Statecraft and the national interest

Although realism is often associated with the attempt to understand international politics from an objective or ‘scientific’ standpoint, it also acknowledges the important role played by statecraft. For example, in his analysis of the ‘twenty-years crisis’ that came between WWI and WWII, E. H. Carr criticised the leading figures at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919–20 for allowing ‘wishing’ to prevail over ‘thinking’. By neglecting the importance of power in international politics, they had set the world on an inevitable course to further conflict. Morgenthau (1948) similarly placed an emphasis on the ‘art of statecraft’, arguing that the practical conduct of politics should nevertheless be informed by the ‘six principles of political realism’, spelled out as follows:

! Politics is governed by objective laws which have their root in human nature.

! The key to understanding international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power.

! The forms and nature of state power will vary in time, place and context but the concept of interest remains consistent.

! Universal moral principles do not guide state behaviour, although this does not rule out an awareness of the moral significance of political action.

! Moral aspirations are specific to a particular nation; there is no universally agreed set of moral principles.

! The political sphere is autonomous, meaning that the key question in international politics is ‘How does this policy affect the power of the nation?’ The key guide to statecraft in the realist tradition is a concern about the national interest. This concern highlights the realist stance on political morality.

Realism is commonly portrayed as essentially amoral, both because of its image of humans as lustful and power-seeking creatures and because of its insistence that ethical considerations should be strictly excluded from foreign policy decision-making. However, a normative emphasis also operates within realist analysis, in that the requirement that state policy should be guided by a hardheaded pursuit of the national interest suggests, ultimately, that the state should be guided by the wellbeing of its citizens. What realists reject, therefore, is not nationally-based conceptions of political morality, but universal moral principles that supposedly apply to all states in all circumstances. Indeed, from a realist perspective, one of the problems with the latter is that they commonly get in the way of the pursuit of the former. Calculations about the national interest, moreover, offer the surest basis for deciding when, where and why wars should be fought. Although realism is commonly associated with the idea of endless war, realists have often opposed war and aggressive foreign policy. In their view, wars should only ever be fought if vital national interests are at stake, the decision to wage war being based on something like a cost–benefit analysis of its outcomes in terms of strategic interests. Such thinking, for example, led Morgenthau and most US realists (except for Henry Kissinger, who was the National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford, 1969–77) to oppose the Vietnam War. Realists have also been amongst the most trenchant critics of the ‘war on terror’ (see p. 223), thirty-four leading US realist scholars having co-signed an advert in the New York Times opposing war against Iraq as the US military build-up was happening in the autumn of 2002.