The Ethics of Realism

The Ethics of Realism

Mini Teaser: Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr--the fathers of American realism--understood that good intentions do not excuse failure.

by Author(s): John C. HulsmanAnatol Lieven

It is precisely because America is good--is in many ways the last, best hope for mankind--that a frittering away of its military, economic and diplomatic power is so immoral. It is not neoconservative intentions, but their wrong-headedness, that is corroding America's ability to do good in the world. Being a good steward of what one has been given, in order to leave the world as good or better for one's children than one found it, is at the bedrock of the ethical realist creed, separating what is morally convenient from what is essential.

A certain degree of ruthlessness in making such choices lies at the heart of ethical realism, and this is linked to a capacity for decisive action when truly necessary in defense of the country or of higher human goals. Niebuhr, for example, was prepared to justify the Allied bombardment of both Germany and Japan as an essential part of the necessary war against these states. This is coupled with a readiness to acknowledge and take full moral responsibility for such actions.

In this sense, ethical realism is closely related to what Max Weber called the ethic of responsibility (Verantwortungsethik), as opposed to the ethic of conviction, or of "ultimate ends" (Gesinnungsethik)--or, as it has been expressed in these pages, the difference between a "morality of intentions" and a "morality of results." Under an ethic of responsibility, having good intentions is not remotely adequate. One must also weigh likely consequences and, perhaps most importantly, judge what actions are truly necessary for the defense of the national interest or of other essential goals. An ethic of conviction, while superficially more moral, often refuses to take responsibility for actions in the real world. But ethical realism recognizes that while ruthless actions in the real world may be necessary evils, they are still evils.

Niebuhr, like Morgenthau and many of the founding members of the ADA, opposed the war in Vietnam not so much for its cruelty, but because they rightly saw the war as irrelevant or even contrary to the real struggle against Soviet communism. So its cruelty had no moral justification in necessity; given the inevitable cruelty of war--especially this kind of war--its planners had not just a patriotic but also a moral duty both to carefully weigh the real necessity of the war and to carefully study the society in the midst of which it was going to be fought. In this moral duty they clearly failed.

Ethical realism is therefore also characterized by prudence in shaping goals and deciding on actions. This is derived from assumptions about human knowledge, goodness and perfectibility that link ethical realism to the conservative tradition of Edmund Burke, to much older Christian assumptions, and indeed to the spirit that helped frame the U.S. Constitution. Burke said of prudence that it is "not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but . . . is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all." He referred to prudence as "the god of this lower world." Courage is essential in confronting obvious, proven and serious threats; but prudence is a moral imperative for statesmen who have in their hands the lives of their countries' soldiers and the safety of their fellow citizens.

By contrast, an ethic of ultimate ends--especially when linked to the belief that one's nation is the representative of all that is good--has a dangerous tendency to excuse its proponents from responsibility for the consequences of their actions. For if ideals and intentions are seen as spotlessly, self-evidently pure, then not only the grossest ruthlessness, but the grossest incompetence is of comparatively little importance.

The Iraq War and its aftermath have been the first real test of the neoconservative approach in action. It is not an anomaly of the neoconservative philosophy, as some have argued. Rather, it springs fully formed like Athena from neoconservatism's head. In other words, if the neoconservative philosophy continues directly or indirectly to shape the national debate, then in certain circumstances "wars of choice" like that in Iraq will remain entirely possible in the future.

Not surprisingly, many neoconservative plans and ambitions--some of which have been echoed by the liberal hawks--have in fact been quietly abandoned by the Bush Administration in favor of more moderate realist policies. This is why the administration--over neoconservative and liberal hawk objections--has adopted a strategy of seeking reasonable accommodations with China and, to a lesser degree, of preserving good working relations with Putin's Russia. This realism and caution is not only the result of a recognition of the lessons of Iraq concerning the limitations on America's real military power; it also reflects the deep undertow of pragmatism that has always influenced American foreign policy and moderated or blocked tendencies to messianism and geopolitical over-extension. This is more evident now that some of the key assumptions put forward by the neoconservatives have been shown to be flawed, not only in terms of historical and contemporary experience, but of morality.

Faith-Based Assessments

There are four basic neoconservative assumptions that simply do not stand up to scrutiny. First, neoconservatives and their liberal allies often make a critical miscalculation in overestimating the power of the United States. Unfortunately, the United States is not the new Rome, dominating the globe in the same way that Rome dominated the ancient Mediterranean. Despite America's impressive military capabilities, it dominates proportionally far less of today's globalized world than the Emperor Trajan did his.

The rest of the world is therefore not some tabula rasa on which the American foreign policy elite can write with impunity. American power is not remotely sufficient for reshaping the world. Local elites, as well as a number of outside allies, vexing as they are to deal with, are necessary as well. The very act of trying to assert American predominance through the forced spread of democracy around the world is bound to lead to countervailing global impulses that will constantly and exponentially increase American commitments. The result will certainly be imperial overstretch, of a kind which has destroyed so many empires in the past.

Second, miscalculations about American power are linked to a misapplication of the east European experience to the Greater Middle East. East Europeans committed themselves to democracy and reform as the way of escaping the hated influence of Moscow and fulfilling what they regarded as their historically mandated national destinies of joining the West. And to nationalist commitment was added the tremendous material incentive of EU and NATO membership. This combination of nationalism, democracy and material incentives is not one that can be replicated anywhere in the Muslim world. EU membership is assuredly not on offer to Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Iran. Nor indeed, with the exception of Iraq, is the United States offering anything like the level of economic aid that it made available during the Cold War to support allies in Europe and Asia.

Third, neoconservative desires do not mesh with the Republican base. This is because the urge to empire--no matter how liberal its intent--requires a continual willingness to shed blood and accept casualties for seemingly secondary and tertiary foreign policy interests. Moreover, such policies are fiscally ruinous, and they invariably lead to an increase in the power of the federal government. All three of these propositions are anathema to the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian impulses driving a good portion of the Republican base.

Fourth, there is an endemic problem in trying to impose democracy. The effort to artificially transplant democratic ideals to foreign and frequently hostile soil is rooted in the right notion--that liberal democracy is the best and most just form of government. However, in making the imposition of democracy the cornerstone of their thinking on foreign policy, neoconservatives misunderstand democracy's essence. While it is certainly possible that all peoples yearn to breathe free, they do so in their own time, in their own way, at their own pace.

Moreover, given America's past historical record, the neoconservative combination of a professed belief in spreading democracy with a commitment to the limitless extension of American power and American interests in the Middle East is bound to be widely seen as utterly hypocritical. This is all the more so when--as advocated by Charles Krauthammer and others--the United States openly adjusts its public conscience according to its geopolitical advantage, talking loudly about democratic morality in cases that suit it while remaining silent on others. Neocons loudly condemn lack of democracy in Iran while ignoring abuses in Egypt, for example. Can this by any normal standard be called a moral approach?

The War on Terror

When it comes to applying the tenets of ethical realism to the War on Terror and the wider U.S. global strategy of which that struggle is part, realism's injunction about respecting the interests of other nations should lie at the heart of the U.S. approach. In most disputes, we may well assume that the United States will mostly be in the right, but unless one believes that the United States is always and inevitably right, there is nothing in basic ethics or logic to suggest that its disagreements will always have an ethical character or that compromise in many cases will not be entirely possible. For example, the United States may disapprove of aspects of Russian and Chinese internal policies, but if there is one thing that ethical realism insists on, it is a capacity to distinguish clearly between different grades of evil and to choose firmly between them. With all their faults, states like Russia and China are historically civilized forces that guarantee a reasonably orderly and secure existence to their peoples and accord them--with spectacular success in the case of China--the possibility of material and intellectual development.

More importantly, none of these states--given their rationality, their national interests and their stake in international order--is planning to launch an unprovoked attack aimed at destroying great Western cities and exterminating their populations. With such states there is the possibility (if not a guarantee) of a rational accommodation of interests that will also serve the wider ethical goal of peace and order in the world. There can be no comparison between such states and the barbarity of Al-Qaeda and its allies, the enemies of all order except their own totalitarian one.

In learning to distinguish between barbarians and flawed but still basically civilized states, Western policymakers might draw on a classical image. The words that Tacitus put into the mouth of the British chieftain Calgacus before a battle with the Romans are instructive: "They make a desert, and they call it peace." Tacitus had enough moral self-awareness to know that civilization could be cruel--crueler sometimes than the barbarians it fought. And yet, Tacitus would never have doubted that in the final analysis Roman civilization was better than barbarism. If we have any honesty about our societies, the benefits we derive from them, and the threats to them, then nor should we.

The new threat from Islamist terrorism merely replicates this moral tension on a global scale. But this is a moral tension, not a dilemma or conundrum, because for the average honest person, the answer cannot be in doubt. Democracy is not really the issue here. Without international peace and prosperity and the defeat of Al-Qaeda and its allies, democracy will not be able to develop anyway in many parts of the world.

This is why we need to bring morality in American statecraft down from the absolutist heights to which it has been carried and return it to the everyday world where Americans and others do their best to lead ethical lives while facing all the hard choices and ambiguous problems that are the common stuff of existence in this "lower world." The neoconservative excuse, so often heard today with reference to the Iraq War, that disastrous consequences can be excused if intentions were good, is not valid if actions are accompanied by gross recklessness, carelessness and indifference to the range of possible consequences. Such actions fail the test not only of general ethics, but of the sworn moral commitment of state servants and elected officials to defend the interests of their peoples and not simply to pursue at all costs their own ideas of morality.

This is another central point in realist ethics. Niebuhr wrote that modern Western democracy

"has an easy solution for the problems of anarchy and chaos on both the international and national levels of community, because of its fatuous and superficial view of man. It does not know that the same man who is ostensibly devoted to the 'common good' may have desires and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set him at variance with his neighbors."

A prudential recognition of this on the part of the Founders is responsible for the checks and balances, the constraints on absolute power--even power exercised in the name of goodness--which are integral to the U.S. Constitution and therefore to American democratic civilization and its shining example to the world. Remembering this is to truly link morality to the business of foreign policy.

John C. Hulsman is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to The National Interest. Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.

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