Today’s debates on whether US–China relations are deteriorating towards a ‘new cold war’ often involve disagreement over the extent to which there’s an ideological dimension to this competition. By some accounts, it’s purely about power and security, resulting from the historical inevitability of rivalry, if not outright conflict, between rising and ruling powers near a moment of transition.
As the rhetoric and warlike maneuvers of the U.S. and North Korea accelerate, the media are increasingly considering the prospect of “accidental” war between the U.S. and North Korea. But if war does start, it will not be accidental. It depends on deliberate choices by both sides about whether to escalate violence or pull back and reassess. Those choices are made by politicians, who are often swayed by domestic political pressures.
The myth of accidental war is a pernicious consequence of liberal international relations theory, which argues that since the consequences of war are so horrendous, no sane person would willfully choose war. Therefore, war occurs only when “madmen,” like Hitler, are in power, or when otherwise rational leaders miscalculate the consequences of their actions. My blog last week argued that the U.S. may be slipping into war with North Korea, but it is important to understand that if it does happen, it is not accidental. It is a product of choices being made now that people and leaders need to be responsible about.
In this series we often focus on what academic studies can tell policy makers, but these days I find myself thinking more about what the policy environment should tell academics, particularly when it comes to their assumptions about American national interest and the public good.
Many who study security, particularly in the United States, assume that we can objectively know what US national interests are, and that protecting the national interest is beneficial to the US as a whole – the ultimate public good (this is the case whether one is arguing that US engagement or US retrenchment is the key to protecting those interests). In analyzing the impact of the Trump administration, scholars commonly impute a public benefit to protecting national interests, whether they are critical (arguing that the Trump administration should learn the lesson of the limits to military power, that his budget threatens US counter terrorism, or that his incompetence undermines US credibility) or more supportive (claiming that his military build-up promises to correct past failures) of current trends and policies. At a recent meeting focused on national security, I was struck by the certainty of those who discussed US national interests, and their assumption that protecting them would benefit “us” – especially given the contrast between that certainty, the divergent reactions to the periodic Trump tweets, and the uneasy break-time conversations about our fraught political environment.
Realism is divided into defensive and offensive realism. Defensive realists, such as Kenneth Waltz, claim that states pursue only as much power as the states around them have. They don’t want to dominate the international system but merely to be able to survive. Offensive realism, proposed by John Mearsheimer, challenges this perspective and maintains that states want to dominate the international system, at least to the point of becoming a regional hegemon. This is because, if they dominate, they will be secure from threats, as no other state will dare to challenge the hegemon. Defensive realists caution against this view, arguing that hegemony gives rise to balancing. Other states will do all they can to hold the hegemon in check. Power, in other words, creates counter-power. The international system strives for equilibrium.
According to Max Weber, realism ‘recognizes the subjugation of morality’ to the ‘demands of [a] human nature’ in which the ‘insatiable lust for power’ is paramount (Weber in Smith 1982:1). This claim has led many—especially among liberal theorists—to label it as an amoral and bellicose doctrine (Molloy 2009:107). Yet while ‘inconsistency among realist theories’ (Smith 1982:12) may lend truth to claims of amorality and bellicosity among other strands of realism, this essay specifically examines the morality outlined in the realist works of Hans Morgenthau. It will argue that Morgenthau’s realist doctrine is neither amoral nor bellicose because it is informed by a set of utilitarian ethics that ‘rationally direct the irrationalities’ of human nature and aim to prevent major conflict (Niebuhr in Whitman 2011). The essay will begin by defining realist morality according to Morgenthau, focusing on ‘the evil of politics,’ the ‘moral precept of prudence,’ and ‘utilitarian ethics’ (1985:8). Though few critics dispute the presence of morals in Morgenthau’s realism, the essay will follow by addressing perceived flaws in his moral argument, as well as briefly examining the different moral assumptions made other strands of realist thought. The essay will conclude by restating the morals of ‘political ethics’ according to classical realism and end with a question concerning the significance of realist ethics to Weber’s ‘moral problem’ in International Relations (Smith 1982:28).
Hans Morgenthau is one of the most influential realist theorists of all time, and his arguments are fundamentally based in a ‘stern, utilitarian morality’ (Kaufman 2006:25); Morgenthau’s classical realism forms the basis for the argument put forth in this essay. According to critic Robert Kaufman, Morgenthau’s realism was developed as a ‘pessimistic critique of liberal utopianism,’ wary of the idealism of the inter-war years and intent on preventing another World War (2006:24). As such, Morgenthau puts forth a theory in which international relations are assumed to be at the mercy of human nature, self-interest, and an insatiable lust for power (1945:2). These factors, according to Morgenthau, are evidence that politics ‘falls within the domain of evil’ and thus, political ethics must be ‘the ethics of doing evil’ (1945:17). However, what seems a bleak and amoral outlook on world politics is redeemed by a moralist caveat: Though ‘the evil of politics is inescapable,’ by weighing the consequences of potential political action the ‘moral strategy of politics’ can be reduced to a choice among the least of all evils’ (Molloy 2009:99). Thus, despite his focus on power and successful political action, Morgenthau’s realism displays an inherent morality. Morgenthau’s realism is fundamentally concerned with mitigating the effects of a savage human nature on world order (1945:6).