Want to see the world as it truly is? Be a political realist

A quarter-century of failed interventions can teach us a lot about whether idealism really works
(FILES) In this file photo taken on June 19, 2014, a US soldier investigates the scene of a suicide attack at the Afghan-Pakistan border crossing in Torkham, Nangarhar province. The US and the Taliban are set to sign a historic agreement that would pave the way to ending America's longest war, the bitter foes announced on February 21, hours after Kabul said a week-long partial truce across Afghanistan would kick off this weekend.
 / AFP / Noorullah Shirzada

With the state of our coronavirus-afflicted world today, there have been increasing discussions within foreign policy circles about whether the realist view of internationalist relations has been vindicated. Take the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy's definition of the term. "Realists," it says, "consider the principal actors in the international arena to be states, which are concerned with their own security, act in pursuit of their own national interests, and struggle for power."

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Realists were against serious interventions in each country, not because we are against interventions per se but because we worried their effects could be disastrous

Does that not match the present? Globalisation is unravelling. Supranational institutions such as the World Health Organisation are viewed by some as being inadequate to the task, while the United Nations itself appears to have limited ability to project meaningfully on its own. The European Union has struggled to act in unison, with member states charting their own courses and acting in their own interests. The primacy of the nation-state has been laid starkly, and often cruelly, bare.

Realists may have been proven correct, but they need not expect much thanks for it. Because theirs is essentially a consequentialist philosophy – meaning that it is the result, not the rightness or wrongness, of action or inaction that counts – it is frequently painted as being cold, cynical and amoral. Not so long ago it was considered to be downright immoral in orthodox liberal circles: because surely you cared about, say, injustice or oppression – and therefore, if you saw either, then did virtue not demand that “something must be done”?

The fact that realism is a worldview popularly associated (arguably wrongly) with the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger – whom some have accused of war crimes – does not help. An Australian academic, Mark Beeson, recently wrote that “the realist view of international affairs and human nature is uniformly grim and likely to add to our current problems” and called such views “dispiriting”, in a piece for the well-regarded Lowy Institute that asked gloomily: “What if the realists are right?”

To all of which I would respond with two points.

Firstly, it did not take the pandemic and its effects to justify a realist stance. Endless wars in Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, and ongoing conflict in Iraq, could do that just on their own. Realists were against serious interventions in each country, not because we are against interventions per se but because we worried their effects could be disastrous, however good the intentions behind them may have been.

I warned in these pages in 2011 that joyful scenes after the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya could serve as a booster for the dangerous doctrine of liberal interventionism.

“Be in no doubt,” I wrote, “this was an intervention that both bellicose liberals and more cynical neocons could support, and although the gamble appears to have paid off, it was one taken hastily, instinctively... with no serious thought for what happened afterwards nor even the vaguest notion of how long it would last.”

Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi adjusts his glasses at the Africa-South America Summit on Margarita Island in this September 27, 2009 file photo. Gaddafi died of wounds suffered in his capture near his hometown of Sirte on October 20, 2011, a senior NTC military official said. National Transitional Council official Abdel Majid Mlegta told Reuters earlier that Gaddafi was captured and wounded in both legs at dawn on Thursday as he tried to flee in a convoy which NATO warplanes attacked.  REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Files (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS) *** Local Caption ***  SIN303_LIBYA_1020_11.JPG
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I find no contradiction between being a realist and being optimistic that 'nations and tribes', as the Quran enjoins, may come 'to know one another'

Nearly nine years later, the country remains engulfed in civil war. Also in these pages, I called for President Bashar Al Assad to be the bad part of a possible solution in Syria back in 2015. This was not because I did not regard him as a torturer and mass murderer – I did and do. But if letting him off the hook was the price to save hundreds of thousands of lives, that seemed more important to me than maintaining the purity of the principle that he must be punished.

Realists also cautioned against the foolish expansion of Nato right up to the borders of Russia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. We did not deny the right to free agency of the likes of the Baltic states, but we feared that instead of co-operating with an ancient member of the European family, the West risked humiliating and cornering a major power with a deep sense of its history, empires, culture and traditional orbits of influence. Vladimir Putin may not have become a close and reliable ally; but he need not have been turned into an enemy.

My second point relates closely to that. This may be beyond the academic parameters of the theory, but to me the realist's appreciation of the world as it is, not as one might like it to be, relies strongly on trying to see other countries as they see themselves, and not dismissing the legitimacy of that self-perception.

Once one does that, it is evident that attempting to impose laws and modes of governance that spring from hundreds of years of western history on countries with quite different cultures, religions, customs and traditions, for instance, is completely inappropriate. But this is if, and only if, you accept that different countries may have different value systems and that they have every right to do so.

Many, if not most, developing countries have no problem accepting this. Western liberals, so attached to their belief in the universal values that they themselves developed, do have a problem – which is one of the reasons they find realism so distasteful, and also why they resolutely refuse to try to see the point of view of any country not closely aligned to their suite of principles.

FILE - In this Oct. 1, 1975 file photo Abdelaziz Bouteflika, left, meets with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at the U.S. State Department suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel Towers. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down on Tuesday April 2, 2019 after 20 years in office, and six weeks of massive nationwide protests aimed at pushing him and his much-criticized inner circle from power to create a real democracy in the gas-rich nation. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff, File)

Some realists do ignore all questions of morality. But Hans Morgenthau, one of the great post-war US foreign policy thinkers, did not. "Political realism does not require, nor does it condone, indifference to political ideals and moral principles, but it requires indeed a sharp distinction between the desirable and the possible," he wrote. Common sense, surely?

Neither do I find realism remotely “dispiriting”. Leading realist academics such as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in the US and Patrick Porter in the UK write eloquently and incisively. A realist does not have to take a “grim” view of human nature. I find no contradiction between being a realist and being optimistic that “nations and tribes”, as the Quran enjoins, may come “to know one another”. Indeed, it is as a realist that I believe that is so important.

So do not decry the return of realism nor its vindication. It is far better to see the world as it is and act accordingly. We have observed all too crushingly The Hell of Good Intentions, as Mr Walt titled his critique of myopically idealistic US foreign policy over the past quarter-century.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National