government of a democracy to maintain power, it must represent the ideals as well as the base interests of the electorate.

All of these arguments against Realism concern the national interests of a democracy, Nation X in the relationship, and all tend to be viewed by hardcore Realists as moving beyond genuine national interests. But it seems to me that a more fundamental problem in Realist thinking concerns the national interest of Nation Y, the nation under an undemocratic and repressive government.


For an alliance between Nation X and Nation Y to have long term stability, it must be based on an alignment of national interests to their mutual benefit. For this to function, both governments must serve their own national interests. But the interests of governments are not always the same as the interests of nations - if they were there wouldn’t be such cause for Realists to argue a case for the national interest!

The primary interest of a democratic government is to satisfy a large enough portion of the electorate to be re-elected, which means serving a selection of special interests which that portion of the electorate may identify as being national interests.

The undemocratic repressive government needs to satisfy a smaller portion of the population as it relies on force and fear to maintain power, so there is a greater likely divergence between the special interests it serves, and the national interest. This is clear in the fundamental fact that an undemocratic and repressive government does not govern with the consent of the majority, and therefore the majority of the population view their interest as being in a change of government.

A nation is nothing without its population, and the interest of a majority of the population is a national interest. It follows that for Nation X to ally with the undemocratic repressive government of Nation Y and against the interest of the population of Nation Y is against the national interest of Nation Y and therefore the alliance is unstable and unsustainable in the longer term.

There are more question that follow, but I want to pause here as this is a point that seems particularly difficult for many Realists to deal with. A clear reality deficit opens up in the arguments of the more dogmatic advocates of Realism when their rejection of democracy promotion and human rights as foreign policy aims leads them to argue that this or that despotic regime acts rationally to serve its own national  interests, arguments leading repeatedly to downplaying and denying the abuses of populations that contradict this fiction.


In the next post, a few links to illustrate Realist thinking, particularly regarding Libya.

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