Quick Tutor on Political Realism

Political realism, is a view of international politics that stresses its competitive and conflictual side.  The principal actors in the international arena are states, which are concerned with their own security, act in pursuit of their own national interests, and struggle for power.  There is skepticism regarding the relevance of ethical norms to relations among states. National politics is the realm of authority and law, whereas international politics, they sometimes claim, is a sphere without justice, characterized by active or potential conflict among states.  There are sub-divisions of this form of thinking.

While classical realism emphasizes the concept of national interest, it is not the Machiavellian doctrine “that anything is justified by reason of state”  and does not necessarily involve the glorification of war or conflict.  There is criticism of moralism—abstract moral discourse that does not take into account political realities. The supreme value to successful political action is based on prudence: the ability to judge the rightness of a given action from among possible alternatives on the basis of its likely political consequences (if you read Hogday, you can get some idea of how difficult it is to act decently amongst such ‘politicians’).

The founding fathers are usually Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes.  These days the term ‘dirty hands philosophy’ is used and there are efforts to construct public choice theories to overcome self-interest by accepting it as inevitable and designing systems around matching this with public interest.  I don’t believe the nastiness of ‘realism’ is essential to the human condition, but that it is real in our lives now.  A typical use of this position is to trash others as ”idealists’ or ‘naive’.  I’m a ‘tropical fish realist’ in that I use a workshop manual to fix my car, chemistry texts as recipes, cook books to time how long I roast or books on gardening or tropical fish if my interests lie there (I don’t like tropical fish though).  Somewhere in this I know the 150 years since Darwin is better than creationism, what fiction is and what accurate description is.  Much pretending to be the latter, like policing statistics or profiling, is the former.

The point, for me, in political realism is to reveal the best we can of the truth in order to change what we can do.  The realist tradition performs a useful role, warning us against progressivism, moralism, legalism, and other orientations that lose touch with the reality of self-interest and power,but is sadly used by power as well as correcting over-liberal, ‘rose-tinted’ hopes. Denying any progress is possible, realism turns into an ideology. Its emphasis on power politics and national interest can be misused to justify aggression and lead us away from genuine change.  Even the cosmopolitanism and global solidarity advocated by many of today’s writers (and something on my wish list) becomes problematic once one realises what a few ignorant zealots can do with a few guns if we have given them up.  Nor do we live in a world where the former head honcho at BP, claiming he will feel responsibility for the deaths and pollution on his watch forever, gives his money to charity and goes to live in a monastery.


5 thoughts on “Quick Tutor on Political Realism

  1. That some people prefer to see how much better people’s lives could be if old notions were transformed, isn’t an over liberal ‘rose-tinted’ hope, nor is it naive idealism.

    The concept and the aim of global solidarity, when used towards unilateral nuclear disarmament, is wise, sane, realistic, sensible thinking by people who wish to avoid any chance of a future global environmental catastrophe.

    There are some “in power” whose thinking is entirely negative, pessimistic and driven by fear and paranoia when it comes to such issues as “national security”.

    By “fearing” a nuclear attack by a future enemy, they immediately scupper any progress towards change and REAL security, solidarity and safety for the whole world.

    Some “in power” also appear to fear the truth of many a situation and create elaborate and misleading stories of spin to deceive the people they claim to be “serving”.

  2. One of the things forgotten by almost all in political argument is what is actually being argued.Many adherents of this ‘realism’ do not realise it is an ideology, not factual and are also convinced they are much mroe intelligent than those ‘idealistic suckers’ who don’t realise the enemy is dangerous etc.

  3. Enemies, some of them at least, CAN be turned into friends and those who cannot, because they are consumed by evil and malice, can be sorted by the S.A.S…..

  4. A great deal of political argument is often just a load of banter, with added hot air, because the politicians enjoy arguing with each other, and point scoring.

    The “flock”, the people, want democracy and they also want good leaders to look after the public’s interests, but also leaders who will listen to their concerns and problems, and do something to help when required.

    There are those whose job it is to protect the people, and who have a better understanding most times of their own specialist role in society. However, some of the politicians and sometimes the media, think that they know better, and lead the country in the wrong direction and against the best interests of the people.

    New Labour did that, and some would still continue to do that unless they are made to take notice and fully acknowledge their misconceptions and ALL their mistakes.
    Some in the Tories are exactly the same, also some of the LibDems, regarding serious issues which will affect future generations. For example, how tied the U.K is to the E.U and our being “ruled” by Brussels. None of them actually listened or took any notice whatsoever of the people who were trying to protect this country’s best interests. They had their own opposing ideas and convinced themselves that they knew best – Lisbon Treaty.

    Another example of the arrogance of the political creed, is on the issue of the replacement of Trident, which will cost many billions over the next few decades, at a time of great financial national debt, created by New Labour.

    A group of Generals united recently and wrote to the Times newspaper, to point out that the replacement of Trident would be a mistake. Trident was produced for a “cold war” situation that no longer exists, thankfully.
    The present Trident still has a “shelf life” of many more years, but is regarded by the Generals of the Armed Forces and Military Intelligence as irrelevant for the 21st Century. They are the experts on this issue and they DO know what they are talking about on National Defence.

    At the same time, the U.N recently announced that THE greatest threat to global security and humanity, is from Nuclear and are committed to reduce and eventually eliminate the world’s stocks of Nuclear weapons.

    But here, in the U.K we have politicians et al, arguing against common sense and the specialist knowledge of the credible and respected EXPERTS in this field!?!?!

    They even had an “anti” on the BBC’s newsnight programme on Friday night [30th July] who was rather rude and arrogant. He wouldn’t allow Sir Ming Campbell to have his say and explain why the replacement of Trident would be an expensive mistake and at the expense of armed forces.

    I don’t know who he was, but he’s clearly mistaken and mis-informed on the issue of the replacement of Trident, which is unnecessary and very counter productive.
    The man kept insisting, that the replacement of Trident is the U.K’s “insurance policy” against any unknown future threats. That kind of negative, ignorant and pessimistic attitude serves only the vested interests of the nuclear industry, and NOT the long term best interests of global security and the safety of humanity.
    The armed forces need every penny of the defence budget for the forseeable future, because they probably will not be out of Afghanistan as quickly as politicians assume.

    That the world “needs” a great stockpile of nuclear weapons, as a deterrent to attack from others, is the biggest mistake in the whole history of humankind.
    They have not stopped states declaring war on each other.

    There is a move by the U.S.A and Russia, towards non nuclear high powered missiles, because the “penny has dropped” that nuclear weapons are a very dangerous and expensive mistake. They are quite frankly, pointless.

    What a pity that Iran, Israel and North Korea have not grasped that “Divine Truth” yet. Maybe they will, soon.

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