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.