Transcending IR

Reviewed by Adam Wolfson

Justice Among Nations: On the Moral Basis of Power and Peace
by Thomas L. Pangle, Peter J. Ahrensdorf,
University Press of Kansas, 362 pages.

The realism of such modern scholars as E.H. Carr, George Kennan, Hans J. Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, however, is not a simple recapitulation of Machiavelli’s realism. For one thing, modern realists are more akin to Hobbes than to Machiavelli, in that their aim is world peace, or at least peaceful coexistence, not glory or power. More fundamentally, modern realists became, to one degree or another, what one might call neo-relativists. They are not complete relativists in that they believe, like Hobbes, that peace is better than the war of all against all. But they adopt at least a limited version of relativism in their fight against modern idealism.
To discredit the various claims of idealism to universality, modern realists thought it necessary to question whether there is such a thing as universal principles or even justice. “Morgenthau contends not only that there is no conception of justice that can be known to be true,” the authors write, “but, moreover, that every conception of justice or of the common good is lacking in either ‘universality’ or ‘concreteness’ or both.” Similarly, the authors point out, “Waltz bases his opposition to idealism in part on a claim that ‘justice cannot be objectively defined’ and hence that the appeal to justice is a mask for the powerful.” Many realists would have objected to Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” agreeing instead with Morgenthau’s assessment of the Cold War: It is, he said at the time, “not a struggle between good and evil, truth and falsehood, but of power with power.”
Pangle and Ahrensdorf bring to light the shortcomings of the modern realist’s view. Just as there is something utopian in the idealist’s attempt to convince people to give their lives for causes that are not really their own, so too there is something unrealistic about realism.
In their chapter devoted to Thucydides’ “classical realism,” for example, the authors brilliantly explore why those master realists, the Athenians, lost to their moralistic antagonists, the Spartans. Their primary problem was that from a psychological standpoint, the realist principle is impossible to maintain. The Athenians insisted not so much that might makes right, but that right simply has no place in the international domain. All is self-interest, and self-interest is all. But if this were so, then the Athenians themselves could not blame other nations for attacking them, since the latter were not acting unjustly but only according to their self-interest. Neither could the Athenians claim moral superiority to their enemies or to be fighting for a “just” cause without giving up their realism. As the authors put it: “Such a nation [as Athens] must face the fact that it is nothing more than a collection of self-interested beings struggling against other groups of self-interested beings in a world that is fundamentally indifferent to its fate.”
It is Thucydides’ argument that even the supremely realistic Athenians could not, in the end, live by such a code. Their “realistic thesis,” the authors write, “cannot satisfy the powerful human longings apparently rooted in the divination that we are not merely self-interested beings, that we are capable of rising above our interests and behaving nobly and justly, and that there are gods who may recognize our nobility and reward our justice.” Moreover, this longing is more than a psychological fact, according to Thucydides; for there genuinely is a good that transcends self-interest, namely “the good of understanding or wisdom.”
In the light of classical political thought, modern realism is thus shown to be—like its modern anti-thesis, idealism—psychologically untenable and metaphysically questionable. The pure realist would have us not care about what happens in Kosovo and Rwanda, while the pure idealist would have us die for these small nation-states. Neither alternative ultimately answers to our human nature, which cares most about what is near and dear but also about what transcends its own place and time. In sum, neither the realist nor the idealist offers a foreign policy that is humanly satisfying; and for that reason neither ideological position ultimately meets the demands of justice.
What’s needed, argue the authors, is a foreign policy that reaches back beyond the current debate between modern idealism and realism to “the pre-modern alternatives.” If there is a shortcoming to this excellent book, it is that the authors do not very often leave off from their textual analysis to explain how these pre-modern alternatives might apply in the modern world. But the markers for a new beginning are there.
Consider the case of America in an earlier day. Americans have always viewed their country as exceptional, as dedicated to certain universal propositions applicable to all of humanity. But at the same time, Americans (Woodrow Wilson being the outstanding exception) have generally avoided making an abstract ideology of their idealism. The American Founders, for example, spoke not only of abstract principles but of honor and love of country and the interests of the state as well. The point is that America’s foreign policy was to be a genuine mix of idealism and realism. Human rights would be championed not so much because they are universal but because they are America’s own birthright—which is also to say, they are a part of our national interest. Somewhere in this middle region between idealism and realism lies the security and prosperity of liberal democracies everywhere.

Adam Wolfson is Executive Editor of The Public Interest.

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