Political Realism and the Society of Societies

Political Realism and the Society of Societies

Robert A. Schultz (Woodbury University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-922-9.ch006
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In this chapter, I examine two theories of transnational ethics: Political Realism and the Society of Societies. The first theory, Political Realism, denies the meaningfulness of transnational ethics. Proponents of Political Realism note that states act in their own interest, and there is no order or principle governing those states other than their own self-interest. I will discuss the views of an important proponent of Political Realism of this kind, the late political theorist Hans Morgenthau. (1993) An interesting variant, which I will call Relativist Realism, holds that there are no transnational principles which supersede the principles of any given society because the different principles of different societies ought to be respected. This version of Political Realism has been developed extensively by the political theorist Michael Walzer. (2007) I will discuss the pros and cons of these two views shortly.
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Political Realism

Political Realism maintains that states act in their own interest, and there is no order or principle governing those states other than their own self-interest. Thus states are in a state of nature with respect to each other, in the terminology of the early social contract philosopher Thomas Hobbes. (1651) Hobbes describes the state of nature as a war of all against all. Clearly considerations of mutual advantage do occur to states, and agreements called treaties occur often in the dealing of states with each other. But realists hold that when a state’s interests are no longer served, a treaty can be ignored. It has to be conceded that the actual behavior of states does closely approximate Political Realism. And there also is currently no principle acknowledged by states that prevents them from making war at their sole discretion, as recently demonstrated in Vietnam and Iraq. Although ethical principles, unlike legal principles, do not have to have punishments attached, there should at least be an ethical community which can at least register disapproval of the behavior. And there does not seem to be.

Political Realism is not a skeptical or relativist doctrine. Political Realists from Machiavelli (1515) in the Renaissance to Hans Morgenthau in the 20th century believe that the correct ethical thing for rulers to do is to be guardians of the interests of the states they govern, and that in order to serve those interests, they need to set aside conventional individual morality. Morgenthau states

. . . the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival. (1993, 12)

Although nation-states are to be judged on the ways in which they create and use power, there are ethical elements:

In the last analysis, then, the power of a nation . . . resides in the quality of its government. A government that is truly representative . . . in the sense of being able to translate the inarticulate convictions and aspirations of the people into international objectives and policies, has the best chance to marshal the national energies in support of those objectives and policies. . . free men fight better than slaves. . . (Morgenthau 1993, 154)

And there are ethical constraints in the relations of nations with other nations. Nations agree to protect human life in times of peace. Assassination is no longer a common political tool, as it was in Renaissance Venice.2 Mass extermination is not acceptable as a tool of policy, as in Nazi Germany and for the Romans with Carthage,3 even if necessary for a “higher purpose.”

Around 1650, war went from being a contest between all inhabitants to a contest between armed forces of states. From about 1875, international treaties including the Hague conventions required prisoners of war to be treated humanely, with the Red Cross as guarantor. Protest within countries began to be treated as evidence of moral conscience rather than criminal acts. From about 1900, avoidance of war itself became an aim of international policy, as in the Hague Peace Conferences, the League of Nations, the Briand-Kellogg pact of 1928, and the United Nations. War came to be regarded as a natural catastrophe or evil deed of another, not as an instrument of policy.4 (Morgenthau 1993, 224)

Morgenthau finds that this international morality has weakened since the end of the First World War. Aerial weapons have made the mass destruction of civilian productivity and morale acceptable war aims. Opposition of nations is no longer within a shared framework but instead between each nation’s claims to universal validity. Morgenthau feels that what he calls nationalistic universalism has done serious damage to previous international morality. Nationalistic universalism is the view that the ideology and principles of your nation ought to be adopted by all countries. Even Woodrow Wilson’s desire to “make the world safe for democracy” (now continued in grotesque fashion by using aggressive force supposedly to turn countries into democracies) are instances of this tendency. Morgenthau notes

The problem at the heart of this issue is …[whether] it is morally just and intellectually tenable to apply liberal democratic principles to states that, for a number of reasons, are impervious to them.” (1993, 246)

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