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5 December 2023

Can realpolitik be ethical?

In the wake of Henry Kissinger’s death, we must rescue foreign policy from naked national interest.

By Adrian Pabst

We live in an age of anarchy. The post-1989 utopian dreams of perpetual peace between East and West have given way to the dystopian nightmare of proxy wars in Ukraine and Gaza. Illusions about a worldwide convergence towards Western-style liberal market democracy and the inevitable forward march of free-market globalisation collide with the reality of rising authoritarianism across the West and “the rest”, combined with a marked shift towards protectionist policies in the US-China trade and technology wars. For years, if not decades, the liberal world order has brought about chaos and conflict.

In a world of disorder, geopolitics is characterised by three forces of profound instability. First, a great-power rivalry over economic resources and civilisational norms opposing the West and its allies to China, Russia, Iran and their proxies. Second, the anarchical absence of rules governing relations between geopolitical blocs as the main members of the United Nations and other bodies either break international law or fail to build a new consensus. Third, an emerging tyranny linked to tech platforms and a global panopticon of surveillance capitalism.

The resurgence of great-power competition, war in Europe and economic stagnation reminds us that history neither ends nor repeats itself. Instead, these are old realities reborn under a different guise, revenants of historical patterns that define a present of radical uncertainty and peril. The question is what ideas can chart a path out of the impasse. At present the West seems to be stuck in a clash between moralistic liberalism and amoral realism. The former is exemplified by the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq so beloved of Tony Blair and George W Bush, launched to rid the world of Islamist terrorism and spread democracy. The latter is represented by figures such as the late Henry Kissinger who sought to extricate the US from the war in Vietnam and prevent a nuclear conflagration involving Maoist China.

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Yet common to both approaches is a strategy of “shock and awe” to engineer the surrender of the enemy and a foreign policy of divide and rule. In practice, liberals and realists have supported the mass bombings of civilians, whether in Cambodia in 1968-73 or in Fallujah in 2004. And they favour US supremacy over a balance of power. Just as liberal humanitarian interventions trap us in a loop of endless war, so too realpolitik at the hands of realists à la Kissinger is a cipher for “Machtpolitik” – the practice of pure power politics. “The illegal we do immediately,” Kissinger once declared. “The unconstitutional takes a little longer.” Watergate and the Iraq invasion come to mind.

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His support for the war in Iraq (“because Afghanistan wasn’t enough”) sealed the unholy alliance of self-styled realists with liberal interventionists and neoconservative crusaders. This alliance, in seeking to humiliate enemies abroad – as with torture at the detention camps in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib – has ended up humiliating the West around the world. And the displays of military might reveal a moral void at the heart of contemporary liberal democracy. This is akin to what the French social theorist Guy Debord called “the society of the spectacle” in which projected images of strength are in reality reflections of degraded life.

It’s time to rescue realism from its Kissingerian reduction to Machiavellian tactics and the pursuit of naked national interest. Other strands of realist thinking start with the recognition that countries, like persons, are not isolated entities but rather part of a web of reciprocal relations that are social as much as economic. Commerce without culture breeds mercantilist, authoritarian powers such as Xi Jinping’s China. Isolation and autarky are an abstraction from mutual dependence within and between nations. The quest for peace is a permanent state of civic tension and a balance of power rather than a form of unilateral domination. Realism mutates into dangerous idealism when it embraces the hubris of hegemony and “humanitarian interventions” to establish everywhere Western liberal democracies down the barrel of a gun.

A more realist approach to foreign policy engages with the world as it is and acknowledges the clash of great powers, their rival economic models and incommensurable cultural beliefs. Instead of a unipolar order that begets anarchical violence, ethical realism aims to restrain power at home and abroad, based on reciprocity and responsibility. The task is to reconcile estranged interests around a politics that rebuilds nations, institutions and internationalism.

Concretely, this means championing not just the interest of capital and the City of London in trade agreements but also the labour interest and free, democratic trade unions. Where regulation is insufficient, it means breaking up monopoly power in finance and tech and taxing tech giants properly. In relation to fighting climate change, it means re-balancing the financial burden of reducing carbon emissions between more polluting countries such as China and Germany and less polluting ones such as the UK or France.

It also means abandoning the bourgeois environmentalism of an abstract Green New Deal in favour a new deal for workers that does not penalise motorists, as with Sadiq Khan’s imposition of Ulez in London’s outer boroughs. And it would promote the idea of the Arctic and Antarctic being a “global commons” under the governance of an international trust to ensure that they are not enclosed and commodified, or nationalised and militarised.

As post-Cold War utopian ideas flounder, a renewed realism can help to arrest the slide into anarchy by pivoting to international cooperation anchored in shared interests. The paradox is that foreign policy can be both realist and ethical.

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