The 20th century is considered to be the zenith of classical realism. Such scholars as E.H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau developed the theory which is mostly known for pursuit of power in conditions of international anarchy and its pessimistic view of the world. This essay argues that classical realism is either amoral or immoral tradition of thought focusing on the arguments of Hans Morgenthau and his critics. Firstly, it will define classical realism and establish its key arguments. Secondly, it will explore the meaning of ‘immoral’, ‘amoral’ and ‘moral’ in IR. Then it will investigate what place morality takes in realism if any, and lastly it will compare how morality is treated by realists and liberalists as classical realism is often presented as an answer to certain deficiencies in liberal thinking.
Traditionally classical realism is associated with the names of such scholars as Thucydides, N. Machiavelli and T. Hobbes amidst others. In the 20th century E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau contributed greatly to development of this tradition of thought. Realism assumes that states exist in anarchy, i.e. without a governing body to regulate them. As a result, states have to rely on their own resources to succeed on the international arena. The core of international relations is national interest and their regulator is the balance of power among states. Leaders have to operate according to their own understanding and interpretation of national interest. National interest is defined in terms of power. Morgenthau (1985: 11) states that ‘power may comprise anything that establishes and maintains the power of man over man â€¦ from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another’. Success can be achieved by those leaders who use appropriate strategy to strengthen their power, no matter how morally appropriate the strategy might be. Thus morality either serves the interest of the strongest states or doesn`t play a significant role in international relations. Realists insist that was the case in ancient empires which have “not changed since the classical philosophies of China, India, and Greece endeavored to discover these laws” (Morgenthau 1973: 5). The essence of international relations remains static due to the very nature of a human being. Power politics dominate other spheres of international relations such as international law, economic cross-border transactions and others. These points summarise the essence of classical realism that is considered to be one of the most influential IR theories.
Success of a theory can be judged by its usability. If a theory remains valid for millennia, presumably, extra credit is given to it. Realists insist that ‘a tragic view of life and politics’ (Lebow 2007: 54) expressed by Thucydides, a general in ancient Greece, in his work History of Peloponnesian War gave birth to classical realism. Thucydides brought to light questions of power, security and morality. According to him safety of states is paramount to survival and prosperity. To preserve safety states have to act in such a way that reflects reality around them. States aren`t equal, some of them are more powerful thus inequality is commonplace. Thucydides` train of thought can be found in Hobbes and Morgenthau arguments below.
Another founding father of realism, Thomas Hobbes, also puts security as a priority for states to maintain their sovereignty. He introduces a notion of ‘state of nature’ (Hobbes 1955) in which humans are justified to use any means to guarantee security. Such self-interest of people inevitably results in a ‘state of war’ – states not being able to compromise to reach international security. People in fear of each other at the domestic level result in states fearing each other at the international level, which brings the security dilemma. The more secure a state is the more insecure international arena becomes as a result.
Both Hobbes and Thucydides paint a grim picture of international relations typical of classical realism. They leave no room for morality in power politics they are promoting. However, it should be mentioned that IR as a discipline is relatively young and Hobbesian reductionism (attributing human characteristics to states) as well as Thucydides` point of view are not only political but philosophical. They should be viewed not as a theory per se but as a way of thinking about the world, a ‘philosophical disposition’ (Gilpin 1986: 304 cited in Donnelly 2000).
When discussing morality it`s important to bear in mind its definition. To describe something as ‘immoral’ or ‘amoral’ is to contrast it with ‘moral’. ‘Moral’ means ‘relating to the standards of good or bad behaviour, fairness, honesty, etc. which each person believes in, rather than to laws’ (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus). According to the definition the word implies personal judgement rather than a universally applicable code. Therefore the criteria of what is moral differ in various nations and countries. What might be morally acceptable for an individual doesn`t translate into being moral for a state. This argument brings us to the question of how morality is treated by successors of classical realism in recent history.
Interest in realism rekindled in the 20th century as a result of the two World Wars. Liberalist faith in collective security and goodness of mankind proved to be too naÃ¯ve to remain convincing. E.H. Carr juxtaposed ‘utopianism’ (liberalism) and realism to expose weakness in the former. Anarchy couldn`t be overcome with the help of international organisations as the collapse of the League of Nations showed. At the same time Carr reflected on the exclusion of morality altogether – “it is an unreal kind of realism which ignores the element of morality in any world order” (1954: 235). When the League of Nations was unable to prevent the outbreak of war and the idea of international cooperation wasn`t coming to life, realists developed new ideas about state behaviour in a condition of international anarchy. Sharing the same starting point two theories came to rather different conclusions – where liberals see potential cooperation and overcoming mutual differences, realists expect perpetual war and threat to state security. The core idea of realism was conceived as an opposition to liberalism. Although both theories addressed the same issues they interpreted them in a different way. It means that Carr`s work The Twenty Years` Crisis was aimed not only to establish or re-establish a theory but to undermine liberalist thinking and uncover its problems.
Hans Morgenthau followed in Carr`s footsteps, in Politics Among Nations he suggested six principles that can scientifically explain politics both at the domestic and the international level. The principles (cited in Jack Donnelly 2000) can be summarized as follows:
1. Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature” (1954:4).
2. “The main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power” (1954:5).
3. Power and interest are variable in content across space and time (1954:8-9).
4. “Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states” (1954:9).
5. “Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe” (1954:10).
6. “The difference, then, between political realism and other schools of thought is real and it is profound …Intellectually, the political realist maintains the autonomy of the political sphere” (1954:10).
Although Morgenthau is considered to be one of the core scholars representing realism, surprisingly often his thoughts are reduced to these six principles which cannot possibly encompass the complexity of international relations. Pointing out that there is no universal moral code, Morgenthau doesn’t suggest that statesmen should act immorally or amorally. Instead he tries to distinguish how to use morality in politics without harm.
Accepting that realism prioritizes the pursuit of national interest over universal peace and cooperation, however, does not imply absence of morality within the theory. Conversely, it becomes clear that ethics of a state are driven by a moral obligation to protect its national interest and to do so states don`t necessarily have to go to war. The debate about the US intervention in Iraq in 2003 demonstrated split opinions about how much of a threat to the USA the Iraqi invasion in Kuwait might be. While some realists supported the idea of war with Iraq others argued that no American interests were at stake and therefore there was no need for the USA to take action. It might seem vague how not interfering could be a moral choice but realists suggest that sometimes less is more and abstaining from war can be a moral choice in itself. Almost 10 years later it might be right to admit that realists were right in their thinking as the conflict in Iraq destabilised the region and undermined the American influence in the long run. The case with Iraq is not the only example of realists criticizing military action.
Morgenthau proved to be one of the harsh critics of the Vietnam War. He warned American government not to participate in the conflict: ‘No civilized nation can wage such a war without suffering incalculable moral damage’ (Morgenthau 1968: 33).
While realism is constantly being accused of scepticism and hunger for power notwithstanding its costs, Morgenthau tries to address questions of ethics throughout his work. In Politics Among Nations he points out that
‘â€¦there is the misconception, usually associated with the general depreciation and moral condemnation of power politicsâ€¦ , that international politics is so thoroughly evil that it is no use looking for moral limitations of the aspirations for power on the international scene. Yet, if we ask ourselves what statesmen and diplomats are capable of doing to further the power objectives of their respective nations and what they actually do, we realize that they do less than they probably could and less than they actually did in other periods of history. They refuse to consider certain ends and to use certain means, either altogether or under certain conditions, not because in the light of expediency they appear impractical or unwise but because certain moral rules interpose an absolute barrier. Moral rules do not permit certain policies to be considered at all from the point of view of expediency. Certain things are not being done on moral grounds, even though it would be expedient to do them. (Morgenthau, 1985: 236-44)
For Morgenthau speaking truth to power means setting limits within which power can act. The state cannot spread its own moral code among the globe as it will result in murderous moral crusades which cannot be won. He brings attention to the importance of following the national interest and protecting the state. He doesn`t exclude morality from the equation of power politics. On the contrary, all his work is dominated by putting moral questions as a core and trying to solve the moral problems.
Although realism has been criticized for excluding economic interstate relations and its tragic view of the world, it is paramount to analyze realism bearing in mind the era when the core ideas were developed. The inter- and post-war periods called for immediate solutions that liberalism could not provide. Morgenthau separates the actions of people who in pursuit of security might neglect moral values and the actions of statesmen who should be cautious of the consequences they might inflict upon states. Therefore states have a higher moral code than individuals living in them according to Morgenthau.
Paradoxically, Morgenthau makes moral code a priority in his work opposed to a common thought that there is no universal moral code. To discover that moral code for Morgenthau means to turn to theology, ‘there exists a moral order in the universe which God directs, the content of which we can guess’ (Morgenthau quoted in Russel, 1990: 167) He addresses the moral dilemma: ‘The moral strategy of politics then, is to try to choose the lesser evil’ (M 1960:16). Therefore Morgenthau`s classical realism cant` be amoral – if politicians have to chose the lesser evil, then they have an understanding of what is evil and to what extent.
To understand Morgenthau his work should be analysed within the historical context of the time he developed his ideas. As a German-born émigré, he couldn`t neglect the reality of Hitler`s Germany he escaped from and it influenced his political thought which bears little resemblance to the optimistic American realism of the time. Morgenthau`s formative years in Germany shaped his perception of American democracy greatly.
Why is Morgenthau`s realism perceived as lacking in morality so often? There exist various interpretations of his texts: some imply that Morgenthau leaves morality to God, presuming that human nature will always remain corrupt enough and will not be able to overcome their greed for power. Others insist that Morgenthau`s theory isn`t aimed at solving moral questions but maintaining security. ‘There is little agreement on the character of his political vision. We have now almost as many Morgenthaus as there are interpreters of him, and he has been presented as everything from an arch-conservative to a critical theorist’. (Bell 2009: 8 cited in Reichwein 2012)
Classical realism is not a perfect IR theory. Its undeniable advantages include a thorough analysis of why ‘utopianism’ has failed to maintain world peace, how believing in mutual interests of the states and the high moral values cannot guarantee solving international difficulties. Morgenthau puts power as the main element of international relations. It seems to be an easy option to accept liberalist thinking and hope for an eternal international harmony to come but Morgenthau asks not to use a moral façade as a justification of foreign policy and to understand that sometimes morality at the domestic level is better than trying to achieve it internationally and fail. Like ideology, universal moral principles can serve as a mere pretext for the pursuit of national policies (Morgenthau 1951: 35).
On the other hand, the drawbacks of the theory consist of an extremely pessimistic view of the world that might have been adopted not for the theory`s sake but to contrast it with an over-positive liberal tradition. As it is almost never possible to reach a solution that will satisfy all parties, politicians must act in a way that minimises the losses. They should not think about aspirations but about consequences. It therefore remains unclear what tools apart from national interest to use when shaping foreign policy. “A foreign policy derived from the national interest is in fact morally superior to a foreign policy inspired by universal moral principles.” (Morgenthau, 1951: 38-39) He relies on his own experience in Nazi Germany when Hitler tried to impose his vision of what is moral and right onto all other countries. Morgenthau points out that it isn`t only political but a moral duty as well to favour national interest. This statement causes an inconsistency that results in different understandings of his work. If morality equals national interest then there is a universal moral code – when each country follows its national interest. In conditions of peace when there is no imminent threat to state`s sovereignty realism loses its effectiveness.
‘States choose whether or not to pursue moral goals or respect ethical constraints. Such choices are constrained by the prevalence of self-interested behavior, the absence of international government, and a considerable array of competing objectives. But to deny the reality and importance of moral choice is to impoverish both our understanding and the practice of international relations’ (Donnelly 2000:187).